The Galapagos Islands were discovered in 1535 when father Tomas Berlanga, the bishop of Panama sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants after the conquest of the Incas. The bishop’s ship stalled strong currents carried him out to the Galapagos. His account of the adventure contained many facts about Galapagos: he described the harsh, desert-like condition of the islands, their trademark giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions and the many sea birds. Galapagos Islands Facts: Pirates, Whalers and Tortoises Galapagos travel was rare and the islands were rarely visited. They became the refuge for pirates preying on en galleons and coastal towns. Drew whalers and sealers, with the promise of fur seals and the giant tortoises, which could be kept alive in the hold of ships for up to a year with no food or water. The tortoise populations were decimated, causing the extinction of several species and endangering the rest. Today, only a single male of the Pinta Island tortoise species survives, named “Lonesome George.”
The Galapagos Islands have a low biodiversity (that is, few species), because the islands are 600 miles from the nearest land and this huge expanse of inhospitable ocean in-between makes it very difficult for new kinds of plants and animals to reach the islands. Marine organisms, such as green sea turtles and corals, probably came on their own, swimming, or as floating larvae. Sea birds are all strong flyers that frequently make long journeys across the open sea. But most of the Galapagos life forms reached the islands by accident, and all had a long sea voyage. During that trip, both plants and animals were exposed to saltwater, drying winds, and intense sunlight. They had no fresh water or food. Galapagos reptiles are also more likely than land birds or mammals to be able to survive under these conditions. As a result, animals of the Galapagos Islands are species whose ancestors were already well suited for its harsh environments. Compared to elsewhere in the tropics there are few birds or Galapagos mammals, and many important groups are missing.