One hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador are the Galapagos Islands, one of the most sought-after locations for underwater photographers and deep-sea divers. The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago composed of 13 main islands, six smaller islands of which one, Fernandina, the youngest is still being formed. Others are Santa Cruz, Espanola, Marchesa, Culpepper, Isabella, Pinta, Genovesa, Sante Fe, Santo Cristobal, Bartolome, Seymour Norte, Floreana, Pinzon, Rabida and minor island like Daphne, South Plaza Island and Nameless Island, a favorite of scuba divers.
Islands of Spanish Influence
The history of the Galapagos Islands began when the fourth Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, was sent to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro, the famed seafaring adventurer, and his men. de Berlanga veered off course and he and his crew landed in March 1535 on the Galapagos, though the islands were not charted on maps until 1570. Owing to this early history is the influence of the Spanish throughout the Galapagos where the prevailing language remains Spanish.
The First Galapagos Explorer
In 1793, James Colnett, the first Englishman on the Galapagos explored the islands and began to catalogue his findings of flora and fauna. Of the native species that inhabit the Galapagos Islands, marine iguana, land iguana, sea cucumbers, Green Turtles, Sally lightfoot crab and seal comprise much of the land bound creatures that roam freely. The Giant Galapagos Tortoise is a virtual icon of these islands. Birds such as the albatross, the Galapagos Penguin, cormorants, hawks, frigates and blue-footed Booby capture the attention of tourists and ornithologists alike. When it comes to the flora of the Galapagos, there are over 500 native species.
Tropical Climate Amid Marine Beauty
Here in the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean, strong ocean currents from the southeast create surprisingly cold water temperatures, considering the warm tropical climate of the islands. Deep within its labyrinth lies sea life like no other on the planet. There are scorpion fish, with gaping jaws and venomous spines that appear like menacing spokes and bulls eye puffer fish among the colorful array of marine life. Deep sea divers particularly like night dives when nocturnal sea creatures make their appearance.
Exploration of the Galapagos began with Colnett; but, many other explorers, notably Charles Darwin, with interests in zoology, herpetology, geology, botany descended upon the islands collecting volumes of information on fossils, animal life, insects, fish and other native species. The Galapagos has also been the setting for many documentaries, books and movies, among them an expedition headed by scientist Carol Baldwin of the Smithsonian Institute.
Cueva de Kubler
Among the breathtaking sites on the Galapagos is Cueva de Kubler on Santa Cruz Island. Located here is a 3.5 million year old lava tube into which molten lava poured. On Espanola Island, large waves force their way through fissures in lava rock creating 60 foot high plumes of seawater that erupt every 30 seconds just at the tip of the shoreline. It’s also on this Galapagos Island that divers content themselves with death-defying dives into an underwater lava tube. When Cerro Azul erupted, the volcano on Isabela Island, it spewed forth a river of molten lava and flames across the island.
The temperatures on the Galapagos Islands vary from rainy to hot to cold from June to November. Rainfall is dependent on the islands’ varying altitudes. Most of the terrain on the islands is naturally rocky. Espanola Island is the oldest at 3.5 million years.
Protecting Galapagos Treasures
The natural environment of the Galapagos has suffered over the years. Exploration as well as non-endemic plants and animals brought to the islands over the years have had a destructive effect ecologically. As a result of overkill in the 1700’s, many of the giant tortoise species became extinct. Seal hunters who prized the fur of Galapagos seals also diminished the population of these native creatures making them nearly extinct.