The Galapagos Archipelago is located on both sides of the equatorial line approximately 970 km (600 miles) west from continental Ecuador. Local time is -6 GMT. It is formed by thirteen greater islands, six smaller islands, 42 islets and several rocks, which cover a total area of 7,850 km². The largest island is Isabela, with a total area of 4,590 km² which presents the highest point of the archipelago, volcano Wolf, 1,690 meters. 97% of the total area of the isles belongs to the Galapagos National Park, the rest belongs to inhabited and developed areas like the island of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana, in addition to Baltra an island occupied by the Ecuadorian Armed forces. The Galapagos Archipelago is also a province of Ecuador, whose capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on the island of San Cristobal. Puerto Ayora, on the island of Santa Cruz, is the city with the highest tourist activity. The islands total population including floating population is around 16,109 inhabitants.
The Isles were formed around 4 or 5 millions years ago as a result of volcanic eruptions, emerging from the ocean surface. Today, the Galapagos are considered one of the most active volcanic island groups in the world. Many islands are only the tips of some volcanoes and show an advanced state of erosion, others are completely immersed. Recent eruptions as the Marchena in 1991 or Fernandina in 1995, are evidence that the other islands are constantly forming. Other islands like Baltra and North Seymour, have evidence of having been formed by tectonic movements, in which the bottom of the ocean was pushed towards the surface.
The Galapagos Islands form the most diverse and complex Archipelago in the world, in which the conditions remain relatively untouched. Due to its distance from the continent and because it was never attached to it, the existent flora and fauna evolved extraordinarily up to what they are today and have remained unchanged until man arrived to them for the first time. The species of plants and animals inherent to the islands didn't have any predators for thousands of years of evolution, for which animals show no fear in the presence of humans and other animals. This is what makes Galapagos such a very special and fascinating place and of so much interest for science, tourism and photography. Visitors will never forget this experience with nature.
Meanwhile, this same particularity is the cause of its delicate and fragile balance, thus the importance of the control of the introduction and spreading of foreign species, as well as a strict tourism control and other extractive human activities such as fishing. The management and protection institution on the isles is The Galapagos National Park with the collaboration of entities, as Charles Darwin Foundation and others.
The wild life is made up mainly of birds, mammals and reptiles. There are no amphibians in the Galapagos. Its rich marine life makes this place an incomparable place and is one of the most important scuba diving destinies in the world. At present, the animals introduced many years ago by settlers, as goats, pigs, donkeys, dogs, cats and rats which, having no competitors they have expanded, becoming one of the main problems for the conservation of the islands fauna. The same occurs with plants, thus, the institutions involved in conservation are also taking care of control and extermination of plants and animals.
Although located on the equator, the Galapagos Islands are not always humid and hot as other equatorial regions, due to its location on the Pacific dry area, where temperatures keep low par of the year by the influence of the Humboldt cold current coming from the Antarctica. This very particular air cooling phenomena, together with the Southeast Trade winds and occasionally the Niño influence, produce two climatic seasons in the year. The rainy season from January to May, distinguishes itself by hot temperatures between 23° and 27°C on sunny days. The ocean is warmer and quite calm. This season can present rainy periods, which are generally scarce, but there could be years which present excessive rain, like the ones provoked by the El Niño phenomenon.
The cold season from June to December, with temperatures that decrease to at least 19C, is mainly provoked by the cold Humboldt current. The cold water makes the air temperature descend, bringing a rough wind with a wet mist and presents cloudy skies for several days. The cold season is generally dry, although a slight drizzle is present on high areas, which keeps them always humid. The result of this is that 7 different vegetation areas can be found on the bigger islands with altitudes higher than 500m, and each one of them with their own micro climate. The southern currents also bring large quantities of plankton, which together with cold water, provoke a distinct increase in marine life.
On March 10, 1535 Father Tomas de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama accidentally got drifted away from the established route while travelling to Peru and discovered the isles when stopping to get water and food. This is considered the official discovery of the Archipelago.
Galapagos appears for the first time on a map in 1570, with the title of "Galopegos Insulae". Towards 1593-1710 it becomes refuge and operation center for British and American pirates, who used the giant tortoises as food. Around this time, towards 1684, the pirate William Ambrose Cowley draws the first map of the isles, using names honoring British monarchy. Right after this American and British whalers and sealers arrived and used them as food supply, endangering the giant tortoise by capturing them by the thousands and also decimating the seals and sea lion populations. On February 12, 1832 Colonel Ignacio Hernandez took official possession of the isles on Floreana and claimed them in the name of Ecuador calling them, "Archipielago del Ecuador" and giving them Spanish names. Three years later Charles Darwin arrives aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, which remained on the Archipelago for five weeks, from September 15 to October 20, 1835. During this period the young naturalist visited the isles of San Cristobal, Santiago, Floreana and Isabela. His writings and observations on the flora and fauna of the isles helped him to formulate his theory about the evolution of species and in 1859 he publishes his famous book on the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
In 1892, the Galapagos are given their official name of "Archipiélago de Colón", reason for which some isles have at least two different names. During the Second World War, the US leased the islands from Ecuador for the duration of the war and built a military base in Baltra where they remained until 1948. On July 4, 1959 the Government of Ecuador declares all the Galapagos areas which have not been colonized as National Park and establishes its limits. The same year on July 23, the Charles Darwin Foundation is created, and the scientific station which carries the same name is inaugurated in l964. In 1978 the UNESCO declares Galapagos "World Natural Heritage".
During the late 60's tourism starts on a higher scale with a boom in the late 70's. With it, the population increases on the isles. Up until 1998, this increase was estimated in 8% annually, which caused strong pressures over natural resources, increased the danger of introduction of non-native species and created problems related to land, basic services and food requirements. Today, with the creation of "Special Regime for Conservation and Sustainable Development Law of the Province of Galapagos" and later the signature for the general regulation application of the same law, which hopes to put an end to the greater part of threats which the park confronted.
The isles land ecosystems cannot survive without a parallel protection from the adjacent marine environment, and due to this on March 18, 1999 the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created. Its limits are 40 miles, taken from the base line of the external isles of the Archipelago, making this the second largest marine reserve in the world.
This area represents extraordinary biological characteristics, due mainly to ocean currents coming from tropical and subtropical regions which converge in the isles, bringing animals from all over the Pacific and part of the Indo - Pacific, creating great bio-diversity and at the same time producing a curtain of genetic isolation. These current temperatures also contribute with the variety of marine ecosystems. Due to this, there exists a 23% of endemic species and it is also a refuge of endangered species of reptiles and marine mammals, like turtles and whales which find in the Archipelago its main reproductive space.
The Galapagos Archipelago is one of the most fascinating places in the world to carry out snorkeling and scuba-diving. It has been declared one of the seven underwater wonders of the world by CEDAM and Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine in its January 2000 edition which places it as the number one diving destiny in the world. Its waters offer the opportunity to observe its flora and fauna, coral reefs, whales, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, mantas, manta rays, turtles, iguanas, hundreds of different species of fishes and many others which would make the list endless. One of the most fun experiences is to dive or swim with the playful sea lions, which seem to have more fun with our presence in the water.