The Galapagos Islands – a nature paradise with a sordid and scandalous history!

The Galapagos Islands are situated 950 km off the coast of Ecuador. They were discovered in 1535, and was a regular stop over for whaling ships to pick-up provisions. In 1832 Ecuador claimed the Islands as their own and continue to control the Islands to this day. It was a popular fishing spot for Ecuadorian fishermen and was also used as a penal colony. 

Map of Galapagos Islands
Map of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes, some of which have erupted over the past 100 years.  The most recent eruption was in 2018, the Sierra Negra volcano on the island of Isabela. There are 19 main islands and a large number of smaller islets. Due to the constant volcanic activity the islands constantly change with new formations sinking or emerging. Each island has its own unique landscape.  Some of which are volcanic and barren, others have beautiful sandy beaches.     

Over 60 years ago 97% of the islands were deemed a UNESCO National Park, which has helped to protect the islands. The surrounding waters are a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protected by Ecuador. The remaining 3% of the islands outside the national park is home for around 30,000 people.

Scientists have studied the islands for more than 180 years. Charles Darwin visited the islands on September 15th 1835 on his ship the ‘HMS Beagle’. His research of the islands inspired his “theory of evolution”. 

Visiting the Galapagos

The Galapagos Island attract around 79,000 visitors annually. The mode of transport around the islands is via cruises of varying sizes. Despite the large number of tourists visiting, there are strict guidelines on how many people can be on an island at any one time to protect the island and its wildlife.

All visitors must be accompanied by a registered Galapagos National Park Naturalist guide, with a maximum of 16 tourists. There are strict guidelines to maintain a 2-metre distance from all wildlife at all times. 

Climate

Being on the equator, the Galapagos has a very temperate climate all year round. The land temperatures range between 26C – 30C, and slightly cooler along the coast at 22C – 26C. The days and nights remain the same all year round with around 12 hours of sunlight each day. The busiest months for tourism are June – August, and December – May. The Charles Darwin Research Centre is located on the island of Santa Cruz. 

The sordid history of the “Galapagos Affair” 

There is also a dark and seedy history of these islands which is not very well known.

In 1929, Fredrich Ritter, a German doctor and his mistress Dore Strauch moved to the islands to start a new life. They set up home on Floreana Island and began farming chickens, fruit and vegetables. 

In 1931, another German, Heinz Wittmer arrived with his pregnant wife Margret and teenage son. They set up home with the help of Dr Ritter. While both families were friends, they had little in common and kept to themselves.

Soon after, Baroness Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet arrived from Austria. She was accompanied by her two German lovers, Robert Philippson, and Rudolf Lorenz as well as a local Ecuadorian man, Manual Valdivieso who was hired to do all their work. The Baroness set up a homestead called “Hacienda Paradise” which she intended to turn into a grand hotel!

The Baroness entertained the visiting yacht captains with her very elaborate stories. A larger than life figure, she also wore a “pistol and whip” at all times. She seduced the Governor of the Galapagos and then promptly appointed herself as “Queen of Floreana”. The Baroness was a major drawcard for Floreana. Yachts and boats all flocked to the island to have an encounter with “The Baroness”.  She was not popular with the Wittmers nor the Ritters, who both despised her. It did not take long for Rudolph Lorenz to fall out of grace with the Baroness and Phillipson. Lorenz started spending more time with the Wittmers.

The Baronesses relationship with the Wittmers and the Ritters deteriorated rapidly as they suspected that the Baroness was stealing their mail and spreading false rumours about them to all who came to the island. Phillipson stole the Ritter’s donkey and put it into Wittmers garden. Wittmer then shot the donkey not realising it belonged to the Ritters.

On March 27th, 1934, the Baroness and Phillipson disappeared and were never seen again. According to Margret Wittmer, the Baroness told her that they were leaving on a yacht to Tahiti and had left their things with Lorenz.

There were many conflicting issues surrounding this story, such as: there were no yachts or ships that came or went during that week, the Baroness and Wittmer never arrived in Tahiti and they had left all their things behind. It was believed that the Baroness and Philippson were murdered by Lorenz, and the Wittmers helped to cover up the murder. 

Lorenz, wanting to immediately leave the Galapagos convinced a Norwegian fisherman to take him to the mainland. Both of them disappeared and later were found dead on Marchena Island. 

In November of 1934, Dr Ritter died of what was thought to be food poisoning. Many believed that he was poisoned by his wife. 

With three dead and two missing over a period of a few months, the truth has remained a mystery to this day! 

The Wittmers remained on the islands and became very wealthy due to increased tourism. The Wittmers descendants still own valuable land and businesses on the islands. Dore Strauch eventually returned to Germany and wrote a book, not only on the hard life of the early settlers but also on the sordid Galapagos affairs. It is believed that Margret Wittmer knew what happened and took all the secrets with her when she died 2000.

Floreana Island Post Office

In the 18th century a post office was established. A barrel was placed on the island as a post box and was used by crew members of whaling and other ships which stopped off on this island. It still remains to this day where tourists can post a letter or postcard into the original barrel or pick one up and then personally deliver it to the addressee. One year after I left my post card, someone picked it up and delivered personally to me. 

Floreana Island Post Office
Floreana Post Office
a selection of wildlife which I saw on the islands

There are many types of birds to be seen. The most popular and favourite are the 3 types of Boobies. Their name comes from the Spanish word ‘bobo’ which means foolish or clown. This is due to their clumsiness when walking on land. These birds are non-migratory and remain resident in the Galapagos Islands.

Red-footed booby

The red-footed bobby have distinctive red feet and a pale blue bill. They are very strong flyers and can travel up to 150 km at one time when in search for food. These birds are well adapted for diving with strong wings which wrap around their bodies before entering the water. Unlike the other two species of boobies the red-footed boobies nest on tree branches and on top of shrubs. They will lay only 1 egg every 15mths. Lifespan is around 20 years in the wild. These birds mainly nest on Genovesa and San Cristobal Islands.

Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby
Blue-footed Booby

These birds are larger than the red-footed booby. Their most distinctive feature is their blue feet! Despite their clumsiness on land, these birds are very efficient flyers. When in pursuit of food in the sea they fold back their wings and plunge into the water at speeds of 60mph and snap up a fish with their strong serrated bill. Females will lay 2 – 3 eggs which both parents will incubate. Hatchlings will stay with their parents for around 2 months before they fledge. Home for these boobies is on North Seymour, Espanola, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabella, Pinzon and Santa Cruz Islands

Blue-footed booby
Blue-footed booby
Blue-footed booby
Blue-footed booby
Nazca Booby 

These are the largest of the 3 booby species. These boobies have grey feet and bright orange bills. Nazca boobies catch their fish by plunge diving into the water from heights of up to 30 metres. Their main food is sardines, flying fish and anchovies. Females will lay 2 eggs. Nazca boobies undergo an unusual process called ‘obligate siblicide’. This means that when siblings hatch the parents watch to see which chick is the weaker of the two and it will be killed by the parents and removed from the nest. These birds can be found on Espanola, San Cristobal and Genovesa Islands.

A pair of Nazca boobies
A pair of Nazca boobies
Nazca booby with newly hatched chicks
Nazca boobie with a pair of newly hatched chicks
Flightless cormorant 

One of the many birds that visitors to The Galapagos want to see is the flightless cormorant, an endemic species to the islands. There are 29 species of cormorants in the world, the Galapagos cormorant is the only one that cannot fly. This bird cannot migrate and is resident to the islands. It has been suggested that since these birds have no land predators they have therefore lost their ability to fly. They only have small feathered flaps where their wings used to be. These birds are very efficient swimmers and their main diet consists of eels and octopus. Found mainly on Fernandina and Isabella Islands.

Flightless cormorant
Flightless cormorant
Red-billed tropic bird
Red-billed tropic bird
Juvenile frigate bird
Juvenile frigate bird
Short-eared owl
Short-eared owl
oyster catcher
Oyster catcher
Galapagos pelican
Galapagos pelican
Darwin’s finches

There are 18 species of Galapagos finches, also known as Darwin’s finches. Charles Darwin used the finches to provide evidence for natural selection. His research demonstrated that the finches had different beaks as they adapted to eat different kinds of foods. Finches with large beaks were efficient at cracking nuts open, finches with long beaks were good at catching insects. He noted that they all had common ancestors as they were all very familiar apart from their beaks. This discovery eventually lead to Darwins theory of evolution.

Cactus finch
Cactus finch
Ground finch
Ground finch
Vampire finch
Vampire finch
Galapagos mocking bird
Galapagos mocking bird
Waved albatross
Waved albatross
Galapagos dove
Galapagos dove
Galapagos Flamingo

The Galapagos Flamingos are very beautiful, rare and are brilliantly coloured due to their rich diet of shrimp. They live in isolated areas, and are a delight for visitors who are lucky enough to get to see them. They are found in lagoons on the islands of Isabella, Floreana, Santa Cruz and Santiago. They are non-migratory and are resident in their colonies.

Galapagos Flamingo
Galapagos flamingo

Threats: Breeding success depends on nest disturbance. If these birds feel threatened they will abandon their nests which leaves the eggs and chicks vulnerable to predators, feral pigs, dogs and cats. Global warming and rising sea levels also is having a significant affect on their breeding. Numbers are decreasing.

Galapagos Flamingo
Galapagos flamingo
Marine iguana 

These iguanas can be found along all the rocky shorelines of the islands. The largest colony of marine iguanas can be found on the Island of Fernandina. The Galapagos marine iguanas are the only iguanas in the world that swim in the sea. They live on land and feed in the sea on seaweed and algae. Young marine iguanas are black and as they mature they become more colourful.

