Archipiélago de Colón: Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

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Archipiélago de Colón: Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

The Archipiélago de Colón (Galápagos Islands) are volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 600 miles west of continental Ecuador. The archipelago is known for its many endemic species and was studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle.

Archipiélago de Colón

The Archipiélago de Colón (Galápagos Islands), part of the Republic of Ecuador, is an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean surrounding the center of the Western Hemisphere, about 965 km (600 mi) west of continental Ecuador.

The Archipiélago de Colón and the surrounding waters form the Galápagos Province of Ecuador, the Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Reserve. The principal language on the islands is Spanish. The islands have a population of slightly over 25,000.

The Galápagos Islands, a World Heritage Site since 1978, are known for their many endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution utilizing natural selection.

The Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1535 by the bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga, whose ship had drifted off course en route to Peru. He named them Las Encantadas ("The Enchanted"), and in his writings, he marveled at the thousands of giant 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 whale and seal hunters. The area had been unclaimed for almost 300 years before colonization began on Santa María Island in 1832, when Ecuador took official possession of the archipelago.

The Galápagos Islands became internationally famous after 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).

The Archipiélago de Colón and its immense marine reserve are 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.

The 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.

Galapagos Islands location map

Galápagos Islands location map

The Galápagos Archipelago consists of 7,880 sq km (3,040 sq mi) of land spread over 45,000 sq km (17,000 sq mi) of ocean. The group comprises 18 main islands, three smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands are located at the Galapagos Triple Junction.

The largest of the islands, Isabela, measures 5,800 sq km (2,250 sq mi) and makes up close to three-quarters of the total land area of the Galápagos. Volcán Wolf on Isabela is the highest point, with an elevation of 1,707 m (5,600 ft) above sea level.

The Archipiélago de Colón is located on the Nazca Plate (a tectonic plate), which is moving east/southeast, diving under the South American Plate at a rate of about 2.5 in (6.4 cm) per year. It is also atop the Galápagos hotspot, where the Earth's crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The first islands formed here at least 8 million and possibly up to 90 million years ago.

Although the islands are located on the equator, the Humboldt Current brings cold water to them, causing frequent drizzles during most of the year. The weather is periodically influenced by the El Niño events, which occur about every 3 to 7 years and are characterized by warm sea surface temperatures, a rise in sea level, more significant wave action, and a depletion of nutrients in the water.

During the season known as the garúa (June to November), the temperature by the sea is 22 °C (72 °F), a steady and cold wind blows from the south and southeast, frequent drizzles (garúas) last most of the day, and dense fog conceals the islands.

During the warm season (December to May), the average sea and air temperature rise to 25 °C (77 °F), there is no wind at all, there are sporadic, though strong, rains, and the sun shines. Weather changes as altitude increases in the large islands. Temperature decreases gradually with altitude, while precipitation increases due to moisture condensation in clouds on the slopes.

There is an extensive range in precipitation from one place to another, not only with altitude but also depending on the islands' location and the seasons.

Noteworthy species include:

  • Galápagos land iguanas, Conolophus spp.
  • The marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus, is the only iguana feeding in the sea
  • Galápagos tortoise (Galápagos giant tortoise), Chelonoidis nigra, known as galápago in Spanish, it gave the name to the islands
  • Galápagos green turtle, Chelonia mydas agassisi, a subspecies of the green turtle
  • Sea cucumbers which are the cause of environmental battles with fishermen over quotas of this expensive Asian delicacy
  • Flightless cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi
  • Great frigatebird and magnificent frigatebird
  • Blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii, is popular among visitors for their large blue feet, which they show off in courtship
  • Galápagos penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus, the only living tropical penguin
  • Waved albatross, Phoebastria irrorata, the only living tropical albatross
  • Galápagos hawk, Buteo galapagoensis, the islands' main scavenger (at the top of the food chain) and "environmental police"
  • Four endemic species of Galápagos mockingbirds, the first species Darwin noticed to vary from island to island
  • Thirteen endemic species of tanagers, popularly called Darwin's finches. Among them is the sharp-beaked ground finch Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis, which is sometimes called the "vampire finch" for its blood-sucking habits, and the tool-using woodpecker finch, Camarhynchus pallidus
  • Galápagos sea lion, Zalophus wollebaeki, is closely related to the California sea lion but smaller
  • Two endemic genera of cacti, each with a single species: Jasminocereus thouarsii, the candelabra cactus, and Brachycereus nesioticus, the lava cactus
Satellite photo of the Galápagos islands overlaid with the names of the visible main islands

Satellite photo of the Galápagos islands with names of the visible islands

Main Islands

The 18 main islands (each having a land area of at least one sq km) of the archipelago (with their English names) are shown alphabetically.

