Originally appeared in Noticias de Galápagos, No. 51, 1992.
Elsewhere in this issue of Noticias de Galápagos, Dr. Linda Cayot describes the November 1991 repatriation of land iguanas to their ancestral home on Isla Baltra, where we may hope they will fare better than did their predecessors. However, were it not for a little scientific serendipity that took place some sixty years ago, the recent repatriation would have been impossible. In 1932, G. Allan Hancock stopped at Isla Baltra—then known as South Seymour Island. If he hadn't done so, there would have been no iguanas available for repatriation last year.
The wealthy California industrialist had recently taken possession of his 195-foot Velero III, a brand new diesel-powered cruiser suitably appointed for the comfortable transport of its owner and guests on scientific expeditions in the Pacific. After a few shakedown cruises along the California coastline, Velero III was ready for its first full-scale Galápagos expedition. Captain Hancock had three collection projects in mind: he sought recent and fossil mollusks for the California Academy of Sciences, live vertebrates for the San Diego Zoological Gardens, and fish for the Steinhart Aquarium.
In addition to his crew of about twenty officers and men, Captain Hancock invited seven scientists to join the expedition. Among their number were Mr. (now Dr.) John Garth, and Drs. Edwin Palmer and C. B. (“Cy”) Perkins. On subsequent voyages, George Hugh Banning, Waldo LaSalle Schmitt and Harry Wegeforth joined the Velero party, and it is from their various diaries, memoirs, papers and photographs that the first iguana transfer of 1932-33 is reconstructed here.
Thursday, January 14, 1932.—After an early-morning cruise past Guy Faulkes and the Daphnes, Velero III made a 9:30am anchorage off South Seymour, also known then as iguana headquarters. Once on shore, John Garth spotted the first land iguana, which Dr. Palmer asked him to capture for the benefit of his movie camera. The job was done with such ease that Palmer (perhaps Galápagos' first film director), had him repeat the scene for the benefit of the production. Whatever satisfaction Garth may have had with his bring-em-back-alive skills was short-lived: Cy Perkins pointed out that the catch of the moment was half-starved, and thus not up to the task of eluding its captor. This proved the case with most of the animals in the surrounding area. Perkins noted that all but a few were quite thin, and at least two were little more than living skeletons.
Soon enough the explorers found themselves in serious iguana country, with an animal basking under every second or third tree. When the few healthy ones were at last discovered, they more than made up for the lethargy of their frail brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, by day's end about fifteen reasonably healthy specimens had been collected for the zoo.
Saturday, January 16.—On visiting North Seymour Island, Garth thought the terrain appeared more favorable for iguanas than on South Seymour, yet not one could be found here. And this gave Captain Hancock an idea. Today the same idea would get him tossed off the island, but if it hadn't occurred to him then, there would be nothing to write about now. For better or for worse, the Captain's idea was to capture twenty or so land iguanas on South Seymour and release them on North Seymour. Then he'd come back in a year or so to see what happened to them. “A good idea I believe. No harm anyhow, as far as I can see” wrote Perkins in his diary entry for this day. And so it was decided.
Sunday, January 17.—Notwithstanding the usual Sabbath observances on board Velero, a seventeen-man landing party was dispatched to the north end of South Seymour to round up about forty more iguanas. The afternoon release of the animals on North Seymour was as well recorded as any Hollywood opening, with both motion-picture and still-camera coverage. Nevertheless, the stars of the day did not much care for their spotlight, and many needed a gentle prodding to induce some motion for the cameras. Once coaxed out of the transport cage, the saurian celebrities ignored their admiring public and beat a hasty retreat to shelter under the nearby cactus plants.
17 January, 1932—Captain Allan Hancock (left) supervises the release of the land iguanas on North Seymour Island. The crew members holding the cage are unidentified.
