Floreana is one of the four islands inhabited by human beings in the Galapagos archipelago. The population is only 150. Huddled along the dock, the miniscule Puerto Velasco Ibarra is still one of the smallest and most isolated towns in the world.
There’s a lot to say about the island’s haunting tales: legends of murder, romance, pirates and paradise gone wrong… Read our blog post on Floreana’s human history for a quick introduction. Before embarking on any Galapagos tour, especially one that envisions Floreana, we do suggest you watch the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, or read the book, also called The Galapagos Affair, by John Treherne, based on a true story that unfolded on this very island.
When visiting Floreana, your Galapagos tour will usually anchor at Cormorant’s Point, Post Office Bay and just off Devil’s Crown, one of the best snorkeling spots on the Galapagos, but you can also plan a day trip from Santa Cruz to Puerto Velasco Ibarra, the island’s only town, and discover its idiosyncrasies…
The most resilient mattress in the world
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 miraculous that the rock formations within this cave could actually resemble a true human being’s living space, with shelves, a small fireplace/kitchen, even beds, made of rock, as if carved on purpose by nature itself. You can lie on one and imagine the comforts of the early days!
A black beach all to yourself
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, only an hour and a half from Santa Cruz Island. The black sand and deep navy blue water make it seem like another planet. It’s the site where most early colonizers disembarked… and today lies just in front of Posada Wittmer, run by the Wittmer family, the first family to make Floreana a permanent home. They have a small display of old photos and memorabilia worth checking out. You should also pick up a copy of Margaret Wittmer’s Floreana at Baltra airport or souvenir shops in Puerto Ayora.
A haunted volcano
They say the summit of Floreana’s Cerro Pajas brays at night. Residents had always been sure it wasn’t merely the wind. It seemed much more haunting… (a connection to the underworld?) Actually, it was only the nesting colony of Galapagos storm-petrels. Scientists had yet to find the endemic species’ nests on the archipelago until they discovered them here. Galapagos storm-petrels are among the most common seabirds during Galapagos tours… and yet they are a birdwatcher’s dream.
Other one-and-only endemics 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 on their specialized Galapagos tour to see it (together with the tree-finch and the storm-petrel, among the rarest 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 side of the Galapagos during a safari holiday.
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 you can find remnants of their former tenants, including chimneys, on Galapagos tours 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 with travelers who leave postcards and take missives with them to deliver once their Galapagos experience has ended.
In 1805, the first known inhabitant of Floreana was dropped off by a ship that marooned him. Patrick Watkins, or ‘Irish Pat,’ made camp at 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 20 crew members drifted alone for months, resorting to cannibalism. When their lifeboat was discovered, only eight sailors survived.
Charles Darwin’s visited to 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.