Guest blogger Henry Nicholls is a journalist and author who recently published a rather wonderful book on Galapagos entitled The Galapagos: A Natural History. In it he covers many fascinating topics not only on the flora and fauna but also the geographical and human events that have helped shape the islands. The extract below from his book details a particularly turbulent event in the Islands’ history.
The Dramatic 1825 Eruption of Fernandina
The Galapagos island of Fernandina in the west of the archipelago is one of the most active volcanoes on earth. The most recent eruption occurred in 2009, an event that lasted more than two weeks. But this was nothing compared to an explosion in 1825 that rumbled on for some eight months.
I was not there at the time (obviously) but I am thankful to American explorer Benjamin Morrell for his first hand account of this event. It is so vivid, so filmic that when I read it, it is as if I can hear the sounds, feel the fire and taste the sulphur.
When Morrell sailed his ship – the Tartar – into Banks Cove on Isabela on 10 February 1825, he could not have known what was about to happen. But just days later, in the middle of the night, Fernandina began to erupt. “Our ears were suddenly assailed by a sound that could only be equalled by ten thousand thunders bursting from the air at once; while, at the same instant, the whole hemisphere was lighted up with a horrid glare that might have appalled the stoutest heart!” wrote Morrell in A Narrative of Four Voyages published in 1832.
This “crack of doom” brought everyone on deck, and Morrell described his men standing there “like ‘sheeted spectres,’ speechless and bewildered with astonishment and dismay.” The heavens appeared to be in a “blaze of fire, intermingled with millions of falling stars and meteors.” Flames shot up from Fernandina’s peak to a height of “at least two thousand feet.”
At about four in the morning, the lava began to flow over the edge of the crater “in a cataract of liquid fire…rushing down the side of the mountain, pursuing a serpentine course to the sea.” The “dazzling stream”, Morrell judged, was about a quarter of a mile wide, “presenting the appearance of a tremendous torrent of melted iron running from the furnace.” The flaming river broke its banks in several places, sending fiery branches in every direction across the landscape, “each rushing downward as if eager to cool its temperament in the deep caverns of the neighbouring ocean.” And when the lava met the water, the uproar was “dreadful indeed”.
In addition to indulging his talent for prose, Morrell did not miss the opportunity for a bit of science, recording the temperature of the sea and air as the drama unfolded. His baseline measurement, taken an hour after the first explosion and before the lava had begun to spill over the rim of the volcano, was fairly typical for the time of year with the water at around 16°C and the night air a balmy 21°C. Some six hours later, with the eruption “still continuing with unabated fury”, the temperature of the water had rocketed to an incredible 37°C and the air was now an oppressive 45°C. This was clearly alarming because Morrell and his men were trapped. “Not a breath of air was stirring to fill a sail, had we attempted to escape;” he wrote. By the time the atmosphere had reached an unbearable 50°C, the glue-like resin holding the vessel together had started to run, tar was dripping from the rigging and Morrell and his men were struggling to breathe. Stripping off and jumping into the water would have offered them no respite. At over 40°C, it would have been like diving into a scorching bath.
Thankfully, “a breath of a light zephyr from the continent, scarcely perceptible to the cheek” began to strengthen and at last Morrell was able to weigh anchor. But his only option was to head south in an effort to get upwind of the volcano and this meant passing within a few kilometres of Fernandina’s molten shoreline.
If you happen to be on a cruise that takes you through the tight Bolivar Channel that runs between Fernandina and Isabela, spare a thought for the Tartar and its men. At the narrowest point, he found the water to be marginally hotter than the air, “almost boiling” at over 60°C. If you step ashore at Punta Espinoza to marvel at the marine iguanas, penguins and cormorants, remember too that this projection probably owes its existence during the 1825 eruption.
Fernandina is likely to perform again in the next few years or so. I would love to be there to see it. But at a distance, of course.
Adapted from The Galapagos: a Natural History by Henry Nicholls (© Profile Books, 2014).