The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands, islets and coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean. Since the nineteenth century it has belonged to Ecuador, from which it is almost a thousand kilometers away. It is one of its provinces and is also home to the Galápagos National Park, the country's first national park to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
It is a place of unique nature with a rich collection of endemic species of flora and fauna. Of particular importance to the islands are the Galápagos giant tortoises, which gave the entire archipelago its name, because "galapago" means tortoise in Spanish - hence Turtle Islands.
It is located on the equator, and the islands that make it up are distributed on both hemispheres.
The area of the archipelago is 8010 square kilometers, and includes 13 islands larger than ten square kilometers, 19 larger than a few square kilometers, as well as many islets and coral reefs - there are 234 in total.
The largest of these is Isabela, with an area of 4588 square kilometers, making it one of the five largest islands in the archipelago. The other four are: Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Santiago and San Cristobal - these five islands cover 93.2% of the total area of the archipelago.
In 1832, when it was taken from Spanish possession, it became the property of the Republic of Ecuador. Administratively, the archipelago is the province of Galapagos, one of the country's twenty-four provinces. It consists of three cantons: Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. The capital of the province is Puerto Baqurizo Moreno on the island of San Cristobal.
In addition to the province, the Galapagos Islands include the Galapagos National Park, created in 1959 - Ecuador's first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
The islands that make up the archipelago are located on both sides of the equator, in both the northern and southern hemispheres (the volcanoes Wolf and Ecuador, located on Isabela Island, are directly on the equator).
The southernmost island of the archipelago is Espanola, and the northernmost is Darwin Island.
This is a geological area in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. The junction is where the Pacific Plate (the largest tectonic plate on Earth), the Cocos Plate and the Nazca Plate meet.
At the current rate of tectonic plate movement, the Galapagos Islands will collapse into the Peru-Chile Trench (a deep-sea trench in the eastern Pacific Ocean) in about 20 million years.
The islands that comprise it were formed by volcanic activity associated with the existence of the Galapagos Hot Spot (a volcanically active hot spot west of the Galapagos Islands, approximately 150 km in diameter). Lava flowing from the hot spot formed the Galapagos Islands.
The islands are mostly the summits of individual volcanoes (Isabel has six peaks). The Galapagos volcanoes are shield volcanoes, whose eruptions are not violent, with rare and very hot alkaline lava coming from their interiors. The world's largest shield volcano lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and its only visible remnants are the Gardner Pinnacles, two small rocky islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.
More than 50 volcanic eruptions have been recorded there since the beginning of the 19th century (in 2022 there was an eruption of the Wolf volcano, located in the northern part of Isabel Island).
The islands also have other traces of volcanic activity, such as fumaroles, lava tunnels, sulfur fields and pumice. A special feature of the Galapagos volcanoes are thousands of parasitic cones. There are about 2,000 of them on the slopes of the twenty largest peaks, and lava flows from many of them.
The discovery was accidental and is linked to Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire. The Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, was sailing to Peru to settle a dispute between the conquistador and his officers. A sudden change in the weather caused the ship to take to the high seas and after many days of drifting it landed on shallow waters. The peaks of the Galapagos Islands appeared before the sailors' eyes.
He was stranded on Floreana in the early 19th century after an argument with his captain. He lived on the island for two years until he was able to hijack a ship and sail to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city.
A French-Spanish general born in South America, Jose de Villamil, began to promote the settlement of the islands. He saw the economic potential of the Galapagos Islands in harvesting Roccella gracillis, a lichen used to make dyes, and convinced the president of independent Ecuador to take over the islands.
The Ecuadorian government granted the general the right to settle on Floreana. The first inhabitants were soldiers who had participated in an attempted coup in Ecuador - the islands became a penal colony.
Villamil established a settlement center and brought 80 settlers who tried to harvest lichen, but without success. Later settlers raised sheep, sugar cane and vegetables. They even built a sugar refinery. The colonial administrators proved to be tyrants who exploited the settlers, causing recurring rebellions.
In 1900, a group of Norwegians settled in Santa Cruz.
Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in September 1835 aboard the ship HMS Beagle and stayed there for five weeks. He studied the local fauna and collected many specimens, but did not recognize their uniqueness. It was not until he was in London that John Gould, an English ornithologist, drew his attention to the variety of birds now known as Darwin's finches.
From this voyage, which took place before he formulated the theory of evolution, Darwin brought back specimens of 186 species (97 of which were previously unknown), as well as detailed geological descriptions of the islands, which he compiled.
The reason for this was the construction of the Panama Canal, as the islands would have been the point of control for the canal traffic. Offers to lease the islands were made to Ecuador by the United States, Great Britain, and France, but Ecuador refused. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ecuador agreed to allow the United States to use Baltra Island as an air base.
As a result of the mutiny and harsh living conditions, both prisoners and guards died, and Ecuadorian authorities closed the prison.
In 1936, the Ecuadorian government declared the islands a national reserve, and in June 1959, the Galapagos Islands National Park was created. In the same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was established in Belgium to develop a research station on the islands to educate, prevent the spread of invasive species, and protect endangered species.
The Galapagos Islands did not open up to large-scale tourism until the late 1960s, when regular air service was introduced. At that time, the islands were home to more than a thousand people, and the population continued to grow.
The appearance of wildlife on them was only possible by sea or air. The islands are located at the confluence of several ocean currents that shape the environment and provide the best conditions for flora and fauna to thrive.
More than 80% of all land birds, 97% of all land reptiles and mammals, more than 20% of all marine species and 30% of all plants on the islands are endemic.
These tortoises, also known as elephant tortoises, live on seven islands. They are the largest living species of tortoise, with some specimens weighing up to 417 kilograms. Galapagos tortoises are among the longest-lived vertebrates, living more than 100 years in the wild (and up to 177 years in captivity). Their dorsal shell can be 150 centimeters long, and the largest individual found measured 1.87 meters.
It is likely that the tortoises of the Galapagos evolved from a common ancestor that was transported from the mainland by the Humboldt Current. Galapagos tortoises can swim, so it is likely that a fertilized female or pair of tortoises made their way from the mainland, perhaps on a floating platform made of tree branches.
It is very likely that the first tortoise swam to the island of San Cristobal and from there its descendants spread to the other islands of the archipelago. The original ancestor of the tortoises was probably of average size, and only the arrival in the Galapagos, where there were no natural enemies of the species, led to the development of gigantism. On each island, different subspecies evolved.
It is the only iguana that has adapted to life in the marine environment. This species, found only in the Galapagos Islands, is an exception among modern lizards and is a marine reptile with the ability to forage in the sea. It feeds on algae, which make up almost all of its diet.
Although it is found in large numbers, the marine iguana is protected and considered vulnerable, mainly due to El Niño cycles (a weather and oceanic phenomenon involving the persistence of above-average temperatures at the water's surface), predation, and accidental events (such as oil spills).
178 species of birds have been observed there, 56 of which are found nowhere else. Among the most outstanding are penguins, Darwin's finches, frigatebirds, albatrosses, gulls, guillemots, pelicans, Galapagos hawks, the flightless cormorant, which has lost its ability to fly, and the nearly flightless Galapagos corncrake.
More than a hundred species of birds in the Galapagos were discovered by Charles Darwin.
Feral goats were brought there by humans for agricultural purposes and have had a huge impact on the ecosystem. They are dangerous to the environment because they are voracious eaters and destroyers of habitat. They have no natural predators, which is why their population continues to grow.
Goats have had a huge impact on the tortoise population in the Galapagos, eating all the food and resources the tortoises needed, eventually leading to their extinction.
Lake El Junco is located on the island of San Cristobal, at an altitude of about 700 meters. It was formed in a caldera and has an area of six hectares. The lake gets its water only from rain.
The Galapagos hot spot is located to the west of the archipelago. Lava flowing from this location formed the archipelago. The location of the hot spot does not change, while the archipelago is gradually moving away from it (about 7 cm per year), which allows the formation of new islands in these places.
The islands in the eastern part of the archipelago are the furthest from the hot spot, so they are the oldest - their geological age is estimated at 3-6 million years. The western part of the archipelago was formed last, and the youngest islands are less than a million years old.