As the Galapagos Islands came into sight far below, I thought of HMS Beagle, a tiny 10-gun ship of the British Royal Navy that sailed into these same islands in 1835.
I could almost hear Captain Robert Fitzroy bellowing orders to his seamen. Above him in the rigging, braced against the mast, I imagined a young man sighting through his telescope at a volcano on Isabela, largest of the Galapagos Islands.
That inquisitive 24-year-old was Charles Darwin, an English naturalist halfway through a five-year, round-the-world expedition. It was easy to picture him at dusk, filling his journal with impressions of the remote, rough-hewn Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos tell a fascinating story. It's a story about change; a story that has shaped the way we understand our planet and ourselves. Charles Darwin was the first to interpret the meaning of that story.
Touched by Man
Long before Darwin and Fitzroy, others visited these islands strung out across the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles west of Ecuador.
Among the first were pirates who used them as a base for raids on Spanish ports along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. To this day, people tell tales of pirate's gold wrapped in burlap, hidden in black lava caverns.
After the pirates left, sealers and whalers hauled marine life from the sea and, on land, butchered iguanas and slow-moving giant tortoises. In 1813, U.S. warships chased away the last British whaling fleet. Unfortunately, the few innocuous goats the crews left behind multiplied to become more than 100,000 pests chewing away at the ecological balance of several of the islands.
More Recent History
At the height of WWII, the United States Navy returned, carving an airstrip into the rough lava of the tiny Galapagos island of Baltra. From that remote outpost, a handful of prop planes were charged with protecting the Panama Canal from enemy attack.
When the navy pulled out after the war they left the airstrip intact, never dreaming that they were transforming life in the islands. Today, after a two-hour trip from mainland Ecuador, TAME Airlines uses that same airstrip to deliver inquiring minds to what has been described as the "Laboratory of Evolution."
It's a popular destination, but visitors need not worry about crowds. Far more people attend the annual Rose Bowl football game than visit the Galapagos Islands in an entire year.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication