Galapagos Islands, history, humans, colony, settlers, pirates, spies

Twelve Titles on Galapagos – Human History

While you’re dreaming of your Galapagos Islands vacation, these books will transport you back to the times of some of the original human settlers of these enchanting isles. Read them in the comfort of your home or toss a few into your suitcase.

The Galapagos Islands has a fascinating human history, dating back several hundred years. Our list includes the accounts of explorers and colonizers, and a few literary works inspired by the Galapagos’ colorful inhabitants.

Check at your local bookshop or on-line for these and other works. Or borrow them from your public library. (If it doesn’t have the works you wish to peruse, you can request them through interlibrary loan for a small fee.)


General Galapagos Human History

The Enchanted Islands: The Galapagos Discovered
by John Hickman

The human history of the Galapagos Islands, from their possible discovery by the Inca, and through the centuries with pirates, whalers, explorers and scientists. Includes a chapter on the Charles Darwin Research Station and the National Park.


The Curse of the Giant Tortoise
by Otavio Latorre

In the Galapagos they say the giant tortoise can see the true heart of humans. What have these long-lived reptiles seen of those that wanted to exploit the islands?


Charles Darwin Slept Here
by John Woram

Without a doubt, Woram’s book provides the best overview of the Galapagos Islands’ human history, recounting the experiences of a bishop, buccaneers, whalers, settlers, a US President and (of course) Charles Darwin.


Galapagos Explorers and Colonizers

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind—Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier
by Diana Preston and Michael Preston

William Dampier was much more than a mere 17th century pirate: he also was a naturalist and scientist who wrote three best-selling travelogues. This book is not only a biography of Dampier’s life, but also an in-depth examination of the pirate way of life.


The Enchanted Islands: A Five-Year Adventure in the Galápagos
by Ainslie Conway and Francis Conway

Like many Galapagos settlers in the 1930s, the Conways thought they might have better opportunities in the Islands than in Depression-era US.


My Father’s Island: A Galapagos Quest
by Joanna Angermeyer

In the 1930s, the Angermeyer brothers set out to sail the world, but settled in the Galapagos Islands. Joanna tells their story, and why she never got to know her father, Hans Angermeyer.


The Floreana German Colony

The Galápagos Affair
by John Treherne

Treherne examines the real-life murder-mystery on Floreana Island in the 1930s that involved the Baroness and her two lovers, Friedrich Ritter and his companion Dore Strauch, and the Wittmer family.


Satan Came to Eden
by Dore Strauch

The events surrounding Floreana’s German colony in the 1930s – as told by Friedrich Ritter’s companion.


by Margret Wittmer

Wittmer’s book focuses more on her family’s homesteading on Floreana for over 50 years, though she also touches upon the events leading to the mysterious disappearances and deaths that affected the small German colony in the 1930s.


Galapagos Literature

Isle of the Black Cats
by Gustavo Vascónez Hurtado

In this novel, Ecuadorian writer Vásconez speculates about whether the Germans settlers on Floreana Island were, in fact, spies for the Nazis, Japan, Stalin and the US.


Enchanted Islands
by Allison Amend

Another novel about real-life Galapagos colonizers … and perhaps spies, but Amend takes the Conways as her topic.


Piazza Tales
by Herman Melville

This collection of stories includes “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands,” ten stunning sketches about Galápagos.


Check out the other parts of Galapagos Travel Planner’s exclusive “Twelve Titles on Galapagos” series: Natural History, For Children, and Videos. Did we include your favorite book? Share it in the comments below.


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Photo credit: Jeremy T. Hetzel

Galapagos Islands, giant tortoise, extinction, Floreana, breeding

Galapagos Tortoise Species Back from Extinction

How do you bring an extinct species back to life? Use DNA testing to reveal it hidden in plain sight.

During a 2002 expedition to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, scientists took note of the saddleback tortoises living side-by-side with tortoises with dome-shaped shells. The results of DNA testing inspired the researchers to return to the field in 2008. Analysis of the more than 1,600 blood samples taken proved two species existed – and further testing showed that DNA of 80 of the saddlebacks matched that of museum samples of the long-extinct Floreana tortoise (Chelonoidis elephantopus, formerly Chelonoidis nigra).

