In 1831, 22-year-old Charles Darwin set out on a five-year voyage that would change his life—and ours. Hired as the ship’s naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, he traveled with the British navy ship on a round-the-world tour that gave him the insights that would later inform his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
Wherever the Beagle put into port, Darwin collected numerous specimens of flora and fauna gathered during lengthy shoreland explorations on islands, in mountain landscapes, in rainforests, and on the pampas of Argentina. He also made copious notes and highly detailed drawings in his notebooks.
In his autobiography, published posthumously in 1892, Darwin said that the voyage of the Beagle had been the making of him, directing the course of his entire career. The journey resulted in his still-widely read 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle, still available with reproductions of Darwin’s own illustrations. The insights he gained into the inner workings of life enabled him to publish On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. The book would create scientific excitement even as it shocked a Victorian public with the idea that human beings could be close relatives of the great apes.
Most of us know about one particular part of Darwin’s voyage: his visit to the Galápagos Islands. Then, as now, the Galápagos offered a rich, strange, and beautiful living laboratory of plants, birds, fish, reptiles, and animals. However, the ship took Darwin to many other places that proved equally fascinating.
Darwin was aboard the Beagle during its second voyage, under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy. The mission involved a circumnavigation of the globe, with a particular focus on exploring the coasts of South America and gaining a complete circle of measurement of longitude, which would be accomplished within only a fraction of error.
After leaving Plymouth, England, in December 1831, the Beagle at first skimmed the coasts of Africa, stopping at the islands of Madeira, the Canaries, and the Cape Verde Islands before heading southwest to Brazil. It then put in at Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo in present-day Uruguay. In March 1833, it reached the Falkland Islands before rounding Cape Horn.
By July the following year, the ship anchored in Valparaiso, Chile, spending close to a year along the continent’s western coast before moving into the Pacific and reaching the Galápagos. November 1835 saw the Beagle reaching Tahiti—where Darwin saw coral reefs for the first time—then New Zealand, Sydney, Tasmania, and the islands of the Indian Ocean before reaching the Cape of Good Hope, at Africa’s southern tip, in May 1836. Then the ship rounded the coast of Africa and headed northward to home. In October, the ship docked at Falmouth, England.
Early in 1832, Darwin was collecting oyster shells in the Cape Verde Islands. The shell deposits he found in rocks hinted that his colleague Charles Lyell had been correct in stating that landmasses on earth were in a regular state of rise and fall, with small but ultimately significant changes happening over eons of time.
Near Rio de Janeiro, Darwin collected wasps and spiders and was enchanted at his explorations of Brazil’s lush rainforests. At Bahía Blanca near Buenos Aires, he found enormous caches of bones of large prehistoric mammals, including a megatherium, a kind of giant sloth.
He explored the Andes Mountains and rode horseback over the Pampas, chasing down herds of big ostrich-like birds called rheas, one species of which now bears his name.
Darwin ended up spending more than one-third of his total nights during the voyage staying ashore during excursions inland, most of these in South America. The Beagle devoted three years to traveling the coastline of the continent, which gave Darwin plenty of time to explore. He even managed to set up a base camp at a small rented house.
All his explorations and fossil-collecting set Darwin to thinking of the ancient world in which his fossilized animals had lived. He became obsessed with knowing why they had eventually died out.
“A little world within itself”
There are 18 main islands, three smaller islands, and more than 100 rocks and islets in the Galápagos, the “Islands of the Tortoises” in Spanish. The archipelago lies almost 600 miles west of South America and is part of Ecuador. For more than 40 years, the islands and their surrounding waters have been a UNESCO World Heritage site, and they contain some of the densest concentrations of endangered creatures on the planet. Darwin would later describe it as “a little world within itself.”
Darwin and the Beagle would spend only five weeks during September and October 1835 in the Galápagos, but he was able to extensively explore several of the islands, constantly collecting new species. These specimens would provide the most pointed examples that would lead him to his theory of evolution via natural selection.
The whole archipelago is a textbook on evolution: In the uplands of the islands, today’s visitors will still find masses of moss-encircled trees that evolved from daisies. In the lowlands, cacti have evolved in order to survive the islands’ daily climate shifts, from chilly nights to scalding days. Isabela Island was formed from a ring of six shield volcanoes.
Darwin looked underwater and encountered marine iguanas as they fed. This species of lizard is the only one adapted to foraging for food in the sea. He also saw seals and sea lions, sharks, rays, and the giant tortoises that give the islands their name, as well as a variety of bird species.
On San Cristobal Island, the naturalist noted some “dull-colored” birds, most likely the finches that would become a prominent part of his evolutionary theory. Today, this group of species is known as “Darwin’s finches.”
The Galápagos finches, Darwin noted, displayed different-shaped beaks and varying behaviors from island to island. He would later surmise that the reason lay in the adaptive features each had produced to extract the most nutrition from their individual environments. In other words, an original finch species had evolved into new types depending on the requirements for survival in each particular habitat. “Darwin’s finches” still roam over the islands.
One of the animals Darwin studied and took home with him was a giant tortoise he named Harriet, which was about five years old when Darwin visited the islands. In 2006, a 175-year-old Galápagos tortoise, thought by some researchers to be the very same Harriet, died in Australia, having been cared for by famed “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. Darwin’s five-year adventure on the Beagle was a monumental achievement, both for Darwin personally and for science. It is perhaps the world’s most famous scientific expedition, and the findings and observations Darwin collected would change how we humans understand our origins and place in the world.