Galapagos Islands, expedition, scientific research, California Academy of Sciences, Charles Darwin, evolution, Darwin’s finches, giant tortoises, San Francisco, earthquake

A Galapagos Expedition with a Mission: California Academy of Sciences, 1905-1906

The California Academy of Sciences 1905-1906 Galapagos expedition set sail with a mission. Despite the challenges it faced, it came home triumphant, leaving us with a deeper understanding of the islands’ evolution and ecology.

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was founded in 1853 in San Francisco, California, only three years after that state joined the union. It was the first institution of its kind in the western United States. CAS was a cutting-edge academy, drawing the best scientific minds of the time and encouraging women scientists to join its ranks.

At the beginning of the 20th century, CAS decided to expand its scope of study from that of California’s fascinating natural history. It would set sail for the Galapagos Islands. The mission: to gather as many Galapagos Islands species as possible and to prove Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

On June 28, 1905, the 89-foot schooner Academy left San Francisco, then the major and richest U.S. port on the Pacific coast. Aboard were eight sailor-scientists, including a geologist, mammologist, ornithologist and other specialists. At the helm of the expedition and the ship was Rollo H. Beck, considered to be the foremost specimen collector of his day.


The California Academy of Sciences Explores the Galapagos

The turn of the century found scientists concerned with the disappearance of species around the world. The thought at that time was that as many specimens should be collected before extinction set in. It was better that these flora and fauna be preserved in museums for future scientific research.

The Academy began its 15-month journey by making occasional stops along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America to gather specimens. The crew also found their sailing ship at the mercy of uncertain currents and the weather’s whims, at times becalmed and at other times lashed about in strong winds.

On September 23, 1905, the sailor-scientists finally caught sight of Chatham (San Cristobal) Island. This was the beginning of a systematic survey of the Galapagos’ flora and fauna, collecting as much as possible before the expected extinction of the islands’ unique wildlife. They touched land on 24 islands, including all the major ones (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, Santiago and Española) which they visited numerous times.

These sailor-scientists gave us many lasting legacies of their time there, but three stand out. One is that they captured the only known specimen of the Fernandina species of giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantastica); it is believed this species had a natural extinction due to the island’s frequent volcanic eruptions.

The second one is that the crew witnessed the real-time destruction of Barrington (Santa Fe) Island’s environment. Not only did they see the damage being caused by introduced species like the black rat on land iguanas and other local animals, but also the near-extinction of that island’s giant tortoise population at the hand of humans.

The third major legacy of this expedition was the name of Academy Bay on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. On November 5, 1905, upon entering this bay, the schooner Academy almost shipwrecked on a reef. (At the time, this island was uninhabited. It is amazing to think it is now home to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands.)

The crew of the Academy received horrifying news on April 20, 1906 from the passing cargo ship, the Cotopaxi: A devastating 7.8 earthquake had struck their homeport, San Francisco, two days earlier. The city was heavily destroyed. What these sailor-scientists would not know for many months yet to come was of the three-day fire that swept the city afterward, nor the fates of their families and of the California Academy of Sciences. Their scientific mission must continue.

After one year and one day in the Galapagos archipelago, the Academy and its crew of sailor-scientists departed Culpepper (Darwin) Island – the same last visage Charles Darwin had of the Galapagos – and sailed northward.


The California Academy of Sciences’ Galapagos Mission Continues

When the Academy pulled into San Francisco harbor on November 29, 1906, it found a city rebuilding itself. The CAS museum and labs – which had been destroyed in the earthquake and subsequent fire – were still in ruins. The CAS would not reopen until 1916.

The over 78,000 plant, mollusk, insect, bird, mammal and reptile specimens the scientists gathered would become not only the basis for the CAS’ new museum, but also the largest Galapagos specimens collection in the world. With such a vast array of specimens, scientists gained a better understanding of the origins and evolution of the Galapagos Islands’ iconic species, the Darwin finches and the giant tortoise. Into the 21st century, these specimens are still used by scientists.

The 1905-1906 CAS expedition also yielded dozens of scientific publications, including Beck’s log (which can be read online). The entire voyage is recounted in Log of the Schooner “Academy” On a Voyage of Scientific Research to the Galapagos Islands 1905-1906 (California Academy of Sciences, Occasional Papers, XVII, 1931) by Joseph Richard Slevin, the expedition’s  assistant herpetologist and second mate, and Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin by Matthew J. James (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Since that first expedition to the Galapagos, the CAS has continuously returned to the islands, sponsoring dozens of expeditions. In the past few decades, it has focused on the archipelago’s marine environment. In this underwater world, CAS scientists have discovered dozens of new species. The CAS also helped establish the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park, and continues to collaborate in scientific research projects with these institutions.


