The Human Significance of the Galápagos Islands

Amanda Pomicter
July 12, 2002

The Galápagos Islands, located approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, have developed free from human involvement. Only in the very recent history of the 3 million year-old volcanic Islands has the presence of humans been actualized. Legend dates the first human contact with the Islands around 1485 (Constant 33). Although this voyage of Tupac Yupanki can not be verified, another trip made by Spaniard Tomas Berlanga has been dated to 1535 (Constant 33). Through the years, pirates, whalers, scientists, fishermen, and ecotourists have individually experienced the Galápagos and thought about the islands in different ways. The human significance placed on the islands has changed over time from a stance of exploitation to an emphasis on conservation. Consequently, how people think about the islands dramatically effects how the delicate ecosystem is pillaged or preserved. In this paper I will address a sampling of issues relevant to the changing significance of the Galápagos Islands and the human response to such change.

Among the first visitors to the Galápagos Islands were pirates. These pirates worked as important political strategists for the nations of Spain and England. During this time period, the Spanish empire was rapidly gaining wealth from its South American colonies. Cortez and Pizaro, both Spanish conquistador, armed with the weapon of infectious diseases, subdued the native populations and established lucrative colonies for the Spanish empire (Constant 33). The scent of gold and silver attracted pirates to the New World with hopes of pillaging Spanish ships in transit from the colonies to the empire. With Spanish power secured in South America, the English were hungry to gain a portion of the freshly acquired wealth of the gold and silver resources. Consequently, the pirates worked as political and economic strategists for the determined English empire by attacking and stripping passing Spanish ships of their possessions. The Galápagos Islands served as a typical location for pirate retreats after attacking gold-laden ships.

One example of the use of the Galápagos by English pirates involves John Hawkins. In 1593, Hawkins, accompanied by three ships, attacked several ships in the Golf of Guayaquil and retreated to the Galápagos to await a safe trip back to England (Latorre 41). Many pirates followed in Hawkins example, including Cook, Davis, Cowley, and Dampier (Latorre 42). While these men used the islands as places of retreat, they also relied on the island for provisions of food, water, and material to repair their ships. Interestingly, these pirates were among the first to develop maps and written descriptions of the Islands. Additionally, these pirates initiated and perpetuated the naming of the Islands as Las Islas Encantadas, translated as The Enchanted Islands.

Like the pirates that came before them, whalers who appeared on the scene in 1780, continued to refer to the series of Islands as Las Islas Encantadas. Herman Melville, considered one of the great American writers of the 19th century, spent several years as a whaler. Most famous for his book, Moby Dick, Melville traveled to the Galápagos Islands on a whaling excursion and later wrote the short story, The Encantadas. In his description of the Islands Melville writes, "So solitary, remote, and blank...I doubt wether two human beings ever touched upon that spot. So far as yon Abington Isle is concerned, Adam and his billions of posterity remain uncreated" (785). Melville relates a telling of the islands as a deserted place which remains untouched by humans. Interestingly enough, The Galápagos which retain Spanish names, were also given English names, as apparent in Melville¹s naming of Abington Isle. Furthermore, Melville points to the source of the short story title and explains the enchanted feel to the islands. He writes: Of these loyal freebooters and the things which associate their name with the Encantadas, we shall hear anon. Nay, for one little item, immediately; for between James¹s Isle and Albemarle, lies a fantastic islet, strangely known as "Cowley¹s Enchanted Isle." But as all the group is deemed enchanted, the reason must be given for the spell within a spell involved by this particular destination. The name was bestowed by that excellent Buccaneer himself, on his first visit here. Speaking in his published voyages of this spot, he says--"My fancy led me to call it Cowley¹s Enchanted Isle, for we having had a sight of it upon several points of the compass, it appeared always in so many different forms; sometimes like a ruined fortification; upon another point like a great city." No wonder though, that among the Encantadas all sorts of ocular deceptions and mirages should be met (786).

Melville¹s storied description of the naming of the Enchanted Islands, focuses on the Galápagos as a place of mystery and intrigue, where fixed objects play with the imagination.

