Protecting a Living Museum

The iconic feet of the Blue-Footed BoobyThe iconic feet of the Blue-Footed Booby (Adventure Life)


A brief history of human impact on the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos first appeared on maps around 1570 with various explorers making stops but never settling on the islands.  Whalers and maritime fur traders started moving in during the 18th century.  At this time, tortoises were hunted as a source of meat since they could be kept alive onboard ships for months without food or water.  This hunting was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain tortoise species.  Fur-seal hunters during this period brought the population of these seals close to extinction as well.

Captain George Washington Gardner of Nantucket discovered sperm whales in 1818 some thousand miles west of the South American coast near the equator.  Upon his return home with 2,000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of his discovery, a great increase of whaleships embarked to exploit the new whaling ground.  The Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for these whalers.  They became the unofficial "post office" where letters were picked up and dropped off, and ships were repaired on the islands. 

Ecuador claimed the islands as the Archipelago of Ecuador in 1832 and took a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana.  Shortly after, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin made observations on the geology and biology of the islands during a 1835 expedition.  During his short time there, Darwin was impressed by the volcanic formations and different species inhabiting individual islands.  This was the beginning developments of his theory of natural selection explaining evolution and his further noteable studies of the islands.

In the following century, settlers from Europe, Ecuador, and America came to the islands in search of a simple life.  Throughout the early 1900's, the islands were used as a miliary base for both the United States and Ecuador.  The Galapagos became a national park in 1959, and the 1960's brought tourism to the archipelago.

Historical practices with lasting impact

Matt Kareus, the Executive Director of IGTOA (International Galapagos Tour Operators Association), explained that the practice that has had the most negative influence on the Galapagos has historically been the introduction of invasive species.  It is estimated that there are over 1,300 introduced species living in the islands currently, and they pose a great threat to the survival of the irreplaceable ecosystems and endemic species of the islands.  "Because the species of the Galapagos evolved in isolation, many don't have natural defenses against foreign invaders or aren't able to compete against them for food and other resources," explains Kareus.

Many invasive species were brought onto the islands purposely before people understood the potential impact or really appreciated what was at risk in their actions.  For example, feral goats destroyed vegetation and caused soil erosion in the habitats that animals rely on for survival.  This actually resulted in the extinction of Pinta tortoises.  Also, the wild blackberry plant has destroyed 99% of the endemic Scalesia forests on Santa Cruz and Isabella islands.  Invasive species are generally unintentionally introduced today, such as stowaway insects arriving on cargo shipments.

Protecting the future

What is the most vital effort we can make in order to protect the future of the islands?  Kareus believes the solution is to simply "make sure that new species don't arrive."  However, this is difficult to control especially with the growing popularity of tourism.  There are many active conservation efforts to preserve the Galapagos and ensure a flourishing future for the islands.  As a member of IGTOA, our company is aligned with a like-minded organization dedicated to conserving the Galapagos. Adventure Life and our travelers have together donated tens of thousands of dollars over the years to Galapagos conservation efforts.  This helps with everything from cleaning up beaches to policing against shark fining.  As conservation issues become more real to more people, the hope is that the mission of protecting the Galapagos can be fulfilled by such joint efforts.

The challenge we all face as travelers is to buy into this vision of protecting what has been entrusted to us.  We can take personal ownership in the conservation efforts by choosing to travel with a responsible operator, practicing responsible travel behaviors, and contributing monetarily to conservation efforts, such as the Galapagos Traveler Conservation Fund.  Our diligent efforts are instrumental in preserving the islands for future generations to enjoy.



Looking to visit the Galapagos Islands? Find your Galapagos Tour here.


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