Galápagos: An Evolving Story
Around 5 million years ago, a series of violent geological events occurred hundreds of miles off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean. An area of hot mantle in the Earth’s crust erupted, spewing wave after wave of lava. These built up to form volcanic islands poking up above sea level. The process lasted several million years, resulting in an archipelago of rocky, 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 trying to navigate toward the Peruvian coast from Central America on an apostolic mission. An unexpectedly strong wind, in combination with the Panama Current, drove his ship toward the Galápagos Islands. When he stepped ashore, he found the land to be what he viewed as 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. Often they’re covered by a dense veil of fog. A fine mist (known locally as garúa) forms when cool air above the water mixes with warmer patches. The islands will seem to magically appear as the mist evaporates and disappear just as quickly 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. These previously elusive islands were therefore literally ‘put on the map’ and received the rather obvious name of Islas de los Galápagos (meaning ‘Islands of the Giant Tortoises’).
Later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates used the Galápagos Islands as a safe harbor. 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 the health of the islands’ ecosystem. To add insult to injury, they didn’t leave any buried treasures behind (as far as we know).
A new era of protection
Like the pirates before them, 18th-century whalers had a terrible impact on the islands. Even more giant tortoises were killed. They also introduced animals such as rats and goats, with devastating effects to the native species. Their legacy was so damaging that it later served as the basis for implementing strong conservation and restoration measures in the Galápagos Islands.
By the 1920s, waves of Europeans arrived to live in the previously uninhabited isles, most of them from Norway. Later, others came in waves from other countries. In 1959, exactly 100 years after the publication of Darwin’s book, Ecuador declared the islands a national park. This ushered in 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 the latest to arrive!
Write you own chapter in this story
Visiting the Galápagos today is a lot easier than in times past. Unlike explorers of the past, we aim to give something back on our visit to these remote and beautiful islands. Much of the archipelago enjoys strong legal protection by UNESCO and the Ecuadorean government. There are also numerous projects to restore the native wildlife and ecosystems. So, of course, our visit will be as low-impact as possible.