Located approximately 560 miles or 900 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador lies a chain of islands that are like no other in the world.
These islands have been instrumental to our understanding of both biology and geology, and remain a place of intense scientific study today.
In addition to scientists, it draws tourists, photographers, and even podcasters, from all over the world.
Learn more about the Galapagos Islands and what makes them so special, on this Episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There are different lenses that we can look through to understand the Galapagos Islands. The first of which would be the lens of geology.
The Galapagos Islands date back at least 20 million years. They are the creation of what is known as a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle.
There are other notable hot spot island chains in the world that you are probably familiar with including the Hawaiian Islands and the Canary Islands.
A hot spot is a plume that comes up from the Earth’s mantle and comes through the Earth’s crust in the form of a volcano.
Due to the movement of tectonic plates, the plume will create different islands over time.
The metaphor which is often used is that of a conveyor belt. Imagine a conveyor belt that is moving over a stationary object that pops up and punctures it. As the belt moves, there will be a series of holes in the conveyor belt. Those holes would be islands created by the hot spot.
There are currently 18 major islands in the Galapagos Chain and the majority of the islands are located just south of the equator. The largest island, Isla Isabella, actually crosses the equator and there are two major islands north of the equator.
If you remember back to my previous episode on Darwin’s other theory, during his trip to the Galapagos he developed a theory on the development of coral reefs.
Basically, as an island is formed by a volcano, a fringe reef will develop around the island. Over a long period of time, the island will submerge and the reef will become an atoll which is basically a coral ring without an island.
Volcanoes in the Galapagos are still active and there have been eruptions as recently as 2022.
The major thing to note about the climate of the Galapagos is that the islands are quite arid. Given its location on the equator, there are really only two seasons. The warmer, dry season goes from December to June, and the Garua season which is a bit cooler and wetter which goes from July through November.
The Garua season is due to the Humbolt current bringing cold water up from Antarctica. This season is known for fog and drizzle.
As it is at the equator, these seasons aren’t as dramatically different as you’d see in other climates.
Human occupation and discovery of the islands have had a great deal of debate surrounding it.
We know that the first Europeans to discover the islands occurred in 1535. It was actually discovered by accident when the Bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute involving the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro.
When they arrived, they found no humans living on the islands.
This has been the debate for years. Did pre-Columbian humans arrive in the Galapagos?
If someone did, it would have been one of two groups: the Incas coming from the east, or the Polynesians coming from the west.
The Incas had no seafaring culture. There really is nothing that indicates they engaged in shipbuilding, let alone the ability to sail into the open ocean.
The controversy comes from a 1572 story by a Spanish historian that said that the second leader of the Inca Empire, Topa Inca Yupanqui, had visited the Galapagos.
The problem was that there was no evidence to support this story, nor has there ever been evidence found of a settlement on the island.
Likewise, the Polynesians did definitely have a seafaring culture and were the greatest open ocean navigators in the ancient world. However, none of the islands in the eastern Pacific were ever settled by Polynesians and there isn’t any evidence that they ever arrived in the Galapagos either.
In 1952, Norwegians Thor Heyerdahl and Arne Skjølsvold conducted an archeological dig on the island and found an Incan flute and pottery shards. However, they didn’t find any human remains or evidence of any construction.
Heyerdahl used this evidence to support his theory that the Pacific was settled via South America. A theory that was later debunked by DNA evidence.
A later study went back to the same dig site, re-excavated it, analyzed what was found by Heyerdahl, and used modern dating techniques. They found that the items were contemporary with the early Spanish.
If pre-Columbian humans did arrive in the Galapagos, they probably just washed up as survivors. It wasn’t a permanent settlement.
As for the Europeans who showed up, they really had no interest in the islands initially either.
The islands first appeared on maps in 1570 with the name “Insulae de Los Galopegos”, which just means “the islands of the tortoises”.
For the next 200 years, pretty much nothing was done with the islands. There were no obvious resources on the island, and there wasn’t much fresh water.
For most of this period, it was used by British pirates who were attacking Spanish ships.
It wasn’t until 1793 when the British naval officer James Colnett suggested that the islands could be used as a base for whalers in the Pacific.
