Darwin and the Galapagos: Part 1

Posted by on June 20th, 2013

Darwin would not be who he is today were it not for the islands. Likewise, the islands would not be as coveted a destination as they are had Darwin not visited and written about them. But what really happened on that fabled trip in 1835? What did Darwin do and where did he go? And when did it all click into place? Before you book your premier Galapagos cruise it makes sense to learn a bit about the islands’ history.

Investigation reveals that there was no Oprah-esque a-ha moment, but instead an altogether less spectacular journey of scientific gathering, analysis and pontificating. But more of that next week – let’s deal with the basics of his time in the Galapagos first.

What was the wider context of the voyage?

Darwin was the resident naturalist on HMS Beagle, a Royal Navy survey ship whose ultimate destination was Tierra del Fuego. HMS Beagle left Plymouth in 1831 and returned to England in 1836. Darwin, who aspired to be an Anglican clergyman, was only 22 when she set sail.

As with all Royal Navy ships, numerous logs were kept on HMS Beagle. These logs, in addition to the private journals of Darwin and other crew members, give us a very good idea of exactly what took place on every day of the five-year voyage.

What did Darwin do in the Galapagos?

Darwin stayed at the islands for a total of 35 days; of these 19 were spent on land. HMS Beagle was too big to dock at any of the islands – instead they were reached by smaller vessels. Of the main islands, Darwin visited four: San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago. For his full itinerary, click here.

Darwin spent his longest stint on Santiago Island (nine days) when he and the ship’s physician and their respective servants were left there while HMS Beagle returned to San Cristóbal to stock up on fresh water. Anyone who has been to the islands will appreciate how hard these nine days must have been: with limited water, and lugging 19th century scientific and camping equipment, they traversed the treacherous lava flows of the island, collecting (and carrying) samples as they went. This was no premier Galapagos cruise.

Collecting samples from the islands

As the ship’s naturalist, it was Darwin’s job to collect plant and animal specimens that he encountered along the way. He did this throughout the voyage, but it is his Galapagos specimens which were later to prove most important.

Interestingly, Darwin didn’t actually do a very good job of collecting at the Galapagos, probably because he was more interested by their volcanic geology. He didn’t bother to keep any samples of the giant tortoises (which differ from island to island and would have provided spectacular proof of his theory) as he believed that they had been introduced from the Indian Ocean. Instead he and the rest of HMS Beagle happily ate their way through at least 48 of the giant beasts.

To make matters worse, Darwin did not record which of the islands his bird and animal specimens came from, as he was under the impression that all the species occurred on all the islands (in fact the exact opposite was true). Fortunately, other crew-members also compiled their own collections (unfortunately far smaller than Darwin’s) which did record each specimen’s provenance. Also, the plant specimens from each island were all grouped together by chance as they were kept in presses (one per island) for preservation purposes.

After the fact

HMS Beagle left the Galapagos on October 20, 1835, bound for Tahiti. Darwin had spent five weeks at the islands, but the visit would stay with him forever. While on the islands, Darwin was actually more interested in their geology (the volcanoes in particular) than their zoology, but – by turns – zoological and botanical insights would plant, germinate and bring to fruition the seed of his great idea: evolution. On the Origin of Species was only published in 1859: next week’s blog will look at what happened in the 24 years between his Galapagos visit and the book’s publication.

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