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A Brief Galapagos History

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, some 600 miles west of Ecuador. Although the remains of potshards and other artifacts discovered in the 1950’s from several sites on the islands suggest visits by indigenous South American peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish, their first recorded discovery was on March 10, 1535, by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who happened upon them accidentally while sailing from Panama to Peru. In 1570, mapmaker Abraham Ortelius plotted the Galapagos Islands, calling them the Isolas de Galapagos, or “Islands of the Tortoises,” based on sailors’ descriptions of the many tortoises inhabiting the islands.

In 1793, James Colnett made a description of the flora and fauna of Galápagos and suggested that the islands could be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. He also drew the first accurate navigation charts of the islands. British (and later, American) whalers soon began to visit the islands regularly, killing and capturing thousands of the Galapagos tortoises as a source of fat and fresh protein for their voyages (the tortoises could survive for several months onboard ship without food or water). Along with whalers came fur-seal hunters who brought the population of this animal close to extinction.

Ecuador annexed the Galapagos Islands on February 12, 1832, and the first formal settlements in the archipelago were established. The first governor of Galapagos, General José de Villamil, brought a group of convicts to populate the islands, soon to be joined by some artisans and farmers. These early colonists set up small farms on Floreana and Santa Cruz, growing their own food and supplying vegetables to whaling ships.

The Galapagos Islands most famous visitor, the naturalist Charles Darwin, arrived on September 15, 1835, aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy. During the five week visit of the Beagle, Darwin and his companions conducted a scientific study of the geology and biology of Chatham, Charles, Albemarle, and James Islands before departing on October 20 to continue their circum-global expedition. As is now well known, Darwin’s observations and collected specimens from the Galapagos played a key role in developing his masterful insights into biological adaptation, natural selection and evolution.

During World War II, Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval and air presence on Baltra island and radar stations in other strategic locations. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the Pacific for enemy submarines as well as providing protection for the Panama Canal. After the war the facilities were turned over to the government of Ecuador and today the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base. In 1946 a penal colony was established on Isabela Island, but it was later closed in 1959.

In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a national park, exempting areas already colonized. It is administered by the Ecuadorian National Park Service to this day. Since the 1964 establishment of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, the Galapagos Islands have primarily become a site of scientific study and tourism. In 1986 the surrounding 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 sq mi.) of ocean was declared a marine reserve and 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.

At a time when nature and biodiversity have been severely degraded around the world, the Galapagos Islands still retain more than 95% of their natural biodiversity. They thus provide a unique opportunity to study ecological processes and to apply the basic principles of conservation biology and sustainable management to both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The Galapagos remain an open textbook for students of natural history and to those who wish to explore the role of science and policy in promoting conservation and sustainable development.