Monday, January 18.—Cy Perkins went back to South Seymour to catch another six iguanas, taking his pick from among the dozens of candidates he saw there. This part of the catch was destined for San Diego, and quickly adjusted to a diet of shipboard delicacies, including cabbage and raisin nut bread.
Velero III departed South Seymour the following morning, and after several more weeks of exploration, returned home on February 27, 1932. Before the end of the same year, Allan Hancock was ready to take Velero III back to Galápagos, and to look in on the newly-tenanted North Seymour.
The second voyage of the Velero III began on December 29, and after a lengthy cruise along the Central and South American coasts, reached Galápagos on January 24. On arriving at North Seymour a few weeks later, writer George Hugh Banning expressed some reservations on what had taken place here the previous year: “The practice, and, especially, the irresponsible practice, of rearranging the island fauna, might lead the investigations of others somewhat afield. Hear ye, therefore, and be it known nevertheless, that some seventy iguanas (C. subscristatus [sic]), including a second transport, have been carried across the channel from the southern to the northern Seymour, investigations having shown to our utmost satisfaction that the emigrants of last year were still there and doing splendidly.” Banning's “second transport” referred to a February 18, 1933 transfer of another 26 iguanas between the two Seymours. The animals were collected in the morning by Drs. Perkins and Harry Wegeforth, and brought to their new home later the same day. In a hasty North Seymour reconnaissance, John Garth saw about six of last year's iguanas, all apparently well-adjusted to their new home.
The third cruise of the Velero III brought the Hancock party back to Galápagos, and to North Seymour on January 22, 1934, where Garth recorded seeing numerous iguana burrows, though the animals themselves kept out-of-sight (fearing perhaps yet another ride in a cage?). On this trip, Dr. Palmer recalled that “We had removed to North Seymour 72 land iguanas in 1932 for lack of food, but today the vegetation [on South Seymour] was very fair and there seemed to be no dearth of iguanas of which we took many pictures, and several were taken for mounting.” It is tempting to speculate that if this had been Captain Hancock's first encounter with the iguanas of Seymour, it might not have occurred to him to intercede in their affairs, and our story might have ended on a much sadder note.
Again in 1934, December 13th saw the Velero III back at North Seymour for another site inspection. The event was somewhat overshadowed by their visit a few weeks earlier (December 2-3, 1933) to the hastily-christened “Dead Man's Beach” on Isla Marchena, where the Hancock team found and photographed the remains of Rudolf Lorenz and Trygve Nuggerud.
But to return to happier circumstances, once on North Seymour Captain Hancock went off scouting for his charges, finding two in excellent condition, an old egg, and an island generally honeycombed with fresh burrows. From all evidence, it was judged that the colonists were doing quite well. And the rest, as they say, is history.
November, 1991—Déjà vu? National Park Warden Cirilo Barrera escorts the descendents of the Hancock transfer, on their way back “home” to South Seymour Island—better known today as Isla Baltra.
Banning, George Hugh
1933 Hancock Expedition to the Galápagos Islands, 1933. San Diego: Zoological Society of San Diego, Bulletin No. 10 (May).
Fraser, C. McLean
1934 The Voyage of the Velero III, 1933-34. Unpublished diary. In Papers of Waldo LaSalle Schmitt Box 86, Folder 9. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
1943 Allan Hancock Pacific Expeditions: General Account of the Scientific Work of the Velero III in the Eastern Pacific, 1931-41.
Part I: Historical Introduction, Velero III, Personnel.
Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press.
Garth, John S.
1932 The Diaries of John S. Garth. Unpublished ms. Los Angeles: Allan Hancock Foundation.
Palmer, Edwin O.
1934 Third Galápagos Trip of the Velero III in the Winter of 1933-1934. From the Log Book of the “Medicine Man” of the Trip. [Privately printed for the author, no publication details given].
Perkins, C. B.
1932 Galápagos Island Trip. December 4, 1931 to February 27, 1932. Unpublished ms. San Diego: Zoological Society of San Diego Library.