Visiting the Galápagos Archipelago

Galápagos Background Information

Map of the Galápagos Archipelago indicating the three islands we visited and the main town on each island.  

The Galápagos Archipelago is a group of volcanic islands that straddle the Equator about 500 to 700 nautical miles west of mainland Ecuador. There are six principal islands, nine smaller islands, and a number of islets and rocks. The largest island, Isla Isabela, is about 80 miles long and over 1,600 square miles in area, making up more than half the total land area of the archipelago.

The islands are actually the tops of undersea volcanoes, formed as a section of the earth's crust slowly drifted over a "hot spot" of volcanic activity. Isla Fernandina is the youngest island, where a volcanic eruption occurred as recently as 1995. Española is the oldest island (over three million years old), but a chain of eroded undersea volcanoes provides evidence of even earlier volcanic activity.

The climate is generally hot and desert-like, but is greatly affected by seasonal variations in ocean currents. During the hot/rainy season from January through April, the south-flowing Panama Current warms the surrounding water and temperatures ashore reach the 90's. During the cool/dry season from June through November, the north-flowing Humboldt Current cools the surrounding waters and temperatures ashore only reach the 80's.

Prevailing winds cause the southeastern sides of islands to receive more rain than the northwestern sides, but precipitation is scant everywhere except during an El Niño event. Far more important is the effect of altitude. The highlands are cooler and wetter, allowing them to support a temperate-zone "cloud forest" ecosystem.


The islands were discovered by the Spanish in 1535 but were little visited due to the lack of fresh water. In the 1600's, pirates used the islands as a base of operations to attack Spanish galleons and raid coastal towns on the mainland. In the late 1700's and into the 1800's, whalers exploited the rich whaling grounds in the vicinity. One of the whalers was a young Herman Melville who wrote a series of stories about his adventure (The Encantadas). In 1832, Ecuador officially claimed the islands and established a penal colony, a practice that continued until the 1960's.

The Galápagos are most famous as a source of inspiration for Charles Darwin, a British naturalist who visited in 1835 aboard the ship H.M.S. Beagle. Based on evidence gathered at the Galápagos (and other places), Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, in which he theorized that species evolve over time due to random variation and natural selection.

During the early 1900's, scattered settlements began on a few islands and scientific interest grew. The islands had some strategic value during World War II, and the U.S. military built and operated an airfield on Isla Baltra. U.S. forces later departed although the airfield is still used for commercial flights.

In 1959, Ecuador declared all uninhabited areas to be a national park. In 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established, and in 1968, Ecuadorian park wardens began on-site administration of Galápagos National Park. Large-scale tourism began in the 1970's with up to 60,000 visitors annually in recent years.

The biggest problems today are repairing the damage caused by centuries of misuse and avoiding additional damage from overuse. Many harmful species have been introduced over the years, deliberately or accidentally, requiring aggressive efforts at control and eradication. Some endemic species have been severly depleted, requiring extensive programs for conservation and reintroduction. To prevent overuse, fair regulations supporting sustainable use are being established, with some difficulty. Tourism is regulated and restricted to limit development and preserve natural areas.

Nautical Information

The sailing ship Sagitta at anchor in the outermost portion of Academy Bay. This luxury tour boat is 120 feet long with a 22-foot beam and carries 16 passengers, eight crew, and one guide.  

If you're interested in a nautical perspective, I have extracted information about the Galápagos Archipelago from Publication 125 - Sailing Directions (Enroute) West Coast of South America, published by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (which is part of the U.S. Government). The document describes the islands and their bays, points, rocks, tides, and weather. It also provides navigational information and anchoring instructions. You can view Publication 125 - Galápagos Archipelago Extract in PDF format (25 kb).

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