GALAPAGOS ISLANDS – NATURAL WONDER
Primordial, Heavenly, enchanted, unique!
The Origin and trajectory
Separated by more than 950 km of the Pacific Ocean from the coasts of South America, the Galapagos Islands reside in isolation. Consisting of 13 main islands, and a total of 233 smaller outcrops and islets. They are distributed over an area of over 133,000 km2 of Marine reserve and Marine Sanctuary, with a total landmass of about 8,000 km2.
Born out of Lava and fire from deep in the Earth’s crust, the same process is still going on today, resulting in a majestic spectacle of volcanic activity and eruptions. Fernandina and Isabela, two of the youngest islands of the Archipelago, have eruptions as recent as summer 2018. Under the thin layer of rock that makes up the tectonic plate where the Galapagos resides, a massive bubble of Molten rock is located, referred to as a “hotspot”, and is the origin of these legendary islands.
This Oceanic Plate has been given the name of Nazca plate, and is in fact moving towards the continental plates of South America at a rate of 6 cm annually. The interpolation of the oceanic plate and the location of the hotspot, which stays at the same place relative to Earth’s planetary rotation, is why some of the oldest islands of the Galapagos are closer to the continent than the youngest islands today.
The Galapagos that we can visit today date from 35,000 years, to around 4 million years ago, but underwater studies reveal islands sunk under 2500 meters underwater from an ancient archipelago that previously rose from the surface of the water, which are much more ancient.
Some of the species that we see today provide evidence support this theory, as they genetic material suggest that they have been living in the Galapagos for longer than 4 million years.
The Galapagos have an unusually dry climate for a tropical archipelago, which is divided in two primary seasons. The extremely dry season occurs from June to December, with virtually no rain, and very little atmospheric humidity regardless of the location. The hot and humid season occurs from January to May and generally traps a huge amount of humidity in the higher parts of the islands in the form of mist, and rainfall in the south facing part of the islands.
This strange relation between the seasons and the geography, occurs due to the many interacting oceanic water currents that converge in this peculiar archipelago. The Humboldt and Cromwell current are both low temperature currents, that come from the Antarctic and from the Western Pacific Ocean respectively. They together shape the cool, dry season and create an incredibly rich, thriving oceanic environment. From the North, The Panama current brings in hot water, and from the east, the Ecuadorian Current complements the Panama current in creating the contrast between the north and south of the Galapagos. Every 4 to 6 years however, a unique occurrence hits the Pacific known as “El Nino” which brings heavy rain unusually hot water temperatures and difficult situations for the creatures of the Galapagos – a new challenge for all forms of life to adapt.
Most of the Islands are not high in altitude, but on the ones where altitude barriers are broken, up to 7 different ecological ‘zones’ can be found, which vary in terms of flora, fauna, humidity and temperature. This also provides with incredible diversity that can be felt and seen by all visitors.
Climate has also influenced the late human settlements
in the Galapagos. Because there is almost no running
water and extreme climate differences, only the very
courageous that went in search for isolation managed
to stay in the early days of immigration. Therefore, the
earliest settlements were only from 1832 onwards, and
why Galapagos has developed in terms of population
and tourism so recently.
Not every animal is able to cross the sea
For animals to colonize the Galapagos, they must have certain abilities that allow them to survive in hostile environments. First, a barrier of 1000km of open water must be overcome. Second, a harsh island climate with extreme dryness and very little vegetation presents another layer of difficulty when attempting to colonize these islands. The few animals that were able to overcome these situations included Reptiles, birds, invertebrates, and very few mammal species.
But how did these creatures manage to get from the mainland to the islands?
On their own: Some migratory birds have managed to
fly in from North America to the Galapagos for the
winters. Of course, these species are used to long flights
over the ocean or continents and are able to fish and
survive in the oceans on their own. Some have become
permanent residents of the islands.
With the wind: Very small organisms such as spiders and small insects have been found to be able to travel huge distances with the wind. Strong winds from hurricanes and storms can, from time to time, spread species around to places far away, and is thus an important mechanism for Island Colonization, even today. Some theories also state that some small birds might have arrived to the islands with these methods as well!
