This is actually one great question and worthy of a long and more specific answer.
Since there are hundreds of thousands of islands around the globe,
the Galapagos archipelago is one of the most well-known, its name has a special sound to it and the islands are many travellers’ bucket list item number 1!
But why are they so special?
First of all, the location!
Situated in the Pacific Ocean, around 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, the island group with 18 main islands and around 130 in total are pretty isolated, like most archipelagos in the Pacific.
But with islands on both sides of the equator line, the Galapagos’ location is absolutely unique in the area.
Additionally to the location, the islands are in the way of 3 different large and strong water currents with different characteristics like temperature, saltiness and viscosity.
The Humboldt Current, as well as the Cromwell Current, bring cold water, carrying massive amounts of nutrients, mostly decaying sea life from the depths of the ocean, and therefore defining life on and around the islands.
The third current, the Panama Flow, brings warmer water from Central America.
The islands themselves are quite far from each other, so there is only little chance for animal migration between the landmasses. This gave the wildlife here the opportunity to develop differently, like …
There are 13 different species of them, each species living on its own island and consequently over the course of thousands of years developed its own special and unique features to adapt to its surroundings. Depending on their habitat, they can all be differentiated by diet, beak size and shape.
This awesome development led Charles Darwin to look further into their nature and the finches eventually were the base of his evolutionary theory.
The Galapagos was entirely formed through volcanism, therefore was never connected to any mainland and has never been ‘spoiled’ by continental wildlife. From plants or seeds to animals, everything must have made its way through the air, carried by high winds, or through the water, on driftwood for example, to the archipelago. Well, until humans arrived.
All these aforementioned facts led to biological isolation and endemism, meaning that some 20 land species, as well as bird species on the Galapagos, are unique worldwide and endemic to the islands here.
Geologically speaking, the archipelago is relatively young.
Born from volcanic activity around 20 million years ago, the islands are a result of 2 tectonic plates colliding.
Under huge pressure and forming overwater landmasses by massive volcanic eruptions. Ever since then the bulge the islands ‘sit’ on drifts east, towards mainland South America.
And that means the islands like Fernandina in the west are the youngest, while the “old” ones to the east, like San Cristobal, are already in a dying state, ready to sink back underwater in the next millions of years.
Animal migration itself is not really special and happens in most parts of the planet.
What makes it unique here is that many ocean species from thousands of kilometres away come specifically to the Galapagos to give birth in its waters.
Whales or sharks like hammerheads and whale sharks, manta rays and much colourful tropical fish all come to visit the islands regularly.
Usually, all the birds stay put in Galapagos, besides one species: the mighty Albatross, the world’s largest flying bird, also takes months off from living here to glide over the oceans.
The Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin species that live and breed in the northern hemisphere. In parts of the islands of Isabela and Fernandina. Thanks to the cold waters of the Humboldt Current, they are able to enjoy their life this far up north.
This penguin is listed as ‘endangered’, with currently around 1200 animals.
Other than the Antarctic species, they not only have predators underwater but also on land. For example the Galapagos hawk or the Short-eared owl.
The biggest threat though for these little fellows is ‘El Niño’, a …
‘El Niño’, translated ‘The child’, because it usually starts around Christmas time. It’s a phenomenon that occurs every few years and basically changes the currents and temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s mixing up the stability of life in its waters. Water temperatures rise, and algae don’t grow anymore and therefore destroy the food chain for many animals like Iguanas or penguins.
During El Niño years, many animal populations are drastically reduced, sometimes close to extinction. This phenomenon is not only a threat to the Galapagos but also has massive impacts on the climate in Australia or South America. Sometimes even influencing the European weather.
Unfortunately, there are also many man-made threats to flora and fauna here in the Galapagos.
Already right after the island’s discovery, seafarers and whalers brought plants and animals to the islands.
Ever since then, blackberries, guavas or elephant grass are home to Galapagos and supersede other plants that grew here originally.
But also animals like cats, dogs, pigs and goats were and are a threat to all wildlife.
This might be the most important fact of all!
Ever since Charles Darwin based a lot of his evolutionary theory on the finches he found here, the Galapagos Islands are world-famous.
Not only was it revolutionary for the history of mankind, but for our understanding of the coming-of-age of every species on earth in general.
The island’s uniqueness is a special treasure! What might not be comprehended that easily on a global scale, can be witnessed here with the naked eye.
Far away from the craziness and globalization of the rest of the world.