The Galapagos Archipelago is a cluster of some
13 volcanic islands and associated islets and rocks located
just under the equator, about 600 miles west of Ecuador in
South America. The oldest of the islands are about 4 million
years old and the youngest are still in the process of being
formed. Indeed, the Galapagos islands are considered to be
one of the most active volcanic areas in the world.
The islands were discovered by chance in 1535
when father Tomas Berlanga, the bishop of Panama sailed to Peru
to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants
after the conquest of the Incas. The bishop's ship stalled when
the winds died and strong currents carried him out to theGalapagos.
In his account of the adventure, he described the harsh, desert-like
condition of the islands and their trademark giant tortoises.
He wrote about the marine iguanas, the sea lions and the many
types of birds. He also noted the remarkable tameness of the
animals that thrill and delight modern visitors.
Following the bishop, the islands were rarely
visited and became the refuge for pirates and privateers preying
on Spanish galleons and coastal towns. Subsequently they became
the haunts of whalers and sealers. The biggest attractions to
these visitors were the fur seals and the giant tortoises. Tortoises
could be kept alive in the hold of ships for up to a year with
no food or water so, needless to say, the tortoise populations
were decimated. Each island has its own unique variety of tortoise
and the depradations caused the extinction of several and placed
most of the others on the endangered list. Today, the Pinta
island tortoise is survived by a single male, named "Lonesome
Charles Darwin was the first to make a scientific study of the
islands in 1835. He was a young student just out of university
and was the naturalist on a round-the-world scientific and geographical
voyage on board HMS Beagle (1831 - 1836). He had spent the previous
four years exploring the geology and wild-life of South America.
In later life, Darwin maintained that the Galapagos were the
source of all his ideas and research and, of all the visitors
there, the Galapagos are today most closely associated with
Today the Galapagos are owned by Ecuador and
are maintained as part of that nation's national park system.
About 95% of the islands are part of the park, with the remainder
being inhabited by about 14,000 people in four major communities.
The islands are jointly operated by the Galapagos National Park
Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station. The Park Service
provides rangers and guides, and is responsible for overseeing
the many tourists who visit each year. The Darwin Station conducts
scientfific research and conservation programs. It is currently
breeding and releasing captive tortoises and iguanas.