Why I Read It: A review for Sea History magazine.
Summary: The 1905-1906 California Academy of Sciences expedition to the Galapagos Islands and its aftereffects.
My Thoughts: Oh, how the world has changed.
In 1905, it was acceptable - expected, even - to kill off the last individual of a species on an island under the notion that "if we don't kill it now, we might just lose scientific knowledge of it forever." It is possible, in the case of this particular expedition, that the collectors from the Academy (sailing on the eponymous schooner Academy) killed off one species of tortoise forever under this guiding ethic.
And so they killed. Eight young men with machetes and guns and bullets killed and killed and killed.
Ironically, had they not, the Academy might not exist today. While spending their 366 days in the Galapagos Islands, the collectors were spared the horror of the San Francisco Earthquake of April 1906, and the fires that burned for the days that followed. They missed the destruction of the Academy, and its collection. In the end, they carried the new collection in their hold. Their safe return to San Francisco kept the Academy afloat.
The author details how the expedition was guided by both the work of Charles Darwin and that of Georg Baur, a paleontologist who believed that the islands were not volcanic in nature, but instead the result of a gradual separation of land masses driven by rising waters. The notion would be debated for a few more years, but ultimately proved false. Still, it held merit as the biologists of the day debated how very similar species could be found on the various islands with slight differences. Birds could fly, sure, but could snakes swim, or lava lizards ride driftwood and colonize new islands?
The story has a modicum of testosterone, as eight young men in a ship for a year and a half eventually will blow off steam and throw some lefts and rights. It is riddled with scientific discovery and even has some maritime history credibility. It's not for the squeamish, unless one can put aside modern sensibilities and understand that the study of animals a century ago and beyond involved a whole lot of slaughter.