Galapagos Islands:
Rare Ecological Paradise

The Galapagos Islands consist of a rare and unusual group of 18 islands which are 973 kilometers off the west coast of Ecuador. The islands are a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park.

Of the 18 islands only five are inhabited by a total of about 23,000 people. They are part of the territory that belongs to Ecuador.

This archipelago of volcanic islands is geologically young. They sit on top of what is called the Galapagos hotspot, where a mantle plume melts the Earth's crust to form new volcanoes.

The most recent eruption happened in 2009 on the island of Fernandina. You'd never guess looking at pictures of all those serene animals sunning on the shores that such fury brews beneath the surface of the area.

Economic and Environmental Changes in the Galapagos Islands

The islands are famed for their vast number of endemic species. But times and conditions are evolving rapidly.

About 30 years ago a friend of mine went on a photo tour of the islands. The activities of the group were tightly controlled.

The group was herded along, not allowed to wander off, not even off the paths. And they definitely couldn't disturb the wildlife. Great effort was taken to protect the priceless and delicate environment.

Now property is being sold. Foreigners can buy houses. Developments are going up. I have to wonder how much this will impact the fragile ecosystem as radio waves and microwaves meet sea lions and ocean waves.

The islands were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the English noblemen who helped the privateer's cause.

Galapagos Islands — Names & Species

The government of Ecuador gave most of the islands official Spanish names. This list of Galapagos islands, along with their Spanish/Ecuadorian and common names and major species is compiled from Wikipedia's Galapagos Islands.

The 18 main islands are:

Baltra (South Seymour) Island

Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island: green turtles

Darwin (Culpepper) Island: fur seals, frigates, Marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, whales, marine turtles, red-footed and Nazca boobies.

Española (Hood) Island: oldest island, large number of endemic fauna, marine iguanas, waved albatross, Espanola lava lizards, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-and red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Galapagos hawks, finches.

Fernandina (Narborough) Island: youngest island, volcanic eruptions, marine iguanas, flightless cormoranat, Galapagos penguins, pelicans, Galapagos sea lions.

Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island: flamingos, green turtles, Galapagos petrel (patapegada).

Genovesa (Tower) Island: the bird island-frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, red-and blue-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels, Darwin finches, Nazca boobies.

Isabela (Albemarle) Island (Ecuador): largest island. Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, Galapagos doves. The only island with the equator running through it.

Marchena (Bindloe) Island: Galapagos hawks, sea lions, marchena lava lizard.

North Seymour Island: blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, marine iguanas, pelicans, Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds.

Pinzón (Duncan) Island

Pinta (Abingdon) Island sea lions, Galápagos hawks, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, dolphins, Galapagos hawks and was home to the last living Pinta tortoise that died in June 2012. 

Rábida (Jervis) Island: flamingos, finches, white-cheeked pintail ducks.

San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island: first island visited by Charles Darwin. Frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue- and red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, dolphins, swallow-tailed gulls.

Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island (Galápagos): has the most humans. Tortoises, flamingos, iguanas, sea turtles.

Santa Fé (Barrington) Island: swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, land iguanas, lava lizards, shear-waters petrels.

Santiago (San Salvador, James) Island (Galápagos): marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins, sharks, fur seals, Galapagos hawks, Darwin finches. Pigs and goats are harming the native species and have been removed from the island.

Wolf (Wenman) Island: fur seals, frigatebirds, Nazca and red-footed boobies, Marine Iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls, vampire finches which live on blood pecked from other birds.

Galapagos  Islands Weather

It often rains in the islands because of cold water brought by the Humboldt Current. El Ninos bring warmer weather and heavy rains.

Garua season is June to November in Ecuador. This is a unique climatic condition during which cold winds and misty rains occur almost all day, enveloping the islands with thick fog. The warm season is December to May with an average temperature of 25° C or 77° F. and almost no wind.

Galapagos Islands History

March 10, 1535, Tomas de Berlanga, fourth bishop of Panama, who was on his way to Peru to settle a dispute with Francisco Pizarro, landed in the islands. He was off course for his proposed destination.

In 1952 Thor Heyerdahl and Arne Skjølsvold ascertained that the islands were visited by South Americans before the Spanish. They found pieces of pottery and other remains on several islands.

The islands were first mapped in 1570 and named, "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises). The English didn't arrive until 1593 and after that the islands were used to hide treasure stolen from the Spanish by the English.

The wildlife of the islands was first written up in 1793 by James Colnett. Whalers and fur traders killed or caught thousands of Galapagos turtles to use as food on voyages because they could last months without food or water. Many animals became extinct.

The Galápagos Islands became part of Ecuador on February 12, 1832 as the Archipelago of Ecuador. Convicts, artists and farmers were brought to Floreana to populate it.

The HMS Beagle brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos on September 15. He made a scientific study of geologic and biologic study on 4 islands and left October 20. He noticed that mockingbirds and tortoises were different on different islands. His discoveries on the islands helped him develop his theory of natural selection written in The Origin of Species.

In the 1950s action was taken to control the disturbances of native flora and fauna. In 1957, UNESCO and Ecuador sent an expedition to study the situation and choose a site for a research station.

In 1959 Ecuador declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a national park, with the exception of areas already colonized. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded the same year.

In 1986 27,000 square miles of ocean around the islands was declared amarine reserve. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. In 1978 UNESCO named the islands a World Heritage Site and in 1985 a Biosphere Reserve.

Invasive Plants, Animals and Humans

Foreign species have been brought to the Galapagos islands and have killed many species, reducing and even exterminating native species, which are easy prey because the islands formerly had no predators. These foreign species include pigs, goats, cats, cattle, rats, dogs, donkeys, mice, sheep, horses, poultry, ants, roaches and parasites.

Harmful foreign plants are guava, avocado, cascarilla, balsa, blackberry, citrus, and elephant grass.

Other environmental problems include illegal fishing, harvesting of sea cucumbers out of season, land development, irresponsible tourism, high human birth rates, illegal immigration and the grounding of an oil tanker in 2001.

Galapagos Islands Tours

Tourists can visit the islands through a choice of tours — cruises that begin from Quito or Guayaquil airports and fly to Baltra or San Cristobal islands in the Galapagos. From there you are taken to your ship for the cruise. There are cruise ships that range from economy and luxury to fishing boats.

Most Galapagos tours take you to typical sites but special tours can be arranged. You can go scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, hiking or beach-hopping.

The source for much of this article comes from Wikipedia: Galapagos Islands

Click here to see our photos of the Galapagos
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