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Photo of Sherri Steward Sherri Steward, who was School Program Ambassador on the Destination: Galapagos Islands cyber field trip.

Click on Sherri's photo to read a brief bio.

q Who named the islands and what does the name mean? (Question sent by Samantha, Elementary School Student)

A Although the islands were first discovered in 1535, Abraham Ortelius, a mapmaker, first plotted them and coined the name, "Isolas de Galapagos," or "Islands of the Tortoises." The word, 'Galapagos," is derived from the Spanish word which means carapace, or shell of the tortoise.

q What are the policies and rules of visiting the Galapagos Islands, And what is the approximate cost of vacationing there? (Question sent by Nancy and other viewers)

A The Ecuadorian government restricts the number of human visitors to the islands each year. In addition, the Ecuadorians have a strict policy of immigration for the islands.

Because the islands are somewhat isolated (roughly 600 miles west of Ecuador), the cost of visiting the islands is quite high. In addition to the location, tourists can only travel to the islands with licensed tour agents who have obtained permits from the government of Ecuador. Tourists are restricted to designated areas and may not touch or disturb the fauna or flora in any manner. In addition, tourists must be accompanied at all times by official guides. To find out more about specific costs of tours (which can range from $1,000 to $50,000!), you can contact any licensed Galapagos Islands tour operator, which can be found on the Internet, as well as many travel agencies.

q In what ways can we help save the Galapagos environment and the species of these islands? (Question asked by many viewers)

A Firstly, if you are a visitor to the islands, you should adhere strictly to the rules and regulations of the National Park. There are many other ways you can help, which range from making donations to help restore wildlife habitat, remove alien species, etc., to becoming a volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station. A good source of specific needs for those who want to help save these precious islands, is the Charles Darwin Research Center ( Education is perhaps, the most important factor involved in protecting any environment. I would encourage you to learn more about the islands, and find ways to educate others; perhaps, you could make a presentation on the Galapagos Islands and their importance, to a local school.

q When you visit the islands as a tourist, are there precautions you have to take to keep the islands from being contaminated by invasive species -- such as things on your clothing, shoes or luggage? (Question sent by Nathan)

A Yes. Ecuadorian Customs is quite strict and bags are checked, both going into and leaving the country. The policy is "Take nothing more than what you came with; leave only your footprints." All trash is packed out of the islands. Even with all of these precautions, alien species can and do still arrive on the islands. The price of eternal vigilance.

q If Charles Darwin were visiting the Galapagos Islands with you today, would he see essentially the same islands and biological systems that he saw 165 years ago? (Question from Berch, High School Teacher)

A No, unfortunately, were he visiting the Galapagos today, Charles Darwin would not see the same islands as those found 165 years ago. Although the Ecuadorian government has done an admirable job in protecting the islands from the onslaught of humans, our impact is significant and quite visible; and in my opinion, the Galapagos Islands are still quite endangered. The introduction of alien species, such as rats, goats, dogs and cats, has had disastrous effects on the flora and fauna of the Galapagos. There are many other human-related problems, such as solid waste generation, pollution, and destruction of habitat, which threaten the pristine and fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos. The forces of natural selection are still at work, but the added dimension of human-impact is an ever-present danger.

q What fossils have been found on the islands? What can the fossils tell us about evolution? (Question from John, High School Student)

A John: As you know, fossils can tell us a great deal not only about the evolution of a single species, but also of other species that existed at the same time. They can also gives us clues as to environmental conditions which may have occurred. As you probably know, the earliest of the Galapagos Islands that are visible today are approximately four to five million years old. The islands are very active and over 50 eruptions have been recorded since their discovery in 1535. The most ancient rocks on the islands come from Isla Espanola in the southeast and are roughly 3 and 1/4 million years old. In comparison, the oldest rocks on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabella are less than three-quarters of a million years old. In addition, the northwestern islands are still in the process of forming and are very active. As a result of the island's volcanic activity, fossils are more difficult to find. I didn't see fossils on my trip to the Galapagos, but maybe a fossil-finding mission (of course, we wouldn't be allowed to collect them) would be a good reason for a return trip!

q Dear Sherri, Hi! I go to J. S. W. Middle School in Erie, Pa. I have a special assignment in science and I am to ask you a question. My question is: What is the feeling you get when you visit the islands? (Question from Sarah, Grade 8 Biology)

A Hi Sarah! Thanks for asking a great question! It's hard to explain how I felt when I first saw the Galapagos. You're probably not going to believe this, but the first place I saw looked a lot like West Texas! There were lots of cactus and shrubby vegetation just like we have in parts of Texas...but then...I saw my first marine iguana and I said, "Whoa! Nellie, this is definitely no Texas Longhorn! The Galapagos Islands are so beautiful that it is difficult for me to describe them. The islands have a rugged and pristine beauty that I will never forget. I think you should make plans to go there!

q The show was really interesting. Did you see any unusual animals that you didn't show on the show? Thanks I hope I hear from you! (Question from Jordan, St. Petersburg, FL)

A Hi Jordon! The Galapagos Islands has so many unique and beautiful species that all of them could not possibly "star" in the Frontiers show. The Galapagos is home to many marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales. I was lucky enough to spot some dolphins aboard ship one day, and they are definitely one of my favorite creatures. I also saw the biggest Sally Lightfoot crab I've ever seen. It was very bright red and blue and quite beautiful. There are so many different birds in the Galapagos and I saw lots of different species: Brown pelicans, Galapagos doves, male frigatebirds, with their huge, brightly colored red neck pouches, greater flamingo, and even a Galapagos hawk!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.