The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 972 km (525 nmi) west of continental Ecuador, of which they are a part. The Galápagos Islands and its surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian province, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. The principal language on the islands is Spanish. The islands have a population of slightly over 25,000.
The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The first crude navigation chart of the islands was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the British noblemen who helped the privateer's cause. More recently, the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands Spanish names.
Although located on the Equator, the Humboldt Current brings cold water to the islands, causing frequent drizzles during most of the year. The weather is periodically influenced by the El Niño events, which occur about every 3–7 years and are characterized by warm sea surface temperatures, a rise in sea level, greater wave action, and a depletion of nutrients in the water.
During the season known as the garua (June to November), the temperature by the sea is 22 °C (72 °F), a steady and cold wind blows from south and southeast, frequent drizzles (garuas) last most of the day, and dense fog conceals the islands. During the warm season (December to May), the average sea and air temperature rises to 25 °C (77 °F), there is no wind at all, there are sporadic, though strong, rains and the sun shines.
Many species were introduced to the Galápagos by pirates. Thor Heyerdahl quoted documents that mention the Viceroy of Peru, knowing that British pirates ate the goats that they themselves had released in the islands, ordered dogs to be freed there to eliminate the goats Also, when colonization of Floreana by José de Villamil failed, he ordered the goats, donkeys, cattle and other animals from the farms in Floreana be transferred to other islands for the purpose of later colonization.
In 2007, UNESCO put the Galápagos Islands on their List of World Heritage in Danger because of threats posed by invasive species, unbridled tourism and overfishing. On 29 July 2010, the World Heritage Committee decided to remove the Galapagos Islands from the list because the Committee found significant progress had been made by Ecuador in addressing these problems.
Though the first protective legislation for the Galápagos was enacted in 1930 and supplemented in 1936, it was not until the late 1950s that positive action was taken to control what was happening to the native flora and fauna. In 1955, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature organized a fact-finding mission to the Galápagos. Two years later, in 1957, UNESCO, in cooperation with the government of Ecuador, sent another expedition to study the conservation situation and choose a site for a research station.
In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a national park, excepting areas already colonised. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded the same year.
UNESCO recognised the islands in 1978 as a World Heritage Site and in 1985, as a biosphere reserve. This was later extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve. In July 2010, the World Heritage Committee agreed to remove the Galapagos Islands from its list of precious sites endangered by environmental threats or overuse.
Noteworthy species include:
- Galápagos land iguanas
- Marine iguana
- Galápagos tortoise
- Green sea turtle
- Sea cucumbers
- Flightless cormorant
- Great frigatebird and magnificent frigatebird
- Baltra (South Seymour) Island
- Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island
- Darwin (Culpepper) Island
- Española (Hood) Island
- Fernandina (Narborough) Island
- Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island
- Genovesa (Tower) Island
- Isabela (Albemarle) Island (Ecuador)
- Daphne Major
- South Plaza Island
- Nameless Island