Mockingbird, Galapagos islands

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands’ most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary science. He was aboard the HMS Beagle as geologist and natural historian on its around-the-world expedition that lasted from 1831 to 1836. The ship arrived in Galapagos in September-October 1835.

The Beagle’s chief mission was to chart the waters around South America, the Galapagos, Australia and other points of interest to the British. While the ship visited five main islands –

Chatham (San Cristobal), Hood (Española), Charles (Floreana), Albemarle (Isabela) and James (Santiago) – Captain Robert FitzRoy sent smaller boats headed out with surveying officers to map the seas around the other isles.

Charles Darwin had a privileged spot upon the Beagle. He could examine the maps and specimens that were coming in from those smaller expeditions. But he also set out to explore four of the sparsely populated islands himself. During the five weeks the Beagle was in Galapagos, Darwin spent 19 days ashore. His field notebooks allow us to recreate his landings, as does his fascinating book, The Beagle Diary. Here are some of the places where you may follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps:

San Cristobal (September 17-22, 1835)

Darwin landed five times on San Cristobal Island, including at St. Stephens Bay (Bahía Stephens), and climbed Cerro Tijeretas. His main interest was to explore the “craterised district” he had noted from the ship. He extensively collected plants (noting that a third were in bloom) and made his first jotting about the thenca, or mockingbird. This proved to be instrumental in the development of his evolution theory. He also observed the similarities – and differences – of the island’s flora and fauna to continental species.

Floreana (September 24-27, 1835)

The Beagle arrived at Post-Office Bay and then anchored off Black Beach. In his journal, Darwin noted he spent his three days here collecting “all the animals, plants, insects and reptiles from this Island,” and climbed the highest hill (Cerro Pajas). He also made another important note about the mockingbird species found here: that it differed from that on San Cristobal. Upon landing, the Beagle crew met English Vice-Governor, Nicholas Lawson, who was also visiting Galapagos. Lawson’s comment about the marked differences between each island’s giant tortoises would prove another important piece to the evolutionary puzzle.

Isabela (September 29-October 2, 1835)

The Beagle anchored at Blonde Cove (Tagus Cove), located west of Darwin Volcano. As on the previous islands, Darwin collected flora and fauna specimens, and studied the island’s geography. The ship then sailed to the north tip of Isabela and eastward to chart the coasts of Pinta, Genovesa and Marchena islands.

Santiago (October 8-17, 1835)

Darwin spent nine days on Santiago while the Beagle restocked water and supplies at San Cristobal and Floreana islands. His party camped at Buccaneer Cove (Caleta Bucanero). On Santiago, he more closely studied the habits of giant tortoises, which were quite plentiful. He also continued taking notes on mockingbirds, land iguanas (now extinct on Santiago) and other fauna, as well as collecting flora specimens. An unusual lava formation, which Darwin did observe but did not use to relieve himself, is called Darwin’s Toilet.

On October 17, the Beagle set sail for Tahiti. On the way, the crew surveyed the coasts of two small islands 100 miles (160 kilometers) north: Wenman (Wolf) and Culpepper (Darwin). They did not make landfall on these. These islands are now within a special shark sanctuary established by Ecuador in 2016.


Have you followed in the footsteps of Darwin? Share you experiences with other travellers in the comments below.

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Photo credit: Les Williams

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