Galapagos Day 4: Santa Cruz

Giant tortoises, the iconic image of the Galapagos and emblem of the Galapagos National Park Service, were the theme and focus of the day today.  It was another early morning for us as we were up and out on the zodiacs by 7:30 to ride over to the town of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz.  Our itinerary had us spending the entire day on the second largest island in the Galapagos to see giant tortoises, learn about the conservation efforts, and also find out how people of the Galapagos live.

Welcome party on the dock, Santa Cruz island

A short walk from the docks took us to the national park’s offices and to the famed Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS).  Our naturalist this morning was Ximena, who took us around the research and conservation facility to explain how introduced animals such as goats and rats are threatening the survival of the endemic and native species of the Galapagos, and what humans are doing now to bring the islands back to the way they were thousands of years ago .  We saw a lot of baby tortoises being cared for (they’ll eventually be repatriated to their native islands) and rescued adult tortoises (they will live out their days at the research center as they are no long capable of fending for themselves).  And we visited “Lonesome George.”

No one is quite sure of El Solitario George‘s exact age but the staff at CDRS have picked a birthday for him and this December, he’ll celebrate his 103rd.  He is described by the Guiness Book of Records as “the rarest living creature,” as he is the very last one of the giant saddleback (saddleback = galapagos in Spanish) tortoises in the world.  When George was found on Pinta Island in 1971 he was alone, malnourished, and completely surrounded by goats.  Scientists removed him from his native environment because there was no real chance of George surviving there.  Since then they’ve introduced two female tortoises from the island of Isabela for him (subspecies, not quite like George), but Ximena told us that it took George 12 years to barely acknowledge the two females, and all efforts for them to mate have failed so far.  Some believe there may be others like George who have been smuggled out of Ecuador and living somewhere in Europe, but for now George is all alone in the world.

Lonesome George, the last of his kind

The population of Galapagos tortoises declined (there are several species that are now completely extinct) not only because of introduced animals but also because they were used for meat, water, and oil by the early explorers, buccaneers, pirates, and whalers.  Giant tortoises can live with little food or water for up to a year, which made it perfect for long sea voyages.  Sailors gathered and took as many tortoises as possible, especially the females who were smaller and easier to collect (during their nesting season they could be found on the beach laying eggs).  Charles Darwin himself wrote that when he came to the Galapagos, he and his crew lived solely on tortoise meat…  Now the conservation efforts are firmly in place and researchers and scientists are committed to saving the Galapagos tortoises, and continuing Lonesome George’s line.

Once we finished our visit at CDRS, we were free to walk through the town.  It was a surprise for me to find out that humans live in the Galapagos and even a bigger surprise to find such a large population (~18,000 on Santa Cruz Island).  Not only is Santa Cruz home to CDRS and the national park service (where all the naturalists study and get certified), but to Jason, the American transplant and naturalist who lives there with his family.  In fact, one of the options today was to visit the school where Jason’s 8 year old son attends.  Another option was go mountain biking, but we decided to go to a sugarcane press and then do a quick 1 mile walk to a hilltop restaurant for lunch.  We strolled the quiet main street of Santa Cruz with the port and the ocean to our left, stopping at souvenir shops along the way and watching brown pelicans fighting for scraps by the fishermen.  I mailed a few postcards (with real postage unlike from Post Office Bay yesterday) and then joined the others for our afternoon activities.

Brown pelicans

Our stop at a sugarcane press was short but fun- we tasted locally made cheese with pure sugarcane molasses (apparently a typical Christmas time treat), tried 120 proof sugarcane alcohol (agua-ardiente), drank freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, and had a small cup of Galapagos coffee.  After lunch, we continued up into the highlands to visit two huge sinkholes (elevation 2,000 feet) created by volcanic activities.  Called Los Gemelos, they were surrounded by a forest of scalesia trees and wrapped in a blanket of dense fog.  It felt as if we were in the completely different world from where we started off just a few hours ago.  This area has one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the archipelago, with ferns, moss, orchids, and a number of interesting bird species.  It reminded me of the cloud forests of Costa Rica.  We had to put on extra layers to keep ourselves warm and dry, but it was so green and lush- I could only imagine what it’d be like during the rainy/hot season here.  No matter what I tried, the scale and the beauty of the place could not be captured by a photo…

One of the craters of Los Gemelos

Our last stop on Santa Cruz Island was a private property, a farm at the heart of the annual giant tortoise migratory route where we could observe giant tortoises roaming around in their natural habitat.  There were everywhere we looked; in the bushes, under trees, in a muddy pond, up on the hill.  I loved watching them stick their heads in the mud, stretching their necks out to chomp on vegetation, and “running.”  One of them actually charged at me.  It happened so fast that I couldn’t get out of the way.  I thought I could hear my heart thumping when he stopped just a few feet away from me.  I looked straight into his eyes.  It was amazing.

All about giant tortoises today

After a full day I was ready to skip a meal (gasp!) and just go to bed, but dragging my feet to dinner was all worth it.  We were fortunate this evening to be joined by Karen and Bill from National Geographic, who had us laughing all throughout dinner.  It was really great fun talking to Karen about her experience and career as photographer for National Geographic, and Bill about how special editions of National Geographic come together.  It’s always fascinating and inspiring to talk to those who are not only good at what they do but are also passionate about their life’s work.  As we finished our dinner some musicians from Santa Cruz came into the dining room to play for us, and we were invited to the lounge to hear them and watch the local dancers, but I really couldn’t do it.  What another great day…

Highlights & animals seen: Lonesome George, huge sinkholes, giant tortoises in their natural habitat,  dinner with Karen and Bill from National Geographic

Today’s schedule:

06:00: Yoga on the Sky Deck

06:30: Breakfast

07:30: Dry landing, walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station

10:30: After the CDRS visit and walk through town to meet at “the Rock”

11:00: Depart for a sugar cane press tour

12:30: Lunch at “Altair” in the highlands

02:00: Options for hiking around Los Gemelos, farm visit to see more giant tortoises

06:00: Last zodiac returns to the ship

18:45: Cocktails and briefing

19:30: Dinner

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