Baltra (South Seymour) Island

Baltra is a small flat island located near the center of the Galápagos. It was created by geological uplift. The island is very arid; vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cacti and palo santo trees.

Until 1986, Baltra (Seymour) Airport was the only airport serving the Galápagos. Now, two airports receive flights from the continent; the other is located on San Cristóbal Island. Private planes flying to Galápagos must fly to Baltra, as it is the only airport with facilities for planes overnight.

On arriving in Baltra, all visitors are immediately transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is in a small bay, where the boats cruising the Galápagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock, which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz.

During the 1940s, scientists moved 70 of Baltra's land iguanas to the neighboring North Seymour Island as part of an experiment. This move proved unexpectedly helpful when the native iguanas became extinct on Baltra due to the island's military occupation in World War II.

During the 1980s, iguanas from North Seymour were brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station as part of a breeding and repopulation project. In the 1990s, land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. As of 1997, scientists counted 97 iguanas living on Baltra, 13 of which had hatched on the islands.

Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island

Bartolomé Island is a volcanic islet off the east coast of Santiago Island in the Galápagos Islands group. It is one of the "younger" islands in the Galápagos archipelago.

This island and neighboring Sulivan Bay on Santiago (James) Island are named after a lifelong friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, a lieutenant aboard HMS Beagle.

Today, Sulivan Bay is often misspelled as Sullivan Bay. This island is one of the few home to the Galápagos penguin, the only wild penguin species to live on the equator. The green turtle is another animal that resides on the island.

Darwin (Culpepper) Island

This island is named after Charles Darwin. It has an area of 1.1 sq km (0.42 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 168 m (551 ft). Here fur seals, frigates, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, whales, marine turtles, and red-footed and Nazca boobies can be seen.

Española (Hood) Island

Its name was given in honor of Spain. It is also known as Hood, after Viscount Samuel Hood. It has an area of 60 sq km (23 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 206 m (676 ft). Española is the oldest island at around 3.5 million years, and the southernmost in the group.

Due to its remote location, Española has many endemic species. It has its species of lava lizard, mockingbird and Galápagos tortoise. Española's marine iguanas exhibit a distinctive red coloration change during the breeding season.

Española is the only place where the waved albatross nests. Some birds have attempted to breed unsuccessfully on Genovesa (Tower) Island. Española's cliffs serve as the perfect runways for these birds, which take off for their ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru.

Punta Suarez has migrant, resident, and endemic wildlife, including brightly colored marine iguanas, Española lava lizards, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, Galápagos hawks, three species of Darwin's finches, and the waved albatross.

Fernandina (Narborough) Island

The name was given in honor of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina has an area of 642 sq km (248 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 1,494 m (4,902 ft). This is the youngest and westernmost island.

On 13 May 2005, a new, very eruptive process began on this island when an ash and water vapor cloud rose to a height of 7 km (23,000 ft), and lava flows descended the volcano's slopes on the way to the sea.

Punta Espinosa is a narrow stretch of land where hundreds of marine iguanas gather, primarily on black lava rocks. The famous flightless cormorants inhabit this island, as do Galápagos penguins, pelicans, Galápagos sea lions and Galápagos fur seals. Different types of lava flows can be compared, and mangrove forests can be observed.

Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island

It was named after Juan José Flores, the first President of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago.

It is also called Santa Maria, after one of the caravels of Columbus. It has an area of 173 sq km (67 sq mi) and a maximum elevation of 640 m (2,100 ft). It is one of the islands with the most interesting human history and one of the earliest to be inhabited.

Flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) on this island. The patapegada or Galápagos petrel, a sea bird that spends most of its life away from land, is found here.

At Post Office Bay, where 19th-century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as a post office, mail could be picked up and delivered to its destinations, mainly Europe and the United States, by ships on their way home. At the "Devil's Crown," an underwater volcanic cone and coral formations are found.

Genovesa (Tower) Island

The name is derived from Genoa, Italy, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. It has an area of 14 sq km (5.4 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 76 m (249 ft).

The remaining edge of a submerged large caldera forms this island. Its nickname of "The Bird Island" is justified.

At Darwin Bay, the only nocturnal gull species in the world, frigatebirds and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen. Red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches are also in sight.

Prince Philip's Steps is a bird-watching plateau with Nazca and red-footed boobies. There is a large Palo Santo forest.

Isabela (Albemarle) Island

This island was named in honor of Queen Isabela. With an area of 4,640 sq km (1,790 sq mi), it is the largest island in the Galápagos. Its highest point is Volcán Wolf, with an altitude of 1,707 m (5,600 ft). The island's seahorse shape is the product of the merging of six large volcanoes into a single land mass.

Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound on this island. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanoes of Isabela, land iguanas and Galápagos tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin finches, Galápagos hawks, Galápagos doves, and fascinating lowland vegetation.

