Floreana is one of the four islands inhabited (by humans) in the Galapagos archipelago. The population is only 150. Huddled along the dock, the minuscule Puerto Velasco Ibarra is still one of the smallest and most isolated towns in the world.
The island’s history includes tales of murder, romance, pirates and paradise gone wrong …
If your Galapagos tour includes the island of Floreana, we do suggest watching the documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, or reading the book, also called The Galapagos Affair, by John Treherne. The book is based on a true story that unfolded on this very island.
Your boat will anchor at Cormorant’s Point, Post Office Bay or just off Devil’s Crown, one of the best snorkeling spots on the Galapagos.
A must-visit site in Floreana is the cave the first colonizers of the island called home. You can walk up to it in an area known as Asilo de la Paz (Peace Haven). It seems remarkable that the rock formations within this cave could actually resemble somebody’s living space, with shelves, a small fireplace/kitchen, even beds, made of rock, as if intentionally carved by nature itself. You can lie on one and imagine the comforts of the earlier days!
Not every Galapagos tour takes you to black beaches. This one in particular is one of the most accessible, located just south of Floreana’s main harbor. The dark sands and navy blue waters mark the site where most of the early colonizers disembarked. Today it sits just in front of the lodge, Posada Wittmer. Run by the Wittmer family, they were the first family to make Floreana a permanent home. They have a small display of old photos and memorabilia worth exploring. You should also pick up a copy of Margaret Wittmer’s Floreana at Baltra airport or in souvenir shops in Puerto Ayora.
They say the summit of Floreana’s Cerro Pajas brays at night. Residents always found the sounds more haunting than the mere wind, possibly a connection to the underworld? In reality, it was simply the nesting colony of Galapagos storm-petrels. Scientists first discovered these endemic species’ nests on Floreana. While Galapagos storm-petrels are among the most common seabirds, they are always beautiful to observe.
Other endemic species include the critically endangered Floreana, or Medium Tree, Finch, and the near-extinct Floreana Mockingbird which only inhabits a tiny islet off Floreana. Fanatic twitchers the world over make sure to circle this islet. Together with the tree-finch, the storm-petrel is among the rarest of birds in the world.
While the natural history of Floreana Island dwarfs the human tales of the 1.5 million year old island; there are stories about pirates, a marooned Irishman, and suspected murder that reveal another, rather unexpected side of the Galapagos Islands.
Pirates started using the island as a hideout as early as the 1500s. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish Ships laden with treasure frequented the waters on the western side of South America. English pirates held court in the Galapagos, using Floreana as a base.
Floreana proved to be a suitable hideout. Pirates stayed in caves in the highlands next to the island’s only water supply. The caves overlooked the sea, and today, you can find remnants of their former tenants around the island.
In 1678, two pirates, William Dampier and William Ambrosia Crowley visited the Galapagos to stock up on supplies while tending to their sick captain. Crowley sketched the first map of the archipelago, and Dampier’s book, ‘A New Voyage Round the World,’ introduced the islands to the world.
Whalers also used the Galapagos to replenish their provisions on long journeys. In 1793, a British whaling ship stopped at Floreana Island and set up a makeshift post office using an empty barrel. Ships returning from sea would collect mail left from those starting their two-year journey, and deliver it in person once in the states, or Europe. Today, this tradition continues as travelers leave postcards, and take missives with them to deliver once they have returned home.
In 1805, the first known inhabitant of Floreana was dropped off by a ship that marooned him. Patrick Watkins, or ‘Irish Pat,’ made a camp on the beach, grew vegetables, traded with whalers, and drank rum for four years before hitching a ride back to the mainland.
In 1820, an accident that wiped out the Floreana tortoise population became the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick.’
A whaling ship, the Essex, fleeing the island after setting it ablaze during a hunting party, was capsized by a whale. The twenty crew members drifted alone for months, resorting to cannibalism. When their lifeboat was discovered, only eight sailors survived.
Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835, and with the publication of ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ in 1839 and ‘The Origins of the Species’ in 1859, the Galapagos were thrust into the international spotlight.
In 1929, another chapter in Floreana’s checkered history unfolded with the arrival of two European couples and a baroness. The Wittmers, Friedrich Ritter, Dore Strauch, and Baroness Eloise Wagner de Bosquet set up homesteads and went about tending to their gardens while living through droughts that severely limited the water supply.
Tensions started when the Ritters wrote accounts of their Galapagos experience in the tropics, and sent them via Post Office Bay to the States. The articles were published in the Atlantic Monthly. The Baroness started intercepting the stories, and rewriting them with herself as the central character.
Soon, news of their exploits reached far and wide; drawing more European and American tourists, laden with gifts, to the islands in search of the Baroness and her two lovers. The latter joined her in her compound after she moved to the island.
In 1934 the Smithsonian’s Hancock-Pacific Galapagos Expedition visited the island and found chaos. The two of the Baroness’ lovers had come to blows, and the Baroness chose one over the other.
Soon after, the couple disappeared, leaving their home, belongings, and companion behind. A story spread that a private yacht had taken them away, but no ships had been seen for months.
The abandoned companion also vanished, only to appear again dead on a neighboring island with a wrecked boat and local fisherman.
Tragedy also struck Friedrich Ritter and his girlfriend, Dore Strauch. A drought had drained the vegetarians’ food supply, and they started eating meat to supplement the loss.
Friedrich ate some beef that wasn’t stored and prepared properly. He died of food poisoning by the time the Smithsonian Expedition reached the island. Dore returned to Europe and died in a mental institution.
Only the Wittmers remained on the island, raising their children and operating the sole hotel on Floreana. Margeret died in 2000, and her descendants still run the Wittmer guest house on Black Beach.
Today, Floreana Island’s remote location and small population retain the isolation of the Galapagos. Exploring pirate caves, visiting Post Office Bay, and discovering the history of the island is a glimpse into the past.