The Galápagos Islands


Half a thousand miles west of Ecuador, cradling both sides of the equator, an archipelago dots the Pacific Ocean. In 1535, on his way to adjudicate a dispute between Spanish conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro in Peru, the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, was shocked to discover 21 islands and hundreds of islets in the vast ocean expanse. He had discovered the Galápagos Islands.

Unlike most “discoveries” by Europeans in the second millennium, which were really visitations of lands inhabited for centuries, the sighting of these islands probably was the first time human eyes had spied them. No natives lived there then and no definitive archaeological evidence exists to suggest a civilization ever called the islands home. This lack of humanity, however, perhaps endowed this archipelago with the beauty and the life that make them world-famous.

By 1570, atlases contained the name Insulae de los Galopegos, or Islands of the Tortoises. Roaming the islands were gargantuan tortoises, reptiles unlike anything we had previously seen. But these shell-clad critters weren’t the only oddities in the Galápagos. There, also, thrived thousands of strange species. Finches, iguanas, penguins, and seals, all unique in the world. Humanity had discovered a spot where endemic species presented in staggering abudnance.

The dot is the spot of the Galápagos Islands

Endemism is the state of being from one defined region. The Galápagos Islands obviously do not have a monopoly on endemic species, but they are perhaps the most critical location for this interesting phenomenon. The archipelago is a wonderful natural laboratory. Isolated from the rest of the world and devoid of human predators, these islands are perfect locations to see what happens to a species as time elapses.

On 15 September 1835, captain Robert Fitzroy marshaled HMS Beagle into harbor at the Galápagos. Onboard was a 22-year-old geologist, who hoped to see the tropics before becoming a parson. That passenger is the most renowned name associated with the archipelago: Charles Darwin. The acting governor of the islands, now annexed from Spain to Ecuador, informed Darwin that the tortoises differed from island to island. Darwin also noticed the mockingbirds displayed differences on each island. The trip and the observations made during the exploration helped produce one of the planet’s greatest scientific epiphanies.

When Darwin returned to England and analyzed all the data he had collected in the Galápagos, he discovered that birds he had thought distinct were, in fact, all different varieties of finches. The common denominator was the different islands. With enough time, realtives left alone on their own islands evolved into distinct species thanks to natural selection. The way we understood the evolution of living beings was forever transformed. Darwin collected his work in On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Darwin's finches, AKA Galápagos finches - image by John Gould

The Galápagos Islands are, geologically, similar to the Hawaiian Islands. They are the result of a hotspot. Magma from the inner parts of the planet rises to the surface at this location, forming islands. The hotspot itself does not move, but, because of plate tectonics, it creates a string of islands as the upper portion of the planet shifts. The youngest islands – Isabella and Fernandina – are still being formed.

Despite being at the equator, the island group is in the middle of the Humboldt Current, which brings cold water to the region. The result is a lot of drizzling precipitation and less-than-hellish temperatures. Because the seasons do not really change at the equator, the average temperatures are incredibly consistent. From June to November, the temperature is usually around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. During the “warm” season of December to May, the mercury hits 77 degrees. 

Today, approximately 25,000 people inhabit the Galápagos. In 1959, Ecuador declared almost all of the area of the islands a National Park. In 1978, the chain became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rich diversity and uniqueness of the islands demand the top levels of protection. Introduced species caused massive damage to the native ecosystems. With a dearth of natural predators, feral cats and goats threatened many species. Thankfully, today we seem to understand the situation properly and the ecosystem is prioritized.

Flying to the Galápagos is bound to just two islands, San Cristobal and Baltra. Group size is limited and all visitors must be accompanied by licensed guides. Those fortunate enough to travel there seemingly encounter a paradise.

The volcanic islands are resplendent. And the wildlife is, obviously, one-of-a-kind. 

In the Galápagos, you might encounter the Marine iguana, the only species of iguana that hunts in the ocean. You could frolic with dozens of bird species, including the Flightless cormorant, the Blue-footed booby, and the Galápagos penguin. You might catch a view of the Galápagos sea lion. The list of unique critters is stunning. In the Further Reading and Exploration section below, I’ll link articles for your perusal.

If you have been fortunate enough to have visited this incredible location, please send me photos! For me, the islands will have to go on the bucket list. Enjoy these pictures and videos of the Galápagos Islands!

An aerial view of the islands
A juvenile Galápagos penguin - photo by Clark Anderson
The Blue-footed booby - photo by Getty Images

Further Reading and Exploration

The Origin of Species – by Charles Darwin (e-book version)

Galapagos National Park – official website

Galápagos Islands – UNESCO World Heritage Site

21 Famous Animals of the Galapagos – GreenGo

Darwin’s Finches – Galapagos Conservation Trust

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