Written by UNC Undergraduate Katie Overbey
What do you think of when I say the Galápagos Islands? Maybe you think of a pristine, uninhabited, untouched natural habitat, populated with animals like the blue footed boobie and the Galápagos sea lion. Or you think of a tropical paradise with gorgeous beaches. Maybe it conjures up images of Charles Darwin and his infamous finches. Or maybe the Galápagos are like a faraway mystery, a place you’ve heard of but had never thought about. Well, I’m here to change your perception. People actually live on the islands, about 25,000 people in fact, and compared to many people’s idea of tropical islands (think palm trees, white sand beaches… sounds pretty good right?), the Galápagos are quite different. Before I explain why, let me start with some basic Galápagos facts.
– The Galápagos Islands are a volcanic island chain located about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, this is slightly bigger than the width of North Carolina.
– The islands are relatively young and are formed by a hotspot, which is an area underneath the ocean where hot, molten rock rises up forming volcanoes, which eventually create islands.
– There are 18 main islands, and numerous other small islets; 4 of these islands are inhabited by humans.
– There is very little fresh water on the Galápagos, which has a large impact on the landscape there
– The Galápagos Islands are at the center of three major ocean currents, one of which is the Humboldt Current, which brings cold, nutrient rich water from the Antarctic. This cold water has a very large impact on the climate of the Galápagos, making them very different than what we would expect tropical islands to be like.
The Galápagos Islands actually have many shrub like plants and cacti, instead of palm trees like people expect. This is due to the unique cold water currents, as well as the lack of freshwater.
These factors also create some of the most unique life found anywhere else on Earth. There are even penguins on the Galápagos!
Additionally, the waters around the islands are rich in sea life and as such, originally attracted locals from the Ecuadorian mainland who hoped to make a living fishing. As more people fished the waters, there was a noticeable decrease in the amount of marine life, so the Ecuadorian government put in regulations to limit fishermen. Though good for the environment, many of these fishermen needed to find a new way to make a living, so they turned to tourism. Many set up tourist shops, cruise companies, and dive shops and over the past 15 years tourism in the Galápagos has grown considerably. Now, over 180,000 tourists go through the islands each year, and this number is continuing to grow.
Well, maybe you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like that big of a number, right? The problem is, the infrastructure (like the drinking water pipes and sewage pipes) wasn’t designed to handle that many people, and there are growing concerns about bacteria in the water from sewage, making people sick. Bet you never thought about the Galápagos like that before. In the summer of 2013 I researched how sewage disposal might be making the beach water unclean and found that human sewage is changing the water quality in the Galápagos. The research is still in its infancy, but the hope is to set up long term monitoring to see how human sewage and human presence is impacting the water quality. In addition to making people sick, this could hurt this amazing and unique environment. It’s important that more people are aware of what is happening on the Galápagos and that we can recognize it as an important natural area that needs to be protected for future generations.