The majority of the present-day knowledge of the Galapagos Islands stems from the California Academy of Sciences’ 1905-06 expedition. To this day, we continue to enjoy its legacies at the Academy’s museums, in scientific literature and in the islands themselves. When you walk the grounds of the Charles Darwin Research Station, keep your eyes peeled for a plaque dedicated to the Academy’s arrival at Academy Bay.


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Family watching Galapagos islands videos

Twelve Titles on Galapagos – Videos

You’re dreaming of going to the Galapagos Islands – and you can do so virtually! Grab a bowl of popcorn and your favorite munchies, and settle in to watch these videos that’ll help you escape to the Enchanted Isles and their amazing wildlife.

We have chosen movies made in this new millennium, dealing with not only Galapagos animals but also evolution and human history. The entire family, from seven to 77, will enjoy these adventures. Some videos may be used as lesson plans for your younger members.

Check at your favorite local or on-line video shop for these and other works. You can also check on-line for these titles, or borrow them from your public library.


Wild Galapagos

National Geographic, 2017

Duration: 1 hour

This part of National Geographic’s “Mission Critical” series examines the endangered species of the Galapagos Islands.



BBC, 2017

Duration: 3 one-hour episodes

Naturalist host Liz Bonnin joins the crew of a research vessel on a scientific expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The episode “Cauldron of Life” explores Fernandina, Isabela and Wolf islands, with a visit to see rare pink iguanas. In “Secrets of the Deep,” the expedition dives deep into the Galapagos’ underwater world. Human effects on the Islands’ environment are discussed in “Future Frontiers.”


Galapagos: Islands of Change

BBC, 2015

Duration: 1 hour

Legendary nature commentator David Attenborough takes us to see the modern-day Galapagos. Can its unique wildlife survive in this ever-changing world?


Access 360º World Heritage: Galapagos

National Geographic, 2014

Duration: 45 minutes

In its series “Access 360º World Heritage,” National Geographic examines the challenges of preserving and maintaining UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This episode focuses on how new technology is helping to preserve the Galapagos Islands’ environment.


Galapagos 3D

Sky TV, 2013

Duration: 3 one-hour episodes

David Attenborough visits the Galapagos for the fourth time in his career, and narrates the islands’ natural history from their fiery birth and through the evolution of their astonishing animals. The three parts are:  “Origin,” “Adaptation” and “Evolution”. This is the first 3D movie filmed in the Galapagos Islands. Re-released in a 2D version, under the title “David Attenborough’s Galapagos.”


The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Zeitgeist Films, 2013

Duration: 120 minutes

Cate Blanchett narrates this long-awaited documentary about the murder-mystery that shrouded Floreana Island in the 1930s. What did happen to the Baroness and her lover? What caused Friedrich Ritter’s strange death? Includes interviews with Galapagos residents about life in the Galapagos Islands.


Darwin’s Secret Notebooks

National Geographic, 2009

Duration: 90 minutes

Armand Leroi leads on a journey to the Galapagos Islands and other places that inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.


Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

BBC, 2009

Duration: 1 hour

In most people’s minds, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was born in the Galapagos Islands. But it was a decades-long process. David Attenborough leads us on the long road to discovery, from Down House (Darwin’s home in Kent), to Cambridge University and London’s Natural History Museum.



BBC, 2006

Duration: 3 fifty-minute episodes

Narrator Tilda Swinton leads us on a three-part exploration of the Galapagos Islands’ fauna and their evolution. The episodes are: “Born of Fire,” “The Islands That Changed the World” and “Forces of Change.”


The Galapagos Islands: Land of Evolutionary Change

Discovery Education, 2005

Duration: 45 minutes

Jeff Corwin follows in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, encountering giant tortoises, land and marine iguanas, and other species that have evolved since Mr. Darwin’s visit. Perfect for children in grades 3-8.


Two Years in Galapagos

ABC/National Geographic TV, 1999-2000

Duration: 50 minutes

Nature film producers David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook document their three-year-old daughter’s adventures in the Galapagos Islands, while mom and dad were making the award-winning “Dragons of Galapagos” and “Islands of the Vampire Birds.”


Galapagos: Beyond Darwin

Discovery Education, 1996; re-edited and re-released on DVD in 2008

Duration: 86 minutes

Roscoe Lee Browne leads us into the Galapagos’ deep seas, a world Charles Darwin could not explore during his 1835 expedition to the Islands. We also learn how these volcanic islands developed life. Suitable for students in grades 6-8. The Discovery Education website includes study materials.