The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the southeastern tip of the island. It is the only island to have the equator run across it. It is also the only place in the world where a penguin can be in its natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere.

Marchena (Bindloe) Island

Named after Fray Antonio Marchena, it has an area of 130 sq km (50 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 343 m (1,125 ft). Galapagos hawks and sea lions inhabit this island, home to the Marchena lava lizard, an endemic animal.

North Seymour Island

Its name was given after an English nobleman, Lord Hugh Seymour. It has an area of 1.9 sq km (0.73 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 28 m (92 ft).

This island is home to many blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds. It was formed from geological uplift.

Pinzón (Duncan) Island

Named after the Pinzón brothers, captains of the Pinta and Niña caravels, it has an area of 18 sq km (6.9 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 458 m (1,503 ft).

Pinta (Louis) Island

Named after the Pinta caravel, it has an area of 60 sq km (23 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 777 m (2,549 ft). Sea lions, Galápagos hawks, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and dolphins can be seen here.

Pinta Island was home to the last remaining Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George. He was moved from Pinta Island to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where scientists attempted to breed from him. However, Lonesome George died in June 2012 without producing any offspring.

Rábida (Jervis) Island

It bears the name of the convent of Rábida, where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. It has an area of 4.95 sq km (1.91 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 367 m (1,204 ft). The high amount of iron in the lava at Rábida gives it a distinctive red color.

White-cheeked pintail ducks live in a saltwater lagoon near the beach, where brown pelicans and boobies have built their nests. Until recently, flamingos were also found in the lagoon, but they have since moved on to other islands, likely due to a lack of food on Rábida. Nine species of finches have been reported on this island.

San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island

It bears the name of the patron saint of seafarers, "St. Christopher." Its English name was given after William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. Its area is 558 sq km (215 sq mi), and its highest point rises to 730 m (2,400 ft).

This is the first island in the Galápagos Archipelago that Charles Darwin visited during his voyage on the Beagle. This island hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue- and red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls.

Its vegetation includes Calandrinia galapagos, Lecocarpus darwinii, and trees such as Lignum vitae. The largest freshwater lake in the archipelago, Laguna El Junco, is located in the highlands of San Cristóbal.

The capital of the province of Galápagos is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which lies at the southern tip of the island and is close to San Cristóbal Airport.

Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island

Given the name of the Holy Cross in Spanish, its English name derives from the British vessel HMS Indefatigable. It has an area of 986 sq km (381 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 864.5 m (2,836 ft).

Santa Cruz hosts the most significant human population in the archipelago, Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Service headquarters are here.

The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding center here, where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.

The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer exuberant flora and are famous for the lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here.

Black Turtle Cove is surrounded by mangroves, which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also located here, and along the trail, one may see land iguanas foraging.

Santa Fe (Barrington) Island

Named after a city in Spain, it has an area of 24 sq km (9.3 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 259 m (850 ft). Santa Fe hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which is the largest of the archipelago, and Palo Santo.

Weathered cliffs provide a haven for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds and shearwater petrels. Santa Fe species of land iguanas are often seen, as well as lava lizards.

Santiago (San Salvador, James) Island

Its name is equivalent to Saint James in English; it is also known as San Salvador, after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea.

This island has an area of 585 sq km (226 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 907 m (2,976 ft). Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here.

Pigs and goats, introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species, have been eradicated (pigs by 2002; goats by the end of 2006).

Darwin finches, Galápagos hawks, and a colony of fur seals are usually seen. A recent (around 100 years ago) pahoehoe lava flow can be observed at Sulivan Bay.

Wolf (Wenman) Island

This island was named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. It has an area of 1.3 sq km (0.50 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 253 m (830 ft).

Here, fur seals, frigatebirds, Nazca and red-footed boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen.

The most famous resident is the vampire finch, which feeds partly on blood pecked from other birds and is only found on this island.

Minor islands

Daphne Major

A small island directly north of Santa Cruz and directly west of Baltra, this very inaccessible island appears, though unnamed, on Ambrose Cowley's 1684 chart. It is vital as the location of multi-decade finch population studies by Peter and Rosemary Grant.

South Plaza Island (Plaza Sur)

It is named in honor of a former president of Ecuador, General Leónidas Plaza. It has an area of 0.13 sq km (0.050 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 23 m (75 ft).

The flora of South Plaza includes Opuntia cactus and Sesuvium plants, which form a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations.

Iguanas (land, marine and some hybrids of both species) are abundant, and large numbers of birds can be observed from the cliffs on the southern part of the island, including tropical birds and swallow-tailed gulls.

Nameless Island

A small islet is mainly used for scuba diving.

Roca Redonda

An islet approximately 25 km (16 mi) northwest of Isabela. Herman Melville devotes the third and fourth sketches of The Encantadas to describing this islet (which he calls "Rock Rodondo") and its view.