whale skeleton - Galapagos 2

Whaling Times in the Galapagos Islands – Part 2

In this part, we shall explore the whalers’ influence in the history, literature and environment of the Galapagos Islands.

The whalers’ presence led to the Galapagos becoming part of Ecuador, and to many scientific discoveries. It also spelled doom for these fragile islands, with the mass hunting of whales, fur seals and tortoises, and the introduction of destructive species.

The First Galapagos Colonies

In 1832, Ecuador took possession of the Galapagos Islands and quickly founded two colonies. The first settlement was an administrative center on San Cristobal Island. This town is now called Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and remains the capital of the Galapagos Islands.

The second colony was on Floreana. The Galapagos Islands’ first governor, José de Villamil, ordered prisoners from continental Ecuador to be sent there. Soon after, artisans and cattlemen came. This settlement had brisk trade with whaling ships, selling the produce and livestock the settlers raised. It also received many other ships, including HMS The Beagle, on which Charles Darwin sailed, in 1835. By the mid-19th century, this colony would be abandoned.

Understanding the Galapagos Better

Like the pirates before them, whalers added much information about the cartography and natural history of the Galapagos Islands. In addition to checking out the prospects of whale hunting in the Galapagos, Captain James Colnett’s also was commissioned to survey the islands. His map, published in 1798, was the most accurate navigational charts to date. And, like those before him, he baptized the islands with new names. Many of these monikers still appear, especially in species names: Barrington (Santa Fe), Champion, Charles (Floreana), Chatham (San Cristobal), Duncan (Pinzón), Gardner, Hood (Española), Jarvis (Rábida) and Kicker Rock.

During his 1813-1814 sojourns in the Galapagos Islands, Captain David Porter of the USS Essex charted the islands once more. He also kept naturalist observations in his ship’s logs, including how the shape of tortoise shells can indicate from which island it came. He recorded the only eruption of Floreana in modern times.

Of course, the economic importance of the Galapagos Islands was an impetus for governments to send scientific expeditions there. The most famous of these expeditions was the H.M.S. The Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy. While he mapped the archipelago, the on-board naturalist, Charles Darwin, recorded his observations of the flora, fauna and geology of the islands – and even spent time with whalers on Santiago.

Galapagos Whalers and Literature

As did pirates before them, several whaling ship captains wrote books about their Galapagos sailing exploits, including James Colnett, David Porter, William Merrill and John Colter. The most famous of the travelogue, though, is Darwin’s The Beagle Diary.

U.S. author Herman Melville sailed to the Galapagos as a member of a whaling ship crew. Before he set to sea, he met George Pollard, Jr., captain of the ill-fated Essex (not the same as Porter’s USS Essex), who told him the harrowing tale of how a whale sunk their ship. This story, as well as Melville’s own experiences of his 1841 Galapagos adventure inspired his famous novel, Moby Dick. Another, lesser-known Melville work that deals with his visit to these Islands is The Encantadas.

Environmental Impact

Whalers took a heavy toll on Galapagos fauna and flora. According to ships’ logs, over 100,000 giant tortoises were captured and killed between 1784 and 1860. In his 1835 visit, Charles Darwin noted the Floreana species was scarce, and in 1846, Berthold Seeman, the H.M.S. Pandora’s naturalist, reported there were no more tortoises on that island. The Santa Fe and Rabida species also became extinct in the 19th century. By the end of whaling times, giant tortoises would be near extinct on Fernandina, Santiago and Pinta. Fur seal and sperm whales populations were hard hit, too.

Evidently, whalers let giant tortoises loose on other islands. This has produced hybrid tortoises – with genes of both the now-extinct Pinta and Floreana species. These mixed tortoises are now part of a special breeding program at the Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.

When Pollard’s Essex was anchored at Floreana, one of the crew members set a brush fire. It quickly consumed much of the island. Some scientists say this placed more pressure on the Floreana species of giant tortoise and mockingbird, leading them to their extinction.

The worst environmental damage, though, came from the introduction of livestock to be used by future ships for food supplies. Captain Porter accidentally lost several goats he left grazing on Santiago Island. Other sailors left pigs and goats on Floreana and other islands. These animals did incalculable damage to the ecosystems, destroying terrain, flora and nests. Additionally, they eat eggs and babies, thus impacting land iguanas, giant tortoise, birds and other Galapagos wildlife.

Eradication programs have been successful on Isabela, Santiago, Pinta and several smaller islands. Feral donkeys and pigs – other legacies of the whalers – have been successfully eliminated on several islands also. The environments have rebounded.


