But For the Sky
4Aug/11Off

Galapagos Introduction

The Galapagos islands are truly one of the most unique places on Earth, and we thought we'd start telling you about our 19 days there with this post, which I hope will describe some of the fascinating things we learned about the islands. I'll try to convey some of the excitement and awe we felt on understanding some of the unique features of the islands, while trying not to copy Wikipedia verbatim, nor remind you of cramming for high school science tests. Cool? Let's get started!

The Galapagos islands are an archipelago of 15 main islands centered around the equator, and 973 miles off the Ecuadorian coast. The islands were all formed by volcanic activity on the sea floor, and as a result have never been connected to any of the world's land masses. One interesting fact is that the Galapagos islands are over 20 million years old, but because the tectonic activity is constantly creating new islands and submerging old ones, the oldest islands that exist today are only 5-10 million years old (the newest ones are still being created; there was a volcanic eruption on Isabela in 2009 which added some land area).

Probably the most interesting thing about the islands is their extreme biodiversity. Because they were never connected to the mainland, and because they are so distant from it, they represent one of the closest examples of a closed ecosystem available on the planet. This is actually true in two ways: the islands as a whole contain many unique species, but also, the distance between the islands, and the variations in climate and environment between them mean that there are some species that are unique to one or only a handful of the islands. This is one of the most important reasons that the islands provided such a breakthrough for Charles Darwin in the development of his theory of the origin of species.

Let's get some terminology about the species living on the Galapagos out of the way. Species that are found in the Galapagos and nowhere else in the world are known as endemic. Species that were present before human habitation (in the early 1800s), but are also found elsewhere in the world, are called native. Finally, species that were brought to the islands by human colonists are called introduced, a subset of which species are called invasive if they spread aggressively, killing or limiting the reach of endemic or native species.

While we're talking about animals, here are some of our favorites, and some of the most important ones living on the islands:

  • Galapagos Land Tortoise - endemic and listed as vulnerable. The largest living species of tortoise (growing to almost 900 pounds and 6 feet long), they can live over 150 years. They are present on seven of the islands, and exhibit differences in the size and shape of their shells between the islands. Their population fell from the hundreds of thousands when humans first discovered the Galapagos, to 3000 in the 1970s, partly due to humans eating them for their easily accessible meat. In fact, we often heard that since they can live for weeks or months on little fresh food, they were often taken on-board ships as a source of fresh protein. Tortoise soup anyone? As a result of successful conservation efforts, there are around 20,000 tortoises living today. We visited tortoise breeding centers on three islands.
  • Land Iguana - endemic and listed as vulnerable. 5000-10,000 individuals thought to exist. Big and yellow; looks like a dinosaur.
  • Marine Iguana - endemic and vulnerable. The only species of iguana in the world that feeds in the sea.
  • Boobies - native and no concern for extinction. The source of ubiquitous t-shirts and many jokes between visitors to the islands, the Galapagos is home to three kinds of boobies: blue-footed, red-footed, and masked. The blue-footed variety are the most common and easily recognized. They are very curious and are easily approached when they're on the land. They also have an interesting mating display which involves waddling between their feet, presenting their wings, and much honking and whistling.
  • Galapagos Penguin - endemic and endangered. The third-smallest species of penguin in the world. Super-cute; can swim up to 40kph. The only species of penguin in the world that lives naturally in the Northern hemisphere.
  • Mockingbirds and Finches - four species of endemic mockingbirds and 14 or 15 endemic finches; no concern for extinction. While not striking in their appearance, these small birds are of great historical interest, as they were the first groups of species that Darwin noticed differed from island to island. This realization helped immensely in the development of his theory of the origin of species.
  • Sea Lions - endemic except for one other island off the Ecuadorian coast; endangered; 20,000-50,000 living. Incredibly cute and incredibly social.

One final point to make about the animals (and possibly the most important and unique thing about the islands) is that since humans are so recent an addition to the ecosystem, nearly all the animals have no instinctive fear of people. You may have heard this fact before, but there's nothing that can prepare you for how true it is. From sea lions swimming just a few inches from you, to birds cocking their heads at you from the carefully measured distance you are standing away from them, then coming closer to you of their own accord, to boobies, albatrosses, and iguanas walking, sleeping, and even nesting nearby or on the islands' walking trails, the animals present a truly incredible spectacle.

With such a wealth of diversity and natural beauty, what's being done to protect it? Noting that the islands' (human) inhabitants were beginning to impinge on the natural splendor, Ecuador, which claimed the islands in 1832, along with the Charles Darwin Foundation, began efforts to protect the wildlife and the unique environment in 1957. That year, the CDF was founded and 97% of the islands were designated as a national park (the remaining 3% encompass the ports and some other private lands, mostly used as small farms. The Foundation has devoted itself to researching unique and effective conservation methodologies for the islands, which are then implemented by the national park. In 1986, 27,000 square miles of sea around the islands were designated as a marine reserve (the only larger one in the world is that of the Great Barrier Reef), and they later became a whale sanctuary in 1990. In 1978, UNESCO designated the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site, and in 1985 as a biosphere reserve. In 2010, it removed the islands from its list of precious sites endangered by environmental threats or overuse.

The result of these conservation efforts is a vast national park and conservation area, but one that feels a bit different from the national parks in the United States that we're used to. I think one way to express the difference is that while the Galapagos may exert the same or a greater level of control over the actions of the visitors, it seemed less apparent (to me anyway; Claudia is free to disagree). While the US national parks for me evoke images of rangers in round, wide-brimmed hats and ubiquitous brown buildings and signs, the Galapagos parkland is free of all this infrastructure. Instead of large groups of servicepeople in the lodges and hourly ranger-guided hikes along paved trails with dozens of other tourists, our experience in the Galapagos was of much smaller groups being led (you're required to be with an official National Park guide all the time you're in the park) through extremely pristine environs. The Galapagos limits the land that visitors are allowed to visit to a few short trails or small beaches on each island, but these trails feel extremely natural: there are few signs posted, and no fences; the only demarcations are small wooden posts, though since the wildlife pays no attention to the trails or the wooden posts, they serve more as trail markers than as indications of where you are and are not allowed to walk. The result is that a trip to the Galapagos National Park evokes the feeling that you are truly experiencing a completely natural ecosystem, and that your presence is not harming or destroying it in any way. It is what every national park in the world should strive towards, and what most conservation areas attempt to present themselves as, when they are in fact quite different.

Stay tuned for the next post or two, when we'll be telling you about our experiences in these wonderful islands!

Posted by Nick

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