Located 600 miles west of Continental Ecuador and on the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are perhaps the most precious treasure humankind has in terms of ecological, wildlife and evolutionary studies. This claim is validated by UNESCO’s declaration of the isles as “World Natural Heritage” and by other scientific studies.
But why are these islands so important to humanity, or why should anyone visit them? Not only are these islands attractive for their volcanic origin and their magnificent beauty, but also, as mentioned before, because of the story they encrypt about the evolution of the species on the planet. Charles Darwin formulated his theories based on his differentiation studies of species from island to island, noting how resource and geographic endowments affected their adaptation and evolution.
Yet what is more striking to visitors and scientists alike is the behavior of the species towards humans. Where else in the world will you have birds approach you and play around your feet without fear? Or have the chance to swim freely with sea lions, snorkel for hummer head sharks, or scuba dive with timid whale sharks. In fact, the Galapagos are a marine paradise, which can claim to be the best place in the world for snorkeling and diving.
The Galápagos Islands (Spanish name: Archipielago de Colon or Islas Galápagos) are an archipelago made up of 13 main volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The very first island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago, a result of tectonic activity.
The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in 2005. The islands are distributed around the equator, 965 kilometers (about 600 miles) west of Ecuador (recently found to have 3 volcanoes in the center island, all of them active)(0° N 91° W).
The Galapagos are famed for their vast number of endemic species and the studies by Charles Darwin that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. Though the first protective legislation for the Galapagos was enacted in 1934 and supplemented in 1936, it was not until the late 1950s that positive action was taken to control what was happening to the native flora and fauna. In 1955, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature organized a fact-finding mission to the Galapagos.
Two years later, in 1957, UNESCO in cooperation with the government of Ecuador sent another expedition to study the conservation situation and choose a site for a research station. In 1959, the centenary year of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a national park, excepting areas already colonized.
Its primary objectives are to ensure the conservation of unique Galapagos ecosystems and promote the scientific studies necessary to fulfill its conservation functions. Conservation work began with the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in 1964.
During the early years, station personnel carried out conservation programs, such as eradication of introduced species and protection of native species. Currently, most resident scientists pursue conservation goals; most visiting scientists’ work is oriented towards pure research. When the national park was established, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people called the islands their home.
In 1972 a census was done in the archipelago and a population of 3,488 was recorded. By the 1980s, this number had dramatically risen to more than 15,000 people, and 2006 estimates place the population around 30,000 people. In 1986 the surrounding 70,000 square kilometers (43,496 sq. mi.) of ocean was declared a marine reserve, second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. In 1978 UNESCO recognized the islands as a World Heritage Site, and in 1985 a Biosphere Reserve. This was later extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve.