The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands along the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, 563 miles west of Ecuador. The islands are known first and foremost due to Charles Darwin’s studies which helped form the theory of evolution and natural selection. They are considered one of the world’s foremost destinations for wildlife-viewing. Its isolated terrain shelters a diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. The Galápagos Islands and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos Province of Ecuador, the Galápagos National Park, and the Galápagos Marine Reserve.
Volcanic activity has been continuous on the Galápagos Islands for at least 20 million years and perhaps even longer.
The Galápagos Island group consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. While the older islands have disappeared underwater as the sea levels rose, youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed. During the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009 lava from the volcanic island Fernandina started flowing both towards the island’s shoreline and into the center caldera. Two of the main islands that are worth the visit are Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island
Given the name of the Holy Cross in Spanish, its English name derives from the British vessel HMS Indefatigable. It has an area of 381 sq miles and a maximum altitude of 2834 ft. Santa Cruz hosts the largest human population in the archipelago, mostly in the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are located here. The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding center (Called the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, naturally :D) where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer exuberant flora, and are famous for their lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here most notably in Black Turtle Cove. It is surrounded by mangroves, which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also here, and along the trail one may see iguanas foraging. Visiting Charles Darwin station and The Giant Tortoises Breeding Centre is one of the highlights of my visit.
Isabela (Albemarle) Island
This island was named in honor of Queen Isabela. With an area of 1,792 sq miles, it is the largest island of the Galápagos. Its highest point is Volcán Wolf, with an altitude of 5,600 ft. The island’s seahorse shape is the product of the merging of six large volcanoes into a single land mass. On this island, Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanoes of Isabela, land iguanas and Galápagos tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin finches, Galápagos hawks, Galápagos doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the southeastern tip of the island. It is the only island to have the equator run across it. It is also the only place in the world where a penguin can be in its natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere. Isabela Island is great to visit if you only have limited amount of time on the islands. Here you can snorkel in the Lava Tunels with white tip sharks and giant marine tortoises, observe Galapagos penguins and Blue Footed Boobies and explore another giant tortoises breeding center. We spent about 4 days here but if we had the chance, I would definitely have stayed longer. Just walking down the beach is an adventure as you stumble between marine iguanas and giant crabs. In the nearby lagoon on the way to the breeding center, you can observe several flamingos. Besides the obvious wildlife watching tours you can always go hike Sierra Negra Volcano and learn little bit more about the volcanic creation of these islands.
In 1959, the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a national park, excepting areas already colonized. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded the same year. Several species found only in the Galapagos are sadly endangered. These include Galápagos land and marina iguanas, Galápagos penguin, Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Flightless cormorant, Blue-footed booby and Galápagos sea lion.
Introduced plants and animals, such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, brought accidentally or willingly to the islands by humans, represent the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce and with no natural predators, these foreign species decimated the habitats of the indigenous wildlife. The native animals, lacking natural predators on the islands, are defenseless to introduced predators.
There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them. These plants have invaded large areas and eliminated endemic species in the humid zones of San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz. Some of the most harmful introduced plants are the guayaba, avocado, hill raspberry, various citrus (orange, grapefruit, lemon) and the elephant grass.
So if you ever visit these amazing islands, just remember that Leave No Trace rules apply here. With so many tourists visiting each year, it is very hard for the locals to protect the fauna and flora. Oh and don’t try to smuggle iguanas and penguins outside of the islands (this actually happened) , you will get caught!