Lying on the Equator, 970 km west of the Ecuadorean coast, the Galápagos consist of six main islands: San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, Santiago and Fernandina. There are also 12 smaller islands – Baltra, Santa Fe, Pinzón, Española, Rábida, Daphne, Seymour, Genovesa, Marchena, Pinta, Darwin and Wolf – as well as over 40 small islets.
The Galápagos have never been connected with the continent. Gradually, over many hundreds of thousands of years, animals and plants from over the sea somehow migrated there and as time went by they adapted themselves to Galápagos conditions and came to differ more and more from their continental ancestors. Thus many of them are unique: a quarter of the species of shore fish, half of the plants and almost all the reptiles are found nowhere else. In many cases different forms have evolved on the different islands. Charles Darwin recognized this speciation within the archipelago when he visited the Galápagos on the Beagle in 1835 and his observations played a substantial part in his formulation of the theory of evolution. Since no large land mammals reached the islands (until they were recently introduced by man), reptiles were dominant just as they had been all over the world in the very distant past. Another of the extraordinary features of the islands is the tameness of the animals. The islands were uninhabited when they were discovered in 1535 and the animals still have little instinctive fear of man.
Only the four populated islands (San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana) can be visited independently. All the other islands can only be visited on cruises. Galápagos has been called the greatest wildlife show on earth but it is neither a theme park nor an oceanside resort. In view of the high prices, a visit here is worthwhile only for those with a genuine interest in nature.
History of human settlement
The finding of fragments of ceramics suggests that the islands might have been visited by pre-Columbian sailors from the coast of Ecuador. They were uninhabited, however, when discovered accidentally by Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, in 1535. He was on his way to Peru when his ship was becalmed and swept 800 km off course by the currents. Like most of the early arrivals, Bishop Tomás and his crew arrived thirsty and disappointed at the dryness of the place. He did not even give the islands a name, although he did dub the giant tortoises ‘galápagos’.
The islands first appeared on a map in 1574, as ‘Islands of Galápagos’, which has remained in common use ever since. The individual islands, though, have had several names, both Spanish and English. The latter names come from visits by English buccaneers who used the Galápagos as a hideout, in particular a spot North of James Bay on Santiago island, still known as Buccaneers’ Cove. The pirates were the first to visit many of the islands and they named them after English kings and aristocracy or famous captains of the day.
The Spanish called the islands Las Encantadas, ‘enchanted’ or ‘bewitched’, owing to the fact that for much of the year they are surrounded by mists giving the impression that they appear and disappear as if by magic. Also, the tides and currents were so confusing that they thought the islands were floating and not real islands.
Between 1780 and 1860, the waters around the Galápagos became a favourite place for British and American whaling ships. At the beginning of the whaling era, in 1793, a British naval captain erected a barrel on Floreana island to facilitate communication between boats and the land. It is still in Post Office bay to this day.
The first island to be inhabited was Floreana, in 1807, by a lone Irishman named Patrick Watkins, who grew vegetables to trade for rum with passing ships. After two years he commandeered a lifeboat and a handful of sailors but later arrived in Guayaquil without his companions, who were never seen again. After his departure the Galápagos were again uninhabited for 25 years, but the bizarre episode set the tone for many more unusual colonists and nefarious events. Their story is told in The Curse of the Tortoise, by Octavio Latorre .
In 1832 Ecuadorean General José Villamil founded a colony on Floreana, mainly composed of convicts and political prisoners, who traded meat and vegetables with whalers. The same year, following the creation of the young republic, Colonel Ignacio Hernández took official possession of the archipelago for Ecuador. Spanish names were given to the islands, in addition to the existing English ones, and both remain in use. From 1880 to 1904 Manuel J Cobos ran a large sugar cane plantation and cattle ranch on San Cristóbal, notorious for mistreatment of its workers who eventually mutinied and killed him. The cruelty of prison colonies and slave farms like Cobos’ cast a dark shadow over human presence in the archipelago. There followed Norwegian fishermen and German philosophers, among others, many of whom met with some strange and tragic fate. Among the earliest colonists to endure were the Wittmer family on Floreana and the Angermeyers on Santa Cruz, whose story is beautifully told in My Father’s Island, by Johanna Angermeyer .
From these small and erratic beginnings, Galápagos has become the fastest-growing province in Ecuador, with average annual population growth in excess of 8% between 1990 and 2001. In an attempt to protect the islands, controls on migration from the mainland were imposed in 2000 but these are frequently circumvented. Projections based on the 2001 census suggest a total of almost 31,000 people in 2009. In addition, a large floating population of persons ‘temporarily’ working and living in Galápagos, often for many years, may not be reflected by official figures.
