The name Galapagos is derived from the Spanish for tortoises, after the Giant Tortoises that inhabited the islands. These ancient creatures provided a crucial source of food for the pirates, fur traders and whalers who used the Galapagos as either a hide-out or a staging post as the tortoises were able to survive for a long time without food or water. Sadly this led to their numbers being decimated, with some species made extinct. Many of the islands were named after the pirates that first navigated them.Darwin’s Discovery
In 1835 a British ship, the HMS Beagle, came to the islands to survey potential harbours. On board was a young naturalist called Charles Darwin, who noted that some of the birds he observed, mockingbirds and finches, and the tortoises, seemed to be different from island to island. His theory on this, that the differences in species was down to a process of natural selection, would eventually become one of the cornerstones of his great work, which would eventually make him known as one of the world’s greatest scientists. Further, American, expeditions to study the islands’ geology and biology arrived in the early twentieth century.
National Park Status
Ecuador made the Galapagos Islands a national park in 1959, one hundred years after Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. The Charles Darwin Research Station was established on the island of Santa Cruz a few years later. Species including iguanas, boobies (popular with tourists because of their blue feet, as well as, of course, their name), the Giant Tortoises, sea cucumbers, sea lions, and tangers (popularly known as Darwin’s Finches) were now officially protected, and efforts to conserve the islands unique features could begin, not a moment too late.Threats
Various threats exist to the animals and plants on the islands, ranging from invasive alien species introduced over the years either accidentally or deliberately for a variety of reasons; oil spills; poaching; illegal fishing (arguments between park officials and inhabitants over sea cucumber quotas have turned violent in recent years); climate change, and tourism.
Tourism, of course, can be a great asset in boosting the income of local people and raising awareness of issues, but it can also have major drawbacks. In a location of such environmental sensitivity as the Galapagos Islands, it needs to be handled particularly gently to prevent serious damage being done. But that doesn’t mean no tourism should take place at all. The opposite, in fact.How to reach the Galapagos
For some time now small ship cruises have been operating in the islands, with passengers numbering from twenty to around one hundred. There are only a few sites open to the public, and not many of the islands are equipped, or permitted, to accept overnight visitors. But some small hotels are there, and these provide accommodation for groups of curious visitors every year. Some are scientists, some photographers or journalists, but most are just regular tourists, interested to visit this area of natural beauty and see what all the fuss is about.
It’s one of those places that it’s a shame not everyone will be able to experience – beautiful, fascinating, and fragile. If you ever get the chance to see the islands, take it, but remember what they say, and take only photos, leave behind only footprints.