Apr 7, 2023 - Things to Do

The Houston Zoo's Galápagos Islands exhibit opens

Zoo members were able to interact with the sea lions a day before the exhibit opened for the public. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

The long-awaited Galápagos Islands exhibit at the Houston Zoo opens to the public today.

Driving the news: The $70 million addition, located at the zoo's entrance, is the first major conservation-driven exhibit focused on the Galápagos Islands, according to the Houston Zoo.

  • The so-called crown-jewel exhibit features California sea lions, Galápagos tortoises, Humboldt penguins, sharks and more.

Yes, but: Not all of the animals are actually from the Galápagos; most are very similar species to show what it would be like to visit the volcanic archipelago.

  • "These are ambassador animals. The Galápagos Islands are very sensitive to the idea since people have come and poached animals, and we want to make it very clear that that's not our intent or never was, and that these are all animals part of breeding programs here in the U.S.," says Lee Ehmke, president and CEO of Houston Zoo.
  • Throughout the exhibit, there are "I am not from the Galápagos" signs.

The big picture: The Galápagos exhibit focuses on plastic waste and how consumer behavior has a direct impact on the environment and the animals, says Ehmke.

  • "There are so many conservation issues that are out there, but one that is global — and that we obviously deal with here in the Gulf of Mexico — is plastic waste. Why care or why be concerned about a place that's half a world away? Well, the reality is, this is a global issue that actually every individual can do something about," he tells Axios.

Between the lines: The Houston Zoo has several exhibits that are linked to its conservation efforts, like the Texas Wetlands and the South America’s Pantanal. The Galápagos exhibit is the latest in the zoo's efforts to tell its conservation stories, Ehmke says.

Flashback: The new exhibit, which was under construction for two years, is the first major project to come from the "Keeping Our World Wild" centennial campaign. The campaign launched in April 2018 and has since raised $151.7 million.

  • The remaining funds from the campaign will go toward a birds exhibit and a cafe, scheduled to be completed in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

If you go: Tickets for adults start at $26. The zoo is open daily from 9am to 5pm.

Enough background about the exhibit. Meet the stars of the show.

Sea lions

Photo of sea lions.
The two groups of sea lions met each other in November. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios.

Nine California sea lions cruise and backflip through the more than 250,000 gallons of water.

  • The new sea lions from California — Calypso, Freya, Gaia and Ariel — joined the Houston Zoo's original group of five — Kamia, TJ, Cali, Max and Jonah — who previously resided in the zoo's oldest exhibit.

Details: The new sea lion home features two tunnels: one private and one where they swim above us mere humans.

  • "They're getting a big kick out of all of you guys as you make it through the tunnel," says Krista Webber, who supervises the sea lions.

Of note: Cali is the model sea lion who is seen in all of the Galápagos exhibit advertising.


Photo of a group of penguins.
The Humboldt penguins came from five different zoos. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

There are currently 10 Humboldt penguins, and five more are expected to join in the coming months.

  • The penguins were selected and matched genetically in the hope that they will like each other and reproduce.

Of note: Galápagos penguins are the most endangered species of penguin in the world, with an estimated population of less than 2,000, according to the zoo. The closely related Humboldt penguins originate from the coast of Chile and Peru.

Sea turtle and sharks

Photo of a sea turtle among corals.
Bobbi, the sea turtle, roams among the nearly 600 individually fabricated corals. Photo: Shafaq Patel.

The aquarium is a first for the Houston Zoo and features blacktip reef sharks, bonnethead sharks, cownose stingrays and Bobbi, a 42-pound green sea turtle.

Photo of a giant tortoise among rocks.
Daphne, the giant Galápagos tortoise. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

Go deeper: The Galápagos Islands exhibit also features giant Galápagos tortoises, Grand Cayman blue iguanas, sea nettles, and more than 1,275 trees, shrubs, and plants replicating the landscapes of the Galápagos.


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