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


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Galapagos National Park – A Brief History

Upon arriving in the Galapagos Islands, visitors are greeted with a sign depicting a giant tortoise and a hammerhead shark. These are the official symbols of Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve, one of the world’s most pristine nature areas.

The Galapagos archipelago’s more than 230 islands and islets are protected by the Galapagos National Park (7,970 square kilometers / 3,077 square miles) and the Galapagos Marine Reserve (covering 133,000 square kilometers / 51,352 square miles). The conservation of these areas took many years. The national park’s founding is often said to be 1959, though its roots go back several decades more. The marine reserve would be much later in coming.


The Beginnings of Galapagos Conservation

In the 1930s, the impact of humans – pirates and whalers, and later colonists – on the Galapagos archipelago’s delicate ecosystem was beginning to show. Giant tortoises had disappeared from some islands, and a rash of non-native plants were taking over the landscape.

Several institutions, including the British Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, expressed their concern about the Galapagos’ future. With the centenary of British naturalist Charles Darwin’s visit, the Ecuadorian government moved to protect the Galapagos Islands.

In 1934, Executive Decree 607 protected sensitive species, banned the hunting of giant tortoises and restricted yacht and ship traffic into the Galapagos archipelago. With Supreme Decree 31 in 1936, Ecuador declared the islands a national reserve. This was the country’s first protected nature area. The decree also established a scientific commission for the islands’ conservation.

But implementation of these protections was difficult. Resources were scarce and the Galapagos were too far away from the central government to guarantee the effective enforcement of the laws.


The Push to Save the Galapagos

With the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary Theory of Evolution, the international scientific community again pushed for protection of the Galapagos Islands.

In the early 1950s, prominent scientists like Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Robert Bowman lobbied for better protection of the Galapagos. Upon the presentation of their field studies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, UNESCO and other international bodies recommended immediate action be taken.

In mid-1959, Ecuador made the Galapagos Islands a national park. This new law also banned the capture of iguanas, giant tortoises and other species. Port captains became the appointed authorities for implementation of the new regulations.

Also in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation was established and work immediately began to control and eradicate invasive species, like goats on South Plaza Island. The Charles Darwin Research Station, the center for scientific research on the islands’ species and preservation, officially opened in 1964. The station’s work also included training Ecuadorians in conservation issues.

But true protection of the Galapagos Islands was still more than a decade away.

Ecuador did not have a national park service until 1968, when it appointed its first two conservation officers. Ministerial Accord 690A of 1969 defined the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park and set aside three percent of the area for agricultural and urban use, and legally established Ecuador’s National Park Service. The first park superintendent was appointed in 1972, the same year that construction of the Galapagos National Park buildings began. By 1973, 18 park staff members were on board. The first National Park Master Plan was published in 1974.


Galapagos National Park Grows

Over the next few decades, Galapagos National Park grew in both world recognition and in size of protected area.

Galapagos National Park’s importance flourished when UNESCO declared it one of the first World Heritage Sites in 1978. This honor rests on four criteria, including the abundant variety of underwater life, and the islands’ unique flora and fauna on land. In 1984, UNESCO gave the Galapagos Islands further recognition by naming it a Biosphere Reserve.

In 2002, the 872-hectare Humedales del Sur de Isabela, which includes the Poza de los Diablos and coastal and marine wetlands near Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, were placed on Ramsar’s list of Wetlands of International Importance.

During these years, the size of the Galapagos protected areas also grew. In 1986, the seas around the islands were declared a Marine Resource Reserve with the goal to control illegal fishing and use of marine resources. In 1998, the implementation of the Special Regime Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Province of the Galapagos led to the creation of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This is one of the world’s largest marine reserves.

The Ecuadorian government took further measures to protect the Galapagos Islands by declaring a 38,000-square kilometer (15,000-square mile) marine sanctuary around Darwin and Wolf Islands. Studies by the Galapagos National Park and international partners show that this is an important resting and birthing ground for a variety of shark species.


Challenges Galapagos National Park Faces

In 2007, UNESCO placed the Galapagos Islands on the list of endangered world heritage sites, citing threats of invasive species, uncontrolled tourism and over-fishing. Because of the Ecuador government’s measures to address these problems, the Galapagos were removed from the endangered list in 2010.

One problem that has haunted the Galapagos since humans first began going to them is the introduction of invasive species like black rats and blackberry bushes. These pose a grave threat to the islands’ endemic plants and wildlife, and have caused the extinction of several species. In 1998, Galapagos National Park instituted inspections of all luggage and other items traveling to the Galapagos from the mainland and between the islands. This measure is to prevent the introduction and spread of foreign species.