In 2015, scientists undertook another expedition to Wolf Volcano to continue testing the tortoises, and to capture 32 specimens (13 males and 19 females) with likely high Floreana (and possibly Pinta) genetic material.

Extinction of the Floreana Giant Tortoise

When Charles Darwin visited Floreana Island in the Galapagos in 1835, he wrote in his field notes that the giant tortoises on that island were scarce. By 1846, according to a report by naturalist Berthold Seeman, this species of tortoise was extinct.

The extinction of the Floreana giant tortoise, along with three other species, was driven by the overhunting of this reptile by whalers who were active in the archipelago during the first half of the 19th century. The tortoises, which could be kept alive in ship holds for long periods of time, provided necessary fresh meat for crews.

But how did giant tortoises from Floreana Island end up on Isabela, more than 175 kilometers (110 miles) away as the waved albatross flies?

Scientists speculate that whalers and other mariners had dropped off some 40 Floreana tortoises at Banks Bay (Bahía Bancos) on the far northwest corner of Isabela Island, at the foot of Wolf Volcano. This bay was the last opportunity for sailors to lighten their loads before heading westward across the wide Pacific Ocean. Over the following two centuries, these gentle giants formed a colony, interbreeding with the volcano’s native species.

The Start of a New Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Program

Of the 32 giant tortoises captured during the 2015 expedition, about half proved to have high levels of Floreana genetic material. Unfortunately, traces of Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) DNA did not appear. It seems that the species to which Lonesome George belonged may, indeed, be extinct.

The new breeding program, the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), is being conducted by the Galapagos National Park in collaboration with the Galapagos Conservancy at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.

Nine males and 14 females Floreana hybrid tortoise have been chosen for this program. Four breeding groups – composed of three females and two males each – will begin their journey in repopulating their ancestors’ home island.

In five years, the first hatchlings will be released on Floreana, to begin the process of repopulating that island with its own species of giant tortoise. Of course, never will the tortoises there be 100 percent pure Chelonoidis elephantopus, a fact Linda Cayot of the Galapagos Conservancy recognizes. “But we will have a tortoise population with many of the same genes as the original,” she stated. After 25 years, these tortoises will be of breeding age.

In the meantime, a project is underway on Floreana to restore the island’s ecosystem. This includes eliminating invasive flora and fauna – especially rats – that would keep the reintroduced tortoises from reproducing and thriving.

Details of this new breeding program were published in the September 13, 2017 issue of Nature’s “Scientific Reports.”

Galapagos National Park, along with the Charles Darwin Research Center and other institutions, has had great success in bringing back species from the brink of extinction. With only 15 individuals, the Española species of giant tortoise was revived with about 2,000 hatchlings being born and repatriated to that island. Another success story is that of the Baltra land iguana, whose population had been relocated to North Seymour Island in the 1930s due to threats of extinction by introduced species.

Visiting the Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Program

You’ll be able to see the stars of the Floreana tortoise breeding program in one of the corrals on the newly renovated Ruta de la Tortuga or Tortoise Route at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center outside Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. The bilingual displays examine evolution in the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin, breeding giant tortoises in captivity and the environmental importance of giant tortoises. The last stop of the route is the Symbol of Hope Salon featuring Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise.

The Ruta de la Tortuga is open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is included on the itinerary of many Galapagos cruises.


With the anticipated success of the Floreana giant tortoise breeding program, in the future you may see these gentle giants once again on that island.


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Photo credit: Parque Nacional Galápagos

Volcanic eruption, Fernandina island, Galapagos, September 2017

Volcanic Eruptions: Galapagos Islands’ Natural Fireworks

Occasionally the Galapagos Islands remind us that it is a young volcanic archipelago. The mounts on Isabela and Fernandina erupt into short-term activity, giving visitors to the Galapagos a natural fireworks show.

Why the Galapagos Islands Have So Many Volcanoes

The Earth’s crust is made up of several dozen, slowly drifting plates. When one plate is forced beneath another – such as the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate – volcanoes like those in the Andes are formed.

