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Destination: Galapagos Islands Cyber Field Trip

A Brief History of the Galapagos Islands

By clicking on the linked words, you can also learn more about some of the scientific terms used frequently throughout this site.

Map of the Galapagos IslandsThe Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles west of Ecuador, which is on the western coast of South America. Their first recorded discovery was on March 10, 1535, by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who happened upon them accidentally while sailing from Panama to Peru. Some historians believe the islands were visited and used by groups of Incas as early as a century prior to de Berlanga's discovery, but this has never been proven.

In 1570, mapmaker Abraham Ortelius plotted the Galapagos Islands, calling them the Isolas de Galapagos, or "Islands of the Tortoises," based on sailors' descriptions of the many tortoises inhabiting the islands. By the 17th century, the Galapagos Islands became a popular hideout for British buccaneers who pirated Spanish ships and looted Spanish settlements in Central and South America. These buccaneers and British whalers used the islands as a source of food on long journeys.

The islands, still uninhabited on a permanent basis by man and, hence, shrouded in mystery, soon came to be known as the Enchanted Islands because they disappeared into the fog at certain times of year and could not be seen by passing ships. In fact, some 17th-century Spaniards claimed that the Galapagos Islands were not islands at all, but mere shadows. But by the 18th century, British (and later, early American) whalers and sealers began to visit the islands regularly as part of an effort to set up an industry center in the Pacific Ocean.

Map of the Galapagos IslandsSo heavy was the activity on the islands at this time that, in 1800, a makeshift "post office" -- consisting of little more than a marked barrel -- was established on Floreana. This post office still exists today, and tourists can leave mail there for future visitors to the islands to take back to their home countries and mail. The first known human settler on the islands was Patrick Watkins, an Irish crew member on a British ship, who, for unknown reasons, was put ashore at Floreana in 1807. Accounts of how long he stayed there - and how he departed - vary, but eventually he returned to mainland Ecuador. It was not until 1832, when the Galapagos Islands were annexed by Ecuador as a territory, that a formal settlement was established. These early colonists set up small farms on Floreana and Santa Cruz, growing their own food and supplying vegetables to whaling ships.

In 1835, Charles Darwin visited the islands while serving as official naturalist on the five-year voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Until that time, the prevalent view in science was that species of plants and animals were immutable. On the Galapagos Islands, it became clear to Darwin that, over time, different species adapt to their environment. He was intrigued by the fact that each small island had its own characteristic species of bird, lizard and tortoise. Because the islands' physical and climatic conditions were relatively similar, he reasoned that they were not responsible for these differences. Instead, he concluded that the differences were related to feeding habits. This theory helped form the basis of Darwin's unprecedented works on biological adaptation, natural selection and evolution. (Read more about Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection)

In the past century, the Galapagos Islands have been given the official name Archipelago de Colon ("Columbus's Archipelago"), in honor of Christopher Columbus, by the government of Ecuador. In 1934, the first legislation to protect the islands was enacted. The archipelago was later named a national park and is administered by the Ecuadorian National Park Service to this day. Since the 1964 establishment of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, the Galapagos Islands have primarily become a site of increased scientific study and tourism. Today, scientific expeditions, like the Frontiers trip to the islands, are important sources of information on how to conserve the delicate Galapagos ecosystems -- and, ultimately, the whole planet -- into the next century.


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