The Galapagos Islands otherwise known a Archipielago de Colon are a group of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in both the northern and southern hemispheres in the eastern Pacific Ocean, 973 km off the west coast of South America. The closest land is Ecuador to which they belong. To the north is Cocos Island 720 km away, and Easter Island and San Felix Island to the South 3,200 km away.

The Galapagos Islands and its surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian Province, a national park, and biological marine reserve. The islands are geologically young, and are famed for their vast number of endemic, unusual, wildlife species. The main language is Spanish and there is a population of around 40,000.

The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his pirates or after English noblemen who helped his cause. Later the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands official Spanish names although many continue to use the older English names.

There are 18 main islands (with a land area larger than 1 square km).. The group consists of 15 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Located atop the Galapagos hotspot, a place where the Earth's crust is being melted by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The oldest island is thought to have been formed between 5 million and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed.

The Humbodlt current brings cold water to the islands, causing frequent drizzle year round. The weather is also influenced by the El Nino bringing warmer temperatures and heavy rains. Weather varies frequently between the islands depending on the season and altitude.

Europeans discovered the Galapagos when Spaniard Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the 4th Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. De Berlanga's vessel drifted off course and arrived on the islands on the 10th March 1535. Evidence of pots indicate that South American peoples visited prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but didn’t settle.

The Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers both before and after visiting the Offshore Grounds. This led to the establishment of a kind of unofficial "post office" for whaleships as well as stops for repairs and stocking up on provisions.

Ecuador annexed the Islands on the 12th February 1832, naming them the Archipelago of Ecuador. The first governor of Galapagos, General Jose de Villamil, brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana, and in October 1832, some artisans and farmers joined them.

When Charles Darwin (primarily a geologist) arrived he was impressed by the quantity of volcanic craters, later referring to the archipelago as "that land of craters." During his 5 week stay his study of several volcanic formations led to several important geological discoveries, including the first, correct explanation for how volcanic tuff is formed.

In the 1920's and 30's, a small wave of European settlers arrived on the islands. Ecuadorian laws provided all colonists with twenty hectares each of free land, the right to maintain their citizenship, freedom from Galapagos taxation for the first 10 years, and the right to fish and hunt on all uninhabited islands where they might settle. Descendants of the Norwegian Kastdalen family and the German Angermeyer still live on the islands.

During World War II, Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval base on Baltra Island, and radar stations in other strategic locations. Baltra was established as a US Air Force base and today, the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base.

The Galapagos became a national park in 1959, and tourism started in the 1960s, imposing several restrictions upon the human population of the islands. In the 1990s and 2000s, violent confrontations between the local population and the Galapagos National Park Service occurred, including capturing and killing giant tortoises and holding staff of the Galapagos National Park Service hostage.

The islands are administered by a provincial government. It was made a province on the 18th February 1973 and is divided into cantons, each covering certain islands. The capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Five of the islands are inhabited: Balta, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz.The largest ethnic group on the islands is composed of Ecuadorian Mestizos, mixed descendants of Spanish colonists and indigenous Native Americans. In 2006 estimates place the population around 40,000.

In the late 1950s positive action was taken to control the native flora and fauna. In 1959 the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a National Park, other than areas already populated. The Charles Darwin foundation was founded the same year to conduct and provide research findings to the government for the effective management of Galapagos.

In 1986, the 70,000 square kms of ocean surrounding the islands was declared a Marine Reserve, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. UNESCO recognised the islands in 1978 as a World Heritage Site and in 1985, as a biosphere reserve.

There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This rest are creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

Non-native animals and insects inhabit the islands today, destroying the nests of birds, land tortoises, and marine turtles, and sometimes killing small Galapagos tortoises and iguanas. Pigs are even more harmful, destroying the nests of tortoises, turtles and iguanas, as well as eating the animals' native food and knocking down vegetation in their search for roots and insects.

The Galapagos marine sanctuary is under threat from illegal fishing activities as well as other problems of development. The biggest threat to the Marine Reserve comes from illegal fishing targeting marine life within the Reserve. Development threatens both land and sea species.

Problems, including the growth of the tourism industry, local population growth and illegal immigration threaten the wildlife and destroy the habitats of the Archipelago.

It maybe that sometime in the near future steps will need to be taken to reduce tourism, and take further steps to protect the endemic species of the Islands.

Author's Bio: 

My name is Avril Betts, I am originally from England and now a Canadian Citizen, I have over 25 years experience in all aspects of Travel and Tourism, including running an online agency for over 13 years. I holds a CHA (Certified Hotel Administrator) an internationally recognized accreditation and in 1996 hosted the president’s wives luncheon for the G7 conference.

I have co-chaired Atlantic Canada Showcase an International Travel Trade Show, managed 450 volunteers for the Tall Ships Visit in July 2000, and was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia. In 1988 I founded the Country Inn Association in Nova Scotia still going strong today. I have been involved in numerous Travel and Tourism volunteer activities throughout Atlantic Canada and across Canada.

As an experienced speaker I have spoken and presented seminars to large and small audiences for many years on subjects ranging from Marketing and Sales and Life Skills to Tourism, Travel and Real Estate, and operating an online Travel business.

As a recognized tourism expert I am accustomed to working with tourists and passing on my knowledge of the various destinations to help them make the most of their vacations.
Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or travel inquiries.