Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, accidentally discovered the Galapagos Islands in 1535 when his ship drifted off course. He was on his way to Peru, and at the time considered the islands to be all but worthless. But in his writings he described the harsh conditions of the islands, the tortoises, iguanas, sea lions and birds of the islands, and the tameness of the animals. The first crude maps including the islands appeared in 1570. They were drawn by the Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius and the Flemish mathematician and cartographer Gerardus Mercator, and showed the islands as “Insulae de los Galopegos”, or Islands of the Tortoises.
This was a time when European nations were working to limit Spain’s growing power while seeking to take some of its wealth, with England giving its blessing to pirates attacking Spanish ships for the treasure they carried. Thus, late in the 16th century, with the location of the Galapagos Islands not far from a major center of Spanish activity in the New World, the islands became a base for English pirates.
By about 1790, whalers began to replace pirates on the islands. Captain James Colnett visited the Galapagos Islands in 1793 and 1794 to investigate whaling in the region. He described the flora and fauna of the islands and was the first to produce a reasonably accurate map of the Galapagos. He also set up a small barrel on Floreana for whalers to leave letters that would be picked up by ships returning to England. This barrel is still visited by tourists today, where cards can be left for other tourists to take to their destinations.
Eventually the whalers became much more numerous than the Pirates, and continued hunting tortoises, turtles, birds and other animals for food and fur seals for their pelts. Tortoises could be kept on ships as a source of food for several months without food or water. Thus the whalers devastated populations of the native tortoises; it has been estimated that nearly 200,000 tortoises may have been killed during the 19th century. They were nearly extinct by the beginning of the 20th century. Goats began to be introduced during this same period, which would multiply and devastate the native forests of many islands and further threaten the tortoises. Goats and other introduced species still pose the greatest threat to the species of the Galapagos Islands.
Unitl 1832, the Galapagos Islands were owned by Spain, but they showed little interest in the islands. In 1832, Ecuador claimed the islands, naming them the “Archipelago of Ecuador,” and in 1892 renamed them the “Archipelago de Colon”, which, although seldom used, remains the official name of the islands. In 1833, Jose Villamil, a Frenchman from Louisiana, founded the first settlement on the islands on Floreana. Although successful, the settlement was abandoned when the Ecuadorian government established a prison colony there.
The voyage of the survey ship HMS Beagle in September of 1835 was perhaps the most important event in Galapagos history. One of its passengers was the 22 year old naturalist Charles Darwin, who along with others on board made a scientific study of the islands. Darwin noticed the difference between the finches and mockingbirds on different islands, and was told by the governor of the prison colony on Charles Island that the species of tortoises differed on different islands as well. Upon his return to England, he determined that several species of finches found here were unique to the islands. These observations became the basis for the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection, later presented in his 1859 work The Origin of Species.
Another colony, called Progresso, was established in 1869 on San Cristobal led by Manuel Cobos. His tyrannic rule led to his murder in 1904, but the colony survived, and San Cristobal remains the seat of government for Galapagos. Other settlements followed for mining of sulfur and coral and for fishing and cattle ranching; most of these towns remain today.
It was the publication of Galapagos: World’s End by William Beebe in 1924 that stimulated European and North American interest in the Galapagos Islands, and began the interest in ecotourism in the islands. Tourism began slowly, but the islands began to receive immigrants from Europe, the United States, and Ecuador. Among these immigrants were families who now operate touring yachts and hotels on the islands.
During World War II, the US Navy obtained permission from Ecuador to open a military base on Baltra, now a civilian airport operated by Ecuador. Other airports were later built on San Cristobal and Isabela.
In 1935, the Ecuadorian government declared parts of the islands wildlife preserves, reflecting a recognition that human presence had had an impact on the islands, and that the islands contained something special worth preserving. However, little was done to enforce the decree. In 1959, two important events occurred. The Galapagos Islands were declared a national park by Ecuador, and the Charles Darwin Foundation was founded, which began to operate in the islands the following year.
The Charles Darwin Research Station opened four years later, and began to reverse some of the damage. Their work included breeding of tortoises in an effort to repopulate the remaining species on their native islands, and later, they began a similar effort with the land iguanas. Their work continues today, including research work and projects to restore tortoise and iguana populations, remove goats from Isabela and Santiago islands, to monitor sea lion health, and to protect ecosystems from invasive species. They are also working in partnership with residents of the islands on projects aimed toward long term protection of the islands.
In 1968, the park boundaries were defined and a park service was established. The process of eradicating goats from some of the islands began. In 1978, the islands were recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and in 1985 as a Biosphere Reserve. In 1986, 70,000 square kilometers of ocean was declared a marine reserve, the second largest in the world. Later, in 1998, Ecuador created the Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in the world totaling 138,000 square kilometers. Yet in 2007, UNESCO added the Galapagos Islands to their World Heritage in Danger list, primarily for problems created by invasive species, uncontrolled tourism and overfishing. In 2010, because of increased efforts by the Ecuadorian government to address these problems, the Galapagos were removed from this list.
1970 saw the beginnings of organized tourism in the islands, but only 1000 tourists visited that year. Since then, tourism has grown to over 160,000 annual visitors. Much has been done to minimize the impact of so many tourists; operators are tightly regulated, tourists can only visit certain areas of certain islands and they must be accompanied by licensed guides, visitor sites are carefully monitored, and new controls on migration and visitors have been implemented.