Galapagos and Beyond: day 9 - Isabela and Fernandina Islands

Published: June 28th 2018
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At 3:30 am we crossed the equator again to the northern hemisphere. No we didn’t notice any difference. Then at 5:30 am we again crossed back to the southern hemisphere - but we were still asleep and the motion of the rocking of the yacht didn’t change at all!

We slept late this morning - until 7 am and again awoke to the magnificent rock formations of Isabela Island. Four of the islands are inhabited by humans and Isabela is one of them. The human population of approximately 2,000 lives in the south of the island. During the trip with the exception of the beginning and the end we avoided all the populated parts of the archipelago.

After breakfast we boarded the Zodiac for a view of the northwestern side of Isabela Island by Vicente Roca Point. Along the coast we saw sea lions with their pups, the diving blue footed booby, turtles, marine iguanas and more. Some videos of these are posted with our Day 11 blog when we reviewed them after shabbat ended.

Next the Zodiac was steered into a cave to see the geological formations - the yellow sulphur, the red iron and the black basalt - which were created by the fall of the rocks from the eruption of the volcano. There is one way in and the same one way out. A different entrance/exit has not been discovered. If you are claustrophobic and worried about rock falls this is not the place to go!

Once we came out the sea lions played with the Zodiac, swimming under the boat. We stayed relatively still in the water off Isabela listening to the sound of the Galapagos and the sound of the waves, when suddenly there was an almighty splash as a golden mantra ray jumped out of the water and splashed down on its back to rid itself of oysters, barnacles and parasites. Both the brief sighting and the ensuing splash caught us by surprise. It happened too quickly to catch on video! Also swimming alongside us were swordfish and on the coast cormorants and Noddy Terns.

Next it was snorkel time in those waters. Anyone who didn’t wish to do deep water snorkeling went back to the yacht (ie Lesley) whilst the others went deep water snorkeling in the cold water. Don again snorkeled without a wetsuit but later he reported that although the average temperature seemed a bit colder than previous locations, there were warmer and cooler spots in his swim through the waters. These differences were caused by the mingled ocean currents and the variant water depths.

After lunch whilst the yacht was sailing to its next port of call, we went to a lecture on Discovering the Galapagos. The islands were discovered In 1535 by Fray Thomas Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, who was sailing to Peru when his boat stalled and the strong currents carried the ship to this group of Islands. He described the harsh desert-like conditions, the sea lions and the iguanas and the trademark of the islands, the Giant tortoises. As a result the islands became the place for whalers and pirates to go to in order to find food. It is interesting to realise that the whalers of the 1700s provided the model for which Moby Dick was written.

Other intrepid travellers included Francis Drake in 1579. Most famously in 1835 Charles Darwin landed on the islands and although he spent three weeks there he was only on land for a total of 11 days.

The islands were named in the atlas compiled by Abraham Ortelius (1570) but the first crude map was made in 1684 by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley who named the islands and these names were used by Darwin in his book “The Voyage of the Beagle”. The older names of the islands are also used in Herman Melville’s book “The Encantadas” (1854). In the Eugenie Expedition, Skogman (1854 - 1855) came the closest to plotting the shape of the islands as we know them today.

Other key facts about the Galapagos: the first post office was established in 1793 in Floreana; the new Republic of Ecuador took the islands from Spanish ownership in 1832; in 1835 Charles Darwin transformed the understanding of how things evolve.

From 1870 - 1878 businesses started to be established and sugar cane from Peru was planted but the planters were treated like slaves and they disappeared along with the industry. But now guava and raspberries which were introduced are growing out of control and strangling some of the native species. Agriculture has largely been abandoned. Today 54% of trade and industry is tourism.


There is a gruesome history too to the Galapagos. The island of Floreana is inhabited by direct descendants of the German ex-pat community. In 1928 Dr Frederick Ritter a dentist by profession and a vegetarian and a philosopher and Dore Strauch came to the islands with a plan of establishing a utopia for two. Dr Ritter was treating Frau Strauch for multiple sclerosis and he persuaded her to leave her domestic, bourgeois life and they left their respective spouses and moved to the islands. He left behind his dental tools and their teeth rotted and he made steel false teeth. They wore few clothes and they became minor celebrities. Heinz and Margaret Wittmer read about their bohemian way of life and decided to abandon their lives in Germany and together with their son Harry, they too arrived at the islands. Margaret was pregnant and hoped that Dr Ritter would deliver her baby but they soon found out that he was a complete duffer.

The Ritters refused to be friends with the Wittmers and wouldn’t let them set up home near their homestead. So the Wittmers set up their home in a cave used by pirates. The Wittmers were meat eaters and managed to sustain themselves by living off the land whilst the Ritters relied on food from passing ships to supplement their meager diet.

Then “The Baroness” arrived. This was Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrborn (who called herself baroness) and with her were three men, her two lovers Alfred Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Phillipson and an Ecuadorian servant. She aimed to build a yacht and to establish a luxury resort for rich tourists. This horrified Ritter, Strauch and the Wittmers. Her hotel was called Hacienda Paradiso but rather than being idyllic it was quite makeshift. The Baroness fed visiting journalists lies about herself and the island, and her two lovers were often involved in fisticuffs in front of all the guests.

Suddenly one day The Baroness and Phillipson vanished! The Wittmers reported that Phillipson and the Baroness had been picked up by a millionaire's yacht and sailed off to the South Seas, but this was refuted by Strauch. Strauch said that she had heard a long drawn shriek but she was told that she was paranoid. Lorenz came two days later and said that he and Phillipson had made up and were friends again.

In 1933 there was a drought and the vegetarians couldn’t live off the land and decided to eat meat. They found some dead chickens and boiled them up and ate them. The diseased chicken made Ritter so sick that he died in agony less than five months after the disappearance of the Baroness. Just as Strauch had not believed Wittmer’s version of the Baroness’ disappearance so Strauch failed to believe Wittmer’s story of Ritter’s death - they both accused each other of murder. Wittmer had stated that as he died Ritter had written in blood “I curse you with my dying breath” and looked directly at Strauch.

Lorenz free from the Baroness and eager to leave Floreana persuaded a passing sailor to take him off the island even though the sea was rough. They were both marooned on Marchena, a small island without a water source. Sailors found them a few months later dead presumably from thirst.

After Ritter died Strauch left the island and returned to Germany. The Wittmers remained the only settlers. A few years later Harry died in a drowning incident and Rolf, the first baby born on the island became a tourism pioneer. He operated an upscale yachting company. Wittmer Lodge is now rated as the number 1 guest house for Floreana.


In 1959 Ecuador established the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve to conserve and preserve the islands and surrounding habitat.

Today four of the islands are populated: Floreana 200, Isabela 2,000, Santa Cruz 25,000 (including Baltra where the airport is located) and San Cristobal 8,000. The islands belong to the country of Ecuador, which annexed the area in 1832. The language is Spanish and the culture is Ecuadorian and much of the population are indigenous. About 25,000 of the inhabitants are permanent residents and there are another 10,000 transient workers. Annually over 150,000 tourists visit the Galapagos islands.

Much of the flora and fauna are endemic - that is they can’t be found anywhere else.


After the lecture we boarded the Zodiac to go to Espinosa Point on Fernandina Island. This consists of lava fields on which live large numbers of marine iguanas and sea lions. The iguanas are endemic to the Galapagos. In the mornings they sit basking in the sun to get prepared for the day’s activities. 95% of the iguanas feed on marine algae on the rocks whilst the largest 5% dive into the exceedingly cold waters to feed. When we arrived they were all sitting with their backs to the sun warming up after their morning activity as they lose heat very quickly. The larger iguanas don’t lose heat as quickly as the smaller ones which is why they are able to dive into the seas to forage for algae. There was almost no motion amongst the hundreds of iguanas except for the occasional sneezing sound. When they dive the iguanas take in a lot of salt crystals and by sneezing they can eliminate the salt from their bodies.

After spending some time watching the iguanas we walked along to two pools among the rocky beach. In the first pool was an “aunt” sea lion looking after two pups. The pups were in gan (kindergarten) whilst their mothers went hunting for fish. When one of the pups went too far to the open sea the ganenet (aunt as kindergarten head) swam after him and slapped him round the head with her flipper.

In the second pool was a macho male marking his territory and barking "Oy Oy" or so it sounded, and one of the men in our group shouted it back at him which really riled the male! In each colony there is only one male - the surplus males live on a different part of the beach. The pups live with the family for the first two years of their lives and then the males try to become the dominant male. The dominant male only holds his position for a few months before he then becomes part of the surplus male population. The video here shows these scenes.

Further up the beach were two females with their pups. The first pup was docilely feeding from his mother. The second mother was trying to get back into the water but was being pursued by her pup who was trying to get one last drink. She was having none of it and you could just imagine her saying to him “just leave me alone - you’ve had enough!”

The following video shows some of these scenes.

We continued walking around the lava fields and among some of the green growth on Fernandina Island near Espinosa Point. Growing up through the lava rocks we saw Lava Cactus. This draws its minimal water requirements from the salty sea or rare rain. Likewise it gets some of its mineral nutrients from the soil of the dissolving lava rocks and what washes in from the ocean. Its ability to thrive in such a difficult environment is similar to a cactus in a desert.

Walking along a path through the shrubs and trees a little further inland on the island we saw broken bones from animals or birds and discarded bits of tortoise shell. There was even a mainly intact shell. High up in the sparse green trees we saw a pair of Galapagos Hawks which are major predators on the islands. Could they have been involved with those bits from dead animals?

As we headed back to the coast of Fernandina we spotted a whale skeleton. The white bones all laid out on the gray lava rocks made it pretty obvious! It was arranged like a museum exhibit, with the bones placed where they would have been if the whale had simply died there on the rocks. Our guide Billy explained that some nature guides had gathered up the various bits of bone over time and assembled them there. In fact the head was not a whale's head at all, but rather from a shark.

That murder mystery about Floreana was scary but not as terrifying as the thought of what could have befallen us. As explained the Galapagos Islands are volcanic, being in the Ring of Fire - not the Johnny Cash song but the most active earthquake and volcano zone on Earth. We were not particularly worried even considering recent eruptions to the east and west in Guatemala and Hawaii. However the 1500-metre volcano La Cumbre on Fernandina Island where we were walking erupted in 2009 and again exploded in September 2017 - which nobody mentioned while we were here. Then in mid June 2018 it erupted violently again, lava pouring out the month after we left! Now that is scary, even more so than the Floreana murder mystery!!!


Finally we got into the Zodiac and rode back to the yacht. On board we had time to get showered and changed before dinner. Then we heard about the sightseeing schedule the next day and we went to bed bushed again!

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