Whalers in Galapagos: The First Era of Economic Activity in the Archipelago

whalers in galapagos

Whalers in Galapagos – Before oil (petroleum) was discovered, the World was a much darker place. Lights were dim, industries were just being born, machinery was very basic, and combustion of various contraptions relied on whale oil. Consequently, any economic endeavor that was worth investing in was, almost always, related to maritime activities.

What’s more is that any endeavor involving the collection of the highly-valuable whale oil held a pretty high likelihood of making a fortune. As exploring new waters implied encountering potential new fortunes, the Galapagos Islands soon made it into the list of top places to go to in search of whale oil.william dampier voyage round the world

william dampier portrait

Oil on canvas, c. 1697-1698

While there have been official and unofficial naval works on the islands, nothing was more revealing and descriptive than William Dampier’s experience of the archipelago in May 1684. His book was called A New Voyage Round the World, and it was published over a century before Charles Darwin was born. For the first time ever, a detailed description of the islands’ landscapes and unique wildlife was made accessible thanks to this great and eloquent writer. These writings are likely to have triggered an interest in other sailors and explorers, encouraging them to take a detour from everything else and sail out to the Galapagos.

Tropical Whaling Waters

It was during the 1700’s and early 1800’s that whaling became a very profitable business. Remote and uninhabited islands were almost always preferred, as these isolated places offered no restrictions when it came to the actual hunting of whales. Despite being tropical, the Galapagos offered a somewhat drier and cooler climate compared to most other tropical places. This meant that the waters around the islands were very productive, and it’s not hard to imagine that, back then at least, they might’ve temporarily or permanently had the presence of some goliath-sized cetaceans.

Warfare between the United Kingdom and the United States was fierce at this point, and trying to dominate the east-pacific ocean was the main goal of these wars. Commodore David Porter was in charge of the USS Essex frigate and, in 1812, as the war continued, he managed to capture several British vessels in Galapagos waters. Since the islands were still uninhabited, there was no control whatsoever of who came or what their activities were.

david porter

But as the war ended (one could even call it the war of miscommunication), the islands became a brand-new destination for whaling. Deeper and more detailed surveying was needed and, quite naturally, Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle (with Charles Darwin on board) was commissioned to come out to the islands as part of its epically long voyage around the World. The end result of this voyage was the creation of a naval chart of the Galapagos Islands which was quite a masterpiece; made by the Captain and the Officers of the HMS Beagle and used extensively until the years of World War II.

Whalers in Galapagos

fitzroy galapagos chartAs a result of the monumental efforts and accomplishments made by these early sailors, the islands became a very popular and highly sought-after whaling location. Being a whaler or a late privateer was now widely accepted as a future worth aiming for: it was less dangerous than being a pirate or buccaneer, and more profitable than any basic naval job back in any continent. It made sense to be a whaler. With more whalers in Galapagos waters, there was an industrial guarantee that whale oil would be readily available and that street and home lights would now remain lit continuously. Many whales were savagely hunted throughout the islands, and for decades their numbers plummeted in an unprecedented way. Something else, however, was about to become the islands’ worst menace…

whalers in galapagosAn Uninvited Number of Guests: Whaling and Beyond…

All these early sailors did stay for an extended period of time than any of their predecessors. The accidental and deliberate introduction of species occurred, and the islands’ pristine ecosystems were about to change forever. Domestic animals were imported, and most of these ran wild and became feral species (goats, pigs, cats, dogs, etc.). Some introduced species were certainly accidental (rats, wasps, etc.), but regardless of their intent – they all affected the islands for sure.

Whaling in Galapagos is now gone, but some introduced species limit the survivorship of many other endemic and native species. Hopefully one day, as technologies emerge, the islands will be free of introduced species. In the upcoming blogs, we will include how these introduced animals became a menace to the islands. Additionally, we’ll also focus on the involvement of famous Herman Melville (writer of Moby Dick) in the Galapagos Islands. So stay tuned!

Text & Photography by Francisco “Pancho” Dousdebés – Galapagos Expert

Other Image Credits: John Woram (Charles Darwin Slept Here), Wikipedia.

Bolivar Channel, western Galapagos Islands, September 25th, 2017 :: Lat &Long: ‎0°21′45″ S / 91°21′37″ W

Francisco Dousdebes

About Francisco Dousdebes

Francisco “Pancho” Dousdebés is an Ecuadorian, born in Quito. Early in life he developed a special interest in natural sciences and a special predilection for the outdoors. After finishing high school in Ecuador, he travelled abroad as an exchange student and landed in the Midwest of the United States. Afterwards, Francisco studied Biology and, in 1986, had a great opportunity land right in his hands: to become a Naturalist Guide for the Galapagos National Park. Currently, he is the Galápagos Product Manager for Yacht La Pinta, Yacht Isabela II and the Boutique Hotel Casa Gangotena in Quito. He loves to promote the beauty of Ecuador all over the World, and has participated in many Trade Shows, International Forums, and Roadshows together with the Ministry of Tourism and Quito Turismo. He is keen on explaining the role of sustainability in fragile destinations, and also gives lectures on Ecuador’s natural history, natural selection, evolution, and sustainable tourism. Traveling is certainly one of his passions, and whenever he has free time, he has already surely arrived at his next exploration destination.