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The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of some 13 volcanic islands and associated islets and rocks located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometers west of the coast of South America. The Galápagos archipelago is politically part of Ecuador. The oldest of the islands are about 4 million years old and the youngest are still in the process of being formed. Indeed, the Galápagos islands are considered to be one of the most active volcanic areas in the world.
They are famed for their vast number of endemic species and the studies conducted by Charles Darwin that led to his theory of natural selection.
The islands are distributed to the north and south of the equator. The equator crosses the northern part of the largest island, Isabela.
Though the first protective legislation for the Galápagos was enacted in 1934 and supplemented in 1936, it was not until the late 1950s that positive action was taken to control what was happening to the native flora and fauna. In 1955, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature organized a fact-finding mission to the Galápagos. Two years later, in 1957, UNESCO in cooperation with the Government of Ecuador sent another expedition to study the conservation situation and to choose a site for a research station.
In 1959, the centenary year of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorean government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area, except áreas already colonized, as a national park. In the same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was founded, with its international headquarters in Brussels. Its primary objectives were to ensure the conservation of unique Galápagos ecosystems and promote the scientific studies necessary to fulfill its conservation functions. With the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1964, conservation work began. During the early years, conservation programs, such as eradication of introduced species and protection of native species, were carried out by Station personnel. Currently, most resident scientists pursue conservation goals; most visiting scientists' work is oriented towards pure research.
When the national park was established, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people called the islands their home. In 1972 a census was done in the archipelago and a population of 3,488 was recorded. By the 1980s, this number had dramatically risen to more than 15,000 people.
In 1986 the surrounding ocean was declared a marine reserve. UNESCO recognized the islands as a World Heritage Site in 1978, which was extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve.
Noteworthy species include:
- Land iguana, Conolophus subcristatus
- Marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus (only iguana feeding from the sea)
- Galapagos tortoise (Galápagos Giant tortoise), Geochelone elephantopus, known as Galápago in Spanish, it gave the name to the islands.
- Galápagos Green Turtle, thought to be a subspecies of the Pacific Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas agassisi
- Sea cucumber, the cause of environmental battles with fishermen over quotas of this expensive Asian delicacy Holothuria spp.
- 13 endemic species of finch, popularly called Darwin's finches
- Galapagos penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus
- Flightless Cormorant, Nannopterum harrisi
- Galápagos Hawk, Buteo galapagoensis
- Sea lions, which belong to glacier seas, are present on the Galápagos islands because of the Humboldt cold current. They are found mainly on the Plaza Sur, Santiago and Fernandina islands.
Introduced plants and animals, which have been brought accidentally or willingly to the islands by humans, represent the main threat to Galápagos. They become plagues that affect the balance of the ecosystem of Galápagos due to the lack of natural enemies that result in their fast propagation.
Some of the most harmful introduced plants are the Guayaba or Guaba Psidium guajava, avocado Persea americana, cascarilla Chinchona sucsirubra, balsa Ochroma pyramidale, blackberry Rubus glaucus, various citrus (orange, grapefruit, lemon), floripondio Datura arborea, higuerilla Ricinus communis and the elephant grass Pennisetum purpureum. These plants have invaded large areas and eliminated the endemic species in the humid zones of San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz.
A long list of introduced animals were brought to Galápagos mainly by pirates and buccaneers. Heyerdal quotes documents that mention that the Viceroy of Peru, knowing that British pirates ate the goats that they themselves had released in the islands, ordered dogs to be freed there to eliminate the goats. Also, when colonization of Floreana by José de Villamil failed, he ordered that the goats, donkeys, cows, and other animals from the farms in Floreana be transfered to other islands for the purpose of later colonization.