Another way volcanoes are created is when a plate drifts over a hot spot, a place where the Earth’s molten innards burns through the crust above. As the plate moves over this stationary hot plume, it forms a string of volcanoes which grow into islands and become archipelagos, like the Hawai’ian Islands. Volcanoes on the older isles become extinct.

This is precisely how the Galapagos Islands are formed. They sit atop the Nazca Plate, which is drifting at a giant tortoise pace to the southeast. San Cristobal, the easternmost island, is approximately four million years old. Fernandina and Isabela, the westernmost main islands, are merely some 700,000 years old and thus still active.

Fernandina Island

On September 4th, Cumbre Volcano on Fernandina Island erupted for the first time in almost a decade. Two days earlier, a 4.6 earthquake between Fernandina and Isabela islands hinted that something was afoot. The quakes continued, growing more frequent, until on the afternoon of September 4th, the volcano erupted. The tour ship National Geographic Endeavour II happened to record that moment when Cumbre began emitting gas and steam. Lava is flowing from a fissure on Cumbre Volcano’s south-southwest side. Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute reports the volcanic activity is lessening. There are no human residents on Fernandina; however, wildlife is possibly threatened.

In modern times, Fernandina’s volcano has often been observed erupting. The activity occurs every few years, with notable flare-ups in 1988, 1991, and 1995. An eruption in 1968 caused the caldera to collapse, sending an ash cloud drifting to Isla Santa Cruz and beyond.

A gripping event was recorded in 1825 by Captain Benjamin Morrell. Right at the moment the island began spewing forth lava, his ship was becalmed in the Bolívar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela. Luckily, just in the nick of time, a slight breeze enabled him to sail to safety.

Isabela Island

Isabela is the Galapagos’ largest island and one of the most active geologically. It is composed of six volcanoes connected by lava flows. At the southwestern corner of the island is Cerro Azul, which last erupted in 2008. To the northeast is Sierra Negra (last eruption, 2005). Going northward is Alcedo (1993), Darwin (1813) and Wolf (2015). The “mouth” of this seahorse-shaped island is where the partially collapsed Volcán Ecuador is located (last eruption, 1150 CE).

Isabela’s activity has frequently been documented by pirates, whalers and scientific expeditions cruising through the Galapagos Islands. A fascinating account is told by scientist William Beebe in his 1926 book, The Arcturus Adventure.

You can check out Sierra Negra on a day tour from Puerto Villamil. At the volcano, which has one of the largest active craters in the world, old lava flows streak the lunar-like landscape.

Where Else You Might See Erupting Galapagos Islands

It is unlikely you’ll see islands in other parts of the Galapagos archipelago providing a fireworks show, though there is a remote possibility. Many of the eastern and central islands are millions of years older than the western ones, and their volcanoes long extinct.

According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, it has been thousands of years since San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Genovesa islands last saw volcanic activity. The islands further west tell a different story.

In recorded history, the last eruption on Floreana Island occurred in 1813, an event recorded by Captain David Porter of the USS Essex. Volcanic eruptions have occurred more recently on Santiago (1906), Pinta (1928) and Marchena (1991).

Effects of Volcanic Eruptions on Galapagos Wildlife

Although most of Galapagos’ volcanic eruptions in the last century have occurred on islands with no human population or far from towns and settlements, they still pose a danger to the archipelago’s unique wildlife. In the past, Galapagos fauna has faced a mixed bag of fortune.

With the May 2015 eruption of Volcán Wolf on Isabela Island, scientists were concerned the populations of giant tortoises and pink iguanas that inhabit the north and west slopes of the volcano might be endangered. Luckily, the ash and lava flowed to the east and southeast.

The local species of Fernandina giant tortoise was most likely decimated by volcanic eruption within the last 100 years. The effects of Cumbre Volcano’s 2017 activity on Fernandina wildlife will not be known until scientists can arrive there to survey the damage.

Effects of Volcanic Eruptions on Your Galapagos Cruise

The Galapagos Islands’ volcanoes are closely monitored by the national park, Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute and international agencies. Before an eruption, seismic (earthquake) activity increases, indicating that magma within the mount is moving.

