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Galápagos: An Evolving Story

Around five million years ago a series of violent volcanic events began in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles from the coast of South America. The result was an archipelago of rocky and barren islands inhospitable to life.

As these young islands were cooling off , animal species began to arrive and colonise. It’s speculated these newcomers floated across on large rafts of vegetation that broke o from the shores of Central and South America. Because the new islands were so far from the continental mainland, only the hardiest creatures could survive the journey, and no mammals were able to make it. Upon arrival, they had to rapidly adapt to what for them was a radically new environment. It was a case of ‘adapt or perish’.

These adaptations led them to evolve in an entirely new way, separate from their continental relatives. When Darwin visited, it led to him publishing his famed book about natural selection On the Origin of Species. The 19th century naturalist’s long-held suspicion that species were not immutable was confirmed, and he saw that they could evolve and adapt to challenging and diverse conditions. He viewed the archipelago as a ‘living laboratory’ and, to this day it’s regarded as one of the world’s foremost places for scientific research into evolutionary biology.

An unintentional discovery

The first person known to have set foot in the Galápagos Islands was the Spanish Bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga. An unexpectedly strong wind, together with the Panama Current, drove his ship towards the Galápagos, and when he stepped ashore in 1535, he found the land to be teeming with – as he saw it – creatures acting in a strange manner. “The birds here are so silly,” he later wrote to the King of Spain, “they know not how to flee.”

Pirates! The first visitors to the enchanted isles

Sometimes, the Galápagos Islands seemingly become invisible. Far from being mysterious, this is caused by a dense veil of fog. A fine mist – known locally as garua – forms when cool air above the water mixes with warmer patches. The islands will seem to magically appear as the mist evaporates, and just as quickly disappear again when the mist engulfs them once more. This unusual phenomenon is why they were nicknamed Las Encantadas, meaning the ‘enchanted’ or ‘bewitched’ isles.

These fabled vanishing isles began to be talked about by seafarers and, in 1570, a map of the Spanish New World was drawn up by a Flemish cartographer named Abraham Ortelius. The map circulated widely throughout the Caribbean and came to be used by buccaneers who turned their attention to marauding around the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s. The previously elusive islands were thus literally put on the map for the very first time and given the rather obvious name of Islas de los Galápagos – meaning ‘Islands of the Giant Tortoises’.

Later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, these sea pirates used the Galápagos as a safe harbour. Giant tortoises proved to be their ‘ideal’ meat as they could store them alive in their ships’ holds for months at a time. Unfortunately, the buccaneers killed thousands of these easily caught creatures, removing what is now known to be a key species for ecosystem health on the islands. What’s more, as far as we know, they left no buried treasure behind.

A dawning era of protection

Like the pirates before them, 18th century whalers had a terrible impact on the islands. Even more giant tortoises were killed, and furthermore they introduced animals such as rats and goats, with devastating effects for the native species. In fact, their damaging legacy would later serve as the basis for implementing strong conservation and restoration measures in the Galápagos.

By the 1920s, waves of Europeans arrived to live in the previously uninhabited isles, most of them from Norway. Later came waves from other countries, and in 1959 – exactly 100 years after the publication of Darwin’s book – the islands were declared a National Park by Ecuador. Soon after came the concept of responsible tourism to show off the archipelago’s beauty without harming its fragile ecosystems. The new ethos was to cherish and protect these unique isles – after all, having only washed up in the Galápagos less than 500 years ago, we humans are some of the most recent organisms to arrive!

Darwin's Finches

Darwin noticed that finches on specific islands had developed specialised beak to enable them to eat the different-sized seeds, leading him to ponder the driving force behind these adaptations.

New World Map

Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius first published maps of the New World in the late sixteenth century, giving seafarers the exact location of the Galapagos for the first time.

You’re the latest chapter

Visiting the Galápagos today is a lot easier for us than in times past. But unlike explorers in the ‘old days’ we aim to give something back. Much of the archipelago enjoys strong legal protection by UNESCO and the Ecuadorean government, and there are numerous projects to restore the native wildlife and ecosystems.

Other stories

Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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