Notes from the Hassler archives: Galapagos’ riches


[This post is part of a series on the archives of the 1871-1872 Hassler expedition, written by Bruno Costelini, Science without Borders intern at the Ernst Mayr Library]

The last main station of the Hassler deep-sea dredging expedition before reaching its end would be Galapagos, the almost mythical islands where Darwin gathered many of the crucial pieces to solve the puzzle and formulate his theory of natural selection. The shadow of Darwin loomed large over the Hassler expedition, since Louis Agassiz continued to resist the British naturalist’s reasoning. Still, they all seemed to carry copies of his Journal of Researches (the narrative of the Voyage of the Beagle) and refer to it freely.

Theories aside, what strikes James H. Blake immediately as they reach Charles Island is the wealth of nature that doesn’t shy away from the visitors as he notes in his journal:

As we arrived the land a very large shoal of porpoises came towards us till within a few hundred feet of the ship where they immediately turned and went with great speed to the eastward having been startled by the ship. It was a handsome sight, for they made one complete circle or line of spray, some of them pumping 10 feet or more out of the water. There must have been thousands of them for they extended a long distance and were very near together in the water. Some half dozen frigate birds came off to the ship and attempted for a long time to light on our topmast but the sharp end of the lightening conductor prevented them as it projects some six inches above the masthead. After they had tried in vain till they were tired they began to bite at the pennon as if making their vengeance on that for their failure in not lighting on the mast.

But the most amusing and valuable thing was the lizard (“Iguana”) Amblyrhyncus cristatus which grown to a large size, some of them were three feet or more, and one place where they visited they say 50 or more of these hideous creatures at one time. They brought back some three dozens all alive and when some were let out to run on deck it caused quite a sensation among the gazers on.

After seeing other species of lizards, penguins and the famous sea-turtles, they come to Jervis Island where they meet some seals, more docile ones than those they had seen in the Strait of Magellan, though:

[…] when we landed under a small bush here 2 small seals and a mother. They were lying quietly and appeared not to be much disturbed only when one approached them the mother would look to her children. We all stood around them with 10 or 12 ft. and they did not have a frightened look but a look of askance as if to say, what do you see!charming line drawing of seal in pencil on yellowed paper

[…] I saw many lying on the shore in the water were hundreds of them within a few feet of the shore. I could approach within a few feet of them and seen they swimming and gamboling in the water. They would come to the shore look at us as if they were tame. I had a good view of them from a rock. Saw them roll over to the water turn somersaults and move bout in many ways. It was a very pretty sight. They would appear to kill one another and whenever a fly lighted on its nose, sometimes they would be half a dozen, they tumbled in also, he would open his mouth quickly and catch them as a dog does.

After visiting all the main islands in the archipelago the Hassler party was ready to move ahead. It’s hard to say what was going on in everybody’s minds, but we can catch a glimpse of Agassiz’s as he lectures on deck, reaffirming his views on “Darwin and the Galapagos.” Blake’s notes start out by setting the scenery, mentioning that the “lecture was given when we were within 10 miles off Cape Mala, and going to Panama. It was a beautiful day smooth sea and we were more comfortably seated in chairs under the awning then we could have been in the lecture room”:

We can’t visit the Galapagos without thinking of Darwin, or any subject of Nature without mentioning him. One of the most honest and painstaking of men and indefatigable in his labors. I do love him yet there is no one I dread in the progress of Science more than him.

Knowledge is not advanced by agreement which Darwin has been doing. The meaning must be in the structure as in the real. We went to know the world as it is, that’s honesty. To know the creation is not by guessing but by experimenting the structure there seen. The Galapagos is a little world by itself – young and very young.

I greatly respect Darwin, but he running a wild goose chase. I see not that we are one inch nearer the showing how things have bee brought about by any thing he has given us by the Galapagos Islands.

After that the Hassler headed to San Francisco reaching it by the end of August 1872. Some of the party remained together as they crossed the country to get back to Boston again. If the theories and doctrines that sustained the expedition were already being surpassed, the results of their efforts in collecting, dredging and fishing were invaluable to the burgeoning Museum of Comparative Zoology and its future researchers.