Human settlement is limited to 3% of the islands’ land area of 7882 sq km, and is concentrated in eight settlements. Two are on San Cristóbal with 7100 inhabitants, at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and a small village inland called El Progreso. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the administrative capital of the province of Galápagos and Ecuador’s second naval base. There are 21,000 people in three settlements on Santa Cruz – Puerto Ayora, the largest city and the main tourist centre, as well as Bellavista and Santa Rosa, which are two small farming communities inland. On Floreana, the longest-inhabited island, there are some 100 souls, most of whom are at Black Beach and on Isabela, the largest island, there is a community of 2600 mostly at Puerto Villamil and an agricultural zone inland at Tomás de Berlanga. Residents of the Islands, now into their third and fourth generation, call themselves residentes, Galapagueños or carapachudos. The latter literally means ‘those with a shell’, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the giant tortoises.
Evolution and conservation
Galápagos has unique marine and terrestrial environments. This is due to the continuing volcanic formation of the islands in the west of the archipelago and its location at the nexus of several major marine currents, among other factors. Their interaction has created laboratory-type conditions where only certain species have been allowed access. Others have been excluded, and the resulting ecology has evolved in a unique direction, with many of the ecological niches being filled from some unexpected angles. A highly evolved sunflower, for instance, has in some areas taken over the niche left vacant by the absence of trees.
There are formidable barriers here which prevent many species from travelling within the islands, hence a very high level of endemism. For example, not only have the tortoises evolved differently from those in the rest of the world, but each of the five main volcanoes on Isabela has evolved its own subspecies of giant tortoise. This natural experiment has been under threat ever since the arrival of the first whaling ships and even more so since the first permanent human settlement. New species were introduced and spread very rapidly, placing the endemic species at risk. Quarantine programmes have since been implemented in an attempt to prevent the introduction and spread of even more species, but the rules are not easy to enforce. There have also been campaigns to eradicate some of the introduced species on some islands, but this is inevitably a very slow, expensive and difficult process.
The human effect
The most devastating of the newly introduced species are human beings, both tourists and settlers. To a large degree, the two groups are connected, one supporting the other economically, but there is also a sizeable proportion who make an income independent of tourism by working the land or at sea.
While no great wealth has accumulated to those who farm, fortunes are made by exporters and fishermen in a series of particularly destructive fisheries: black coral, lobster, shark fin, sea cucumber and sea horse. Despite periodic bans which attempt to protect the affected species, clandestine fishing is always a problem. Each successive fishery is encouraged by foreign demand involving large amounts of money and fishermen have become an especially powerful lobby group, regularly demanding higher catch quotas and the authorization of new techniques.
It is, however, farmers who are responsible for the largest number of introduced species. These include elephant grass to provide pastures, the ani to eat parasites living on cattle (although in the Galápagos it prefers baby finches when it can get them), guava trees, which have become a plague on Isabela and, most recently, tilapia in El Junco lake on San Cristóbal.
Galápagos is also a victim of its success as a tourist destination. The prosperity achieved through tourism has created a strong demand for workers from the poorer mainland and hence fuelled rapid population growth. The rising number of inhabitants need more and more infrastructure: services such as drinking water, sewage systems, electricity, transportation, schools, hospitals, etc, all of which place a growing burden on the unique and fragile natural environment. There has been talk for example, of building a large desalination plant to provide additional fresh water for Puerto Ayora, which would require the importation of more diesel fuel for energy. The islands consume 5.7 million gallons of fuel annually and there have already been minor oil spills which, through good fortune alone, did not cause irreparable damage. With generous international financing, a wind-powered electric generating system was implemented on San Cristóbal in 2008, but even such an innovative effort is not without its environmental consequences, such as interfering with the local petrel population.
The number of tourists continues to grow every year: from 11,800 in 1979, to 68,900 in 2000, to 173,000 in 2008. There are fewer than 100 permits for tourist boats, ranging in capacity from eight to 100 passengers. No new permits are supposed to be issued but, as the cruise fleet nears capacity, growing land-based tourism is taking up the slack. Land-based tourism is not nearly as well regulated as the cruise vessels and has created a whole new set of issues and challenges. Activities such as sports fishing, which were previously unthinkable in Galápagos, have now become a shameful reality. In 2007 UNESCO placed Galápagos on its list of endangered World Heritage Sites and, despite efforts by the Ecuadorean authorities, the unenviable designation – and the danger to the islands – remains.
At least five different authorities have a say in running Galápagos – the islands and surrounding marine reserve. These include: 1) the Instituto Nacional Galápagos (INGALA), under control of the president of Ecuador, which issues residency permits; 2) the National Park Service (http://www.galapagospark.org
), under the authority of the Ministerio del Ambiente, which regulates tourism and manages the 97% of the archipelago which is parkland; 3) the Charles Darwin Research Station (http://www.darwinfoundation.org
), part of an international non-profit organization which, supports scientific research, advises other authorities regarding conservation, and channels funds for this purpose; 4) the Ecuadorean Navy, which patrols the waters of the archipelago and attempts to enforce regulations regarding both tourism and fishing; 5) local elected authorities including municipalities, the provincial council, and a member of the national Legislative Assembly, which – in principle – advocate the interests of the islands’ residents. There are also various other international NGOs working in Galápagos, each with its own agenda, and all of the above must work together, but since they represent very different sets of interests, this is seldom an easy task.