Another long-standing threat Galapagos National Park faces is illegal fishing. The area to be patrolled is immense, yet resources are scarce. Ships are periodically encountered with holds full of sharks, sea cucumbers or other protected species. In mid-2017, a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats was caught with 6,600 sharks from Galapagos waters.


Galapagos National Park, in partnership with national and international organizations and universities, continues its important work of studying and preserving the islands’ environment. Since the national park’s foundation, it has spearheaded the recovery of land iguana and giant tortoise populations. A new project focuses on bringing the Floreana tortoise back from extinction, which will be a new addition to island visitors’ wildlife checklists.


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Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin Research Station, Charles Darwin Foundation, conservation, science, tortoise breeding

The Charles Darwin Research Station

The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island is one of the most popular stops on any visit to the Galapagos. But what exactly does it do in the islands, and why is it so important?


History of the Charles Darwin Research Station

Efforts to protect the Galapagos Islands began in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that things began to gel. With the support of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO, the Belgian-based Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was established in 1959 to begin building the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). This would be the headquarters for CDF’s conservation projects.

The Ecuadorian government signed a 50-year agreement with CDF. In August 2016, the CDRS’ mission was extended for another 25 years. CDF’s scientific research will focus on global warming, the impact of human activity in the Galapagos, innovation of sustainable systems and the islands’ biodiversity. Its work will be conducted in both Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve. CDF will collaborate with Ecuador’s higher education and scientific institutions, as well as with internationally recognized universities and research institutions.

The early history of the CDRS, before tourism became the mainstay of the islands, is fascinating reading. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, member of the CDF Executive Councils since 1959, discusses the necessities of preserving the Galapagos Islands and the search for the research station’s headquarters in his work, Galapagos: The Noah’s Ark of the Pacific. Roger Perry recounts his experiences as the CDRS director (1964-1970) in Island Days.


CDRS and the Preservation of the Galapagos Islands

Since its inception, the CDRS has worked with national and international institutions and scientists to study and preserve the Galapagos Islands’ unique flora and fauna. In its over 50 years of existence, CDF has helped to establish the giant tortoise breeding program, thus saving these gentle giants from extinction on Española and other islands, as well as the land iguana program. It has aided the Ecuadorian government in setting up quarantine inspection to prevent the introduction of alien species to the islands, and in programs to eradicate goats, rats and other invasive animals. CDRS scientists’ research also was instrumental in the creation of one of the world’s largest marine reserves.

One current research project is on the elimination of the Philornis downsi fly, an introduced species that kills endangered Mangrove finch and other songbird hatchlings. Another project is Galapagos 2050, an innovative program to reforest the islands with native plant species. As well, CDRS scientists continue monitoring over 100 species on land and in the sea, from birds to sharks.

Over this past half-century, CDF’s mission also has extended to education, working in the islands’ schools and with the local communities. CDF has trained national park personnel, and over 2,000 students from Galapagos and mainland Ecuador.

CDF has been recognized for its work in preserving the Galapagos Islands’ unique environment. These awards include the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Preservation (UNESCO, 1999), J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize (2001), Society for Conservation Biology Award for Distinguished Achievement (2002), Cosmos International Award (Japan, 2002) and the BBVA Foundation Prize (2004).


Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station

Many cruise ships stop at Santa Cruz Island to visit the research station in Puerto Ayora. If you’re an independent traveler, though, you can easily get there yourself.

The Charles Darwin Research Station is located at the southern end of Avenida Charles Darwin, about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from downtown Puerto Ayora. Between the national park headquarters and the station, you’ll encounter the path to the tortoise breeding corrals and Lonesome George exhibition hall.

At the station itself you can visit the CDRS museum which also has a gift shop, snack shop and observation tower. The G. Corley Smith Library houses one of the largest Galapagos-specific collections in the world. Paths lead to gardens and displays explaining CDF’s latest projects. As well, there are several beaches that are popular with local Galapagos residents. Before you leave, be sure to take your photo with Charles Darwin (his statue, that is, at the Fischer Sciences Building).

CDRS also has an internationally-recognized herbarium with the most complete Galapagos plant collection in the world and an insect collection, both open to researchers. The science research laboratories and offices are closed to the public.

From any corner in the world, you can browse the CDF’s herbarium, museum collections and select publications through its Datazone. The library’s catalog is also available online. And if you can’t (yet) make it to the Galapagos Islands, check out Google 360, a “street-view” trek of these enchanted isles, another project in which the CDF was a partner.


For generations to come, the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Charles Darwin Research Station will continue to provide essential scientific information to the Ecuadorian government and local communities, to help protect these special Galapagos Islands.


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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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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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Photo credit: NAParish

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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