TALE OF THE UNEXPECTED
THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR
Think about Galápagos and what springs to mind? The bountiful birdlife, the playful sea lions, the dulcet tones of David Attenborough? Yet it has a secret, sinister side; best represented by what became known as “The Galápagos Affair”.
In 1929, a German expatriate called Dr Friedrich Ritter arrived on Floreana Island with his lover Dore Strauch, pictured; they lived according to strict Nietzschean principles, embracing vegetarianism and nudism. They documented their lives in letters, which they sent to a newspaper in Berlin. The paper published them, inspiring more Germans to come to Floreana, among them Heinz and Margaret Wittmer. A comparably normal couple, they hoped the tropical climate would heal their sick son, Harry, who in a cruel twist ended up drowning in Galápagos.
Hot on their heels was the self-styled Baroness Wagner de Bosquet, a “flamboyant and ill-tempered woman” who arrived with two lovers. She appropriated parts of Floreana and announced plans to build a five-star hotel. She also started intercepting Ritter’s letters and edited them to make herself the star. The newspaper lapped it up.
Ritter complained to the governor about her behaviour, but it was useless: he had been seduced by the baroness. Ritter threatened to take matters into his own hands.
To cut a long story short, the baroness and one of her lovers disappeared. Ritter had a motive, but there was a twist: allegedly, the missing woman’s belongings were turning up at the Wittmers’.
a favourite novel, had somehow fallen into Margaret’s hands.
In another twist, Ritter died, suddenly, after allegedly eating bad meat. His final words were: “Dore, I curse you with the last breath I have” – but as Ritter was a vegetarian, the plot thickened.
Charges were never brought against Margaret or Dore, but after Ritter’s death the latter returned to Germany, where she was admitted to a mental institute. During the war, a bomb hit the institute and killed her. And Margaret? She remained in Galápagos until her death in 2000. If she had any secrets, they died with her.
Next morning, I see construction sites on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, the islands’ main settlement on Santa Cruz. But I also spot sea lions lazing on benches in the street, and a Darwin’s finch scuttling around by my coffee cup in a café. I ask the waiter whether he thinks the town is becoming too urbanised. “When I arrived in the Sixties,” he says, “it was just a pile of rocks and a shed.”
I buy a Galápagos T-shirt and pay a visit to a supermarket, where the prices are astronomically high. “They never go down,” says another local, Enrique Silva, who is hanging out by the dock near a huge mural featuring local superstars from Bishop de Berlanga to Darwin. “Recently, three supply boats sank,” he adds. “It showed us just how much we rely on the mainland.”
More than high prices and geographical isolation, it is the islands’ status as a national park that disrupts the lives of locals most. Protected as such since 1959, the archipelago is subject to evertightening regulations. “People remember how it was before,” Enrique tells me wistfully. “You could go to this beach or to that beach, no problem. Now the national park tells us where to go.”
While Enrique sounds nostalgic for old freedoms, Ximena, one of the naturalists on National Geographic Endeavour II, fully supports regulation. “A driver who killed a land iguana on Baltra was fined $15,000 (£11,651),” she says. “This is the way it should go, so local people who don’t understand the uniqueness of the place start being careful.”
She has seen inhabitants of Isabela eating giant tortoises “in front of everybody”. Her principal fear, though, is that Ecuador, hit by the oil price slump, is going to focus more on tourism, with Galápagos as the main selling point. “Sooner or later, especially on the inhabited islands, the incredible, naive creatures are going to become extinct,” she reckons.
It’s happening already. When the giant tortoise Lonesome George died in 2012, his Pinta Island subspecies was pronounced extinct.
Enrique, meanwhile, doesn’t see his long-term future here. “We have around 40,000 people on the islands now,” he says. “Within a generation, it’s going to be 100,000. The tourism will increase similarly. You’ll see boats here, boats there. We don’t have the resources, the water.” An increase in boats will lead in turn to a greater risk of introduced species – and of disease. In Galápagos, the struggle for life goes on.