Melville along with other British and American whalers were attracted to the Galápagos for its ready supply of whales. While these whalers were brought to the the Islands in search of blubber, these men made use of the many resources readily available on the Galápagos Islands. Several factors contributed to the Islands use by whalers as an ideal location. These factors include the Humboldt current, the wind orientation, the basic necessities of food and water supplied by the islands, and the close location to Ecuador for labor (Latorre 66). During this time period, many tortoises and fur sea lions perished to feed the travelers and supply fur products. For instance, "Captain Benjamin Morrell confessed to having skinned 5, 000 sea lions in two months" (Constant 36). Like the sea lion, the tortoises were also killed at extraordinary rates. Based on calculations of the number of ships passing through the islands and the approximate number of tortoises captured by each ship, Latorre estimates more than one million tortoises were killed between the years 1684 and 1860 (70). Tortoises were routinely hunted, killed, and stored as cargo on ships for their meat and ability to withstand one year without food or water. The tortoise made a convenient addition to the cargo of ships as a low-maintainence fresh supply of meat for long journeys.

Derived from this time period of pirates to whalers we can begin to understand what the Galápagos Islands signified to these people. The Islands provided a sanctuary for the lawless pirates and the sea weary whalers. Provisions of food and water were readily accessible and utilized by both groups. The whalers participated in the reckless exploitation of the Islands and its resources. Countless fur sea lions and tortoises were captured and killed to meet the needs and wants of the whalers. No consideration was noted for the long-term consequences of their actions. These temporal decisions led to the long term consequence of near extinction for both the tortoise and the fur sea lion.

Following the age of exploitation of the islands, Charles Darwin introduced a new chapter of understanding and importance for the Islands. Darwin first descended upon the islands aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835 (Constant 39). Since that memorable voyage, The Galápagos Islands have been etched into scientific history as the source of Darwin's expose on evolution. During the five weeks Darwin spent in the Galapagos, he began to contemplate ideas since defined as natural selection, adaptation to the environment, and genetic mutations (Constant 39). Years after visiting the Islands, Darwin published the monumental work, The Origin of the Species. Darwin¹s historical visit and scientific documentation on the theory of evolution contribute to our perception of the islands and the significance we attach to the site. As Constant eloquently states, "A new revolution in the scientific mind was born" (39).

This new revolution in science, inspired by the island, has attracted attention from a scientific perspective. For instance, the Galápagos has since been referenced as Œshowcase of evolution¹ (Constant 44). It is this unique location that provides an opportunity for scientists and tourists to learn from and experience natural selection and speciation. A perfect example of the Œshowcase of evolution¹ are Darwin¹s Finches. Thirteen species of finches have evolved from one original species of finch in terms of beak size and diet preferences (Constant 47). While the Galápagos Islands have been made famous as the catalyst of evolutionary thought, the Island has been popularized by the finches that inhabit the islands and serve as a working example of speciation and geographic isolation.

In light of Darwin¹s importance from an evolutionary and scientific perspective, in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation was formed with the help of UNESCO, New York Zoological Society, and the International Congress of Zoology (Constant 283). The focus of the Charles Darwin Foundation was to protect and preserve the environment and focus of scientific research and conservation. The Darwin Station was constructed several years later on Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos to aid in the goals of the Charles Darwin Foundation. The Darwin Station has been particularly innovative in rehabilitating the land tortoise population. While several races have become extinct, the Station remains key in the survival of remaining tortoises.

In line with the emphasis on conservation, the Darwin Station receives its economic support from several places. A portion of the budget is given by the Ecuadorian government, visiting research scientists, the Smithsonian Institution, the San Diego Zoo, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and private donations from European and North American groups (Constant 283). The international contribution to the success of the Charles Darwin Foundation stands as a testament to the influence of Charles Darwin and an increased emphasis on conservation worldwide. A connection can be drawn between the scientific importance of the Galápagos and the international concern to protect and conserve the wildlife of the Islands.

In addition to the Darwin Station, The Galápagos National Park Service has been active in implementing plans to protect the Islands. The increase in tourism to the area served as a catalyst for the 1973 Master Plan (Latorre 366). The goals of the Master Plan include the protection of the ecosystem of all the Islands, the removal of all feral animals, and the elimination of all activities that are non conducive to the goals of the park (Latorre 366). The Islands were also divided into zones to delineate the activities that would be tolerated for each area. For instance, the Primitive Scientific Zone represents an area highly sensitive to introduced species. This area is strictly limited to scientists who have recieved permission and are supervised by the park service (Latorre 367). By dividing the Islands into special zones of use, the park service is working to preserve and protect the ecosystem and balance the needs of tourists.

Matters of conservation have been complicated by the increase in tourism to the area over the years. Constant cites the total number of visitors in 1974 as 7,500 persons whereas in the year 2000, 71,567 tourists entered the Galápagos National Park. While the increase in tourism is helping bring dollars to the small towns of the Galapagos, such as Puerto Ayora, cruise ships operating in the Galapagos, and conservation efforts, there are also problems of introduced species arise. Tourists are not permitted to bring certain food products or live materials onto the islands. Rules have been established for tourists to insure that they do not harm the wildlife or disturb the natural environment (Constant 279).

While attempts are made to encourage a harmonious relationship between tourists and the Galápagos wildlife, these attempts are not always preventative of disaster. In January 2001, a tanker supplying oil to tourist vessels collided with a reef off the coast of San Cristobal ("Tarfooted Boobies in the Galapagos" 35). Strong winds and currents off the coast were able to break apart and divert the oil from polluting the fragile ecosystem, which is home to the Galápagos wildlife.

The problems of conservation efforts are not limited to issues of tourism. Ferber comments on the violent and destructive attack of the Darwin Station in 2000, brought on by angry local fisherman (2059). In attempts to protect the lobster population, the National Park Service enforced a quota for seasonal fishing. The quota having been met, fisherman stormed the research center in protest. Consequently, the Park Service increased the quota on spiny lobster. The conflagration outraged conservationists who contend the increased quota will be detrimental to the Galápagos ecosystem, whereas park officials are attempting to negotiate with local fisherman who are dependent on fishing for income.

The issue involving the local fisherman, dependent on the resources of the Galapagos, and conservationists, determined to protect all the wildlife of the Galapagos, focus the dilemma of the Galápagos as a site of exploitation in the midst of conservation efforts. While initial contact with the Islands, by pirates and whalers, was a relationship based on the exploitation of endemic animals for economic gain, the plight of the local fisherman is a similar relationship. However, the post-Darwinian understanding of evolution and the significance of conservation has ushered in an era of protection and view of the Galápagos Islands as a non-replenishable natural resource. These opposite belief systems of conservation and exploitation continue to exist in relation to our understanding of the Islands. Coincidentally, these systems of understanding continue to change over time. The Darwin Station and the National Park Service must work to protect the unique and endemic wildlife of the Islands while considering the needs and demands of tourists and local fisherman. How these needs will successfully be met is yet undetermined. How we think about the Islands as sites of scientific worth or as resources for economic exploitation will ultimately determine wether future action will follow a pattern of exploitation or conservation.


Constant, Pierre. 2002. The Galápagos Islands: A Natural History. Fifth Edition. Odyssey Publications Ltd.

Ferber, Dan. 2000. "Galápagos Station Survives Latest Attack by Fishers." Science. 290:5499, pp. 2059-2061.

Latorre, Octavio. 1999. El Hombre en las Islas Encantadas: La Historia Humana de Galapagos. Produccion Grafica: Quito, Ecuador.

Melville, Herman. 2000. Herman Melville: Moby Dick, Billy Budd, and Other Writings. Penguin Putnam Inc.: USA.

Milner, Richard. 2001. "Our Evolving View of the Galapagos: The Famous Islands before and After Charles Darwin." Scientific American. 285:1, pp.95-97.

Sattelmeyer, Robert, and James Barbour. 1978. "The Sources and Genesis of Melville¹s ŒNorfolk Isle and Chola Widow.¹" American Literature. 50:3, pp.398-417.

"Tarfooted Boobies in the Galapagos." 2001. Economist. 358:8206, p. 35.

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