Non-native goats, pigs, dogs, rats, cats, mice, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows, poultry, ants, cockroaches, and some parasites inhabit the islands today. Dogs and cats attack the tame birds and destroy nests of birds, land tortoises, and marine turtles. They sometimes kill small galapagos tortoises and iguanas. Pigs are even more harmful, covering larger areas and destroying the nests of tortoises, iguanas, and marine turtles. Pigs also knock down vegetation in their search for roots and insects. This problem abounds in Cerro Azul volcano and Isabela, and in Santiago pigs may be the cause of the disappearance of the land iguanas that were so abundant when Darwin visited. The black rat Rattus rattus attacks small galapagos tortoises when they leave the nest, so that in Pinzón they stopped the reproduction for a period of more than 50 years; only adults were found on that island. Also, where the black rat is found, the endemic rat has disappeared. Cows and donkeys eat all the available vegetation and compete with native species for the scarse water available. In 1959, fishermen introduced one male and two female goats to Pinta island; by 1973 the National Park service estimated the population of goats to be over 30,000 individuals. Goats were also introduced to Marchena in 1967 and to Rabida in 1971.
The archipelago has been known by many different names, including the "Enchanted Islands" because of the way in which the strong and swift currents made navigation difficult. The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684, and in those charts he named the islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the English noblemen who helped the pirates' cause.
The main islands of the archipelago (with their English names) are
- San Cristóbal (Chatham) It bears the name of the Patron Saint of seafarers, "St. Christopher". Its English name was given after the English nobleman Count Chatham. It has an area of 558 km2 and its highest point rises to 730 metres. This islands hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant turtles, blue and red footed boobies, tropical birds, marine iguanas, dolphins, swallow-tailed seagulls. Its vegetation includes Calandrina galapagos, Lecocarpus darwinii, trees such as Lignum vitae, Matazarna. The largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, "Laguna El Junco" is located in the highlands of San Cristóbal. The capital of the archipelago, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, lies at the southern tip of the island.
- Española (Hood) Its name was given in honor of Spain. It is also known as Hood after an English nobleman. It has an area of 60 km2 and a maximum altitude of 206 metres. Española is the nesting place of the albatross and also hosts Galápagos Hawks, marine turtles, masqued boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, sea lions, swallow-tailed gulls, finches, Galápagos doves, giant turtles, tropic birds and blue-footed boobies. A lava fissure on the shore has created a blowhole where water spurts high in the air when the waves hit the wall. It is the southernmost island of the archipelago hosting a large proportion of endemic fauna.
- Santa Fé (Barrington) Named after a city in Spain, has an area of 24 km2 and a maximum altitude of 259 metres. Santa Fe hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which are the largest of the archipelago, and Palo Santo. Weathered cliffs provide a haven for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, shear-waters petrels. Santa Fe species of land iguanas are often seen, as well as lava lizards. There is a picturesque turquoise lagoon and calm waters where snorkeling can be done along with sea lions.
- Genovesa (Tower) The name is derived from Genoa, Italy where it is said Columbus was born. It has an area of 14 km2 and a maximum altitude of 76 metres. This island is formed by the remaining edge of a large crater that is submerged. Its nickname of “the bird island” is clearly justified. At Darwin Bay, frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls, which are the only nocturnal of its species in the world can be seen. Red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches are also in sight. Prince Philip´s Steps is a magnificent bird-watching plateau with masked and red-footed boobies. There is a large Palo Santo forest.
- Floreana (Charles or Santa María) It was named after Juan José Flores, the first president of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. It is also called Santa Maria after one of the caravels of Columbus. It has an area of 173 km2 and a maximum altitude of 640 metres. It is one of the islands with the most interesting human history and one of the earliest to be inhabited. Pink flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) in this island. The "joint footed" petrel is found here, a nocturnal sea bird which spends most of its life away from land. At Post Office Bay, since the 18th century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as post office so that mail could be picked up and delivered to their destination mainly Europe and the United States by ships on their way home. At the “Devil´s Crown”, an underwater volcanic cone, coral formations are found.
