Our boat spent 2 hours battling waves and swells en route to Isla Floreana, which is isolated to the south of the archipelago and very sparsely populated. The island was the first to be inhabited in the Galapagos, primarily by marooned pirates. A notorious example of these first, reluctant settlers was an Irishman by the name of Patrick Watkins, who survived on Floreana for 2 years. A violent drunkard, Watkins grew tobacco, hunted the island’s tortoises and traded his wares for liquor with passing traders before hailing a ship to take him home. It seems that he murdered the ship’s crew, and he vanishes from the historical record soon after reaching mainland Ecuador.
Our guide, Raoul, took us to Playa Negra, a volcanic beach teeming with sea lions, crabs and iguanas (the iguanas here have a unique colouring, related to their diet). From here we crossed a series of petrified lava flows to a rocky outcrop from which we were to go snorkelling.
Despite the freezing water and a highly useless Ecuadorian couple in our tour group (who thrashed about hopelessly in the shallows) it was an amazing experience. Giant sea turtles swam directly below us, grazing on the underwater vegetation. The area is something of a crèche for baby sea lions, and several pups began swimming around us, curious as to what we were up to. They were as graceful under water as they are cumbersome on land, dancing around us and leaping in to the air above our heads.
After lunch we hiked around the interior of the island, where we toured another tortoise conservation centre. Environmentalists here are trying to restore the Floreana tortoise (each island’s tortoises have unique traits), which was driven to extinction by human activity but whose DNA survives in tortoises from nearby islands. There are 11 species of giant tortoise in the Galapagos, another 5 having sadly gone extinct (including Lonely George’s tribe on Isla Pinta). The tortoises here seemed content enough, chomping lazily on foliage and farting away merrily.
A series of nearby caves bore evidence of human habitation, the malleable rock scored with grooves for pirates’ bed posts. Pausing at the cave of Patrick Watkins himself, we were told of the settling of Floreana in the 1920s/1930s by a series of highly eccentric Europeans – the so-called ‘Galapagos Affair’.
The first arrivals were Friedrich Ritter and his ‘spiritualist lover’, Dora Strauch. Ritter was a German medic, traumatised by the First World War and finding refuge in the stories of Robinson Crusoe. Fusing these adventure stories with Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’ ideal (which was trending somewhat in Germany at the time), he set off for the Galapagos for a life of toil, rigour and escape from the civilised world.
The couple became minor celebrities and were joined soon after by the Wittman family – Otto, his wife Margret and their young son. The doctor resented their presence, particularly as the heavily pregnant Margret expected personalised medical care on arriving.
Tensions rose further with the arrival of ‘The Baroness’ and her two young lovers. A bizarre and no doubt challenging neighbour, she declared the island her property, shot a visiting tourist and quite possibly murdered Dora’s donkey. One day she vanished from the island along with her favourite lover, almost certainly murdered. Dr Ritter died soon afterwards in similarly mysterious circumstances, a vegetarian supposedly poisoned by a bad chicken dinner.
The Wittmers persevered, building several houses and drawing tourists to the island. Today the family own a hotel on Floreana and a number of tourist boats. The mystery of what happened here in those bizarre early years was buried with Margret Wittmer.