There is a hiatus in the history of Galapagos between the records of the last pirates in the islands and the arrival of whalers who moved into the South Pacific in the late 1700s. By the end of the 18th century, British and American whalers had so reduced Atlantic whale populations that they began to explore the Pacific. In 1788, the British whaling company, Samuel Enderby & Sons, sponsored Captain James Shields of the Emilia to undertake one of the first major Pacific whale hunts. Shields returned with 140 tons of whale oil and 888 seal skins and, by 1790, at least nine British whalers were working in the Pacific. Darwin reports hearing of a giant tortoise tattooed with the year 1786, suggesting that whalers before the Emilia arrived. By 1791, six Nantucket whalers also sailed for the Pacific. These early expeditions caused the British Admiralty, supported by Enderby & Sons, to send Captain James Colnett on the H.M.S. Rattler in 1793 to study the opportunities for whaling in the Pacific.
Colnett, who arrived in Galapagos in June 1793, prepared an updated chart of the islands, that was produced by Aaron Arrowsmith in 1798; he proceeded to rename the islands again. He also found an abundance of sperm whales and fur seals. Many credit Colnett with establishing the Post Office Box on Floreana (still an active tourist site today) as a means for ship-to-ship communications and for ships to leave mail to carry to England. However, by the time he arrived in Galapagos, British whalers had already been working the area for at least six years; besides which, Colnett apparently never visited the islands.
The Galapagos were a key whaling area because of the breeding grounds for sperm whales and the deep water feeding areas of the species to the west of the islands. Whalers called these areas the “Galapagos Grounds” and the “Off Shore Grounds.” The whales found along the coast of Peru in the upwelling waters of the Humboldt Current also move into the Galapagos waters, following the prevailing currents. The Galapagos Islands served as the main Pacific base for whalers until the discovery, in 1819, of the rich whaling grounds to the northwest of Japan.
In 1812, while the British were at war with Napoleon in Europe, the United States declared war on Britain, providing for interesting times among members of the Galapagos whaling community. British whaling vessels had, in the past, seconded as privateers during previous conflicts between the two countries and, as such, were fair game in time of war. The American frigate, Essex, under Captain Porter, visited the Galapagos in 1813. There, he built up his fleet by capturing British whalers and, in particular, by using information from the Post Office Box to determine the whereabouts of the British fleet.
The US Frigate Essex
Because of these actions, whaling shifted from a mainly British to a largely American operation. Porter was also one of the first people to introduce goats to Santiago Island. Other whalers may have deliberately established goats and pigs on Floreana around the same time in response to the giant tortoise declines on the islands. In addition, Captain Porter was one of the first people to describe the differences in the tortoise types from the different islands. Through his 1851 book, Moby Dick, Herman Melville made a second ship named Essex famous. In 1820, a sperm whale sank the Nantucket whaler, Essex, approximately 1,500 miles west of Galapagos. The first mate, Owen Chase, recorded the event and his account subsequently fell into the hands of Melville, who wove his narrative together with tales of albino sperm whales, drawing on his own experiences on the Acushnet, to create Moby Dick.
The ecological costs of whaling and fur sealing were considerable. Sperm whale, fur seal, and giant tortoise populations declined precipitously during the 19th century. By 1890, the Galapagos Fur Seal was considered commercially extinct and the yearlong 1905-06 California Academy of Science expedition found very few fur seals in the islands. Between 1784 and 1860, whalers took more than 100,000 tortoises from the islands. Whalers were also responsible for lighting brush fires during the very dry years. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book, In the Heart of the Sea, provides an account of a devastating fire on Floreana set by crew members of the Essex in 1820. By 1846, tortoise losses were so heavy on Floreana that they were thought to be extinct. The California Academy of Science 1905-06 expedition found that tortoises were very scarce on Española and Fernandina; by 1974, Pinta was added to the list of islands where tortoises could not be found. Given that the estimated total population of tortoises in 1974 was about 10,000, the earlier removal of at least 100,000 was obviously devastating.
Fortunately for Galapagos, in the late 1840s, a Canadian, Abraham Gesner, described a way to distill kerosene from petroleum, which reduced enormously the dependency on whale oil for lighting and triggered a rapid decline in the whaling industry. By the second half of the century, low whale densities, coupled with reduced demand, brought an end to Nantucket and British whaling. By then, however, the islands had already suffered irreparably.
Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana (Photo by Winnie Wagner)
When you sign up to receive email updates from Galapagos Conservancy, you'll be among the first to learn about breaking news from the Galapagos Islands, important conservation updates, event announcements, and more.