On floating driftwood following ocean currents: Due to the heavy rainfall that sometimes hits South American various ecological zones, rivers can swell to various times their usual sizes, and uproot trees and bushes that get carried unto the sea. This might bring reptiles, insects, birds and other creatures on these floating rafts to isolated islands on the pacific, such as the Galapagos. A floating tree trunk can, for example, reach the Galapagos in 2 weeks following the various marine currents that influence the archipelago, a severely complicated ride!
Today, humans are the most efficient means of transport for a species to Colonize far away islands, and with devastating effects to endemic wildlife. Hitching rides on ships and airplanes, invasive goats, donkeys, pigs, rats, cats, ants and other creatures have been introduced to the Galapagos.
Experts agree that the ancestors of the Giant Galapagos tortoise arrived in the Galapagos by floating on the currents themselves. In fact floating tortoises have been found in the oceans with barnacles that take months to grow! Only a handful of terrestrial mammals have managed to cross the long distances from the mainland over the open sea and successfully colonized the islands. Today, there are 6 species of mammals native to the Galapagos, including 4 species of mice and 2 species of bats, after being successfully adapted to the local environment.
Today, the introduction of wild dogs, wild goats, and cats, presents a very serious problem for local species, specially birds and reptiles. The National Park Authority and the Charles Darwin foundation have successfully carried eradication programs since the 1980s, with some success.
The sea, and it’s many species
Although the diversity of life on land is limited to those species that managed to make it across the vast expanses of ocean, the amount of diversity underwater looks a lot different. With no boundaries to cross, and a vast richness of resources underwater, the sea around the Galapagos presents abundant diversity. With over 50 species of sharks and rays, over 500 species of fish, 900 species of mollusks and snails, 200 species of starfish urchins and sea cucumbers, and countless crustaceans, the difference is clear. The most striking of these marine animals are the sea turtles with 5 different species identified in these waters, the only marine iguanas in the world, and the 2 species of lovely sea lions. Marine birds and most of the animals that live between the ocean and land carry valuable nutrients from the sea to the surface, where lizards, birds and insects take advantage to feed from, and which support all life to develop in the coastal regions too. Visibly striking red crabs can be seen picking out food from sand and other areas where these nutrients are carried from the sea, while the resting marine iguanas can be seen being cleaned by the small lava lizards in a very particular symbiosis found only here. While the Galapagos is home to 5 species of migrating turtles, there is only one species of turtles that nests in the Galapagos. Pairings take place between November and December, and from December to June, females they are left in the nest and once they see the world outside of their nest, the race for survival begins. Sexual maturity is reached at an age of 10 to 20 years, at which point they return to the same beach where they hatched – a journey of more than 2000 km, and of perils encountered throughout their migration in the open seas.
Discovery and exploration of the Galapagos Islands by humans
The first official written record fo the Galapagos comes from 1525, when the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga reaches the shores of the Galapagos by accident, when the marine currents pushed the ship towards the archipelago on the route from Panama to Peru. With exhausted water and food supplies, they anchored on a bay of the unknown islands hoping to find running water. On this excursion 2 men and 10 horses die, while others attempt to hydrate by chewing on cactus pods. His account to the Spanish king contains the first description of Giant Galapagos tortoises and lizards and emphasizes the tameness of the animals and the space-like landscape.
Between 1593 and 1710, pirates and buccaneers supported by European states, scarcely used the islands as a refuge and food supply. The giant Galapagos Tortoises were taken as living meat supplies on their ship, and were preferred due to their low maintenance and longevity without resources. This led to the overall supply of tortoises on the islands scarcer and pushed pirates to take advantage of goats as the main food source, since they fed on practically any plant and could reproduce quickly and efficiently.
In 1684 Ambrose Cowley, as part of an English expedition created the very first map of the islands, giving them various of the names still used today.
The year of 1744 came with the rise of the whaling industry, and with each new expedition came the naming of the islands. Curiously enough, independently backed Spanish English and even Dutch expeditions each mapped the Galapagos and gave names to the islands.
