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Galapagos Islands   Equador

M.C. Seaman II

M.C. Seaman II M.C. Seaman II is a first class catamaran that began sailing the Galapagos Islands in January 2008. She is a luxurious catamaran offering ...

M.C. Seaman II Liveaboard

M.C. Seaman II Liveaboard Arriving on the Galapagos from Quito or Guayaquil normally occurs between 1 pm and 2 pm local time. After checking out at the a...

Galapagos


Natural History

Darwin’s Enchanted Islands, the Galapagos possess an untamed beauty and excitement, giving one the feeling of being in another world. Though mere specks in the Pacific Ocean, these stark volcanic islands have emerged as one of the most significant biological wonders on Earth. Due to their geographical isolation and relative youth, an unique and fascinating array of plant and animal life has evolved there, representing a crossroad in evolution. To visit the Galapagos is to take an incredible journey back in time, to the Age of Reptiles, before the ascendancy of mammals and man.

The Galapagos Archipelago consists of seven major islands (San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Isabela and Fernandina), six smaller ones (Darwin, Wolf, Pinta, Marchena, Genovesa and Baltra) and dozens and dozens of rocks and islets. Sometimes the smaller the island, the bigger the effect it has on the visitor. The archipelago stretches roughly 270 miles (430 km) from Darwin in the northwest to Espanola in the southeast.

The islands are truly remote and only recently have they felt the footsteps of man. The nearest land is Ecuador, on mainland South America, 600 miles (960 km) away to the east.

 

The islands themselves are the tips of mighty volcanoes that, 1 to 3 million years ago, rose 10,000 feet (3,000m) from the ocean floor to pierce the undulating surface of the Pacific Ocean. The islands today remain one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet. Visitors are often overwhelmed by the stark barren otherworldly look of the islands with their vast inhospitable flows of lava, baking in the hot equatorial sun. Darwin himself compared them with “the cultivated parts of the infernal regions.” But on closer inspection, life is expanding into every foothold and crevice, revealing its tenacity and a bit about how these islands were first colonized. And the higher elevations of some of the larger islands are covered with a green carpet of lush vegetation, though often interrupted by a raw steaming volcanic crater.

Even though they lie directly on the equator, the islands are bathed by cold, deep ocean currents: the Humboldt, South Equatorial and the Cromwell, which make for cooler than tropical dive conditions. The marine life of the Galapagos is especially prolific. The combination of cool upwelling waters in some locations and warm tropical waters in others permits an incredible diversity and abundance of marine life. In the Galapagos waters 270 species of fish exist. Nearly a quarter of them are endemic, which means that they are found only here.


Man’s Intrusion

While Darwin may be the Galapagos Islands’ most famous visitor, the islands were first discovered in 1535 when a Panamanian bishop’s becalmed ship drifted there en route to Peru. He was not impressed. Whalers and pirates soon became regular visitors, helping themselves to water when they could find it and filling their ships’ holds with huge land tortoises whose longevity would provide fresh meat after months at sea. The Galapagos were annexed by Ecuador in 1832, and given one of their many names; “Archipelago del Ecuador.” They are also known as the Enchanted Islands (the “Encantadas” or “Bewitched Islands”). Strong and variable currents and winds made early navigation hazardous. Few of today’s visitors realize that the official name of the islands is “Archipelago de Colon,” so bestowed in 1892 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ (Cristobal Colon) discovery of the “New World.” But to all they remain the Galapagos Islands, Islands of the Tortoises; named for the huge lumbering land tortoises that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The confusion of names continues down to the individual islands. Many go by two or even three names; Spanish, English and whatever. So Floreana Island is also called Charles (after King Charles II), but its official name is Santa Maria.

 

Various and colorful attempts of human colonization date back more than 200 years. Most failed. Remember, these are inhospitable lava islands with no water. However, in the last 20 years the resident population has grown. Many first-time visitors are surprised to find permanent settlements, having anticipated some kind of naturalist’s Disney World. However, only four islands (Isabela, Floreana, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal) have any kind of settlement. The rest of the islands are as uninhabited today as they were in Darwin’s time. The Galapagos Islands have been an Ecuadorian National Park since 1959 and in 1979 was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Darwin’s one visit aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835 lasted five short weeks and encompassed only four islands. His “Origin of Species,” published in 1859 put forth the concepts of natural selection and evolution. He grasped the fact that because these very remote islands were so recently “new and sterile” (when they first emerged from the ocean), that the many unique, but related, species of animals he encountered had to have evolved and differentiated from just a few colonizing species. His astute observations changed the way we view the world. One of the neat things about today’s Galapagos is that visitors, with a little prompting from their naturalist guide, can observe the same phenomenon, such as the differentiation of finch (the bird) species from island to island, that led Darwin to his landmark conclusions.

© M.C. Seaman II

Ecuador straddles the equator, from which it takes its name, and has an area of 272,046 km2 (109,483 sq mi). Its capital city is Quito, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 1970s for having the best preserved and least altered historic centre in Latin America. The country's largest city is Guayaquil. The historic centre of Cuenca, the third largest city in the country, was also declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, for being an outstanding example of a planned inland Spanish style colonial city in the Americas. Ecuador is also home—despite its size—to a great variety of species, many of them endemic, like those of the Galápagos islands. This species diversity makes Ecuador one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world.