Stay tuned for Part 3 of our series on Whaling Times in the Galapagos Islands, in which we shall explore the visitor sites where whalers left their mark.


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Photo credit: Murray Foubister

Frigate Essex 1799

Whaling Times in the Galapagos Islands – Part 1

On the heels of the pirates, whalers came to the Galapagos Islands. In this first part of our series, we shall learn about their exploits in this region.

The Rise of Galapagos Whalers

During the 18th century, whaling became a big business for the U.S. and Great Britain. But overfishing caused a collapse of whale populations in the North Atlantic. A new hunting ground needed to be found. In 1793, British Captain James Colnett was sent to the Galapagos Islands to research the possibilities there. His findings proved to be very favorable, which opened the door to over 70 years of exploitation of not only whales, but also fur seals (for their highly prized fur) and giant tortoises (for their meat).

The Importance of Whales

It may seem strange to us in the modern age that these mighty mammals of the deep sea were so sought after in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they were a vital natural resource for industry. Their oil was used as a lubricant for machinery that powered the Industrial Revolution, and as a fuel for lamps in homes and businesses. Baleen was used for making dress hoops and waist-cinching corsets, as well as fishing poles, buggy whips and other items.

By the 1860s, sperm whales became scarce in the Galapagos. Coupled with the invention of petroleum-based lubricants and fuels, whaling activities stopped in these islands.

War Comes to the Galapagos

When the War of 1812 broke out between the U.S. and Britain, Captain David Porter was tapped to man the helm of the USS Essex. His main mission was to disrupt British shipping. He quickly captured 10 British ships.

Porter’s next war assignment led him to the Atlantic coast of South America, where again he had success. But returning to the U.S. would prove to be too dangerous due to the British blockade.  He decided to set his own course, to disrupt British whaling in the Galapagos.

Upon his return in to the U.S. in 1814, Porter was court-martialed. But his efforts paid off. He captured 12 whaleships and 360 prisoners, leading to the near-collapse of the British whaling fleet in the Galapagos.

Benjamin Morrell

Though Morrell was not a whaler, he was an adventurer whose exploits took him to the Galapagos Islands during the height of the whaling era. This U.S. sea captain, an unsuccessful merchant and later fugitive, sailed to sub-Antarctic and Pacific lands. (Many of his purported discoveries, though, were later disputed.)

In his memoir A Narrative of Four Voyages, Morrell relates a most horrifying Galapagos experience he had in 1825: Just at the moment the volcano on Fernandina began erupting, his ship was becalmed in Bolívar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela islands. Air and water temperatures rose so high (123º / 51ºC and 150ºF / 66ºC, respectively) that the tar holding the Tartar together began to melt.


These are just a few of the exploits of whalers and kin in the Galapagos. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series of Whaling Times in the Galapagos Islands to learn about the whalers’ influence in Galapagos history, literature and environment.


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Cowley map Galapagos Islands 1684

Pirates of the Galapagos Islands

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Pirates have left a legacy in the Galapagos Islands that has lasted for centuries, from names of the islands and words in the English language, to scientific discoveries and places you can visit today.

Why the Galapagos Became a Pirate’s Lair

From the late 16th century to the late 18th century, the Galapagos Islands were a favorite hide-away for marauding pirates, many supported by the English or Dutch crowns. These buccaneers raided Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver from South American mines. The Galapagos, 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off the coast provided the perfect lair to lay in wait and hide from the Spanish fleet hunting down those thieves. As well as, the Galapagos provided a refuge for making repairs and stocking up on supplies.

The Galapagos Islands provided necessary stores of meat, in the form of giant tortoises. These reptiles could be kept in ships’ holds for over a year without food or water, thus providing fresh meat to crews. Also, liquid-filled sacks beneath the shell provided a suitable substitute for water to thirsty seafarers.

As a source of fresh water, though, the Galapagos Islands proved to be elusive. This vital fluid is available only on three islands with any amount of certainty: Floreana, Santiago and San Cristobal. However, a strong El Niño can dry up the source on the first two.

Famous Galapagos Pirates

English Captain Richard Hawkins was the first buccaneer known to have used these islands, in 1570. James Clipperton was one of the last pirates to visit these shores, in 1720. Other notables include Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and John Cook of England, and Jacob l’Hermite Clerk of Holland.

Some pirates, like William Ambrose Crowley, were instrumental in the mapping of the Galapagos Islands.  Others, most notably William Dampier, were important in recording the islands’ unique wildlife.

