Situated in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 km (620 mi) from the South American continent, these 19 islands and the surrounding marine reserve have been called a unique 'living museum and showcase of evolution'. Located at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galápagos are a melting pot of marine species.
The Galápagos archipelago is located about 1,000 km (620 miles) from continental Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean and is composed of 127 islands, islets and rocks, of which 19 are large and 4 are inhabited. The Galápagos Islands and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos Province of Ecuador, the Galápagos National Park, the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and the Archipiélago de Colón (Galápagos) Biosphere Reserve.
The Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1535 by the bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga, whose ship had drifted off course while en route to Peru. He named them Las Encantadas (“The Enchanted”), and in his writings he marveled at the thousands of large galápagos (tortoises) found there. Numerous Spanish voyagers stopped at the islands from the 16th century, and the Galápagos also came to be used by pirates and by whale and seal hunters.
The area had been unclaimed for almost 300 years before colonization began on what is now Santa María Island in 1832, when Ecuador took official possession of the archipelago. The islands became internationally famous as a result of their being visited in 1835 by the English naturalist Charles Darwin; their unusual fauna contributed to the groundbreaking theories on natural selection presented in his On the Origin of Species (1859).
This archipelago and its immense marine reserve is known as the unique 'living museum and showcase of evolution'. Its geographical location at the confluence of three ocean currents makes it one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world.
Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity reflects the processes that formed the islands. These processes, together with the extreme isolation of the islands, led to the development of unusual plant and animal life – such as marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, giant tortoises, huge cacti, endemic trees and the many different subspecies of mockingbirds and finches – all of which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection following his visit in 1835.
The government of Ecuador has designated 97% of the land area of the Galápagos Islands as Galápagos National Park, the country's first national park. The remaining 3% is distributed between the inhabited areas of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Baltra, Floreana and Isabela.
In 1984, the Archipielágo de Colon (Galápagos Islands) Biosphere Reserve was designated under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB).
The Galápagos Marine Reserve is an underwater wildlife spectacle with abundant life ranging from corals to sharks to penguins to marine mammals. The reserve is one of the biggest in the world, covering 133,000 sq km (51,352 sq mi) and includes the area within 40 nautical miles from the islands' coasts, as well as the islands' inland waters, such as lagoons and streams.
The climate of the Galápagos Islands is characterized by low rainfall, low humidity, and relatively low air and water temperatures. The islands have thousands of plant and animal species, of which the vast majority are endemic. The archipelago’s arid lowlands are covered by an open cactus forest. A transition zone at higher elevations is covered with a forest in which pisonia (a four o’clock plant) and guava trees dominate, and the moist forest region above the transition zone is dominated by a Scalesia forest with dense underbrush. The treeless upland zone is covered with ferns and grasses.
The Galápagos Islands are formed of lava piles and dotted with shield volcanoes, many of which are periodically active. The striking ruggedness of the arid landscape is accentuated by high volcanic mountains, craters, and cliffs. The largest of the islands, Isabela (Albemarle), is approximately 82 miles (132 km) long and constitutes more than half of the total land area of the archipelago; it contains Mount Azul, at 5,541 ft (1,689 m) the highest point of the Galapagos Islands. The second largest island is Santa Cruz.
The archipelago´s geology begins at the sea floor and emerges above sea level where biological processes continue. Three major tectonic plates — Nazca, Cocos and Pacific — meet at the basis of the ocean, which is of significant geological interest. The larger islands typically comprise one or more gently sloping shield volcanoes, culminating in craters or calderas and the terrain are generally composed of uplifted marine lava flows.
In comparison with most oceanic archipelagos, the Galápagos are very young with the largest and youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, with less than one million years of existence, and the oldest islands, Española and San Cristóbal, somewhere between three to five million years.
Ongoing geological and geomorphological processes, including recent volcanic eruptions, small seismic movements, and erosion provide key insights to the puzzle of the origin of the Galapagos Islands. Almost no other site in the world offers protection of such a complete continuum of geological and geomorphological features.
More than 250 species are non-native introductions occurring predominantly around human settlements. Coastal vegetation, influenced by the presence of salt, occurs along beaches, saltwater lagoons and low, broken, boulder-strewn shores.
The endemic fauna includes invertebrate, reptile and bird species. There are a few indigenous mammals. All the reptiles are endemic, except two marine tortoises, and include giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus), terrestrial iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus and C. pallidus), and marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).
The origin of the flora and fauna of the Galápagos has been of great interest to people ever since the publication of the "Voyage of the Beagle" by Charles Darwin in 1839.The islands constitute an almost unique example of how ecological, evolutionary and biogeographic processes influence the flora and fauna on both specific islands as well as the entire archipelago.
The 1999 resident population numbered some 15,600 persons. Freshwater is a critically limiting factor, and only San Cristobal has adequate perennial supplies for the local human population. Tourism, cattle grazing and fishing are key components of the islands' economy. Immigration from the mainland is uncontrolled and increasing.