The Galapagos Islands – A Paradise Awaiting Your Discovery
Magnificent, intriguing and unforgettable, the Galapagos Islands is a delicate piece of heaven on earth. It is made up of 19 big islands and many smaller islands and islets. The Galapagos Archipelago consists of 8000 km2 of land spread over 45,000 km² of ocean. The size of the Galapagos as a whole is comparable to that of the Aegean sea. 97% of the land area and 99% of the surrounding water bodies are protected under strict environmental protection laws.
Being entirely isolated from civilization, the Galapagos Islands provide excellent habitats for animals and plants to thrive and flourish. Centuries of volcanic activity shaped the Galapagos Islands. Currently, there are five active volcanoes on Isabela Island and Fernandina Island. The latest eruption on Fernandina Island was in September 2017. The islands are situated near the Nazca plate and move 6 cm closer to South America every year.
The oldest islands in the archipelago are Española Island and San Cristóbal Island – they are more than 3 million years old. The youngest Galapagos islands are only 35,000 years old. The islands are situated at the equator and enjoy a warm and sunny tropical climate. However, the different seasons are subjected to strong weather fluctuations as cold and warm currents meet. As the cold Humboldt current from the Antarctic flows down to the meet the warmer Cromwell current from the equator, it results in cooler temperature from July to December. From January to June, the warm tropical Panama current flows from Central America into the archipelago, which warms up the Galapagos Islands.
The different currents are the reason behind the water’s teeming bio-diversity. There are over 500 species of fish, more than 50 types of sharks and rays and around 900 different shells, mussels and sea snails. With over 200 kinds of starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and crayfish, the underwater world at the Galapagos Islands is undoubtedly one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. The most famous and well-loved marine animals on the Galapagos Islands are the graceful turtles, brightly coloured marine iguanas, playful sea lions and fur seals.
Survival of the Fittest
Survival on the Galapagos Islands is no easy feat. Living on the isolated islands under harsh weather conditions can be a real challenge. That is why there are only a few species of invertebrate, birds and reptiles and almost no amphibians found on the islands. However, species that survive on the Galapagos Islands are unique to the islands and rarely seen anywhere else on earth. Unique wildlife includes marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, flightless cormorants to name a few. That is the magic of the Galapagos Islands.
In 1835, Charles Darwin spent 4 years and 9 months exploring the waters of the Galapagos Archipelago. He visited San Cristóbal Island, Floreana Island, Isabela Island and Santiago Island. He also studied the landscapes, plants and wildlife including the Northern Mockingbirds and the Darwin Finches, which contributed to the development of his famous theory of evolution. He published his findings in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. His results were one of the reasons the Galapagos Islands were declared as a national park by Ecuador in 1959 and the UNESCO listed it as a Cultural World Heritage Site in 1979.
Labour of Evolution
Even today, evolution on the Galapagos Islands is in full swing. Two American scientists have just been awarded for their research on Daphne Island, where a new subspecies of Darwin finches has emerged within two generations (50 years). The University of Braunschweig has also confirmed new species of marine iguanas on San Cristóbal Island. Various research projects are underway at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.
A Peculiar Beginning
The early settlement stories show how inhospitable and inaccessible the Galapagos Archipelago is for humans. Few could hold out in the harsh climate with very few sources of drinking water. Despite being discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, the first settlers only arrived in 1832 after the islands became a part of Ecuador. Stories about early settlers on Floreana Island (Dr Ritter, the Baroness with her three lovers and the Wittmers from Cologne, Germany) are packed with mystery and intrigue. Books about them are available, and they are worth a read.
An Unprecedented Success Story
The settlers brought along agriculture, pets and farm animals with them, which turned out to be destructive to the local flora and fauna. There were only 5000 tortoises left in the archipelago in 1959. Once the Galapagos Islands were declared as a national park by Ecuador, concrete plans were carried out to protect and preserve the archipelago. First came researchers and scientists and the national park was then opened to tourism. Tourism in the Galapagos Islands is carefully planned to ensure minimum impact on the local ecosystem. Money generated from tourism is also used to fund conservation and research projects on the islands.
Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now 20,000 tortoises living on the Galapagos Islands. Researchers have succeeded in repopulating subspecies by relocating them to islands such as Española Island and San Cristóbal Island. Even the Floreana tortoises which were considered to be extinct were revived through DNA reconciliation with domestic animals from the Wittmer family (a settler family). The successful repopulation of land iguanas on Santa Cruz Island and Isabela Island is an excellent example of what conservationists have achieved in the Galapagos Islands. Currently, pest control is a top priority, as pests such as Cottony-cushion Scales, are detrimental to both native and endemic plants.
The Galapagos Islands have one of the strictest environmental protection laws in the world, with continuous efforts to strengthen species protection and conservation. Over 200,000 domestic goats were shot as they were responsible for the declining tortoise population. The rat population was significantly reduced and their breeding season was halted with the use of poison baits. Other domestic animals and pets are rarely permitted on the Galapagos Islands as well.
Inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands
The right of abode is important for those living on the Galapagos Islands. During the declaration of the archipelago as a national park in 1959, there were only 6000 inhabitants on the islands which increased up to 35,000 inhabitants today. As the tourism industry booms with success, this attracted many people to the Galapagos Islands who subsequently decide to live permanently on the islands. This results in a substantial environmental impact on the islands. Therefore in 2010 and again in 2016, the law governing the right of abode was tightened again. Those who are not born in the Galapagos Islands or are without a working visa, are only permitted to stay on the islands for a maximum of 60 days per year. This law also applies for Ecuadorians. There are also laws and regulations in place to prevent international interest from taking over the archipelago. For example, only locals (Galapageños) with the right of abode are allowed to build hotels, operate cruises and own land in the Galapagos Archipelago. All nature guides on the islands must have the right of abode, and this has greatly reduced the number of ‘guest workers’ on the islands as priority is always given to locals.
How many tourists can the Galapagos Archipelago take in? Currently, there are around 1700 beds in hotels and cruises, and there are approximately 3200 beds in various accommodations on the islands. Therefore, only around 5000 tourists can visit the Galapagos Islands at the same time with a maximum of 260,000 people per year. The Galapagos law prohibits the increase in the number of available beds. With these existing laws and regulations, the Galapagos Islands remain a niche destination. The new Galapagos Act – in force since 2016 – stipulates that only visitors with fixed travel itineraries are permitted entry to the Galapagos Islands. This allows travel itineraries to adapt better to the nature, wildlife and peculiarities of the archipelago.
The provincial government of Galapagos, the national park and the cities make significant efforts to limit the impact that inhabitants have on the islands. They were successful in restricting fishing, and many fishers have found jobs in the tourism industry instead. Other measures include organisation of waste disposal, conversion of energy supply to renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar and biodiesel. Drink and utility water supply lines, as well as sewage treatment plants, are also renewed. Many countries and nations are interested in the Galapagos Islands, especially the United States, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, South Korea and many more. However, the Galapagos Islands are not sustained purely through economic motives. It is a constant strive towards finding a balance between environmental conservation and the tourism industry which funds conservation projects albeit its apparent ecological impact. It is not always easy, but it is a common goal that we all strive towards preserving this unique paradise.
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