The Unique History and Characteristics of The Galapagos Islands

November 1, 2019 09:44

Historical Significance of the Galapagos Islands and What Makes Them So Special

Along with being a spectacular place to visit with a wealth of unique experiences to offer, the Galapagos Islands have a lot of historical significance and unique characteristics you won’t see anywhere else on the planet. From volcanoes and origin stories of natural selection to endangered species, these islands are incredibly special and should be treated with care.

To help you gain a better understanding of the distinctiveness of the Galapagos Islands and what makes them so unique, here are some important facts about the islands to familiarize yourself with if you are considering a trip to Galapagos.

The Geography and Geology of the Islands

Located 906 km (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago made up of 13 main islands and nearly 100 smaller islands and islets.

The Galapagos Islands are located at the juncture of three different tectonic plates – moving pieces of the earth’s crust – making the Galapagos Islands one the most volcanically active places in the world.

Situated on top of a volcanic hotspot, the islands were created as the result of millions of years of volcanic activity, and there are currently 13 active volcanoes in the archipelago.  There are several fumaroles (one is accessible as a visitor site), but eruptions only happen every few years. These are not explosive, but rather consist of cracks in the sides of volcanoes opening up and magma squirting out. 

As a result, the Galapagos’ famous turquoise blue waters, lush greenery, and pristine white sand beaches are contrasted by a harsh yet stunning volcanic landscape.

Spectacular Wildlife and Biodiversity

The Galapagos Islands are perhaps best known for their unique biodiversity and impressive array of highly adapted species, many of which are endemic to individual Islands. In fact, 97% of the reptiles and 20% of the marine species found in the Galapagos Islands do not exist anywhere else on earth.

Due to their remote nature, very few mammals were able to make it to the islands – there are only 2 native mammal species there (a small rat and a bat).

But what really makes the animal life on the islands so incredible is that fact that the species have evolved with very little human contact or any major predators for hundreds of years. This means that they are typically not afraid of humans and will often either come close to you, or let you get close to them.

Some of the most distinctive animals from the Galapagos that you can expect to see includes:

  • Marine and land iguanas
  • Seals and sea lions
  • Giant tortoises
  • Green sea turtles
  • Galapagos penguins
  • Flamingos
  • Darwin’s Finches
  • Blue-Footed Boobies
  • Flightless cormorants

Charles Darwin

While the Galapagos Islands are known for being home to an amazing array of unique animal species, many people often do not realize how much historical – and scientific – significance these creatures have.

Back in 1831, famed naturalist Charles Darwin set sail on the H.M.S Beagle on a voyage to South America. By 1835, Darwin landed in the Galapagos Islands, where he spent 5 weeks studying the unique flora and fauna of the islands and collecting geological and biological specimens from the islands for further analysis.

During his time on the islands, Darwin noticed that while certain species such as finches (now known as Darwin’s Finches) were similar from island to island, each had evolved and adapted to their environments in different ways.

Darwin went on to use his observations to help develop his ground-breaking theory of evolution outlined in his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species, and dramatically altered the way people at the time understood the biological origins of life.

Other Interesting Facts About the Galapagos Islands

To help you understand even more about what makes the Galapagos Islands so unbelievably unique, here are some additional facts about the islands that many visitors may not know.

Lonesome George

In 2012, the Galapagos suffered a huge loss when Lonesome George — the sole remaining Pinta Island tortoise and icon of the Galapagos conservation efforts — died, marking the official extinction of the species.

For many years, Lonesome George was the last known surviving Pinta tortoise and considered the rarest creature in the world.

In fact, The Pinta tortoise was thought to have gone extinct in the early 20th century. It wasn’t until 1971 when a scientist discovered that one still remained, who was swiftly brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station where he lived for the rest of his life and was given the name Lonesome George.

While in captivity, efforts were made to have George mate with females of other Galapagos tortoise species but were unsuccessful.

During his time at the research station, George remained in relatively good health and is estimated to have lived to over 100 years old by the time he eventually died of natural causes.

97% of Galapagos Is A National Park

Another factor that makes the Galapagos Islands one of the most unique vacation destinations is that the 97% of the total area of the islands remains uninhabited and is a part of the Galapagos National Park.

Established in 1959, the Galapagos National Park is the oldest national park in Ecuador and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This means that strict measures are in place to protect the islands and minimize the impact of visitors.

As a result, any tourist visiting the islands on a cruise or other tour must be accompanied by Galapagos National Park certified guide.

