Galapagos Day 7 - Santa Cruz - Tortoises!

Published: June 17th 2014
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Saddleback tortoiseSaddleback tortoiseSaddleback tortoise

The high ridge in the shell allows these tortoises to stretch their necks very high to reach vegetation
Our last full day in the Galapagos was tortoise day. We had slept quite well on the boat for the first part of the week, but less so on Friday night with large swells rocking the boat where we were anchored in academy bay. Our outing was a single long excursion, with lunch on shore. We took the zodiac into Porto Ayora, the largest settlement in the Galapagos with approximately 16,000 people. We visited the Charles Darwin Station, a large research institution that advises the National Park Service. We mostly learned about the giant tortoises and the breeding program that the Darwin Foundation operates. The tortoises differ from one island to another and they are most actively trying to restore tortoise populations on islands decimated by humans (mostly during the 19th century when big ships would take hundreds of the live tortoises and put them in their holds to use for food during long trips). There are two main types of tortoise – the dome shelled variety that live on many of the hilly islands and can grow to 500 pounds or more. This is the variety that inhabits Santa Cruz and that we would see in the wild later in
Turtle facesTurtle facesTurtle faces

John and Lauren imitate the tortoises
the day. As part of the breeding program, we also got to see the more unusual “saddleback” tortoises that are endemic to the flatter islands with less vegetation. Their shells have a high arch at the neck, allowing them to stretch their necks very high to reach the scarcer vegetation in their habitat. The “saddleback” shape of their shells is the origin of the name “Galapagos”. We saw some of the older breeding tortoises (they don’t reach sexual maturity until age 40, but may live to about 200 years), as well as pens full of little tortoises. They are returned to the wild when they are about one foot in length (about five years old), which makes them too large for non-human predators. It was a bit like being in a (tortoises-only) zoo, but we learned a lot that prepared us for the afternoon trip to the highlands. We had some extra time for shopping and found some nice t-shirts and sweatshirts in the Darwin Center before a short hike back to town to catch the bus. We passed an open-air fish market, located right on a dock and were amused by the flock of pelicans waiting patiently (as if
Yellow WarblerYellow WarblerYellow Warbler

Fast and hard to capture on camera, so we had to try
they were customers) in hopes of getting some of the scraps as the fisherman cleaned the fish. There were a wide variety of fish at the market, including tuna. After that, a thirty-minute bus ride took us up to the cooler, damper highlands which are covered in mist and the only truly lush greenery we saw on the islands. It was a bit like being in Hawaii, but the greenery was less diverse. We agreed to take part in a re-forestation project to restore the native scalesia tree that has been significantly displaced by non-native Quinine trees on this island. The amount of labor required to provide us with clean boots and shovels greatly exceeded the amount of labor the four of us invested in planting two scalesia trees and two coffee plants in the pre-dug holes, but the idea was to give us an up close and first hand view of some of the important but not terribly glamorous conservation work that is going on to mitigate some of the human impact on the islands. There was also a photo-journalist there, so I am hopeful that our “efforts” allowed them to increase public awareness of the issues. After our
Tortoise Breeding ProgramTortoise Breeding ProgramTortoise Breeding Program

I think these were two males, but they seem to enjoy practicing. Andrew was amused that another boy who was watching them thought they were playing leap-frog.
“work” we took a short bus ride to a restaurant, improbably located at the end of a long, winding dirt road in the highlands. As it turns out, it is located in an area where we could explore on foot to see the giant tortoises, but first we sat down for an Ecuadoran buffet lunch. Following lunch came the surprise entertainment, consisting of local young people performing traditional dances. It was a bit hokey, but the dancers did appear to be genuinely enjoying themselves. At the end of the series of planned routines, the dancers came into the audience and pulled several guests, including John onto the dance floor. John, being the good sport he is, danced, somewhat uncomfortably, with an attractive young Ecuadorian woman, and was grateful for the two glasses of wine he’d had with lunch to help him get through it.

Following lunch we were again given mud boots to explore in search of tortoises. They aren’t hard to find (very large) and don’t mind posing for photos (very slow moving). We posed with a few and got a sense of their habitat. Following a bus ride back into town, we opted to skip the afternoon
Iguana Breeding ProgramIguana Breeding ProgramIguana Breeding Program

The Darwin Station also has some land iguana breeding programs, but the iguanas are very territorial and need to be kept apart. These two check each other out through the mesh grating.
shopping and relax on the ship for the afternoon. Sadly it was time to get ready to leave and we started to get our luggage packed, while also taking time to look through photos and relax in the lounge. Before dinner there was an emotionally charged photo show of our week in the Galapagos, from photos taken by the naturalists. We saw ourselves several times and also got to see a few things that we hadn’t gotten to see in person (whales!). There were applause for the entire staff, from the naturalists to the laundry workers and then a farewell toast with the captain. After dinner we had to finish our packing and get to sleep – more tired than usual after sleeping poorly the night before.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Pelicans Lining Up at the Fish MarketPelicans Lining Up at the Fish Market
Pelicans Lining Up at the Fish Market

They seem unlikely to leave, so the fishmongers use them to dispose of the scraps. Here they wait patiently as if they were market customers.
Tree PlantingTree Planting
Tree Planting

Sonia plants a coffee plant - she felt it was the least she could do in return for all that coffee has done for her.
Tree Planting FamilyTree Planting Family
Tree Planting Family

It was a ridiculous amount of trouble on the part of the parks service to get four saplings planted, but the idea was to get us to better understand the reforestation project and get some publicity for the project
Ecuadorean DancersEcuadorean Dancers
Ecuadorean Dancers

These guys put on a nice show for us after lunch. The girls' skirts were adorned with pictures of galapagos animals.
John and DianaJohn and Diana
John and Diana

John got pulled onto the dance floor and did his best not to disappoint.

Lauren has mastered the selfie, even if it requires holding the heavy SLR at arms length and shooting without benefit of a preview screen.
Family by the Red PondFamily by the Red Pond
Family by the Red Pond

This pond is made red by a plant that covers its surface, looking like a gravel patio from a distance. Apparently some kids ran right "onto" it a few months back and got a big surprise.

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