- South Plaza It is named in honor of a former president of Ecuador, General Leonidas Plaza. It has an area of 0.13 km2 and a maximum altitude of 23 metres. The flora of South Plaza includes Opuntia cactua and Sesuvium plants, which forms a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations. Iguanas (land and marine and some hybrids of both species) are abundant and there are a large number of birds that can be observed from the cliffs at the southern part of the island, including tropic birds and swallow-tailed gulls.
- Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Named after the Holy Cross, its English name was given after the British vessel bearing this name (HMS Indefatigable ). It has an area of 986 km2 and a maximum altitude of 864 metres. Santa Cruz is the island that hosts the largest human population in the archipelago at the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are located here. At the CDRS operates a tortoise breeding center where these chelonians are prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer an exuberant vegetation and are famous for the lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here. Black Turtle Cove is a fantastic site surrounded by mangrove which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also located here, and along the trail one may see land iguanas foraging.
- Baltra (South Seymour) The origin of its name is unknown. It has an area of 27 km2 and a maximum altitude of 100 metres. The main airport of the archipelago is located here and was built during WWII by the United States Navy to patrol the Panama Canal. Land iguanas were reintroduced after the native population became extinct during the time when American soldiers were posted in this island, and marine iguanas and marine turtles can also be seen here.
- North Seymour Its name was given after an English nobleman called Lord Hugh Seymour. It has an area of 1.9 km2 and a maximum altitude of 28 metres. This islands is home to a large population of blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds, with their magnificent red pouches.
- Marchena (Bindloe) Named after Fray Antonio Marchena. Has an area of 130 km2 and a maximum altitude of 343 metres. Sparrow hawks and sea lions inhabit this island.
- Pinzón (Duncan) Named after the Pinzon brothers, captains of the Pinta and Niña Caravels. Has an area of 18 km2 and a maximum altitude of 458 metres. Sea lions, sparrow hawks, giant turtles, marine iguanas and dolphins can be seen here.
- Rábida (Jervis) It bears the name of the convent of Rábida where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. Has an area of 4.9 km2 and a maximum altitude of 367 metres. The high amount of iron contained in the lava at Rábida give it a distinctive red color. Flamingos and White-Cheeked Pintail Ducks live in a salt-water lagoon close to the beach, where brown pelicans and boobies have built their nests. Nine species of Finches have been reported in this island.
- Bartolomé Named after Lt. David Bartholomew of the British Navy. Has an area of 1.2 km2 and a maximum altitude of 114 metres. Famous for its Pinnacle Rock, which is the most representative landmark of Galápagos. Here the rare Galápagos Penguins and Sea Lions can be seen. There are amazing lava formations and spatter cones left untouched since the last eruptions.
- Santiago (San Salvador, James) Its name is equivalent to Saint James in English; it is also known as San Salvador, after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea. This island has an area of 585 km2 and a maximum altitude of 907 metres. Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here. There are a large number of goats and pigs, animals which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species. Darwin Finches and Galápagos Hawks are usually seen as well as a colony of Fur Seals. At Sullivan Bay a recent pahoehoe lava flow can be observed.
- Pinta (Abingdon) It got its name from one of the caravels of Columbus. Has an area of 60 km2 and a maximum altitude of 777 metres. Swallow-tailed gulls, marine iguanas, sparrow hawks, fur seals can be seen here.
- Isabela (Albemarle) This island was named in honor of Queen Isabel who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. With an area of 4.588 km2, it is the largest island of the Galápagos. Its highest point is Wolf Volcano with an altitude of 1,707 metres. The island's shape is the product of the merge of six large volcanoes into a single landmass. In this island penguins, cormorants, marine iguanas, boobies, pelicans and Sally lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanos of Isabela, Land Iguanas and Galápagos Tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin Finches, Galápagos Hawks, Galápagos Doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the south-eastern tip of the island.
