October 1835. After 4 years spent circumnavigating the globe, the British survey vessel HMS Beagle cast anchor off the Galapagos Islands, 1,000 kilometres from the South American mainland.
On board, Charles Darwin, a young researcher travelling with the ship, noted an “unusual group of finches” in his travel journal. “The most curious fact is the perfect gradation in the size of the beaks in the different species. One might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, a single species had been taken and modified for different ends.” The natural scientist then turned his attention to other animal species. Back then, Charles Darwin had no idea that this and his other observations would later lead him to a conclusion that would rock natural science to its foundations: that the world is not immutable. Rather, it is subject to a process of constant adaptation. It was here, on the Galapagos Islands, that his theory of the adaptability of species and their descent from a common ancestor first took root.
The Galapagos Islands lie 1,000 kilometres west of Ecuador. Their remoteness and special climatic conditions have created a world of fauna and flora that is unique worldwide. Because of the very different conditions prevailing from one island to the next, natural selection has produced animal and plant species that are unknown anywhere else on the planet. Around 40 per cent of the animals living in the Galapagos, such as the giant tortoises, the marine iguanas and the famous Darwin finches, are endemic to the islands. Together, they helped Charles Darwin, who visited the islands in 1835, to formulate his theory of evolution on the origin and mutation of species by natural selection and adaptation. The waters around the islands, too, teem with an abundance of life, supported by various ocean currents such as the cold and nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, thewarm North Equatorial Countercurrent and the Cromwell Current, which is a relatively warm 17 degrees Celsius. They are a paradise for whales and Galapagos sharks, sea lions, penguins and manta rays – and, of course, for divers, who can find areas with more species than most other oceans in the world. In 1978, UNESCO declared the Galapagos Islands a World Heritage Site. Ecuador declared 97 per cent of the total emerged surface area a National Park as early as 1959. In 1998, a marine reserve was created around the Galapagos. In 2001, the World Heritage Site was extended to include the Galapagos Marine Reserve and became one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. There can be no doubt that the removal of the Galapagos Islands from UNESCO’s Red List in 2010 was a partial success. Nevertheless, this living laboratory of evolution is critically endangered by, among things, invasive animal and plant species, settlement, growing tourism and illegal fishing. The survival of the mangrove finch, one of the Darwin finch subspecies, is threatened by an introduced species of fly. At present, just 70 of these intelligent birds, which can even use tools to obtain food, remain. The Charles Darwin Foundation does all it possibly can to preserve these animals and plants on the Galapagos. For 50 years, the international non-profit organization has maintained a scientific Research Station on Santa Cruz, the second-largest island in the archipelago. Over 100 scientists, students, teachers and volunteers from all over the world work tirelessly to research the indigenous flora and fauna and to preserve the Galapagos World Heritage Site from destruction. On top of this, the Station trains national park rangers, organizes seminars for teachers and students, publishes the findings of its research and acquires donations.