Encyclopedia of Islands

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A Travel Guide to Galapagos

Islands of the world fall into two broad classes, say scientists. Continental isles, such as Ireland, are those that have been separated from a continent. Oceanic islands, such as the Galápagos, are those usually born of fire far from land.

And in the tropics, a volcanic island may erode while colonies of coral build upon its debris in the shallows; they grow toward the sunlight, forming a fringing reef. Eventually the cone wears away, leaving the coral around a central lagoon. Often these coral atolls are the loveliest of islands, jewel-like specks of sun-bright surf in a dark immensity of sea.

Biologically, islands are populated by a process called distribution.

galapagos islands travel

Even Bouvet has penguins and seals. Elsewhere, plants and land animals arrive on winds and tides or on rafts of vegetation swept out to sea by floods and storms. In time, descendants of these survivors may lose their potential for dispersal. Thus a species of cormorant in the Galápagos, without natural predators there, has lost the need and therefore the ability to fly.

People, too, are molded by islands—by "happy isles" of natural abundance as well as by storm-pummeled outposts in the high latitudes. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes has written: "An island always has a potent effect on its inhabitants. Its frontiers are immutable, divinely deter mined rather than due to mere human vicissitudes. Strangers cannot easily cross them unnoticed or unopposed. This sense of being sea-protected, ´the envy of less happier lands,´ gives island people a sharp awareness of their identity and of their difference from everyone else. . . . An island home . . . greatly enhances that belief in belonging to a chosen race. ..."

For this book, we selected a diverse handful: Japan, a combination of subtle Oriental beauty and energetic trade; Ireland, realm of misty days and haunting charm; Bali, a place where life is a ceremony from cradle to cremation; New Zealand, an outdoorsman´s dreamland; the Seychelles, a tropical paradise flavored by African, Asian, and European cultures.

But to begin, we go to a group of islands where the mysterious origin of species challenged the imagination and changed human thought and history. It´s a Pacific archipelago on the Equator, a place, according to Herman Melville, where "no voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss." The Galápagos.

End-of-the-world islands feature 100- foot-tall palms, tool-using finches, seagoing lizards, and many other living oddities found nowhere else on the planet. Opposite: Flightless cormorants and a marine iguana share the sunset on one of the Galápagos Islands (above).

The researches of naturalist Charles Darwin brought fame to this volcanic archipelago in the Pacific.

On the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, a grove of baobabs bristles in the fading light of day. A continental isle, Madagascar has drifted eastward, carrying with it six species of baobab; the mainland counts only one. The trunks of these barrel trees can store thousands of gallons of water, occasionally tapped in the dry season by islanders.