Your itinerary may be affected by these periodic volcanic eruptions. If it includes a landing near the presently active volcano, that excursion may be cancelled due to safety concerns but your cruise will continue as normal. Punta Espinosa, on the northeast coast of Fernandina, is the only visitor site on that island. Some sites along Isabela’s coasts, like Black Turtle Point and Caleta Tagus at the foot of Volcán Darwin, are shadowed by volcanoes.


You can expect the unexpected while in the enchanting Galapagos Islands – and one of those things just may be a volcanic eruption, a mesmerizing natural fireworks display.


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Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, entry requirements, tourists, medical insurance

New Ecuador Entry Requirement

When packing for your Galapagos adventure, there is one more thing you’ll need to be sure to bring along: proof of medical insurance that will be valid in Ecuador.

Ecuador’s new immigration laws, which also affect tourists, require that all who come to this Andean country must show proof of medical insurance. The new regulations were passed by the National Assembly in February, and signed by Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno at the beginning of August. On August 14, the Tourism Ministry announced the recent requirements.

According to the new law, all visitors must show proof of integral health insurance which covers doctor, accident and death during their stay in Ecuador and that will be valid in Ecuador.

Check your present medical insurance coverage to ensure you are covered overseas. But note that whatever medical insurance you have at home usually will NOT cover medical expenses, including medical evacuation, in a foreign country. Therefore, it will be necessary for you to purchase a travel insurance policy. With these, confirm that all activities that you plan to do, like scuba diving, are included.

Remember also that other new regulations require that visitors to the Galapagos Islands must have proof of cruise or hotel reservations for the duration of their stay in the archipelago.

For travelers from many countries, no visa is required to enter Ecuador for a stay of up to 90 days within a 365-day period. Citizens of UNASUR member nations (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela) may stay 180 days in one year. Only those from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Senegal require a visa before arriving in Ecuador.

By making certain you have the proper documents, you will make your journey to Ecuador more pleasant and trouble-free.


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Galapagos Islands, bibliography, books, what to read, guides, natural history, conservation

Twelve Titles on Galapagos – Natural History

You’re dreaming of going to the Galapagos Islands. Many books can help you prepare for your explorations of these enchanting isles. Read them in the comfort of your home or toss a few into your suitcase.

A cornucopia of books about the Galapagos Islands’ natural history has been published over the years. Here we include nature guides, in addition to Galapagos expedition travelogues and works talking about the environmental issues the islands face.

Check at your local bookshop or on-line for these and other works. Or borrow them from your public library. (If it doesn’t have the works you wish to peruse, you can request them through interlibrary loan for a small fee.)


Galapagos Nature Guides

Many general guides on the Galapagos Islands’ unique environment are in print. Some give an overview of the archipelago’s environment, whereas others will aid you in identifying the wildlife and plants you will encounter.


Galapagos: A Natural History Guide

by Michael Jackson

The classic general guide about the islands, covering their geology, climate, fauna, flora and conservation.


Wildlife of the Galapagos

by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking.

This is another excellent general guide. It is illustrated with 400 color photographs and includes visitor site maps.


Reef Fish Identification: Galápagos

by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach.

The best guide for identifying the denizens of the undersea world you explore while snorkeling. Extensively illustrated with color photos.


Galapagos Islands Birds Field Guide

by Rainforest Publications and Robert Dean

This compact fold-out guide covers 123 species of birds with beautiful illustrations. It is laminated (to keep it waterproof in ocean spray!) and is available in English, Spanish, French and German.


Flowering Plants of the Galápagos

by Conley McMullen and Ghillean Prance

The Galapagos Islands isn’t just about animals, though – it also has many unique plants. One of the best guides for identifying the flora is this color-illustrated work, covering over 400 species. It also includes a checklist for each visitor site.


Galapagos Expedition Travelogues

Centuries of pirate, whaling and scientific expedition travelogues brought the Galapagos Islands into sitting rooms around the globe. The 19th and 20th century naturalists, though, make for especially interesting and pleasant reading.


Beagle Diary

by Charles Darwin

Although there are many editions of Darwin’s Beagle Diary have been published, the best is that produced by his grandson, R. D. Keynes, which is transcribed directly from Darwin’s notebooks, without edits and with many explanatory footnotes.


