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).