HistoryThe Galapagos Islands were named after the giant tortoises that Bishop Tomas de Berlanga of Panama found on the islands when he drifted off course on his way from Panama to Peru in 1535.
In the next three centuries the islands were home to a number of pirates who named various islands after English kings and aristocrats or themselves. Since 1892 all the islands have also had Spanish names given them by the Ecuadorian government in whose jurisdiction they lie. Sealers and whalers also visited the islands to capture the giant tortoises that could be kept on their ships for up to a year providing a supply of fresh meat.
Their most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, in 1835, who spent five weeks studying the wildlife and collecting specimens. What he saw there formed the basis for his further work leading to his theory of evolution.
The first inhabitant of the islands was Patrick Watkins in 1807 who, having been marooned there, grew vegetables to exchange with the whalers for rum. Later the Ecuadorians established a penal colony there and the prisoners also exchanged meat and vegetables with passing ships.
The number of tourists who arrive each year dwarfs the modern population of about 25,000. There are eight main settlements in total.
GEOLOGYThe Galapagos Islands were formed by volcanic activity and there are still some volcanic eruptions on the islands. The rocks were created from molten basalt with the islands being the extreme tops of undersea volcanoes. Many of the older volcanoes of the area are completely covered by water and cannot be seen.
The oldest of the islands, San Cristobal and Espanola, are around 3.2 to 3.5 million years old.
ECOLOGICAL RESERVEWith the islands’ long history separated from other landmasses very many of their marine and land creatures are unique to the Galapagos. UNESCO has designated the 13 main islands and dozens of smaller islets and rocks of the Galapagos Archipelago as a World Heritage Site.
After millions of years of isolation the animals have no instinctive fear of man allowing for close observation of their habits and life cycles. Nearly a quarter of all species found there are endemic to the Galapagos and some, like the Galapagos mockingbird and Galapagos giant tortoise, are found nowhere else on earth.
SCUBA DIVINGGalapagos ranks among the world’s top diving destinations as well as having endemic species that can be found nowhere else on the planet.
An underwater camera is a must as divers can find themselves swimming with dolphins, whale sharks, hammerheads, sea lions, giant turtles, parrot fish, penguins and a huge variety of reef and pelagic fish.
There are two diving options – day boats or liveaboards. Day trips visit dive sites closer to their bases due to the long distances involved but even so they visit National Park sites and the Gordon Rocks area, famous for its schools of hammerheads. Liveaboards enable divers to range further afield visiting the major national parks, most popular sites and some of the more remote islands. From a liveaboard divers can undertake night dives and two or three dives a day.
Diving in the National Parks is well regulated and divers must adhere to the rules such as not touching the animals, not removing samples of flora and fauna etc. Divers should be suitably experienced to cope with strong currents, cold water and poor visibility in places. The nearest decompression facility is over 650 miles away so divers must ensure they dive safely.
CLIMATEThe Galapagos Islands have two seasons. December to May is the hot season when average temperatures are around 28°C with higher sea temperatures and some heavy rainfall which is worst in January and February.
The cooler season runs from June to November when there is more cloud and mist with lighter rainfall. Average temperatures in the cooler season are around 18°C. After June trade winds can cause a dip in sea temperatures down to about 15°C.
CURRENCYEcuador and the Galapagos Islands use the US dollar as their currency.
TIME ZONEGalapagos is in the time zone GMT minus six hours.
WHAT TO TAKEOn a trip of a lifetime a camera or video recorder is top of the list.
Light clothing is sufficient for daytime but a sweater or jacket is useful for the evenings especially if you are on the water. A high SPF level sun block as well as a hat and good sunglasses should also be on your list.
TRAVELThere are no direct flights to the Galapagos Islands from outside Ecuador. The main flights depart from Quito and Guayaquil airports going to Baltra and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Once in Galapagos there are frequent flights between islands. There are boat services between islands but these are less frequent and take longer.
The islands can also be reached by booking a berth on a cargo carrier for the three-day trip from Guayaquil in Ecuador.
Every non-national has to pay an entry tax (50% for children under 12) and visitors should keep the receipt for this and their passports with them at all times.