5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons
24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along with them to report on the trip's experiences and lessons.

The Galapagos Islands are a fantastically interesting place. Most everyone knows it's full of wonderful (and sometimes weird) wildlife, that it's in a tropical locale, and that Charles Darwin did some work there. But, I was surprised in the time leading up to the trip, all the different quizzical looks when I said the word "Galapagos" -- many people don't even know where the islands are. So, as a way of introducing the next nine days of this trip, let's get the basics straight, once and for all. You may know some of these already, but here are five things that everybody should know about the Galapagos.


Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

1. Where the Galapagos Islands are

First things first: The Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, in South America. The islands straddle the equator, with the larger, more developed islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal slightly south of the equator, for the most part. The islands are south (and just a bit east) of the easternmost part of Mexico, and they're in the Central time zone (though that often changes when you board a boat).

2. How long humans have been around the Islands

The islands were first recorded, in position and description, in 1525 by bishop Fray Tomas de Berlanga while traveling from Panama to Peru. The bishop sent a report of what he saw and found back to King Charles V, but he himself was occupied colonizing nearby Inca territories to have any further interest. The report, though, gave the islands their name; they appeared as Galpegos -- Islands of the Tortoise -- in 1574.

Back up to 1546 for a second, when some Spanish soldiers seeking to escape Francisco Pizzaro's tyrranical regime decided by heading out to sea. They were inexperienced sailors, though, and called the islands Las Islas Encantades -- the Enchanted Islands -- after the thick fog hugging the islands made the islands "disappear" as they approached to dock.

Over the next three centuries, pirates often used the Galapagos as a hideout before attacking Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts, marking the first significant environmental damage to native animal species (something that I'll cover in much greater detail later in the trip).

In 1832, Ecuador took possession of the Galapagos when the country established a colony of exiled soldiers on Isla Floreana. Three years later, the islands' most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, recorded a series of fascinating, unique observations about the finches on the different islands, using those notes to later support his theory of evolution.

3. Serious preservation efforts have a (relatively) short history

The islands were declared a National Park by the Ecuadorian government in 1959, and were recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1978. In June 2007, UNESCO included the territory in its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The Ecuadorian government responded by adopting seven measures to help combat the problems put under the microscope by the designation -- increasing impact from tourism, encroaching invasive species, increasing immigration from the mainland, and so forth -- so that the Galapagos would survive.

4. More recent conservation events have been more controversial

Just a few months ago, in July 2010, UNESCO pulled the Galapagos off the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, surprising both TreeHuggers Brian and Lloyd, who have visited the Islands since the designation was made.

Like Brian noted, the designation "is important because it focuses international attention -- and often much-needed funding -- on threatened places," and that'll be one of the things I'm most interested in following up on once we arrive in the islands.


Will more of this be in the future for Ecuador and the Galapagos? Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

5. The Galapagos is at a bit of a crossroads

There are about 30,000 permanent residents of the Islands. There are about 160,000 tourists who visit each year. Yet, tourism is only Ecuador's fourth-largest export, behind flowers, bananas, and, at number one, oil. Ecuador would happily cut the oil out of the equation (or at least cut it down), but also needs to replace it with something; its currency in the U.S. dollar, and as the dollar's value has declined during the recession, Ecuador's need for income has not.

The oil industry has a history of making a mess in the country, and, though there are some positive developments when it comes to reducing the amount of oil being prospected for and extracted, tourism remains the likely successor as a long-term replacement for that income, and the Galapagos are high on the list of tourist attractions likely to continue to grow.

Like in The Everglades, something has to give; everybody can't win the tug-of-war between oil interests, tourism industry interests, economic interests, and environmental interests. Especially given the developments of this year alone, Ecuador and the Galapagos have some tough choices to make when it comes to how it will fund the government, provide jobs, attract more money (and more jobs), and preserve truly one-of-a-kind archipelago of volcanic islands of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands and 42 surfacing rocks. I'll be there for the next 9 days to try to figure out who might be left without a chair when the music stops.

More on Ecuador and the Galapagos
Eco-Tourism or Oil? The Sani People Choose (Slideshow)
Does the Benefit of Community Based Tourism Trump the Carbon Footprint?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?

5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Photo credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons 24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues

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