Floreana island offers a very different Galapagos experience. Floreana boasts a rich human history of pirates, whalers and intrepid early settlers. This is also where the events of the unbelievable Galapagos Affair murder mystery took place. So Floreana island has much to discover for inquisitive visitors. Of course Floreana has plenty of wildlife and landscapes to explore too, and is home to one of the very best snorkel sites at Devils Crown. We highly recommend to include a visit to Floreana island during your Galapagos vacation.
Read on for everything you need to know to plan your visit to Floreana island at Galapagos. What wildlife can you see here? Which visitor sites are must-see? How to visit Devils Crown snorkel site? Plus learn all about the tall tales of Floreana’s human history.
English Name: Charles.
Ecuadorian Name: Floreana or Santa Maria.
Total Area: 107 sq miles.
Population: aprox 150 human inhabitants.
Floreana is an ancient Galapagos shield volcano. The oldest lava found here dates back to 1.5 million years ago, making Floreana one of the older Galapagos islands. In contrast to the other major islands, Floreana does not have a well-developed volcanic crater at its center. But visitors can see clear evidence of ash deposits and lava flows, with over 50 scoria cinder cones onshore and 6 tuff ash cones offshore. These are formed by layers of compacted ash from historic eruptions.
Without question the island of Floreana boasts the most colorful human history of all Galapagos islands.
So let’s start with the island names, why does Floreana have 3 different names? The original name, Charles, came from the English, in honor of King Charles II. In common with all Galapagos islands, the English names were later replaced with Spanish ones. So Charles island became Santa Maria island, named after one of the ships used on the voyage of Christopher Colombus. The common present day name of Floreana comes from Juan José Flores, who was first president of Ecuador, and was governing when Ecuador took possession of the Galapagos archipelago. Confused? Don’t be, today everyone at Galapagos refers to the island as Floreana.
Floreana island has always been a logical choice for human settlement as it is one of few Galapagos islands with a source of fresh water. So pirates and whalers were regular visitors back in the 1700 and 1800s. They would use Floreana as a hub to restock food and water, as well as a hideout to avoid the Spanish fleet after raids. They even established an unusual post office here to send communications back home during long voyages. Unfortunately for the resident giant tortoises, they were used as a supply of live meat and hunted to extinction.
The first permanent Floreana settler was an Irish sailor named Patrick Watkins who found himself marooned here from 1807 to 1809. He survived by trading fruits and vegetables for rum with passing whaling ships, before stealing an open boat and sailing to Guayaquil. More colorful tales tell of his shockingly wild and savage appearance, matted red beard and lack of clothes. There are also stories of his cunning that he used to trick passing sailors into getting so drunk they would be abandoned with him, and forced to work his plantations.
The next Floreana island settlers were from Ecuador, who in the 1830s briefly established an unsuccessful penal colony. Business enterprises later followed, firstly Spaniard José Valdizán in 1868 who harvested lichen using convicts sent from the mainland. Later in 1924 a fish canning plant was established by Norwegian immigrants but lasted only a couple of years.
But all of this was but a precursor to the most intriguing period of Floreana island’s history: The Galapagos Affair.
The Galapagos Affair is the story of the great Floreana island mystery. A true tale of three seperate groups of independent settlers in the 1930s, seeking a Robinson Crusoe paradise.
Friedrich Ritter, a German doctor, was the first arrival, together with girlfriend Dore Strauch. Ritter is renowned for removing all of his teeth in order to avoid any dental complications, and seeking a simple and sustainable lifestyle living off the land.
The Wittmer family came next, establishing a successful agricultural lifestyle and giving birth to son Rolf – the very first person to be born at the Galapagos islands.
Life on Floreana really became interesting with the later arrival of Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet and her two lovers. The Baroness was a famously extroverted character, instantly upsetting the peaceful atmosphere that the other settlers had enjoyed. Conflict was inevitable, but nobody could have imagined the tragic ending.
The situation came to a head with a number of unexplained and sinister goings on. One day the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared completely without trace. Her other lover left on a passing ship, but his mummified dead body was later found washed up on far away Marchena island (together with the ship captain). Soon after Ritter died of food poisoning, and Strauch returned to Germany where she suffered from mental health issues. This left the Wittmers as the sole survivors on Floreana island.
