When the bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, set sail for Peru in 1535, he didn't know that he would soon encounter one of the most unique wildlife habitats in the world. Named for the giant tortoises roaming the islands, the Galapagos Islands first appeared on the map in 1570. But it wasn't until hundreds of years after their discovery that the islands first became permanently inhabited.
Beginning in the early 1600s, pirates and buccaneers used the Galapagos Islands as a place to repair their ships and replenish their food supplies after looting Spanish vessels and settlements in Central and South America. Small, isolated and often shrouded in fog, the isles were ideal spots to hide. By the 18th century, whalers and sealers were using the islands for their purposes, as well.
It was after the Galapagos were annexed to Ecuador in 1832, however, that the first man to fully appreciate the islands' unusual environment made a visit. Traveling aboard the British naval ship, the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin set foot here in 1835. After spending just five weeks on the islands, the scientist knew he had witnessed species unlike anywhere else on earth. His observations of the tropical habitat led to what is still considered one of the world's most significant hypotheses: the theory of evolution.
Despite Darwin's epiphanies, it wasn't until the 1930s that conservation efforts began on the Galapagos Islands. Now, Galapagos National Park protects 97 percent of the land here and works to conserve the islands' ecosystem; the local population is concentrated on the other three percent.