Perhaps the only true inhabitants of this isolated spot on Earth are the whales, sharks, eels, and rays that dominate the ocean deep… a marine diversity astounding in dimension at the meeting point of five ocean currents. With them, like them, pirates and whalers also felt summoned.
Along the rocky beaches at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina, one of the world’s youngest islands, there is tremendous activity. The shores are visited by different species of marine turtles, swarms of marine iguanas placidly congregate on the lava rocks that contour the shoreline, and sightings of orcas, whales and rays are not uncommon. Everything has concentrated along the very edge of the island, as if attracted by the novelty of its creation, while all that’s found inland appears completely devoid of life. One certainly gets the impression here that the Galápagos are more sea than land, and that Fernandina, in particular, is still in the process of being born.
The 19 islands, and innumerable islets, of the Galápagos rose from the ocean floor some 5 to 8 million years ago, as a continuous geological hive broke out from a bubbling “hotspot”. This phenomenon is known to create openings for boiling magma to hatch volcanoes at whim.
Through this every eruptive process, islands protrude along the ocean’s surface. Tectonic plate movement then relocates the volcanic islands to different locations, leaving the chance for new underwater volcanoes to grow under the hotspot (currently located below Fernandina and Isabela islands) and feel the air’s breeze. Fernandina, the most westerly of the archipelago’s islands, is the most recent of them.
That early sailors believed the Galápagos appeared and disappeared into the ocean seems, then, a premonition of sorts. Of course, they did not witness the volcanic surge of any of the islands – Fernandina, the youngest, has been around for maybe one million years – but perhaps what they did perceive was the presence of other lands that have sunken back into the ocean as a result of the hotspot phenomenon.
The Galápagos is more sea than land. And land is perhaps only a most convincing mirage that both plants and animals – and since the 1800s human beings, too – have made it a point to believe in.
The fact that cold and warm ocean currents come together at the Galápagos Islands is one of the main reasons for their spectacular marine diversity. The Galápagos Marine Reserve, created only in 1986 and recently awarded UNESCO Natural Heritage status, is the third largest in the world.
Five ocean currents (the Panama Flow, the North Equatorial Countercurrent, the South Equatorial Current, the Cromwell Countercurrent and the Humboldt Current) converge at the Galápagos; they drive weather patterns and affect the lives and reproductive cycles of animal species throughout the archipelago, while creating distinct environmental settings, such as the nutrientrich upwelling along the western islands that lures fascinating marine wildlife from every corner of the Pacific Ocean.
Of Plates and Volcanoes
The Nazca Plate on which the Galápagos archipelago stands, pushes and shoves against the Cocos and Pacific Plates and moves these unique islands towards the South American continent at a rate (call it ‘island speed’ if you will) of about 7 cm (2.756 inches) every year.
On the night of April 10th, 2009, Volcán La Cumbre on Fernandina Island came into activity, the most recent eruption since 2007, making Fernandina amongst the most active volcanoes in the world. Beaming orange-red lava burns everything in its path, all the way into the ocean, where marine wildlife and vegetation also feels the heat of the Earth’s core.
Keep reading “Land, Ho!”