Galapagos: Worlds End

by William Beebe

The 1923 New York Zoological Society expedition produced one the most influential books about the Galapagos. This work enticed Friedrich Ritter, the Wittmer family, the Conways and scores of others to settle on Floreana and other Galapagos islands.


Galapagos Environmental Issues

Efforts to preserve the Galapagos Islands’ unequaled natural beauty took off in the mid-20th century. With the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service, conservation efforts have been more determined. Still the islands face many challenges.


Galápagos: The Noah’s Ark of the Pacific

by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

This scientist chronicles his work in calling upon UNESCO and IUCN to recognize the urgent need to preserve the Galapagos Islands, the environmental state of the islands in the late 1950s, and the establishment of a Galapagos scientific research station.


Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution

by Carol Ann Bassett

Bassett discusses the threats to the Galapagos Islands over the centuries, and the scientists and conservationists striving to save the archipelago’s environment.


Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy

by Tui De Roy, Tui

Thirty top Galápagos researchers discuss their work, and the challenges and successes of conservation in the Galapagos Islands.


Galapagos Photography

These photographic essays will inspire you to witness the islands’ tremendous natural beauty in person. They also make for beautiful coffee table books or gifts.


Galapagos: Islands Born of Fire

by Tui De Roy

By the renowned nature photographer who lived in the Galapagos Islands for many years.


Galápagos, Both Sides of the Coin

by Pete Oxford and Graham Watkins

Another fantastic photographic journey to the Galapagos Islands. It also discusses the impact of humans on the islands throughout the centuries and issues of conservation.


Check out the other parts of Galapagos Travel Planner’s exclusive “Twelve Titles on Galapagos” series: Human History, For Children, and Videos. Did we include your favorite book? Share it in the comments below.

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William Beebe

Beebe’s Inspirational Galapagos Expeditions

Of all the 20th century scientific expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, those of William Beebe were the most inspirational to the general public, especially with the publication of his book Galapagos: World’s End.

William Beebe, the father of ecology

William Beebe (1877-1962), a pioneering ecologist from the U.S., was a multi-faceted naturalist: he was an ornithologist, entomologist and marine biologist. His captivating books about his explorations caught the world’s imagination.

In 1899, Beebe stopped his studies at Columbia University (New York) to begin working for the newly founded New York Zoological Park (now the Wildlife Conservation Society). For this organization, he led expeditions to Nova Scotia, Virginia, Florida, Mexico, Trinidad, Venezuela, British Guiana, Brazil, Haiti, Bermuda – and of course, the Galapagos Islands. He was a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science and New York Academy of Sciences, and received honorary doctorates from Tufts and Colgate Universities.

From the publication of his first books, which included The Bird, Its Form and Function (1906) and A Monograph of the Pheasants (1918-1922, based on his 1909 round-the-world expedition to study and collect pheasants), Beebe was esteemed for his observations on evolution, and sexual dimorphism and selection. He was also one of the first writers to stress conservation, thus winning the admiration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt who authored the introductions to Beebe’s Tropical Wild Life (1917) and Jungle Peace (1918).

His 1915 expedition to Brazil marked a shift in his studies, from focusing on birds to examining tropical ecosystems. In 1916, he began establishing research stations which allowed in-depth study of tropical environments. The first two were in British Guiana, but subsequently shuttered due to deforestation. In 1949, he founded the Simla Research Station in Trinidad, which continues to operate as part of the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Beebe was one of the first to extensively use a diving helmet for underwater observation. But to better observe marine life in their native environment, in the 1930s, he and Otis Barton pioneered the use of the bathysphere – the precursor of the submersibles like the bathyscaphe and DSV Alvin – in deep sea exploration. These dives, which were done near Bermuda, reached depths of 923 meters (3,028 feet).

Beebe’s First Galapagos Expedition: To world’s end

William Beebe set off on his first Galapagos expedition in 1923 aboard the steam yacht Noma. His crew included not only specialist scientists, a historian and artists, but also males and females – an unusual concept for the time. Beebe’s mission was to collect more data to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

During this 20-day trip, Beebe documented how the Galapagos Islands’ unique wildlife evolved in the absence of predators. On Tower Island (Genovesa), he discovered a previously unknown bay which he named Darwin Bay. He also captured a number of specimens for the New York Zoological Society.

