Galapagos sapiens – Why the Galapagos Islands are special

Yacht La Pinta and kayaks at Floreana Island

The Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands and islets that rise up from the bed of the Pacific Ocean 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) west of Ecuador. On a desktop globe or on Googlemaps, they look like a set of freckles on the ocean’s cheek, incongruous and entirely unexpected. They emerged from the ocean just yesterday in geological time, created by a crack in the Earth’s crust between two tectonic plates, known to science as a volcanic hotspot. A very hot spot.

The Galapagos are special because they have never been connected to the mainland.

The flora and fauna that reached the islands’ shores – before the intervention of Man at any rate – had to survive the hundreds of miles of ocean first. Mammals failed almost entirely to complete the journey. Over millions of years, only a small rat made it. The kings of Galapagos fauna are reptiles. How did they get there? They were washed away from the banks of rivers on the continent by flash floods, floated on rafts of vegetation skippered by whimsical ocean currents for weeks, and finally disembarked, fortuitously impregnated.

Over millions of years, these reptiles, and many of the marine birds that also alighted on these volcanic isles, adapted to their environment. In the words of Charles Darwin – in fact, the sub-title to the first edition of On The Origin of Species – their survival followed the principle of “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.

Marine iguanas warming up for the day's activities

Thus a land tortoise that began little bigger than your foot grew to the length of six year-old child; a cormorant became flightless as it gained an advantage by fishing underwater rather than flying; one species of finch arrived and adapted to its environment to such an extent that there are today 13 species; and a mutation of a land iguana whose offspring were good swimmers thrived and reproduced, creating the marine iguana, unique to the Islands. Flora too, mutated and adapted. The scalesia tree, for example, which reaches heights of a good 10 metres (30 feet) in the highlands of some islands, is from the same family as the diminutive daisy.

The Galapagos are special because the islands are a living laboratory of evolution.

The animals of Galapagos evolved and developed in isolation for millennia. Although the islands were discovered by the blown-off-course Bishop of Panamá in the mid-1500s, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Man took any notice of these ‘enchanted isles’. In fact, mariners hated them. The ‘enchanted’ of the tourist brochures is really a mistranslation of the Spanish ‘encantadas’ which should really translate as ‘bewitched’ in this context. Cloaked in garúa sea mist for half the year, black and foreboding, occasionally spewing volcanic fire, and with very few sources of fresh water, no seaman worth his salt wanted to spend any time in the archipelago.

But the whaling trade changed this. The Humboldt Current that carries nutrients northwards from the frigid seas of Antarctica brings vast schools of fish and cetaceans. For the whalers who sold whale oil to the citizens of the burgeoning cities of North America and Europe, Galapagos’ fame grew almost like that of San Francisco in the midst of the gold rush.

The whalers wreaked havoc on the islands’ ecosystems. They let domestic animals loose for future use, chopped forests for burning down whale fat and carried off tens of thousands of giant tortoises, whose meat would sustain them on their long sea voyages. The reptilian tortoises, stacked five-high in the holds of the ships, could last three months without water – the ideal meals-on-shells.

These sad events, however, pale into nothingness when compared to Man’s millenarian depredation of the South American environment. Within only a few thousands of years of homo sapiens crossing the Bering Straits, all of the continent’s large land mammals (with a couple of exceptions) had been exterminated. The survivors developed an in-born fear of Man. Land mammals ran a mile. Birds flapped for their lives. This is the world as we know it; the relationship with the natural world we have come to accept.

Galapagos are special because the animals have no fear of Man.

Blue-footed boobie close-up

Fortunately, between the whalers arriving and the establishment of the Galapagos National Park in 1959, the Islands’ creatures didn’t develop an ingrained or inherited trait of fearing Man. They do not consider us a predator or cause for alarm – they don’t even surreptitiously shuffle sideways to get out of our way. This is due in greater part to the fact that the Islands don’t have any large carnivores – the Galapagos hawk is the biggest predator. In fact, exploring a visitor site on Galapagos you have to take care not to trip over a family of basking marine iguanas, step on a blue-footed booby’s nest or stumble over a sea lion.

In Galapagos, the animals are all blissfully unaware that just a few hundred miles away their kin would have been clubbed, clobbered, feathered, skinned, boiled up with some potatoes or sold by the likes of us faster than you could say evolutionary biology.

Not only are the Galapagos the ‘origin of the Origin of Species’, but they are one of the few places on the planet where you can observe these species at will, in comfort, with enough time to contemplate their remarkable characteristics, and to reflect upon our place in the great tree of life: to realise we are just one twig at the end of one branch of that tree; to realise we have a responsibility to that tree; to realise we have no more rights to be up in its canopy than any other creature.

Tropic bird in flight, Galapagos Islands

Sharing time with the creatures of Galapagos is a privileged chance for reflection. On this trip, I dived down underwater and did loop the loops and twisted and turned with a young sea lion pup, over and over with new lungfuls of air. I sat observing dragon-like land iguanas beneath prickly cacti. I stood on a wind-swept cliff edge and watched tropic birds, pelicans, boobies, lava gulls and storm petrels ride the precarious currents above the glinting, silvery sea. And none of them took the slightest bit of notice of me.

The Galapagos are special because we, in our wisdom, have decided to protect them as such. Long may we continue to be so sapiens.

By Dominic Hamilton, Head of Communication, dhamilton AT

To join Metropolitan Touring and explore the Galapagos Islands, see