While the wildlife in the Galapagos Islands is the star attraction, the landscapes that present themselves when visiting inhabited and uninhabited islands are out of this world. Millions of years of volcanic activity, have cemented an ample Geological History at the archipelago and have created an environment where nature has flourished-despite rugged and intimidating conditions.
According to findings from underwater surveys during the recent years, there have been islands in the Galapagos waters for 8 million years, starting in the fourth epoch of the Tertiary Period. The area is a literal hot spot for volcanic activity that created and continues to form the islands.
At the water’s deepest, the islands sit 11,000 ft above the sea floor and the Nasca Plate. The plate is part of the lithosphere, the outermost and coolest crust of the earth.
While most volcanic eruptions are caused by two plates rubbing together, the volcanoes that formed the Galapagos Islands were caused because of a hot spot. An area of the Earth ’s mantle where magma escapes from the layers in flux below the lithosphere.
The Nasca Plate moves east over the hotspot. Islands are formed after lava builds up under the sea to reach the surface-each new eruption creating another layer that eventually breaks into the air. In the recent decade, new volcanic islands have been formed in this fashion off of the coast of Russia and Japan.
As the Nazca Plate moves east away from the hotspot, volcanic activity subsides. In the Galapagos archipelago, the oldest islands are in the eastern waters and the youngest are in the west.
The islands are among the most volcanically active on Earth. Sierra Negra and Wolf volcanoes on Isabela Island erupted within the last fifteen years, and La Cumbre Volcano on the neighboring Fernandina Island became active in 2017.
The result of volcanic eruptions have created a maze of volcanic rock formations that range from the surreal moon-like terrain of Bartolomé Island, the lava bridges and pools of Los Tuneles on Isabela, and the rope strands of pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago Island.
This architecture has contributed greatly to the eco-systems and diversity that reside within each island.
On Isabela, there are five different kinds of giant tortoises-separated by the six volcanoes on the largest island in the Galapagos.
As islands move farther away from the hotspot, the magma feeding the volcanoes dwindles, causing them to become dormant and eventually extinct. As time marches on, the calderas start to crumble, and the islands themselves start to sink.
Espanola and Santa Fe Islands have partial, extinct volcanoes, and one of the most popular snorkeling spots in the entire region is Devil’s Crown off of North Seymour. It is a partially submerged, eroded volcanic crater where sea life thrives.
Rocas Bainbridge, off of Santiago Island is a favorite among snorkelers and divers. The series of seven submerged and semi-submerged volcanic cones are home to crater lakes where flamingos gather, underwater shelves and walls are used as cleaning stations by sharks, and reefs where billowing schools of fish come to feed.
Here is a list of the islands of the Galapagos by age-starting with the youngest.
La Cumbre Volcano
Wolf, Cerro Azul, Seirra Negra, Alcedo, Darwin, Ecuador volcanoes
Formed by a volcanic uplift from the sea floor.
Floreana volcano, Devil’s Crown
Santa Cruz volcano
Santa Fe volcano
Formed by lava uplifts
While each of the Galapagos Islands were formed by volcanic eruptions or uplifts from the sea floor, the landscapes of the archipelago are strikingly different. On Rabida there is a red beach, Floreana’s waterfront includes a black beach, and Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz has one of the most beautiful stretches of white tropical sand in the world.
Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Floreana Islands have lava tubes and collapsed magma chambers to explore, and volcanic formations rising out of the water such as Pinnacle Rock in the bay of Bartolome have become the feeding grounds for penguins, green sea turtles, and sharks.