Animals, Darwin and the evolutionary theory
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The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador is a must if you're a nature lover. Just as natural scientist Charles Darwin did centuries ago, which led him to his famous theory of evolution. Darwin put the special volcanic islands on the map. Nowadays the remarkable animals keep on doing it.
The remote islands are about 8.000 km2 in size altogether. It's often called a living zoo with dozens of special animal species. Where many new animals are discovered, like a new iguana species at the beginning of 2009. The animals are not afraid of humans simply because they have never been hunted on the islands. As a visitor you're a guest in a strange, but amazing world.
Santa Cruz Island has an international airport. Which probably makes it where you arrive. You can use this island as a base, and then explore the island and the surrounding area through all kinds of excursions.
Although you can also easily go on your own, for example with a rented scooter. There is a good chance that you will encounter a giant tortoise. What a special experience. The best place for accommodation is the town of Puerto Ayora. You'll see desks for the various tours.
The most beautiful place on Isla Santa Cruz is Bahia Tortuga. Via a footpath you arrive at a bay with mangroves, and a small sandy beach. It's a good place for snorkelling. You will see a striking number of young fish. They use the mangroves as a nursery.
The Plazas Islands are small and are located off the coast of Santa Cruz. They are best known as one of the places with the greatest diversity of wildlife, and with very nice views. If you walk around Plazas you will see both land iguanas and marine iguanas. Sea lions like to sleep on the jetty. You can take pictures of the special landscape.
The island of San Christobal is famous for divers and snorkelers. Among other things, this is the best place to snorkel with sea lions. You can also swim with the wonderful marine iguanas. But as soon as you enter the water you will be amazed at the many fish, in every colour.
Hiking is also possible on San Christobal. You will regularly encounter giant tortoises and land iguanas. Laguna El Junco is not actually a lagoon, but a volcanic crater lake. It is located in the highlands of the island.
Bartolome Island has the most famous viewpoint of the Galapagos Islands. Where you look out over lava fields and two beaches, and these are not just any beaches. On the one hand, there are an unprecedented number of sharks and snorkeling is strongly discouraged. On the other side you can get into the water and see many sea turtles.
Bartolome is a small island, but it is worth it. It is good for hiking. Where you can use various viewpoints, and you naturally encounter wild animals.
The island Isabela takes up more than half. But surprisingly not the most developed. The most famous place is the town of Puerto Villamil, where you can spend the night. So that you can discover the magical island of Fernandina nearby. This island has the highest volcano of the islands, the Cerro Azul with a height of 1,689 meters. It is the symbol of volcanic activity.
Isla Fernandina is rugged and the place to see a lot of wildlife. Including the marine iguana, flightless cormorant, Sally Lightfoot crab, blue-footed booby, and much more. The island is reasonably close to Isabela and a trip is easy to combine. Fernandina is, according to experts, the most authentic.
Isla Santa Maria is mentioned in many articles about how humans have lived here. Many local animals and plates have disappeared with the arrival of humans. Who took his wake pig, goats and rats. Still, this island is worth a visit. One reason is Devil's Crown, one of the best snorkeling spots on the islands.
The islands are so remote that the animals adapted to the local circumstances. The Darwin finches, a family of birds of the same kind, named after the English scientist Charles Darwin. He came on the research vessel Beagle in September 1835 and examined the geology and biology of four of the islands for about five months.
During his visit he saw the many black birds and he noticed they looked very much alike, yet still were different from each other. One would have a smaller bill, while another would have a very narrow bill; one bird would be small, while others would be big in comparison; upon further study he saw one would look for seeds on the ground, while another would look for insects in a tree.
Following his research, Darwin concluded this had to have developed for centuries to turn out like this. The location of the islands offered little other alternatives. The strongest, being the one that was most able to adapt, would survive and provide offspring. This is how new species came to be and the theory of evolution was born, at least in Darwin’s mind. It would take more than a century for his body of thought to be generally embraced.
The Galápagos cormorant is probably the best evidence to support Darwin’s theory of evolution. This species that is unique to this place, long ago lost its ability to fly. The wings are little stumps with disheveled feathers. However, these waters, fed by the Cold Gulfstream, contain so much fish, the bird doesn’t need to fly and there also are no predators it needs to flee from.
Despite the islands being in a remote location, man’s hand is apparent here. Although no traces of humans were found from before the 16th century. Historians argue about a lot here. Like who was the first white man to set foot on these islands. According to stories this could have been the Spanish bishop Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who discovered the islands in 1535. It was pure coincidence, as he drifted off course in bad weather.