The lavishly illustrated book about this expedition, Galápagos: World’s End (1924), was an instant world-wide bestseller. It painted a paradise far removed from a world facing the Great Depression and looming war, inspiring people like Friedrich Ritter and Dora Strauch to colonize Floreana Island.

Beebe’s Return to the Galapagos Islands

Beebe’s second expedition to Galapagos was aboard the scientific research vessel Arcturus in 1925. This exploration resulted in the capture of over 130 species of fish, many previously unknown. During this quest, Beebe extensively used the diving helmet to study undersea life.

Beebe noted the marine life of the warm Panama and cold Peruvian (Humboldt) currents,  which were unusually marked due to an El Niño event that was then affecting South America’s climate. He was the first scientist to document this phenomenon.

He also recorded a volcanic eruption on Isabela Island (and attempted to climb to the crater), and its effect on fauna and flora. Beebe’s book The Arcturus Adventure (1926), which was another bestseller, recounted this expedition.


During your Galapagos vacation, you will be inspired by these islands on land and underwater, just as William Beebe was. Be sure your itinerary includes Floreana Island and the fabulous snorkeling at Genovesa (Tower Island).


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Post Office Bay -- whalers

Whaling Times in the Galapagos Islands – Part 3

In Part 1, we learned about whaling in the Galapagos Islands and some of the captains’ exploits. In Part 2, we saw the historical, literary and environmental influences of Galapagos whalers. Today, we shall follow in the footsteps of Galapagos whalers.

During your cruise through the Galapagos Islands, you can visit some of the places where whalers hunted the celebrated cetaceans. Some may be visited on day cruises or land-based tours. Others are only accessible on multi-day cruises.

Post Office Bay, Floreana Island

This is the most famous site in the Galapagos Islands associated with whalers. Its establishment is credited to Captain Colnett as a means for mariners to send letters back home. The correspondence would be picked up by homeward-bound ships. Captain Porter used the information in these letters to track British whaling ships’ movements. This site may be visited only on a multi-day cruise.

Asilo de la Paz, Floreana

Floreana’s caves, called the Pirates’ Caves or Asilo de la Paz, were used by pirates and whalers alike as it is near a fresh-water spring. It may be visited on multi-day or day cruises, as well as land-based tours.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island

This, the capital of Ecuador’s Galapagos Province, was one of the first permanent colonies founded in the islands. Unfortunately, no buildings remain from the early years of the colony. Some visitors to the Galapagos Islands will fly into this city. It may also by visited on a multi-day or land-based tour.

Llerena Breeding Center, Santa Cruz Island

Located in Puerto Ayora, this giant tortoise breeding center is home to a new program of the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station. The Pinta-Floreana hybrid tortoises from Isabela Island, a unforeseeable consequence of the whaler’s activities, are here now as part of a project to recuperate these two extinct species.

Buccaneer’s Cove, Santiago

Another place used by both whalers and pirates was Buccaneer’s Cove. This important stop for seafarers was near sources of salt, fresh water, giant tortoises and wood. This site may be visited only on a multi-day cruise.

James Bay, Santiago

This is the scene of Porter’s unintended crime of accidentally letting loose goats on this island. Their population would reach more than 100,000 by the late 20th century. James Bay may be visited on a multi-day cruise. This is one of the best snorkeling sites in the central archipelago.

Bolívar Channel

This narrow body of water between Isabela and Fernandina islands is where Morrell saw Fernandina’s eruptions. (However, with motorized crafts that cruise the Galapagos these days, you need not fear being becalmed like Morrell was!) The Bolívar Channel is also one of the best places to site whales. It can be traversed only on a multi-day cruise.

Tagus Cove, Isabela

This natural bay on the west coast of Isabela Island faces Bolívar Channel. It provided shelter to sailing ships. Today, you can see the carved graffiti left behind by whalers and pirates. Tagus Cove is one of the Galapagos Islands’ best snorkeling spots. It may be visited only on multi-day cruises.


Whale and fur seal populations have rebounded in the Galapagos Islands. Check out our calendar series, What Happens in the Galapagos Islands, to plan your visit to see these beautiful creatures.


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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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