On Sunday, a team of Googlers returned to Mountain View with a special, digital cargo: hard drives loaded with 360-degree imagery taken during a 10-day adventure around the Galapagos Islands, covering both the islands' lush terrain and their surrounding waters. The crew passed off their files to the engineering team, who will stitch the files together into a seamless, explorable landscape to be released on Street View later this year (Google would not say more precisely when).
The Galapagos Islands are famous as the site where Charles Darwin spent five weeks taking down careful notes that would later prove essential for formulating his ideas about how different species are related to one another, and what that implied for how they came to exist in the first place. Evidence for natural selection and evolution exists anywhere there is life, but the islands' extreme biodiversity, all within such a close area, provided a unique set of examples -- such as the celebrated finches, with their slight habitat-to-habitat variations -- for Darwin to work with.
But this remarkable ecosystem is not a strong one, threatened by invasive species, climate change, and development. By teaming up with the Charles Darwin Foundation, Google hoped to create a dataset that scientists could use in the years ahead as a baseline for monitoring the ecosystems' health, and then making policy recommendations for conservation and sustainable development. "Galapagos is probably the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world," Daniel Orellana of the Charles Darwin Foundation told me on the phone from the islands. "It's very important to have information to understand how the Galapagos ecosystem works in a world that is changing so fast."
The team documented sites on both land and sea, capturing sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and, hopefully, some of those fabled finches too. "Because the animals aren't afraid of humans," Raleigh Seamster of Google told me. "The person wearing the Street View Trekker was able to walk just within meters of these really amazing looking birds in their natural habitat. One of the things I'm really excited about is the hope that, in that imagery, Google Maps users will actually be able to zoom in on the blue webbed feet of the blue-footed boobies and really get up close to the unique wildlife."
Seamster also highlighted some incredible up-close-and-personal footage of the islands' iconic giant tortoises that Google Maps users will have the chance to see once the images go live. "We saw them in various places that we visited including a tortoise breeding center," she told me. "We visited there in the early morning, and we were wearing the [Street View] backpack, and walking on these trails next to seven giant tortoises munching on leafy stalks, having their breakfast." Other animals that should make an appearance are different varieties of iguanas, possibly sharks, sea lions, and maybe the finches, but they're so fast that they might not have been caught by the Street View camera. "We're crossing our fingers and we'll see what we got," Seamster said.
One thing Google Maps explorers will miss out on from the comfort of their living rooms? The smells -- not all of them good. At Sierra Negra, an active volcano on Isabela Island, the team found itself in an area known as Minas de Azufre, aka the Sulfur Mines. To get there, the team had to take a van, a two-hour horseback ride, and then hike down side of the crater (with the clunky Street View backpacks). "Picture this: It's almost like a moonscape. You've walked though prehistoric looking ferns, through this crater, and then you get to this moonscape area, where sulfur is just steaming out of the ground, and everything is dyed canary yellow from the sulfur, and it's just this incredible place and you just feel like you're at the end of the Earth."
"It's not just a matter of science in the Galapagos," Orellana concluded. "It's not just a matter of the Ecuadorian government. It's a matter of everyone in the world." With Google's project, we'll all get to explore (virtually, at least) this place that has played such an outsized role in shaping what we know about life not just there, but everywhere.