There’s one destination I never seem to talk about, but have always been interested in visiting. The Galapagos Islands. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, they’re a group of nineteen volcanic islands around the equator, in the Pacific Ocean, near Ecuador. Home to both a national park (97.5% of the land area) and a biological marine reserve (27,000 square miles), the Galapagos are considered a living museum and a showcase of evolution.
What they’re famous for, is their vast number of native species, which were studied by the young naturalist, Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle. And what he learned ultimately led to his theory of evolution, by natural selection.
The Galapagos were discovered in 1535, when the Spaniard, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who was the fourth Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute and his ship drifted off course. The islands first appeared on maps around 1570. And the first English captain to visit, was Richard Hawkins, in 1593.
Until the early 19th century, the islands were often used as a hideout by predominately English pirates. Whalers killed thousands of the Galapagos tortoises, to extract their fat, which was responsible for almost eliminating some species of tortoises, while fur hunters brought seals almost to extinction.
An Irish sailor, Patrick Watkins, who was marooned on Floreana (one of the islands) from 1807 – 1809 was the first known permanent human resident. Apparently he survived by hunting, growing vegetables and trading with the visiting whalers. A discovery of sperm whales in 1818 led to an influx of whale ships; and this led to the establishment of an unofficial post office in the Galapagos, where whaleships could both drop off, and pick up, letters and where they could also stock up on provisions and get their ships repaired.
In 1832 Ecuador annexed the islands and renamed them the Archipelago of Ecuador. The first governor brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana, and they were soon joined by some artisans and farmers. In the early 1900s, there were some expeditions there, from the Academy of Sciences of California. The purpose was to collect scientific material on geology, entomology, ornithology, botany, zoology, herpetology, insects, fish, shells, fossils, birds and plants.
Needing money, Equador tried to sell the islands and by the mid 1900s, a small number of Europeans settled there. All colonists could get twenty hectares of land for free; and could live their tax-free for ten years. They were also free to hunt and fish freely. During World War II the Americans established a naval base on Baltra Island. Once the war was over, the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador. And by the 1960’s the Galapagos were starting to see an influx of tourists.
Just some of the species who play host to the adventurous visitors who come from all over the world, are Galapagos land iguanas, marine iguanas, the Galapagos tortoise, Galapagos green turtles, sea cucumbers, flightless cormorants, great frigatebirds and magnificent frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies (seen in the photo), Galapagos penguins, waved albatross, Galapagos hawks, four different species of mockingbirds, thirteen different species of tanagers and Galapagos sea lions.
Unfortunately the area is under many, many threats. From the introduction of alien species of plants and animals to illegal fishing, from the development necessitated by the growth of tourism and local populations to the effects of El Nino and a January 2001 oil spill.
So if I’m going to visit the Galapagos, I better get a move on.