Floreana Island in the Galapagos Islands has received its fair share of memorable immigrants and visitors and has always been the one island that offers up the most compelling human history in the Galapagos.
Early Floreana settlers, a mere generation removed from today, passed down tales of Floreana mysteries and presumed murders. One conical green hill beckoned above a land of desolate browns and greys drawing many seagoing vessels to the Galapagos’ only reliable year round source of fresh water. It was a destination for centuries where pirates and other rogues of the sea could stop and replenish, not only their fresh water supply, but also their meat supply with the many giant tortoises of the island. Beginning in 1793, whalers set up a wooden barrell as a “post office” on a Floreana Bay where they would leave letters for their loved ones back home and other whalers heading home would pick up the mail and deliver it. This unique Floreana Island practice at the same “post office” continues to this day.
So adding the famous, and somewhat controversial, Norwegian anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl, to the list of Floreana visitors seems quite fitting. Heyerdahl popularized ideas about common links among ancient cultures worldwide. He was well known for his ocean journeys on primitive rafts and boats, journeys that were recorded in books, films, and television programs. He will probably forever be synonymous with his Peru to Polynesia voyage on a balsa wood raft named the Kon-Tiki, a voyage designed to prove primitive cultures were able to sail great distances and in doing so, did influence each other.
So on this, the anniversary of Heyerdahl’s birthday (born Oct. 6, 1914), is seemingly an appropriate time to share a bit of Floreana Island folklore for those of you who haven’t been there to learn about the early settlers and famous visitors to Floreana.
Heyerdahl set out for the Galapagos with the intent of finding evidence of pre-Incan culture on the islands. He visited Floreana Island in 1953 where he met Rolf Wittmer. Rolf was the first child to ever be born on Floreana in January 1933. His mother Margaret, one of the original immigrants to Floreana, gave birth to Rolf in a pirate’s cave cut from soft stone in the Floreana Highlands.
Over the years before the Wittmers’ arrival on Floreana, many rocks were carved of soft stone in the Highlands as temporary shelter for pirates, whalers and seagoing men desperate for fresh meat and water. These same stones still stand today and often inspire Floreana visitors to call the area “The Stonehenge of The Galapagos”. So it was not a huge ordeal with the sort of time on one’s hands one has on a desolate island in the middle of a vast Pacific Ocean, to carve an ancient looking face into one such large rounded stone that probably did remind precocious children of a large head.
Rolf was a mere 20 years old when Heyerdahl trekked to the Galapagos in search of proof ancient cultures once inhabited the islands. You can only imagine the fun Rolf had by escorting Heyerdahl to see for himself the “ancient rock carving” that, at first, Heyerdahl was no doubt thrilled to find. Perhaps they couldn’t stop themselves from laughing because finally, it was revealed to Heyerdahl that the ‘find’ had been nothing more than a youthful joke at his expense.
Like Darwin, Heyerdahl never returned to the Galapagos. Visitors today still come to the Floreana Highlands to see the famous pirate caves, the fresh water spring, the amazing Floreana vistas, the flocks of finches, the endemnic Floreana Mockingbird and end up ‘discovering’ all over again the “ancient carving” near the cave where Rolf was born.