Naming the Galapagos Islands

The 17th century British buccaneer William Ambrose Crowley was one of the first to map the Galapagos Islands. The monikers Cowley and his mapmaker William Hacke  gave to the isles – mostly in honor of English nobility – are still in use today, especially in the species names: Abingdon (Pinta), Bindloe (Marchena), Cowley, Culpepper (Darwin Island), Dean’s (Pinzón), Narborough (Fernandina), Redonda and Wenman (Wolf). Other names have passed out of memory, like Crossman, Ewres, James (Bartolomé) and Norfolk.

Dispelling the Galapagos Enchantment

The Galapagos Islands had earned the name “The Enchanted Isles” – not for its natural beauty, but because early mariners believed the islands were bewitched. The islands seemed to drift, to appear, and then reappear elsewhere. It was very difficult to navigate to them with certainty. Part of this was because of the garúa (fine, misting rain) – that falls between June and November.

Another reason was that early mariners did not understand trade winds and ocean currents, nor have them mapped. William Dampier (1651-1715), a pirate navigator and the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times, discovered the importance of these, thus making it easier to reach the Galapagos Islands with certainty.

Pirates as Natural Historians

Dampier, however, was much more than a mere pirate navigator and hydrographer. His seven books (the most famous being A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697) were best sellers of the time. In these, he detailed his observations of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands and other regions.

His works influenced Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, who often referred to him in his journals and called him “my dear Dampier.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits Dampier with coining over 80 words, including avocado, banana, barbecue, sea lion and sub-species. He also described the importance of giant tortoises, especially of their oils, both in cooking and as a replacement for lamp oil.

Galapagos Pirates and Literature

Besides William Dampier’s and William Ambrose Crowley’s travelogues to the Galapagos Islands (which still make for fascinating reading), the Galapagos played a role in one of the most famous works of English literature.

In 1709, Dampier returned to sea aboard the Duke, captained by English pirate Woodes Rogers. When passing by the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile, they encountered Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned there four years earlier. After attacking the city of Guayaquil, the Duke took refuge in the Galapagos Islands. Selkirk’s tale later became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Environmental Impact

Although pirates hunted giant tortoises, they never stayed for a long time in the Galapagos Islands and the ships’ crews were relatively small. Thus, historians believe their impact on these creatures’ populations was minimal and short-term.

However, the buccaneers’ visits had one major impact on the isles’ fragile environment. This was the accidental introduction of the black rat, which has done immeasurable damage to the environment and its fauna. To this day, the Galapagos National Park and environmental organizations are working to eradicate black rats from the islands, so that the giant tortoise and other sensitive populations may rebound.

In the Footsteps of Galapagos Pirates

During your cruise through the Galapagos Islands, you can visit some of the places where pirates hid out and left their mark.

Buccaneer’s Cove, Santiago – Buccaneer’s Cove (Caleta Bucanero) is one of the most famous of the pirate haunts – and of Galapagos visitor sites. It became an important stop for pirates, as it was near sources of salt for preserving fish and water. They could also rely on finding giant tortoises and wood here. This site may be visited only on a multi-day cruise.

Tagus Cove, Isabela – The cliffs of this natural bay on the west coast of Isabela Island provided shelter from the eyes of the Spanish fleet searching for pirates. Today, you can see the carved graffiti left behind by pirates who hid out here. Tagus Cove is one of the Galapagos Islands’ best snorkeling spots. It may be visited only on multi-day cruises.

Asilo de la Paz, Floreana – Floreana became a regular stop on pirates’ visits to the Galapagos, mainly because it has a fresh-water spring. The Pirates’ Caves were refuges buccaneers had carved out of the rock. In later centuries, castaways used them for shelter. Later, during the 1930s, these came to be known as Asilo de la Paz. This site may be visited on multi-day or day cruises, as well as land-based tours.

San Cristobal – This island has many legends of buried pirate treasure.


According to local lore, pirates hid their treasure on other islands in the Galapagos. Perhaps in your explorations of these Enchanted Isles, you’ll come across some long-lost trove.


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Shopping in the Galapagos islands

Cash or Card? Using Money in the Galapagos Islands

Updated July 9, 2017.

We often get asked about the best way to pay your way while you’re in the Galapagos Islands. Whether you’re on a cruise, land-based tour or independent trip, you’ll no doubt need to spend some extra cash at some point – perhaps for a drink in the bar, souvenirs, tips, snacks or anything else you might need.

You’ll also need cash for the $100 national park fee and, if you are going to Isabela Island, the $5 dock tax there. As well, often the price on restaurant menus does not include the 10% service (tips) or 12% IVA tax.

As these protected islands are 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) out to sea, it’s not as straightforward as simply whipping out your credit card. So before you go, be sure to read our top money tips.

