In Darwin's Wake
In this book excerpt from Herb McCormick's One Island, One Ocean—the story of the 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition—the crew of Ocean Watch calls at the fragile, challenged, and astounding Galápagos Islands.
Nearly everyone who visits the Galápagos makes a pilgrimage to the Charles Darwin Research Station to pay a visit to the gargantuan tortoises. After all, it’s how the place got its name: the translation of galápagos is “giant turtles.” The most famous, and stubborn, of these animals is known as Lonesome George, and he is perhaps the most confirmed bachelor ever. Now nearing his 100th birthday, George has yet to find a mate. Still, when one gazed into his eyes, he seemed like a wise, contented soul. And when you investigate the history of Galápagos tortoises, it’s clear that he’s lucky to be around.
On our ongoing travels, we’d been struck time after time—in the Bering Sea, in the high Arctic, in the Canadian Maritimes—by the havoc once wreaked by the worldwide whaling trade of the 1700s and 1800s. In the Galápagos Islands, the whalers struck again. The big, rich saddleback and dome-backed turtles that once roamed the islands by the tens of thousands were prized specimens to the crews of the whale ships. Easily taken, laden with delicious, sweet meat, and with a long shelf life, requiring neither food nor water, the giant turtles—which can weigh up to 500 pounds and live for over a century—provided fine provisions for the far-ranging whalers.
In fact, the Galápagos Islands were a doubly enticing destination: Sperm whales were in abundance, and crews could stack their holds with literally hundreds of turtles for the long voyages ahead. A cargo of 300 turtles or more wasn’t unusual. In 1846 alone, there were 735 ships in the Pacific fleet. Aboard every one of them, there were dozens of hungry sailors who loved their turtle. They almost loved them to extinction.
Ironically, the same creatures responsible for the devastation of the tortoises—human beings—ultimately came to their rescue, first in the pursuit of scientific research, and later in the name of conservation and preservation. In 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established, and in the years since, thousands of giant tortoises have been bred and/or raised at the center’s captive breeding center and returned to their natural habitat. The turtles again frolicked.