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The Galápagos Islands: An Unspoken Wonder of the Natural World

Photo by Whitney Ashby

Several years ago, I took a trip to the Galápagos as a part of a humanitarian trip to Ecuador. Being the rather stereotypical teenager that I was, I did not fully appreciate how rare, beautiful, and interesting the environment was. Looking back, I am fascinated by how the islands teem with rich and unique biodiversity and history. This world-favorite attraction remains a beauty and a wonder to all who visit.

Located about six hundred miles from the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands were accidentally discovered by Fray Tomás de Berlanga in 1535 on his way to Peru. He recorded the incredible wildlife he saw there, such as tortoises, sea birds, sea lions, iguanas, and cacti.

Later, in 1835, Charles Darwin traveled to the islands and conducted the first scientific study of the ecosystem. He made numerous observations and discoveries—one of which, “Darwin’s finches,” was named after him. Darwin’s studies in the Galápagos Islands led to the creation of his famous written work, The Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Photo by Whitney Ashby

The Galápagos Islands are a wonder to science because they are a natural case study of a unique environment. The islands are somewhat remote, are located on the sunny equator, and were recorded by Berlanga as having inhospitable terrain with a lack of drinkable water. These features contributed to the survival and evolution of native species, as discovered by Darwin. However, the Galápagos we know today is not in its natural state. Over the years, the visiting scientists, pirates, fishers, colonizers, and tourists have brought with them over 1,400 new species. This vastly changed the environment itself as the new species interacted with native ones.

By the 1930s, multiple scientific institutions began to be concerned for the preservation of the islands. Various laws and tariffs have since been put into place, but there is still cause for concern. According to the Galápagos Conservancy, “Invasive species, climate change, overfishing, and the impacts of human activity have altered the fabric of Galápagos’ ecosystems. Our efforts to restore land and marine habitats are critical to the long-term health of the Islands.” The Galápagos Conservancy and many other environmentalists are working hard to ensure the livelihood of the over two thousand unique species on the islands.

Today, the islands are run by both the Charles Darwin Research Station and The Galápagos National Park Service. Together, they allow for tourists, researchers, and conservationists to travel the islands while attempting to maintain the delicate ecosystem.

As for the human aspect of the Galápagos, only 4 of the 127 islands are inhabited by people. Since the islands are part of Ecuador, its people are primarily composed of Ecuadorians, which influences the culture. The culture is also influenced by the US and Europe. Spanish language, a love for soccer, and the cultural norms of South America all have a strong presence in the Galápagos. However, the tourism industry now dominates the area. Many residents work in the tourism industry in some fashion, and tourism is the primary source of income for the Islands. The Galápagos Islands receive over two hundred thousand visitors annually from around the globe.
—Whitney Ashby

Photo by Whitney Ashby

Visit to learn more about the history of the Galápagos Islands and how you can contribute to conservation.