The Islands were originally known as Las Encantadas or bewitched islands. This was because of the strong currents that flow through and around them, making navigation difficult and also due to the gaura or mists making it difficult at times to tell whether it was the islands or the ship that was moving.

This name was in continued use by whalers and pirates for some time after the title of Galapagos was generally accepted when given by Abraham Ortelier in 1574 for the giant tortoises. Galapagos in Spanish is a saddle a reference to the shape of the shell of the saddleback tortoises found on some of the islands.

Galapagos Islands History

Ships Post
Letters from ships on long voyages would be left at this informal "Post Office" to be picked up by others heading back home.

Galapagos Landscape

Galapgos Tortoise

Galapagos Rock Formation

The Galapagos Islands were discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, bishop of Panama who drifted across them while on a voyage from Panama to Lima, Peru. There were no native peoples, though doubtless sea-faring races in pre-history had come across the islands, but kept on going for more hospitable places to build their communities.

Because of their isolation, the Galapagos quickly became a refuge for pirates and castaways. Treasures were buried, and stories grew up around them, by 1792, British whalers had reached the Galapagos and began to hunt for whales. Like many oceanic islands, the topography of the ocean floor suddenly sweeping upwards causes upwellings of deep nutrient-laden currents so resulting in a bloom of phytoplankton and then of animals that are a part of the food chain. The Galapagos are an excellent feeding ground for whales, with the Islands of Isabela and Fernandina being a calving area.

The whaling business was lucrative and unregulated, whalers took whatever they could until their holds were full. They also took giant tortoises from the Galapagos as living larders to provide fresh meat on the cruise. A typical whaling ship would take 500-600 giant tortoises in this way to be stored upside down in the holds to be slaughtered and eaten when fresh meat was needed. It is thought that the whalers caused the extinction of tortoise subspecies on the islands of Floreana, Santa Fe and Rabida. In total it is estimated that whaling ships removed 200,000 tortoises from the Galapagos.

One interesting relic of whaling days is still preserved on the islands, that is the whalers post-boxes. Whaling ships were away from port for usually at least 2 years and commonly more, so post-boxes were erected on islands where they might be seen by other whaling ships. Letters left in the boxes, often little more than a small barrel raised on a pole with a roof to keep the rain out, were left with a request that ships on their homeward journey would take the mail back with them and post them on arrival.

The whalers also caused further problems that would be around long after they left in the form of feral non-native animals. Black rats, cats, cattle, donkeys, goats, pigs and dogs are a legacy of whaling and other ships that called by. Sometimes the animals escaped, sometimes in the case of goats and pigs, they were deliberately let free to breed and establish a population that could be used for food by ship wrecked sailors in the future. These feral animals then competed with native fauna for food and habitat.

Author Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame) visited the Galapagos aboard a whaler and later wrote about this visit in the story The Encantadas in 1855.

The Galapagos were largely ignored and considered unremarkable except to the occasional ship's naturalist until Charles Darwin landed in 1835 aboard HMS Beagle. Darwin was at the time a young man who had embarked on the exploratory voyage while in the midst of studying for the clergy. The voyage and especially the experience and collection of animal specimens from the Galapagos led to the development and crystallization of a set of ideas that would lead to Darwin's theory of evolution. Surprisingly perhaps, when Darwin arrived at the Galapagos, he was more interested in their geology than biology, though this changed when he started to look at what there was to be found there.

What fascinated Darwin the most was the geographical isolation and distribution of species. In Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1845, he documented his epic natural history journey. His discourse on the subject of evolution was not published until 1859, when the first edition of On the Origin of Species emerged in England and forever changed the study of evolutionary biology.

There were two to three hundred people living on Floreana at the time of Darwin's visit, he wrote:

    "The staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship's company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach."

The Ecuadorian government used the Galapagos for penal colonies until the middle of the twentieth century. There were plans to further exploit the islands for their mineral resources such as coal and guano, but these foundered for the simple reason that there was insufficient for it to be viable. Salt was mined from a salt lake on Santiago and was used for salting locally caught fish and tortoise meat.

The oldest colony on the Galapagos was established on San Cristobal in 1869 and remains the seat of government in the Galapagos today. Other towns that are still in existence were established in the later years of the 19th century. Villamil on Isabela where coral was mined and burned to produce lime. Santo Tomas, 20 km inland also on Isabela was established to mine sulphur from the volcanic fumeroles in the area. These activities were supplemented by fishing and cattle ranching on the moist windward slopes of Sierra Negra.

Ecuador declared the Galapagos Archipelago a wildlife sanctuary in 1935. From about this time, eco-tourism began in the Galapagos, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited in 1938.

In 1942, the United States was permitted to construct a major air base on one of the islands, Baltra, to protect and defend the Panama Canal. After World War II, the United States returned this base and its airstrip to Ecuador. Legislation to protect the archipelago had begun in 1934, but war and politics prevented official protection to take place until 1959, when Ecuador established Galapagos National Park. In that same year, 100 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the Charles Darwin Foundation was established under the auspices of UNESCO and the World Conservation Union. The Foundation's stated goal is "to provide knowledge and support to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity of the Galapagos Archipelago through scientific research and complementary actions." To achieve this goal, in 1964 the Foundation opened the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz.

The principal partner of the Charles Darwin Foundation is the Galapagos National Park Service, the government agency that manages the National Park, and, since the passing of the Special Law for Galapagos in 1998, the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The Charles Darwin Foundation helped to establish the GNPS in 1968, and over the years, the Park-Station partnership has become a model for how conservation science and management can work together.

Ancient history of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos archipelago is a group of volcanic islands born from a meeting point of two submarine ridges, the Carnegie Ridge that runs westwards from South America and the Cocos Ridge that runs south from Central America. They meet at a point called the "Galapagos Hotspot" that itself is at a point on the northern ridge of the Nazca continental plate which moves east at around 2cm per year. The Nazca plate is responsible for pushing up the Andes mountains when it dips beneath the South American continental plate.

While the Nazca plate moves, the Galapagos hotspot is stationary. A series of volcanic events has made a series of islands which have then moved away from the hotspot riding on the Nazca plate, thus the oldest islands in the Galapagos group are to the east, while the youngest ones are to the west. This is similar in many ways to the Hawaiian islands, though the progression of ages is not as clear cut as in Hawaii.

The most western islands of Fernandina (1 volcano) and Isabela (6 volcanoes) are very volcanically active, major events have occurred in 1968, 1997 and 1998. These are huge shield volcanoes looking characteristically like upturned soup bowls, the calderas (volcanic cone that has collapsed back into the volcano) are several kilometers across and up to 1000m deep..

Most of the islands are the tips of large submarine volcanoes that reach and break the surface, though some are formed of uplifted undersea volcanic lava.

There are many evidences of the volcanic activity that built the Galapagos to be seen, different lava types, cones, craters, lava tubes and other artifacts of eruptions and of ongoing volcanic activity.

More on Galapagos geology