In Galapagos, wildlife intersects with human life with casual ease. Marine iguanas lie sprawled on main roads, warming their bellies ahead of their next maritime expedition. Sea lions slum on public benches, warding off tourists and their selfie sticks with scratchy barks. Darwin’s finches flutter around the office. If you weren’t a nature enthusiast before, you’ll find yourself a convert after a few days.
I’ve had the life-altering experience of living in Galapagos for two months while volunteering on the communications team at the Charles Darwin Foundation. But rather than detailing the ins and outs of my daily tasks, I thought I would share some of the loco, mindboggling facts I have learnt about this enigmatic archipelago (and the planet) while living here.
1. A Galapagos iguana is worth upwards of $15,000
There’s a reason why locals are so cautious to avoid the iguanas on the path out of the Charles Darwin Research Station–and it’s not just because nobody wants to see a 2D endangered species. In 2016, an airport shuttle driver was fined over $15,000 for running over a land iguana due to it being within National Park territory and also an endemic species.
Likewise, there have been multiple attempts to smuggle iguanas out of Galapagos. In 2015, a Mexican trafficker attempted to sneak 11 iguanas out of Santa Cruz in his backpack. He was fined $20,000 and was sentenced to two years in prison in Ecuador.
2. Over 100 million sharks are killed worldwide every year
90 percent of the world’s sharks have already been wiped out through illegal shark fishing and almost all shark species are threatened or endangered. This prehistoric species, that has graced our oceans for 450 million years, is essential to the marine ecosystem as the apex predator that keeps all other species healthy.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve suffered a huge loss recently when a Chinese vessel was intercepted by the Ecuadorian authorities with over 300 tons of fish on board, over half of which was endangered hammerhead and silky sharks.
‘There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sharks,’ says Dr Salinas of the Charles Darwin Foundation, whose team discovered the vessel. ‘This is going to be historic. The biggest seizure of sharks in the history of the Galápagos, for sure.’
Although the protected area covers 133km2 surrounding the Galapagos archipelago, satellite photos have shown that hundreds of ships hover on the fringes of the reserve and fish illegally from there. Sadly, the shark meat is mostly used to make shark-fin soup, an illegal and highly coveted delicacy in Asia.
3. Evolution can be observed over as little as three generations
It has recently been discovered that evolution can take place much faster than we thought. Scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant have just documented that there is now a new finch species living on Daphne Major Island, that has emerged in just three generations. The bird, which they have named “Big Bird” due to its size, is made up of two species: the endemic medium ground finch and the non-native large cactus finch.
4. Galapagos sea lions can dive almost 600 metres
Galapagos sea lions can dive to almost 600m below sea level and can hold their breath for around 30 minutes. David Anchundia, who was part of the research team that studied these creatures, says, “Sea lions are such incredible hunters that they only need to forage for a few hours a day. This is why you see them surfing, socializing and chilling on the beaches of Galapagos so readily.”
5. There are huge never-been-explored MOUNTAINS under the sea
Seamounts, as they’re scientifically known, are underwater mountains that rise from the seafloor but never reach the sea’s surface. Typically seamounts are found at incredible depths (between 1000 and 4000 metres below sea level) and their ecosystems are extremely diverse due to their physical isolation from, well, everything.
Currently we have explored less than 1 percent of the estimated 100,000 seamounts worldwide. The Charles Darwin Foundation and other scientists have explored 27 different Galapagos seamounts and discovered 30 potential new species. This means that if my calculations are correct, there could be potentially 100,000 undiscovered species living in the deep blue…
6. Contrary to popular belief, people do live on the Galapagos Islands
There are 19 Galapagos Islands (and many smaller islets), four of which are inhabited: San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana and Santa Cruz. The first humans began living on the islands in 1830s, but the biggest boom in human life began in the 1980s and has continued to grow annually. This population growth (and the tourism that comes with it) has obviously had many negative impacts on the natural ecosystems here, such as the introduction of species from other countries that often overwhelm and sometimes eliminate endemic species.
7. The first person to land on the Galapagos was Irish!
Pat Watkins, or “Irish Pat,” is thought to be the first person to live in Galapagos, finding himself marooned on Floreana Island in 1805. He was said to have farmed vegetables that he then bartered with whalers. He didn’t do much to help change the Irish stereotype, spending a great deal of his time drinking rum.
Donate to the Charles Darwin Foundation today to continue scientific research on the Galapagos archipelago.