he date was September 15, 1835, when the lookout on the
HMS Beagle sighted the archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands, and
its soon-to-be-famous passenger, Charles Darwin, got his first glimpse
of the lands that would later be the key to his theories of evolution.
A curious child growing up in a wealthy English family, Charles Darwin
(grandson of china-maker Josiah Wedgewood) was interested in science
and nature, collecting beetles as a hobby. He studied medicine at Edinburgh
University, but later had a change of heart, moving to Cambridge to take
up theology. There he became friends with the Reverend Professor John
Stevens Henslow, a clergyman and naturalist, who renewed his interest
in nature. Darwin later described his friendship with Henslow as the
most important circumstance in his career.
Captain Robert Fitzroy (an illegitimate descendant of King Charles II),
of the HMS Beagle, wanted a geologist to accompany him on his upcoming
voyage to Tierra del Fuego, to study the land as he researched the sea.
He initially offered the position to Henslow, whose wife persuaded him
to decline. As a substitute, Henslow recommended his protegé Darwin,
then twenty years old, for the job. Despite his father’s skepticism,
Charles sailed with Fitzroy in 1831, and after four years of sailing
around the world, collecting specimens and studying flora, fauna, and
fossils, they arrived in the Galapagos.
They first landed on Chatham Island (now San Cristobal), where Darwin
was impressed by the tameness of the birds, and by the marine iguanas,
which were ugly creatures on land, but swam with great grace. He also
encountered the magnificent giant tortoises, which were gathered and
taken aboard for both study and food. On Charles Island, now known as
Floreana, Darwin met the governor, who claimed that he could identify
the island origin of any tortoise by the shape of its shell. This idea
intrigued Darwin, who would later realize the great significance of this
Of particular interest to Darwin was the fact that all of these species
existed at all on these islands, and how and why they differed from similar
species on the mainland. He was fascinated by the subtle but definite
differences in the same species between one island and another. Among
the birds, especially, he discovered over 13 species of finch, each slightly
different from the other by the size and shape of the bill, each group
having adapted to it specialized environment. These are still known today
as “Darwin’s Finches.”
Returning to England in 1836, he began to organize his research and meticulous
notes. Over time, he realized that the differences within the species
must stem from the need to survive in their unique environment, and arrived
at the principle of “natural selection.” Keeping his theories
mostly to himself, he spent the next 20 years gathering and studying
more evidence, and then set it all down on paper. His groundbreaking
book, On The Origin of the Species, was released on November 22, 1859,
and sold out that day.
Following this, the Galapagos were invaded by scientific expeditions
collecting specimens for research and almost obliterating the tortoises.
Today, the scientific community is dedicated to preserving what remains
of the original species on the islands. The Galapagos National Park was
established in 1959 for conservation and preservation of the Islands.
Visitors to the Charles Darwin Research Center, on Santa Cruz Island,
can observe the great work being done to preserve what remains of the
giant tortoise populations, and can participate in the effort to preserve
the ongoing history of the islands, their animals, and their continued
Click Here for information on our Galapagos Tours.