Charles Darwin Islands of Galapagos
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“In a few days time the Beagle will sail for the Galapagos Islands. I look forward with joy and interest to this, both as being somewhat nearer to England and for the sake of having a good look at an active volcano.”
– Charles Darwin, letter to J.S. Henslow, July 12, 1835.
Charles Darwin got more than he bargained for when he visited the Galapagos Islands. He may have come for the volcanoes, but it would be the unique Galapagos wildlife that would leave a more lasting impression on this English naturalist.
Darwin and the HMS Beagle were in Galapagos during the months of September and October of 1835, and during this time Darwin had the opportunity to explore a handful of islands, collecting Galapagos species for use in his research back home.
These species would eventually be used to illustrate Darwin’s controversial theories, and the Galapagos Islands have had a privileged place in natural history ever since.
Darwin’s Galapagos expedition was, in one sense, not unlike the visits enjoyed by thousands of modern visitors every year.
The Beagle itself was far too large to land, so it cruised around the islands and smaller boats would take Darwin and the other crew members ashore, where they could mingle with the endemic wildlife. Modern ships such as the Cormorant and Ocean Spray follow a similar pattern, sending guests ashore in small, easy to use pangas or dinghy boats.
So where did Darwin go and what did he see?
Here is a description of Darwin’s Galapagos itinerary:
September 15-23, 1835: San Cristobal Island.
On September 15th land was sighted: it turned out to be Mount Pitt, part of San Cristobal Island.
Darwin first went ashore in Galapagos on September 18th while the crew captured several San Cristobal giant tortoises for food.
Darwin was intrigued by the tortoises and by the rocky island and the lava that formed it.
He mentioned seeing a few “dull-colored” birds: presumably the famous finches that would later bear his name!
September 24-28: Floreana Island.
Floreana was an Ecuadorian penal colony at the time, managed by an Englishman named Nicholas Lawson.
The Beagle’s crew was allowed to go ashore and on the 25th, Lawson gave them a tour of the colony.
Lawson told Darwin that it was possible to tell from which island a tortoise came merely by looking at its shell.
In his journal, Darwin remarked that the convicts regularly ate tortoises and that whaling ships and pirates often took them: one such ship carried off 700 Floreana tortoises to eat while at sea. By 1846 the race was extinct.
September 28-October 4: Isabela Island.
The Beagle made several stops and Darwin had many chances to go ashore and explore.
He was amazed by the number of “most disgusting, clumsy lizards, ” marine iguanas. Darwin correctly deduced that they fed underwater but initially believed they ate fish or other animal life.
Later while on Santiago Island, he would have the chance to dissect one and discovered that they actually eat algae.
October 4 – October 8: Northern Islands: Marchena, Genovesa and Pinta.
The Beagle did not anchor at any of these islands and instead decided to head for Santiago Island, as they were running low on water.
October 8 – October 17: Santiago Island:
The Beagle found no water on James and headed back to San Cristobal to resupply.
The ship’s physician, Benjamin Bynoe, Darwin, and each of their servants remained behind. They had a tent and provisions and spent the week exploring and gathering samples.
It would be Darwin’s longest stay on any of the Galapagos Islands.
He collected many specimens, including some fish, snails, several varieties of birds and reptiles and some insects, although he remarked about how few insects were to be had.
It was about this time that Darwin realized that the different islands were home to different species: he had, until then, not been carefully labeling his specimens, as he believed at that time that all of the species lived on all of the islands.
October 17 – October 20: Isabela, Wolf and Darwin Islands.
After picking up Darwin’s party, the Beagle went back to survey the eastern coast of Isabela Island before going to Pinta to pick up another party that had been surveying in one of the smaller boats.
On October 20, they surveyed Wolf and Darwin before setting sail for Tahiti: Darwin did not set foot on Darwin, the island that now bears his name.
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