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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