This began the use of the Galapagos by whalers. Perhaps the biggest thing they did which impacted the island was hunting giant tortoises. They would hunt the tortoises for meat, and would often capture them and bring them on board their ships. The tortoises could survive for a long time without water, so they could be harvested for fresh meat well into their voyage.
This dramatically reduced the numbers of some species and might have even caused some to go extinct.
1832 was a major year for the Galapagos. It was formally annexed by the now independent nation of Ecuador. As part of the annexation, Ecuador appointed a governor and set over a small population to be the first settlers on the island. They took a page from the Australian playbook and used convicts in their first batch of people.
On September 15, 1835, the HMS Beagle arrived. The Beagle was on an around the world surveying mission and stayed in the Galapagos until October 20th. Of course, this voyage was made famous by a 22-year-old naturalist who was on board, Charles Darwin.
Darwin documented and popularized many of the endemic species found on the islands including the giant tortoises, land iguanas, and marine iguanas. However, it was his observations of the finches on each island that spurred his ideas which later found their way into his book The Origin of Species.
Throughout the 19th century, Ecuador tried to bring settlers to the islands, but it was never really successful. Economic activities that were attempted included fishing, collecting sea salt, and growing sugar cane. None of them really amounted to anything.
However, the people did bring domesticated animals with them that got loose on the islands. These invasive species caused an incredible amount of damage and many of them can still be found on the islands today.
In the early 20th century, Ecuador made several attempts to sell the Galapagos to raise money. Many countries expressed interest, but the biggest suitors were Chile and the United States. The American interest in the islands was as a military base to protect the Panama Canal.
Chilean concerns about an American base so close to their territory resulted in them pressuring Ecuador into not selling.
In the 1920s and 30s, a small group of European and American settlers came to the islands, enticed by very generous benefits offered by the Ecuadorian government.
They were given free land, tax benefits, and hunting rights. This migration established a more permanent population, but the numbers still weren’t huge.
During World War II, Ecuador allowed the United States to build an air base on Baltra Island, which later became the basis for Seymour Airport, which is one of the two airports in the Galapagos today.
After repeated attempts to make the Galapagos economically viable, the answer was finally found in 1959 when Ecuador established the Galapagos National Park, which encompasses 97.5% of the land.
With the establishment of the national park, the focus of the Galapagos changed. Economic development gave way to ecological preservation.
One of the biggest challenges was the elimination of non-native species. It is believed there are over 700 non-native plant species and only 500 native species.
One major problem has been the elimination of goats. Goats can devastate an environment by eating everything and they can live in large herds. One method of goat elimination that has been used is called judas goats.
Goats, if left to themselves, will gravitate to join other goats. What they do select a goat to be the judas goat, put a radio tracker on it, paint its back a bright color, and let them loose. They will then find a herd of goats and lead the extermination team to them. They will shoot the goats from a helicopter, making sure to avoid the judas goat.
They then rinse and repeat until all the goats are gone.
It isn’t just goats, however. It’s dogs, cats, pigs, insects, and a host of other creatures which have taken a foothold on the islands. There is still a lot of work to be done to remove the remaining invasive species.
The year after the establishment of the national park, formal tourism began to the Galapagos, however, it was quite small. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, a total of 271,238 visited the Galapagos.
The rise in tourism over the last several decades has corresponded with an increase in the permanent population of the islands. There are now an estimated 25,000 people who live in the Galapagos permanently. Most of them are involved directly or indirectly in the tourism industry.
In 1978, the Galapagos Islands were declared the first UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Galapagos not once, but twice. There really is no other place like it in the world. It isn’t like going on a safari in Africa. The animals aren’t as big, but they also aren’t as dangerous and they are more approachable, or rather, they aren’t afraid of humans, so they might approach you.
You can never be guaranteed to see wildlife, but between my two trips, I’ve seen land iguanas, marine iguanas, sharks, Galapagos penguins, Galapagos hawks, sea lions, assorted Darwin finches, blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, great frigate birds, and so much more.
If you visit, you can either stay on a ship, which is a more popular option, or you can take land-based day trips from one of the towns on the islands.
Getting to the Galapagos isn’t easy, but it also isn’t impossible. If you ever get a chance to experience it yourself, you will never forget it.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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