Galápagos : An Evolving Story
Around five million years ago a series of violent geological events occurred in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles from the coast of South America. An area of hot mantle in the Earth’s crust erupted, spewing forth wave after wave of lava, which built up to form volcanic islands poking above sea level. The process lasted a couple of million years, and the result was an archipelago of rocky and barren islands inhospitable to life.
An unintentional discovery
The first person known to have set foot in the Galápagos Islands was the Spanish Bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga. His 1535 discovery of the islands was entirely accidental as he was in fact trying to navigate towards the coast of Peru from Central America on an apostolic mission. An unexpectedly strong wind, together with the Panama Current, drove his ship towards the Galápagos, and when he stepped ashore, he found the land to be teeming with – as he saw it – creatures acting in a strange manner. “The birds here are so silly,” he later wrote to the King of Spain, “they know not how to flee.”
Pirates! The first visitors to the enchanted isles
Sometimes, the Galápagos Islands become invisible to the naked eye. Far from being mysterious, this is caused by a dense veil of fog. A fine mist –known locally as garua – forms when cool air above the water mixes with warmer patches. The islands will seem to magically appear as the mist evaporates, and just as quickly disappear again when the mist engulfs them once more. This unusual phenomenon is why they were nicknamed Las Encantadas, meaning the ‘enchanted’ or ‘bewitched’ isles.
These fabled vanishing isles began to be talked about by seafarers and, in 1570, a map of the Spanish New World was drawn up by a Flemish cartographer named Abraham Ortelius. The map circulated widely throughout the Caribbean and came to be used by buccaneers who turned their attention to marauding around the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s. The previously elusive islands were thus literally put on the map for the very first time and given the rather obvious name of Islas de los Galápagos – meaning ‘Islands of the Giant Tortoises’.
Later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, these sea pirates used the Galápagos as a safe harbour. Giant tortoises proved to be their ‘ideal’ meat as they could store them alive in their ships’ holds for months at a time. Unfortunately, the buccaneers killed thousands of these easily caught creatures, removing what is now known to be a key species for ecosystem health on the islands. What’s more, as far as we know, they left no buried treasure behind.
A dawning era of protection
Like the pirates before them, 18th century whalers had a terrible impact on the islands. Even more giant tortoises were killed, and furthermore they introduced animals such as rats and goats, with devastating effects for the native species. In fact, their damaging legacy would later serve as the basis for implementing strong conservation and restoration measures in the Galápagos.
By the 1920s, waves of Europeans arrived to live in the previously uninhabited isles, most of them from Norway. Later came waves from other countries, and in 1959 – exactly 100 years after the publication of Darwin’s book – the islands were declared a National Park by Ecuador. Soon after came the concept of responsible tourism to show off the archipelago’s beauty without harming its fragile ecosystems. The new ethos was to cherish and protect these unique isles – after all, having only washed up in the Galápagos less than 500 years ago, we humans are some of the most recent organisms to arrive!
You're the latest chapter in this story
Visiting the Galápagos today is a whole lot easier for us than in times past. But unlike explorers in the ‘old days’ we aim to give something back to these remote and beautiful islands rather than take away. Much of the archipelago enjoys strong legal protection by UNESCO and the Ecuadorean government, and there are numerous projects to restore the native wildlife and ecosystems, and – of course – we’ll make our visit as low-impact as possible.