The Galapagos National Park also collects an entrance fee of $100 USD from each visitor, which goes directly towards conservation efforts along with the protection and management of the islands.

Presence of Penguins

When most people think of penguins, they think of snow, ice, and freezing cold climates. However, the cute, beloved birds can actually be found in warmer climates like the Galapagos. In fact, the Galapagos Islands are home to the only species of penguin found north of the Equator.

These penguins are typically found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands but can also be spotted on Floreana and Bartolome islands.

Galapagos penguins are able to survive in hotter climates by developing ways to adapt to the warm weather, such as walking on land with their flippers over their feet to avoid being burned from the sun.

The penguins are also able to thrive in their tropical habitat due to the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt Current that flows north from Antarctica.

Pirates and Buried Treasure

Nearly 200 years before Charles Darwin even stepped foot in the archipelago, the Galapagos Islands once served as a safe haven for English pirates and Buccaneers after attacking and looting Spanish treasure fleets transporting gold and silver from South America to Spain.

The islands provided the perfect spot for taking refuge because they were close enough to shipping routes to serve as a launching pad for attacks on Spanish ships but were far enough from the South American mainland that pirates could make a clean break and hide out and guard their loot.

According to local legend, some of that treasure remains hidden in the Galapagos to this day.

Major Landmarks and Visitor Sites

There are endless things to see and do when visiting the Galapagos Islands, so how do you know where to start?

To give you an idea of what to look for when selecting an itinerary, we’ve broken down some of the most iconic and historical attractions in the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin Research Station

The Charles Darwin Research Station, located in the city of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, is a biological research station operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation along with over 200 scientists and volunteers.

Founded in 1959, the foundation has dedicated its efforts towards the preservation and conservation of the Galapagos Islands along with the many animals and plants that live there.

This includes monitoring the conservation of the islands’ and flora and fauna, caring/rehabilitating for injured and/or endangered animals until they are ready to be released back to the wild, and tracking the movement of sea turtles, Galapagos penguins, and sharks around certain islands.

The Charles Darwin Research Station itself is a popular tourist destination where visitors can witness the famous tortoise breeding center – where Lonesome George lived until his death – and learn more about local conservation efforts and the Galapagos wildlife.

Punta Suarez, Española Island

Punta Suarez is one of just two visitor sites on Española and is home to the Galapagos' only colony of the Waved Albatross – a rare endemic species that can only be seen on Española Island.

The main activity for visitors to enjoy is hiking a 2 km trail through Masked and Blue-Footed Booby colonies and enjoying the spectacular views this island has to offer.

Another highlight of this hike is a lava fissure that has created a blowhole that sprays water nearly 30 metres into the air.

Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Located on the largest island in the Galapagos, Punta Vicente Roca is home to the remnants of an ancient volcano that has formed two turquoise coves and is one of the islands’ top-rated snorkelling sites.

Animals that call this spot home include blue-footed and Nazca boobies, flightless cormorants, sea lions, and sea turtles.

Popular activities include taking a panga ride along the cliffs or exploring the partially sunken cave located right at the water’s edge.

Devil’s Crown, Floreana Island

Known as one of the best places for snorkeling in the Galapagos, this visitor’s site got it’s name from a large ring of jagged, volcanic rocks resembling a crown that stick up from the water just off the shore of Floreana Island.

What makes the site so enticing for snorkellers and scuba divers is that the rocks make it an attractive spot for smaller fish, which attract larger fish for feeding, and so on.

Marine life that can be spotted by snorkellers include hammerhead sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, and spotted eagle rays.

There is also a colony of playful sea lions that live among the rocks and along the nearby shore.

Prince Phillip’s Steps, Genovesa Island

Named after England’s Prince Philip, who visited Galapagos in 1965 and again in 1981, this site is a steep, rocky trail leading up a cliff that provides the perfect opportunity to spot a variety and abundance of birdlife including:

  • Red-footed boobies
  • Nazca boobies
  • Short-eared owls
  • Red-billed tropicbirds
  • Galapagos swallows
  • Galapagos doves
  • Finches
  • Mockingbirds

During your time at this area of Genovesa Island, you will have the opportunity to see a small fur seal colony, along with variety of marine life clinging to the rocks, and stunning views of lava plains. 

As you can see, the Galapagos Islands truly are a treasure trove full of history and natural wonder, and are the perfect destination for history, science, and animal lovers alike.

So, when planning your next big vacation, consider a cruise to the Galapagos Islands in order to really experience all that the islands have to offer.