Money, money, money
  • The currency used in the Galapagos Islands (and all of Ecuador) is the U.S. Dollar.
  • In Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, there are two banks. Banco del Pacífico has ATMs accepting Mastercard, Cirrus and Visa (Avenida Charles Darwin across from the fisherman’s wharf; Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-1 p.m.). Banco Pichincha has an ATM (Avenida Baltra, between Española and Genovesa Streets; Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m.). ATMs are also at the Proinsular supermarket at the end of Avenida Charles Darwin, past the post office.
  • In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, Banco del Pacífico has a 24-hour ATM and changes Euros to US dollars (corner of Avenida Hernán Melville and Ignacio; Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-1 p.m.).
  • Note that there are no ATMs in the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island or in Puerto Velazco Ibarra on Floreana Island. Bring plenty of cash with you.
  • Nicer hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores accept major credit cards, but there is often a 5-10% fee charged. Many shops and restaurants do not accept credit cards, and neither do all hotels – check in advance. MasterCard and Visa are the most accepted; few businesses take American Express.
  • Traveler cheques are not widely accepted, so it is better to stick to cash and credit cards.
  • Bring some extra cash with you from the mainland, just in case your credit card isn’t accepted or the ATMs are out of bills. (It happens!)
  • Bring small bills – $10s and $5s are ideal. You won’t be able to use bills over $20.


Have you already been to the Galapagos islands? Help other travellers by sharing your money tips in the comments below.


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Photo credit: Steve Nomchong

King Angelfish, Galápagos Islands

Galapagos Islands’ Best Snorkeling Sites – No Cruise Required

This is the third article of a three-part series about the Galapagos Islands’ best snorkeling sites, to help you plan your dream vacation.

The previous two parts of this special series about the best snorkeling sites in the Galapagos Islands focused on the Eastern / Central and Western parts of the archipelago.

But if you suffer from extreme seasickness that prevents you from even taking a day cruise (let alone a multi-day cruise), you won’t be left out of the action. You will still be able to explore the Galapagos’ underwater world by snorkeling.

On each of the major islands, there are sites worthy of a snorkeling excursion, with no guide needed. Each of these islands is connected by air flights, thus allowing you to avoid taking the local ferries.


San Cristobal Island

Near Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town on this island and the capital of Galapagos Province, are several beaches suitable for swimming and snorkeling: Playa de Oro, Playa de los Marinos and Playa El Cañón. A bit further on, though, are cleaner, more tranquil spots for underwater exploration.

Playa Mann

Playa Mann is located just west of downtown Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Playa de Oro. This white beach of crushed shells fringes clear waters perfect for snorkeling. This is also a wonderful spot to catch the sunset.

La Lobería

A great site to observe myriads of tropical fish, rays, sea turtles and – as its name suggests – lots of sea lions. On the coral-sand beach you’ll see marine iguanas, finches and other birds. La Lobería is 10 minutes from the airport, southeast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. You can walk there or take a taxi.

Punta Tijeretas

Punta Tijeretas is at the foot of Cerro Tijeretas, 3.5 kilometers (two miles) from Puerto Baquerizo. If you are a strong swimmer, you can snorkel with sea lions and tropical fish. Also, take time to enjoy the fantastic views of León Dormido rock from atop the hill.

Punta Carola

This famous golden beach is another place to snorkel with sea lions and marine iguanas as well as other marine life. Follow Avenida Alsacio Northía northward from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno; also accessible by trail from Cerro Tijeretas.


Santa Cruz Island

Tortuga Bay

This paradisaical bay has two beaches. The trail emerges at Playa Brava, which has strong currents. Walk to your right up the beach until you come to a small cove, which is named Playa Mansa. In these tranquil waters, you can see sea turtles, sea lions, rays and many colorful fish. Located about five kilometers (three miles) from downtown Puerto Ayora (45-60 minutes walking).

Las Grietas

These narrow channels are a delightful place to check out white-tipped sharks and a variety of tropical fish. To arrive to the trail to Las Grietas, you will have to take a water taxi across Puerto Ayora’s Academy Bay (about five minutes).


Isabela Island

Concha de Perla

Concha de Perla is a small lagoon edged by a narrow beach backed by mangroves. Within its calm waters lie wonderful creatures like chocolate chip starfish, rays, sea horses and lots of fish. You may even bump into sea turtles, white-tipped sharks, sea lions or even a penguin! The 250-meter (820-foot) trail to Concha de Perla is midways between the port and the town of Puerto Villamil. This is a popular spot, so go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds.


Did we miss any Galapagos Island sites for incredible snorkeling? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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Photo credit: Derek Keats