Even today the Galapagos affair remains a mystery, and in all likeliness it will never be solved. Margaret Wittmer passed away in the year 2000, and was the last person who could reasonably have held the key to solving the mystery.
Today the descendants of the original Wittmer settlers still live on Floreana, running the Wittmer Hotel for tourists.
It’s not only the human residents who make the headlines on Floreana island. Here visitors can also find a very rare and unusual feathered inhabitant, the Floreana Mockingbird.
The Floreana mockingbird was made famous by English botanist Charles Darwin. Back in 1835 Darwin came ashore at Floreana to collect bird and plant specimens for study, including that of the native mockingbird. He later developed his theory of evolution based on Galapagos mockingbird observations, noting that there were differences between the species on each island.
Today, however, the Floreana mockingbird is listed as a Critically Endangered species. Human introduced feral goats, dogs and cats have devastated the natural Floreana habitat. The small remaining population of mockingbirds only survived by taking refuge on nearby uninhabited Champion and Gardner islets. The current population size of the Floreana mockingbird is estimated as fewer than 200 individuals.
(Photo credits: taken from: https://galapagosconservation.org.uk/wildlife/floreana-mockingbird/)
So an immediate and concerted conservation effort is needed to protect the Floreana mockingbird. The Galapagos National Park authority successfully removed all feral goats in 2007. But even so the Floreana habitat is no longer suitable to sustain some of Floreana’s native wildlife. The Charles Darwin Foundation run an annual census to monitor the size and health of the Floreana mockingbird population. They also have future plans to repopulate Floreana island with mockingbirds as part of the Floreana Restoration Project.
Floreana conservation work is also helping to restore healthy populations of Galapagos racer snakes, hawks, barn owls, and three species of Darwins finch.
Where is Floreana Island?
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How to visit Floreana? The easiest way to visit Floreana’s diverse visitors sites is to jump aboard a Galapagos cruise itinetrary. Not all yachts pass by Floreana, so be sure to check with your sales person before booking.
Floreana day tours also operate from Santa Cruz island, but make for a very long day without much time for visits. A better alternative may be to stay a few nights on Floreana island. Hotel Wittmer and Floreana Lava Lodge are two decent accommodation options, but be sure to book ahead as they are often fully booked. The other challenge is getting to and from Floreana island by the local speedboat ferry service. This is often an unreliable form of transport and does not run every day of the week. We recommend investigating timetable information and booking your ticket in advance.
Contact us for a FREE TOUR QUOTE, or for more information to plan your Galapagos vacation or visit Floreana island.
Floreana island offers a fabulous mix of visitor sites and activities. Visitors can enjoy historical sites, varied wildlife encounters, impressive vistas, and some of the very best Galapagos snorkeling.
Landing Type: Wet
Trail length: 1km
Terrain: The trail up to the Baroness viewpoint is quite steep on a sandy / rocky trail.
Post Office Bay is the famous site of the innovative postal service set up by whalers back in 1793. The idea was simple, an old whisky barrel was set up as a post box to collect letters from passing sailors who wanted to write to their loved ones back home. Any passing sailor who would soon be heading back to port would sort through the mail and take any letters addressed to his home town. On arrival back home he would then be responsible for the letters successful delivery. It was an honor system that has worked throughout the centuries, and tourist visitors can join in the fun today. Feel free to leave a postcard in the barrel, no stamp is required. If you come across any card from your home country then take it with you to deliver in person when you get home. For more information about this unusual tradition, check out our more detailed blog post about Post Office Bay.
This visitor site also has access to a large lava cave, or a trek up to the Baroness viewpoint to enjoy the fine vista of Floreana’s landscape.
The trail leading up to Floreana highlands is quite challenging, leading up to an altitude of 450m. Closed shoes are recommended for this trek. Transport options can also be organised in Puerto Velasco Ibarra town to make the visit easier.
