Exploring the Galapagos Islands: The Hancock Expeditions

While the world was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s, George Allan Hancock outfitted his private cruiser-yacht to do scientific research in the Galapagos Islands and the Eastern Pacific.

In 1931, Hancock commissioned the building of Velero III, outfitted for oceanic exploration and research. It made five voyages between 1931 and 1938. The most memorable ones were in 1931-1932, and in 1934. During the first, it played vital role in the saving of a critically endangered species. During the other, it was a major actor in a mystery that unfolded on Floreana Island.

Saving a Species

The 1932-33 Hancock Expedition found land iguana populations on Baltra Island were being decimated by wild goats. The crew and scientists rounded up 70 iguanas and moved them to North Seymour Island where no goats – or iguanas – lived. Within 20 years, the iguanas had totally disappeared from Baltra due to wild dogs, cats and goats, and the construction of a U.S. military base.

In the 1980s, the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park brought iguanas from North Seymour to be bred in captivity. The first 35 young iguanas were repatriated to Baltra in 1991 and by the time the successful breeding program ended in 2008, 420 iguanas were sent there.

Caught up in an Affair

During the 1934 expedition, the Velero III was drawn into the Galapagos Affair. The settlers on Floreana Island – Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his mate Dore Strauch, the Wittmer family, and the Baronness Eloise von Wagner with two lovers – were often visited by passing yachts and scientific expeditions. Tensions grew in 1934. The Baroness and a lover disappeared, reportedly joining boarding a Tahiti-bound yacht. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Ritter died of food poisoning. Lorenz, the Baroness’ abandoned lover, was desperate to get off the island, and hitched an ill-fated ride with a passing fisherman.

The Hancock Expedition relayed messages and investigating officials to Floreana. They also found the dehydrated bodies of Lorenz and the fisherman on Marchena Island. It also transported Dore to Guayaquil.

Margret, the Wittmer matriarch, told her side of the story in Floreana, and Dore Strauch in Satan Came to Eden. The documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013) re-examines the mystery’s evidence. The expedition’s recounting of events, with many photos, is told in Voyages of the Velero III.

Following in Hancock’s Footsteps

Several of the places where the Hancock Expedition’s adventures played out are included on Galapagos itineraries:

Baltra is the arrival point for most visitors to the Galapagos Islands. Keep your eyes open for land iguanas at the airport and on the short journey to Itabaca Canal.

North Seymour, north of Santa Cruz Island, is a popular cruise stop and good day trip from Puerto Ayora. Marine and land iguanas, and sea lions among other wildlife are easy to see. Blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds also nest here. Offshore are five scuba dive sites with the possibility of seeing hammerhead and Galapagos sharks.

Floreana, with Punta Cormorant and Post Office Bay, is another common destination for Galapagos visitors. Asilo de la Paz (Asylum of Peace) was the cave where Ritter and Strauch – and later the Wittmers – lived. At Las Palmas are the ruins of Ritter’s farm and his grave. The Mirador la Baronesa was the Baroness’ favorite lookout point. The Wittmer family still lives on the island and operates a hotel.

Marchena Island has no on-land visitor sites. Punta Espejo and Punta Mejía are fantastic offshore dive sites.


Have you visited any of these sites? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

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