- Fernandina (Narborough) The name was given in honor of King Fernando of Spain, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina has an area of 642 km2 and a maximum altitude of 1,494 metres. This is the youngest and westernmost island of the Archipelago. In May 13, 2005, a new eruptive process began on this island when an ash and water vapor cloud rose to a height of 7 kilometers and lava flows descended the slopes of the volcano on their way to the sea. Punta Espinoza is a narrow stretch of land where hundreds of Marine Iguanas gather in large groups on black lava rocks. The famous Flightless Cormorant inhabits this island and also Penguins, Pelicans and Sea Lions are abundant. Different types of lava flows can be compared and the Mangrove Forests can be observed.
- Wolf (Wenman) This island was named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. It has an area of 1.3 km2 and a maximum altitude of 253 metres. Here fur seals, frigates, masqued and red footed boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen.
- Darwin (Culpepper) This island is named after Charles Darwin. It has an area of 1.1 km2 and a maximum altitude of 168 metres. Here fur seals, frigates, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, Whales, marine turtles, dolphins, red footed and masqued boobies can be seen.
The Galápagos were discovered by chance in March 10, 1535 when Dominican Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants after the conquest of the Incas, while performing an administrative mission for the Spanish Monarch Carlos V. The bishop's ship stalled when the winds died and strong currents carried him out to the Galápagos. In his account of the adventure, addressed to Emperor Carlos V, Berlanga described the harsh, desert-like condition of the islands and their trademark giant tortoises. He wrote about the marine iguanas, the sea lions and the many types of birds. He also noted the remarkable tameness of the animals that continues to thrill and delight modern visitors.
The islands are believed to date back to six million years ago as a result of volcanic activity generated beneath the ocean's floor. They were uninhabited, although Thor Heyerdahl in 1963 reported findings of pottery of South American origin that suggested earlier contacts, a theory that appears to still be controversial. The archipelago was used as hiding place by the English pirates that pilfered the Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain.
The islands first appeared on maps in about 1570 in those drawn by Abraham Ortelius and Mercator. The islands were called "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises).
The first Englishman to visit Galápagos was Richard Hawkins, in 1593. From that time until 1816 many famous pirates visited the archipelago.
Alexander Selkirk, the man whose adventures in Juan Fernández Islands inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, visited the Galápagos in 1708 after he was picked up from Juan Fernández by the privateer Woodes Rogers. Rogers was refitting his ships in the islands after sacking Guayaquil.
The first scientific mission to the Galápagos arrived in 1790 under the leadership of Alessandro Malaspina, a Sicilian captain whose expedition was sponsored by the King of Spain. However, the records of the expedition were lost.
In 1793, James Collnet made a description of the flora and fauna of Galápagos and suggested that the islands could be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. He also draw the first accurate navigation charts of the islands. Whalers killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat. The tortoises could also be kept on board ship as a means of providing of fresh protein as these animals could survive for several months on board without any food or water. The hunting of the tortoises was responsible for greatly diminishing and in some cases eliminating certain races. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters who brought the population of this animal close to extinction.
Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands on February 12, 1832, naming it Archipelago of Ecuador. This was a new name that added to several names that had been, and are still, used to refer to the archipelago. The first governor of Galápagos, General José de Villamil, brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana and in October 1832 some artisans and farmers joined.
The Voyage of the Beagle brought the survey ship HMS Beagle under captain Robert FitzRoy to the Galápagos on September 15, 1835 to survey approaches to harbors. The captain and others on board including his companion the young naturalist Charles Darwin made a scientific study of geology and biology on four of the thirteen islands before they left on October 20 to continue on their round-the-world expedition. The governor of the prison colony on Charles Island told Darwin that tortoises differed from island to island, and when specimens of birds were analysed on return to England it was found that many different kinds of birds were species of finches which were also unique to islands. These facts were crucial in Darwin's development of his evolution theory, which was presented in The Origin of Species.