The islands remained unknown for a long time, mainly due to their location. It was only known to sea pirates who used the Galápagos as a refuge base in the 17th and 18th century. They took the tortoises they found with them as live provisions. Whalers also lived here, until Ecuador annexed the islands in 1832.
After this, Galápagos was slowly colonised. The colonists arrived with goats, pigs, dogs, cats and horses in their wake. And rats. Some of the house pets turned into wild animals, disturbing the balance of nature.
Like the uninhabited island Santiago, where at the end of the 1990s, more than 100,000 goats, donkeys and pigs were running around. They had once been brought there for their meat and milk.
They gradually grew to be a real plague, among other things, because they were eating the endemic plants. Other islands are inhabited by wild dogs, cats and even horses. It caused various subspecies of the world famous giant tortoises, the slow motion calling card of the Galápagos, to become extinct.
Scientists have calculated that the arrival of man (up to now) has done in five percent of all animals and plants, causing a love-hate relationship between human and animals on Galápagos. Now mankind has to intervene more and more to lend evolution a hand, so that the islands and its inhabitants may survive. Nevertheless, a lot of the riches of the islands still remain and can be seen up close, because the animals are still not afraid of their greatest enemy.
The islands were declared a national park in 1959. Just like the surrounding ocean. But it was too late: the impact of feral pets became too great in the early 1990s. The Ecuadorian government decided to intervene. With drastic measures. Helicopters with hunters left and right caused a real carnage, with four million euros in support from the United Nations. Infertile goats are still regularly released to see if there are still animals that are hiding.
A bullet is not always the solution. The 720 plant species introduced now outstrip the 500 native species. Such as garden plants and functional trees for wood or fruit. But also weeds that now cause the most nuisance. With also a role for the tourists, who unintentionally take the plant seeds from the mainland. This again results in major (and costly) cleaning campaigns. It's just one of the problems.
In addition to controlling exotic animal species, various breeding programs have also been set up on the Galápagos. In order to promote the survival of the endemic animals that live here. In 1965, the Charles Darwin Research Station already established a breeding and repatriation program. And not without success. More than 1,000 giant tortoises have now been released. While breeding continues.
Many tourists overlook the flora of the islands, while this is equally as extraordinary as the animals. The islands are very dry, so it’s not easy for trees and plants. In many places, the volcanic soil makes it possible for only specialised plants to maintain themselves here. A large part of coastline is covered with mangroves, but inland is mostly empty. There are some high places with dense broadleaf forests, especially on the bigger islands. In several locations you will also see cactus forests.
On Galápagos you can look for various species of cactus (opuntia cactus, lava cactus and candelabra cactus), mangrove (red, black, white and button mangrove) and a family of plants that goes by the name of ‘scalesia’, which scientists consider to perhaps be the best evidence for evolution. This plant adjusts itself strongly to the conditions. Many islands also have red ice plants.
Countless animals live on the islands. If you visit various islands you will see plenty.
A multi-day cruise in the Galapagos is the best way to discover the islands. You then sail from island to island, where the boat moors. You also sleep on the boat. Usually in a quiet bay. Keep in mind that small boats do not sail that fast, while large boats cannot (or may not) moor everywhere.
Numerous trips are also possible from the various hotels on the islands. The disadvantage is that you have to travel to a place every time, so you cannot visit everything. But this can sometimes be a solution if you quickly get seasick.
The Galápagos Islands can be visited all year long. It all depends on what you wish to do. For snorkeling and diving, the perfect time is the end of January, all of February and March. In these months, the sea is relatively quiet and the view is good. Therefore, this is the best time to go snorkeling with sea lions, sea iguanas and even penguins, if you’re lucky. The water temperature varies from 20 to 24 degrees Celsius.
The busiest (and most expensive) time is in July and August. Temperatures are still above 15 degrees then, but the wind causes the seas to be rough. It is overcast quite often as well.
September is the real low season, when it is relatively cold and most of the time you will encounter ‘rugged’ seas. There will also be less tours on offer.
There are various direct flights to the Galápagos Islands from Ecuador out of Quito (1,5 hours) and Guayaquil (1 hour) and from Lima in Peru (1,5 hours).
For the Galápagos Islands, tourists are required to purchase an admission ticket on the spot. This must be paid in US dollars.