Marine iguana
Marine iguana
Marine iguanas
Marine iguanas soaking up the warm sunshine on the rocky coastline
Marine iguana swimming
Swimming iguana
Marine iguana
Colourful mature marine iguana
Land iguanas

There are 3 species of land iguanas endemic to the Galapagos Islands. They are herbivores and can grow up to 1 metre long and weigh up to 13 – 14kg. Most days they can be found basking in the sun in the dryer areas of the islands.

Land iguana
Land iguana
land iguana
Land iguana
Galapagos tortoise 

These giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrates ~ they can live up to 100 years. They are also the largest of the worlds tortoises, with some of them reaching 1.5metres long and weighing up to 250kg. It is believed that there are only 10 species of giant tortoises alive in the Galapagos. Many species were hunted by pirates, whalers and merchants during 17th – 19th centuries, with an estimated 100,00 that were killed by humans, feral pigs, dogs, cats, rats and goats who eat their eggs and hatchlings. These giant tortoises are now listed as endangered with an estimated only 20,000 individuals left (IUCN RedLIst of Endangered Species).

These amazing tortoises spend around 16 hours a day resting, the remainder of their day is spent eating grasses, fruit and cactus pads.

Seeing them in the wild is truly something quite unique

Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise
The Galapagos green Sea turtles

They are the only species of sea turtle to nest in the Galapagos Islands. It is called green sea turtle as its body fat is green due to their main diet being algae. Green sea turtles are cold blooded, can weigh up to 200kg and approximately 1.3m in length.

They are well adapted to life in the ocean, as their shells are light and streamlined, their front and back limbs have evolved into flippers which makes swimming effortless and they can propel themselves in the sea at great speeds of up to 55km/h.

These animals are now considered an endangered species due to poaching, getting caught in fishing gear, plastic ingestion and animal trafficking. Eggs and hatchlings are easy prey for hawks, frigate birds, herons, mockingbirds and feral animals.

Marine turtles
Galapagos green sea turtles
Sally-lightfoot crab
Sally-lightfoot crab
Sally-lightfoot crabs
Sally-lightfoot crabs
Ghost crab
Ghost crab
Ghost crab
Ghost crab
Galapagos sea lion

These sea lions are the most abundant marine mammal seen in the Galapagos. There are two types of sea lions in the Galapagos. They can be found on most of the islands along the coastline and on the beaches. The Galapagos sea lion is the smallest of all sea lion species. Females can weigh up to 80kg, and males up to 250kg.

Sea lions
Sea lions
Sea lion
Sea lion
Lava lizard eating a painted locust
Lava lizard eating a painted locust
Galapagos sunset
Galapagos sunset
Kicker Rock, Isla San Cristobal
Kicker Rock, Isla San Cristobal
Darwin Lake and Targus Cove on Isabella Island
Darwin Lake and Targus Cove on Isabella Island
Elizabeth Bay mangroves, Isabella Island
Elizabeth Bay mangroves, Isabella Island
whale skeleton
Whale skeleton
Floreana sunset
Floreana sunset
Rugged coastlines
Rugged coastlines
Cacti are the first plant to colonise the lava flows, that can survive on the sharp Pahoehoe lava, Punta Moreno
Cacti are the first plant to colonise the lava flows, that can survive on the sharp Pahoehoe lava, Punta Moreno
lava cacti
Lava cacti
Floreana lighthouse, Floreana Island
Floreana lighthouse, Floreana Island
Punta Suarez Light, Isla Espanola
Punta Suarez Light, Isla Espanola
Conservation issues

There are many serious threats to the flora and fauna of The Galapagos Islands. These are all human mediated.

  • Increased tourism
  • Over fishing and illegal fishing – depleting food source for the wildlife
  • Climate change
  • Pollution (rubbish, oil and chemical spills)
  • Diseases (e.g. parasites, avian pox, avian malaria)
  • Goats, rats, pigs, cats and dogs have been introduced over the years which has decimated young animals, such as birds, bird eggs, iguanas, seals, tortoises etc.
  • Introduced plants, such as blackberry and others varieties has affected the local flora and its natural ecosystem.

In 1986 a law was passed to control fishing and over-exploitation of the marine resources in The Galapagos Islands. Since then, the islands are strictly regulated by inspection and quarantine measures upon arrival, required visitor permit and strict regulations on importation.

Park rangers and researchers from the Charles Darwin Research Centre work constantly trying to reverse the damage from all the introduced species. Goats have now been eliminated from most of the islands. The number of rats, cats, dogs and pigs are on the decline. Over tourism is also damaging the islands, but the implementation of reducing the number of people allowed and enforcing the services of local trained naturalist guides is having many positive benefits to the islands. 

Strict guidelines when visiting The GALAPAGOS ISLANDS Islands have been implemented
  • Follow your guides instructions
  • Stay on designated paths
  • Do not touch or approach any wildlife
  • Do not feed any animals
  • Do not take any shells, plants or other products off the islands
  • Take all trash with you
  • Do not bring any food, seeds, plants or animals to the islands

enjoy this short video of The Galapagos Islands

Prev International Zebra Day 2021
Next Australian pelicans ~ largest flying bird

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: