advertisement

Not Your Typical Passenger: Charles Darwin & the Galápagos Islands -- Charles Darwin was only 22 years old when he set sail on an around-the-world cruise aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831. After several years surveying the coast of South America, the Beagle reached the Galápagos Islands in September of 1835 and spent 5 weeks charting the archipelago. While there, Darwin made careful note of the biology and geology of the islands, and collected numerous specimens. Darwin only visited four of the islands -- San Cristóbal, Santiago, Isabela, and Floreana. But his observation of species differentiation, particularly among the tortoises and finches, intrigued and inspired the young scientist. While Darwin is often credited with the discovery of the theory of evolution, what he really developed was the theory of natural selection, which explains how and why evolution occurs. Central to Darwin's theory was his recognition of the geological age and isolation of the volcanic islands; he was convinced that wildlife on the Galápagos came from mainland South America, changing and adapting over time to fill in specific niches defined by the particular ecosystem of the islands. Even though Darwin had formulated most of his most important ideas in just the few years following his visit to the Galápagos, he didn't publish his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, until 1859. Prior to that, in 1839, he published The Voyage of the Beagle, which chronicled his trip.

Unwanted Guests

Numerous threats, including illegal fishing, burgeoning populations, and large-scale tourism threaten the fragile ecology of the Galápagos Islands. But perhaps the greatest threat to the native species and delicate ecosystems here come from introduced species. Since the early 19th century, even as Darwin made his groundbreaking visit, the Galápagos Islands have seen populations of feral goats, pigs, cattle, and donkeys established to supplement food sources for passing ships, or for the incipient resident communities. These species were accompanied by a whole host of accidental tourists -- rats and insects stowed away on ships, escaped pet cats and dogs, and discarded fruit and vegetable seeds. Today, it is estimated that some 300 invertebrates, 24 vertebrates, and 480 or so plants have been introduced, either on purpose or inadvertently, throughout the archipelago.

Prior to 1964, no objective scientific studies had been made to reveal the full impact of the invasive plants and fauna that compete against, dominate, or just plain decimate the delicate native and endemic species here. Increasingly expansive introductions, lack of control, and less-than-transparent government interests reached such a point that UNESCO, in 1995, threatened to list the Galápagos as an "endangered World Heritage Site." This surely would have meant stringent outside regulations and reduced tourism income for the Ecuadorean government. The Special Law for the Conservation of the Galápagos Islands was passed in 1998 by the Ecuadorean Congress.

The result? Depressingly, despite some attempts at control and eradication, the problems are ongoing. The complexity of the situation stems from increased human populations; fishing issues; the near impossibility of eliminating even a single species, such as goats; and funding difficulties.

With two primary objectives -- the eradication of existing feral species and the prevention of further introductions -- UNESCO has received multimillion-dollar funding for community education programs, quarantines, and rapid-response actions when new and unwelcome "settlers" are identified. But this is not a situation that can be fixed quickly -- it's likely, in fact, that Frommer's Ecuador 2050 will include a sidebar similar to this one in its Galápagos chapter.

An Island Whodunit?

Steel dentures, silk underwear, love triangles, food poisoning, and unaccounted-for corpses: The sordid details surrounding the early settlers on Floreana Island have all the trappings of a Carl Hiaasen murder mystery.

When German philosopher and dentist Dr. Friedrich Ritter set off with lover Dora Strauch in 1929, he foresaw the lack of dental facilities on his island utopia, so he removed both his and Dora's teeth, replacing them with just a single set of steel dentures. Sharing is caring?

Their written dispatches tempted other dreamers to venture onto Floreana's arid shores. Most gave up quickly when faced with the daunting challenges of physical and spiritual survival there, but not Heinz and Margaret Wittmer. They established a home with Heinz's son Harry and soon enough gave birth to Rolf, the first Galápagos-born citizen.

This challenging idyll was shattered with the arrival of the self-described Baroness Eloise Wagner von Bosquet and her entourage of three "companions," Rudolph Lorenz, Robert Philippson, and Felipe Valdivieso. Valdivieso quit Floreana almost immediately. The newly self-enthroned "Empress of Floreana" exercised almost complete control over the tiny community's supplies and communications. Clad only in her favorite silk underwear, she controlled access to the supply ships, and bathed naked in the island's only reliable water source. She also played her various lovers against one other, and frequently denied visitors access to the island. Some say she brought Dr. Ritter into her complicated web of lovers.

Things came to a head in 1934. Primary lover Lorenz had been degraded to servant in favor of Philippson. After a violent dispute, Lorenz took refuge with the Wittmers. In March 1934, the Wittmers found Lorenz alone and hysterical; he told them that the Baroness and Philippson had left Floreana on an American yacht to seek new shores. Lorenz soon arranged to be taken to the mainland.

The Baroness and Philippson were never seen or heard from again. Lorenz and a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud disappeared. Dr. Ritter, a vegetarian, was poisoned from eating contaminated chicken. Two severely decomposed corpses were eventually discovered 260km (162 miles) north on barren Marchena Island. Evidence suggests that they were Lorenz and Nuggerud, who apparently had starved to death.

Dora Strauch finally returned to Germany to publish her version in Satan Came to Eden, while Margaret Wittmer wrote Floreana: A Woman's Pilgrimage to the Galápagos. Both volumes contain firsthand accounts of the events mentioned above, but the early Floreana history remains, in many ways, a mystery.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.