The pristine Galápagos Islands are an ecological wonderland set in the Pacific Ocean off the western coast of South America. Home to some of the world's most fascinating creatures, the Galápagos is teeming with giant tortoises, penguins, sea lions, lizards, and a host of diverse bird species. Charles Darwin found the inspiration for his research here. With turquoise blue ocean views, lava-rock landscapes, and an immeasurable diversity of flora and fauna, it stands to reason that the Galápagos Islands will inspire every visitor who roams their shores.View Galápagos Islands Cruises
- Countries: Ecuador
- Human Population: About 23,000
- Animal Population: In the millions
- Language: Spanish
- Length: 3,040 square miles
The islands that make up the Galápagos archipelago are located in the eastern Pacific Ocean, roughly 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, the country to which they belong. Straddling the Equator, the islands of Galápagos are located both in the northern and southern hemisphere. Española, the southernmost island and Culpepper, the northernmost, are 137 miles apart.
The largest of the islands, Isabela, measures 1,790 square miles and accounts for more than half of the total land mass of the Galápagos. Volcán Wolf on Isabela is the highest point with an elevation of 5,600 feet above sea level. The archipelago is made up of 15 main islands, three smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands are located at the Galápagos Triple Junction, where the Cocos, Nazca, and Pacific tectonic plates meet.
The oldest island, Española, is thought to have formed between 5 million and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed. The Galápagos Islands and their surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian province, a national park, a biological marine reserve, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Galápagos Islands were discovered by accident when Spanish Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, was on his way to Peru. The winds died out and his vessel drifted off course, leading him to land on the islands on March 10, 1535. Although Berlanga was amazed at the islands' untouched natural beauty, later archaeological discoveries suggest visitation by South American peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
The islands first appeared on maps in about 1570 and were dubbed the "Islands of the Tortoises." The first English captain to visit the Galápagos Islands was Richard Hawkins, in 1593. Until the early nineteenth century, the archipelago was often used as a hideout by English pirates who intercepted ships carrying precious cargo from South America to Spain. The first crude navigation chart of the Galápagos was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after English noblemen who had helped his cause. More recently, the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands Spanish names. The original English names were used in Darwin's writings and by many ecologists to this day.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whalers and maritime fur traders killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat. The tortoises could also be kept on board ships to provide fresh protein on long voyages as these animals could survive for several months without any food or water. The hunting of the tortoises was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species.
Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832 and the first governor of the archipelago brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana. In September 1835, the survey ship HMS Beagle under Captain Robert FitzRoy reached the Galápagos. The ship's team, including young naturalist Charles Darwin, made a scientific study of geology and biology on the islands for about a month before they continued their round-the-world expedition. Darwin noticed that mockingbirds differed between islands, but assumed they were unrelated to each other and did not bother labeling them by island. When the specimens were analyzed on his return to England it was found that many apparently different kinds of birds were really finches with different adaptations. These facts were crucial in Darwin's development of his theory of natural selection explaining evolution, which was presented in The Origin of Species.
During World War II, Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval and air force base on Baltra island and radar stations in other strategic locations. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the Pacific for enemy submarines and provided protection for the Panama Canal. After the war, the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador. The Galápagos became a national park in 1959, offering international visitors a glimpse at the island's colorful collection of wildlife.
San Cristobal (Chatham) Island
A remote, but beautiful, member of the archipelago, San Cristobal was the first stop for Darwin's Beagle expedition. Giant tortoises, Galápagos fur sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigates, and finches habitate the island, free and fearless of man. The turquoise blue waters illuminate schools of colorful tropical fish, playful sea lions, and maybe even an equatorial penguin or shark. Also watch for the Chatham Mockingbird and Chatham Lava Lizard—both species are endemic to this island and seen nowhere else in the Galápagos.
Española (Hood) Island
Española is the oldest and southernmost island of the bunch. See the famous blowhole as well as unique seabird colonies, including the waved albatrosses (April-December), Nazca and blue-footed boobies, and Darwin's finches. Look for red, green, and black marine iguanas and a sea lion habitat right at the landing site.
Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island
This key Galápagos island has a veritable array of wildlife and some interesting stories to tell. Since the 18th century, whalers kept a wooden barrel at the island's Post Office Bay for mail to be picked up and delivered by ships on their way home. A brackish-water lagoon creates an aviary paradise, where flamingos, pintail ducks, common stilts, herons, sandpipers, and others may be observed. At the offshore "Devil's Crown," an underwater volcanic cone, the snorkeling is unparalleled.
Fernandina (Narborough) Island
The youngest island is also one of the most pristine, with no animal species introduced by man. It boasts the highest density of marine iguanas, sharing their island habitat with sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and hawks. The sunken Ecuador Volcano displays the power of the Earth's core and colors the island's topography. The remains of lava flows and tuff stone layers make the perfect nesting place for flightless cormorants, the only birds in the world that have changed from flying birds to diving birds. Wildlife here includes sea lions, Galápagos penguins, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, and noddy terns.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island
The center of human activity on the island, Santa Cruz is home to the national park headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Center. The Finch Bay Hotel is stunning, tucked away in a private seaside location surrounded by mangroves. The island features lush and vibrant green highlands, pit craters, lava tunnels, the Scalesia forest, and the giant tortoises' wild habitat. Activities abound: walk to Tortuga Bay, a 6-mile-long coralline beach; mountain bike up in the highlands; or snorkel right off the beach.
The Galápagos Islands are the ultimate destination for those who live by the credo, "Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures." The matchless array of plant and animal life make this untouched archipelago a nature-lover's dream. The perfect combination of exploration and relaxation, a journey to the Galápagos strikes an ideal balance for travelers in the midst of hectic lives who are looking to get away.
Did You Know?
- Volcán Wolf and Volcano Ecuador on Isla Isabela are two sites directly on the equator line.
- When Tomás de Berlanga returned to Spain from the Galápagos, he brought with him a cayman (a crocodilian reptile). This cayman measured nearly 10 feet long. It is currently on display in the cathedral in Berlanga de Duero, Spain.
- The marine iguanas on Española Island attract mates by turning their black skin to bright red.
- The work, The Encantadas, by Herman Melville, the author of the famous Moby Dick, were inspired by the Galápagos Islands.
- The waved albatross can spend months and years without touching land. They take off only after they have all formed a single-file line, one after the other.
- Galápagos tortoises and finches display a classic example of a symbiotic relationship. The finch hops in front of the tortoise to show that it is ready. The tortoise then stretches out its neck so the bird can pick off the ticks that are hidden in the folds of their skin. The finch gets a meal and the tortoise rids itself of pesky parasites.