The Galapagos Islands are a group of islets off the cost of South America (Ecuador, specifically). They were first discovered by Fray Tomas de Berianga in 1535, a Spanish Bishop. He didn't even bother to name them, he found them so desolate. His one line description of the islands is still considered fitting, even to this day "It is as if God caused it to rain down stones." The islands themselves are volcanic outcroppings from the sea floor. Five of them are still actively volcanic.

The reason the Galapagos Islands are so well known to this day is the fortuitous chance that should bring Charles Darwin to the shores of Santa Cruz. While on the islands (as he had done throughout the entire Voyage of the Beagle), Darwin took specimens, as did the captain of the ship and some of the other crew members. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin did not think much of the islands. In fact, upon seeing the various types of ground dwelling finches he assumed they were all one species, because they all appeared to be eating the same foods. Only upon further reflection in England did he realize that the hand of this theory he was pursuing, called "Natural Selection", was easily viewable in the speciation upon the Galapagos Islands. In fact, today (thanks mostly to the research of Peter and Rosemary Grant) the Galapagos Islands and "Darwin's Finches" are one of the best examples of Adaptive Radiation in all of modern biology. (Marsupials being one of the other really good ones.)

The Islands-

  • Espanola (Hood Island)
    The southernmost of the larger Galápagos islands. The island is 60 square kms (23 sq mi) with a high point of 777 meters (2550 feet). As well as abundant sea lions and boobies, Española is best known for the 10,000 breeding pairs of the endemic Waved albatross. As well as the Waved albatross, Punta Suarez also has plenty of the reddish-colored Marine iguanas, nesting Blue-footed boobies, and the nearly-tame Galápagos mockingbirds; the endemic hawks, doves, Masked boobies and wallow-tailed gulls are also found here. Hood has beautiful cliffs on its southern side, and on the southwestern side off the trail there is a blow hole that shoots water 80 feet into the air.

  • Fernandina (Narborough Island)
    Fernandina is one of the wildest islands in the Galápagos, the sort of place that moved Melville to call these Enchanted Islands "five and twenty heaps of cinders." Tremendous volcanic activity took place here in the recent past, and in 1968 subterranean seismic activity caused the collapse of the caldera floor. Since then four lava flow eruptions inside the crater have occurred. The youngest island of the archipelago, Fernandina is entirely covered by lava flows frozen into stone, looking much the same as the day they coursed from the 1494 meter (4900 foot) summit.

  • Genovesa (Tower Island)
    This island, contrary to its name, does not resemble a tower; it rises only 76 meters (250 feet) above sea level, and is the smallest of the 13 major islands of the archipelago (14 sq. km, 5.4 sq. miles). Here swallow-tail and lava gulls, red-footed and masked boobies, and off-shore birds such as shearwaters and noddies can be spotted. Tower is famous for its large colony of nesting frigate birds and red-footed boobies, from the "wet landing" at Prince Phillip's Steps.

  • Isabela
    The largest island in the archipelago, Isabela's 4588 square kilometers (1771 sq. mi) composes almost half the total land area of the Galápagos. It is over 112 kilometers long (70 miles), and has five distinct volcanic mountains. The highest of these, Volcan Wolf (1707 meters, 5600 feet), is situated almost exactly on the equator, and is the highest peak in the chain. These volcanoes are isolated from one another by low-lying terrain which provide a zoogeographic barrier. As a result, there are five distinct subspecies of the Galápagos tortoise on Isabela.

  • Marchena (Bindloe Island)
    At 130 square kilometers (50 square miles), Marchena is the seventh largest island of the Galápagos, more than twice the size of its nearest competitor, Española (60 sq. kms.). As on Pinta, the introduced goats that once overpopulated this island were eradicated by the National Park Service in the 1970s. Yet Marchena is one of the few islands, apparently, to have never hosted a native population of the Galápagos tortoise.

  • Pinta (Abingdon Island)
    Almost exactly the same size as Española Island at 60 square kilometers (23 sq. mi.), Pinta plays an unusual role in the history of the Galápagos, for at least two reasons: the first relates to the introduced species issue, and the second to the distinctive tortoises of the archipelago. In 1967, it is believed that fishermen introduced three goats to Pinta Island to provide a food source for their future landings. Between 1971 and 1975, the descendants of these goats were eradicated in a Park Service hunting program -- 38,000 goats were killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is but one survivor of the saddle-backed tortoise species native to Pinta, the male known as Lonesome George. He currently resides at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island, and although efforts are underway to cross-breed him with the related Wolf Volcano subspecies, they have so far proven unsuccessful.

  • Pinzon (Duncan Island)
    This centrally located and moderately sized island is 18 square kilometers, 7 square miles and has no landing sites. The island is almost entirely cliff-bound, and the 458 meter volcano (1502 feet) that dominates its landscape stands untrammeled between the two larger islands of Santa Cruz and Isabela.

  • San Cristobal (Chatham Island)
    The fifth largest island in the archipelago is 558 square kilometers (215 sq. mi) in area, with a high point at 730 meters (2395 feet). Cristobal is one the center of the human population of the Galapagos Islands. Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the archipelago, is located on this island, and is home to almost 2500 people. Natural highlights include the freshwater lake El Junco, a sea lion beach at Punta Pitt with masked and red-footed boobies and the aptly named Frigatebird Hill.

  • Santa Cruz
    Santa Cruz is geographically the center of the archipelago, and the second largest island at 986 square kilometers (380 sq. mi.); its high point is 864 meters, or 2835 feet. In recent years Santa Cruz has overshadowed San Cristobál as the commercial center of the Galapagos, due to its easy access via the airport at Baltra, the bay at Puerto Ayora, and the 1960 establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station. The research station is home to "Lonesome George", the last surviving member of the Pinta tortoise species. One of the most distinctive features surrounding Santa Cruz is the islet of Daphne Major. Less than a third of a kilometer square (.12 sq. mi.), this small island halfway between Santiago and Santa Cruz is infrequently visited in part because of its fragile environment, in part because of the difficulty in landing here. A narrow trail leads over the lip of the dead volcano (110 meters, 366 feet) through a masked booby nesting area, and into the interior of its caldera where colonies of blue-footed boobies, red-billed tropicbirds and frigatebirds are found. Of greatest interest, however, is the presence of species of Darwin's finches, which were studied for 20 years by two scientists who documented the role of natural selection in evolution -- a remarkable achievement recorded in Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch.

  • Santa Fe (Barrington Island)
    This island is located east of Santa Cruz, 15 nautical miles from Puerto Ayora. It is only 24 square kilometers (9.3 sq. mi.) and peaks out at 260 meters (850 feet). On the northwestern side is a small cove with two sandy beaches and a colony of sea lions. Inland a subspecies of the Plazas land iguana breeds amid a forest of the large Opuntia cactus, largest in the Archipelago.

  • Santa Maria (Charles Island)
    Scenic Floreana belongs to the archipelago's southern group of islands. It is 173 square kilometers (67 square miles) in area, with a peak of 640 meters (2100 ft). It is the earliest site of human involvement in the island, and has was also home to a community of German idealists, vegans, and deviants. (Who eventually went quite mad and killed each other.)

  • Santiago (James Island)
    The fourth largest island is Santiago, at 585 square kilometers (226 sq. mi.), with a high point of 907 meters (2974 feet). A large number of marine iguanas are found at the Puerto Egas landing, sunning on the black rock, and offshore fur seals are usually seen. Sugarloaf Volcano, a simmeringly active volcano is located here, and some of the lava flows date back over 90 years.

Information drawn from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, (descriptions of the islands), and Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch.

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