The Galapagos Islands is a natural collection of volcanic islands, rocks, and islets located west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. The islands were first discovered in 1535 when Spaniard Fray Tomás de Berlanga drifted off course en route to settle a political dispute in modern day Peru. It is believed that the islands were visited by South Americans before de Berlanga landed but no proof had been found of any permanent human settlement. The Galapagos earned its name after the numerous giant tortoises (translated from “Galapagos”) found there.
The islands are most famous for naturalist Charles Darwin’s study of the island’s animal species during The Voyage of the Beagle in 1835. It was the islands’ unique biodiversity that inspired Darwin to write his theory of evolution. It was via this study that these remote islands were brought to worldwide attention. In 1934, the first legislation to protect the islands was enacted and in 1959 the Archipelago was made a National Park. International recognition since that time has earned Galapagos the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site, World Biosphere Reserve and Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary. Since the 1964 establishment of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, the surrounding waters and national parks have become sanctuaries for scientific study, conservation and tourism. Today, roughly 97% of the Galapagos is protected under the Galapagos National Park.