At Asilo de la paz (Peace Haven), visitors can see the site of the freshwater spring so vital to settlers and passing ships. There is also a small but interesting pirates cave which was once lived in. With a little imagination you can almost picture old pirates living here, with shelves, beds, and a small fireplace with chimney made of rock. The original homesteads of the 1930s settlers can also be investigated, including that of the famous Baroness.
The site of Cerro Alieri is also interesting, especially for plant lovers or botanists. Over 48 different plant species have been identified here, 56% of which are native and 33% endemic.
The famous Galapagos Black beach is located by Floreana’s main town, Puerto Velasco Ibarra. The contrasting colors here make for unusual and interesting landscape photography. Most of the early settlers landed here, including Irishman Patrick Watkins after whom the site is named – Watkins Landing. Now the beach is bossed by sea lions, who love to share the water with swimmers and snorkelers. Occasionally a Galapagos penguin or sea turtle might also pass through.
Wittmer Lodge, run by descendents of Heinz and Margaret Wittmer, lies just behind the beach. Not only is this a novel place to stay, but the owners also have old photos and memorabilia that they are happy to share with guests.
Landing Type: Wet
Trail length: 2km.
Terrain: Easy trail over flat terrain.
Visitors to Cormorant point on Floreana can enjoy a panga dingy ride along the coast looking for wildlife, an easy trek to two beaches, and free time to swim or snorkel.
Cormorant Point has two contrasting beaches: one with green sand, the other white. The green sand beach owes the unusual color to the presence of olivine crystals. While white sand Flour Beach is made of fine, pulverized coral. The main highlight at Cormorant Point is the flamingo lagoon. Here visitors can watch Galapagos Flamingos wade through brackish water, sifting through the mud for shrimp. Pintail ducks, stilts, Large-billed Flycatchers, several species of finch, and many other shorebirds can also be seen here.
Visitors can take a short walk over a hill to Flour Beach where Green Sea Turtles nest and several species of rays and reef shark glide through the shallow shoreline waters. Blue footed boobies can also often be spotted diving for fish. Cormorant Point has a greater diversity of plants than most other areas, including some endemic to the point and surrounding areas. Be careful walking along the shore here as Sting Rays like to hide in the sand.
Snorkeling is only possible from the olivine beach, and can have some wonderful surprises. Sea turtles, reef fish, sea lions and white-tipped reef sharks all frequent these waters, and penguins can occasionally be observed too.
Floreana island’s Devils Crown is considered by many to be one of the very best Galapagos snorkel sites. The currents here are strong though, so only enter the water if you are a comfortable swimmer.
The Devils Crown is a sunken volcanic crater. It does actually look like a crown, with spikes peaking out from the ocean in a semi-circle. Coral reefs adorn the inside of the crown, attracting an incredible array of sea life. Colorful fish species are all around; try to spot hieroglyphic hawkfish, Yellowtail grunts, Tiger Snake Eels, Angel Fish, Balloon Fish, Wrasse and Amberjacks. Larger creatures like whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles, marble and eagle rays, and sea lions also love the protected reef in the Devils Crown. If your luck is really in then you might even spot a hammerhead or Galapagos penguin cruising through.
Overhead visitors can also enjoy seabird watching. Red-billed tropicbirds, herons, pelicans and blue-footed boobies nest in the crevasses of the crater walls, and dive into the ocean feeding on the fish.
Finally we have the small islets off of Floreana’s coast that are sometimes included into yacht cruise itineraries. Galapagos dolphins enjoy these waters, as do sea birds.
Enderby is renowned as a snorkel site with large quantity of sharks. Gardner islet has interesting rock formations and large caves. Champion is another excellent snorkeling site. Champion and Gardner islets are also the last refuge of the endangered Floreana Mockingbird – the only place at Galapagos where it is possible to see them.
Note: All wildlife sightings are by their very nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.
In conclusion, Floreana island is an action-packed place for Galapagos tourists. Here you can learn more about the unique challenges that faced early settlers, and delve into the Floreana Affair mystery. The Galapagos wildlife on Floreana is also captivating, especially the diversity of marine life at Floreana snorkel sites. We hope you enjoy your time at Floreana island, and have time to visit some of all these spectacular visitor sites.