Vincent Astor, businessman, philanthropist, and heir to the Astor fortune, had always been obsessed with the ocean. “From early youth, I have enjoyed studying marine life,” he wrote in an essay for the San Francisco Examiner. “One of my earliest sports was a game of stalking sharks, not as hunter but as observer. My father taught me how to let my boat drift upon them silently and so get a clear view of them; the mere dipping of an oar is enough to send them racing from view.”
Astor studied Charles Darwin’s writings about the Galápagos and was enthralled by the scientist’s discovery of “a natural laboratory full of mysteries—scores of species of land animals, birds not to be found anywhere else in the world.” Even a century later, Astor marveled, “the Galápagos stands practically unchanged—still mysterious, still a life wholly confirmatory of the theory we have come to know as ‘Darwinism.’”
Hoping to retrace Darwin’s steps, Astor planned his own Galápagos voyage on his yacht, the USS Nourmahal. He asked Dr. Charles H. Townsend, director of the New York Aquarium, to form the scientific party, a group that included Kermit Roosevelt (son of Theodore), Suydam Cutting (who, the prior year, had “penetrated” the interior of Asia to collect specimens for the Field Museum of Chicago), and Clarence Hay, representing the Museum of Natural History. They set sail on March 22, 1930, ultimately collecting sixty-seven animals, 265 fish, and a vast array of plants, which would be made available for study in the United States for the first time.
They also encountered Friedrich and Dore. Astor gave them seeds, and the couple invited the entire crew for a tour of their home. Astor would return to visit the settlers twice more and become entangled in the tragic events that would occur on the island.