José Valdizán and Manuel Julián Cobos tried a new colonization, beginning the exploitation of a type of lichen found in the islands (Roccella portentosa) used as a coloring agent. After the assassination of Valdizán by some of his workers, Cobos brought from the continent a group of more than a hundred workers to San Cristóbal island and tried his luck at planting sugar cane. He ruled in his plantation with an iron hand which lead to his assassination in 1904. Since 1897 Antonio Gil began another plantations in Isabela island.
Over the course of a whole year, from September 1904, an expedition of the Academy of Sciences of California, led by Rollo Beck, stayed in the Galápagos collecting scientific material on geology, entomology, ornithology, botany, zoology and herpetology. Another expedition from the same Academy was done in 1932 (Templeton Crocker Expedition) to collect insects, fish, shells, fossils, birds and plants.
During WWII Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval base in Baltra island and radar stations in other strategic locations.
In 1946 a penal colony was established in Isabela Island, but was suspended in 1959.
UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands Humanity Natural Heritage in 1979 and, six years later, a Biosphere Reserve (1985), which has resulted in an even greater interest at the international level.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife - much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by newly-independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last closing in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide. The islands currently receive an average of 60,000 visitors per year.
Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country will usually be the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.
Boat tours can also be arranged from Guayaquil, Quito, and even from Puerto Ayora. While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not always be on the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands.
In either case, when looking for a tour consider the following:
- Number of passengers. Many of the sites in the islands are limited in how many people may visit at any given time, so it is generally best to travel on a boat with fewer passengers (between ten and twenty passengers is ideal).
- Itinerary. Fernandina, Isabela, and Genovesa islands are three of the most interesting islands in the archipelago, but many tours skip these islands and visit only the inner islands.
- Level of Activity. Landings are only permitted during the twelve hours of daylight, so try to find a trip that takes advantage of daylight hours. In addition, the aquatic life is the highlight of the trip for many visitors, so be sure to find a tour that includes at least one daily snorkel.
- Additional costs. Many tours do not include the $100 park entry fee or the cost of a flight from the mainland to the islands (apx. $400 from Quito).
On each island, the number of visitors of limited and the are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.
Scuba diving in the Galapagos is incredible as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine. Ranked as the best dive destination in the world in the categories of Healthiest Marine Environment, Best Big Animal Dive and Best Advanced Diving.
- Climb the hill on Bartolome for the classic Galapagos view
- Visit the Giant Tortoise breeding centre at the Charles Darwin Research Centre (https://www.darwinfoundation.org/) on Santa Cruz.
- See the red neck sacks of the Magnificient Frigatebird on Seymour.
- Go snorkelling as often as possible.
- Snorkelling & Scuba diving
- Snorkelling and scuba diving a very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful. You tour boat should be able to provide you with snorkelling equipment if you don't have any (but check first). You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and suntan lotion if you are snorkelling, as it is all to easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun.
There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, however if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you are best taking at least a 3 day boat tour (see Boat tours above).
In general crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Petty crime may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part there is little to be concerned about.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of the large bull sea lions. These animals will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. Note that it is only the bulls that are dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising simple common sense experiences will be almost always be positive.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
The codified park rules are:
- No plant, animal, or remains of such (including shells, bones, and pieces of wood), or other natural objects should be removed or disturbed.
- Be careful not to transport any live material to the islands, or from island to island.
- Do not take any food to the uninhabited islands, for the same reason.
- Do not touch or handle the animals.
- Do not feed the animals. It can be dangerous to you, and in the long run would destroy the animals' social structure and breeding habits.
- Do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting spot.
- Stay within the areas designated as visitor sites.
- Do not leave any litter on the islands, or throw any off your boat.
- Do not deface the rocks.
- Do not buy souvenirs or objects made of plants or animals from the islands.
- Do not visit the islands unless accompanied by a licensed National Park Guide.
- Restrict your visits to officially approved areas.
- Show your conservationist attitude.
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