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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

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