Between the year of 1973 and 1870, whalers destroy whale, sea lion and giant Galapagos Tortoises populations for oil, fur, and meat. A record from 1820 notes that one single ship has 360 tortoises, while another one from 3 years later records 5000 sea lion skins. During this time it is likely that whalers destroyed around 200,000 giant tortoises. In 1793 captain Colnett is said to have created the famous Galapagos Post Office by raising a barrel that hosted the letters carried between any visitors of the bay, which continues today.
1835 came with the most famous visitor of the Islands, a Mr. Charles Darwin, who stayed for 5 weeks on the archipelago as part of his world tour on board the Beagle led by captain Fitz Roy. His job was to explore the natural and geological richness of each stop on this voyage, and on the Galapagos, he visited Floreana, Isabela and Santiago, as well as San Cristobal his first stop. He collected plants, birds and numerous animals, all of which were shipped back to England and later served him as the basis for his famous book, “the Origin of Species” that was published in 1859.
From 1905 to 1906, the ‘California Academy of Sciences’ began conducting their first major research expeditions, which included the collection of 8691 birds, and 264 turtles from 10 different islands, as well as numerous other animals and plants. Today visitors can explore part of the collection that the CAS created for research purposes.
In 1959 the Charles Darwin Foundation was officially created, celebrating 100 years of the publication of “The Origin of Species”. Since then, they have led international research on the Galapagos.
Stories tell of a Mr. Patrick Watkins, who was left stranded in the Isle of Floreana in 1807, where he took advantage of vegetables, and the local fauna, trading some of his crops with rum from whalers. The story goes on to explain that Mr. Watkins stole a small ship and eventually landed in Jail back in the continent. There are however no proven records of this, and no proof beyond the spoken story.
In 1832, Ecuador officially takes over the Galapagos, declaring it part of the territory and giving it the official name of Archipelago de Colon. The central government then decides to send settlers to the islands to cement their property and annexation.
From 1850 to 1860, the Galapagos is considered an “ideal Prison”, thanks to its isolation from the continent, and is followed by the creation of penal colonies on these far away islands. Many stories of escape and mutiny exist, but most prisoners have suffered due to the inhumane situation and low resources available.
1926 came with the settlement of a few Norwegian whalers on the Galapagos, which intended to create a colony between 4 islands, but after a few years, conditions were so severe that most returned home after 1929.
In 1929, escaping the hostile environment in Europe and with the idea of creating a Garden of Eden for themselves, German settlers arrived to the islands, and period of crime and mystery ensured that only one immigrant family was left residing in relative isolation in the highlands of Floreana.
One of the most famous families that managed to settle the Galapagos was Mr. Cruz, who in 1939 arrived to the Galapagos searching for nature and freedom. In 1944 he married Emma Bodon and moved with her to Floreana. On a small farm the named “:as Palmas”, they grew coffee and potatoes, marmalade, and other fruit products, and traded these with local fishermen. Eliecer taught many locals to read and write as well, as Education was extremely important for him. With the little money that they had, he brought books and over time a library came together. He was the proud father of 12 children, that helped them to further enhance their home and their island into what it is today.
Claudio Cruz, one of the direct descendants from Eliecer, still manages the farm today, and if you are lucky you can talk to him on your trip to Floreana.
From 1879 to 1940, San Cristobal saw the rise of an agricultural center called “El Progreso”, that had one clear objective: To become the largest sugar producer of South America. However, within the exports that included the product portfolio, were cowhides, tortoise oil, and sugar cane. His reign on the island was always marked by terror and a slavery like model, which ultimately pushed his workers to murder Mr. Cobos.
With WWII just a few years away, 1941 arrived with the development of a military base in Baltra Island, that oversaw traffic of the pacific, and which monitored the access to the Panama Canal from the West. After the war, the airport was returned to the control of Ecuador, and the first commercial airport of the islands was established.
1959 came with the arrival of the first commercial flights and with that, the beginning of mass tourism began.
In 1969 the first cruise ships arrived at the Galapagos, and a new type of nature focused tourism was developed.
2015 – to the future: As of 2015, the Galapagos receives an annual influx of about 225,000 visitors from all over the world.