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Published: July 28th 2017
Geo: -0.899999, -89.61
Were were up early for our flight, a group of 18 travellers all excited for the incredible adventure that lay ahead of us. As we landed, we were greeted by sweeping views below the plane - crystal waters of the brightest turquoise rippled onto white sand beaches, while lush green foliage and ash black rocks crept towards the shore.
We glided down onto a tropical runway - the warm breeze greeting us as the doors opened, brightly coloured board buildings lining the airport and the surrounding area. We passed quickly through the airport, managing to gain a much-longed-for Galápagos Islands stamp in our passports. Soon, we were on the rickety bus, bobbing our way down from the airport into the small resort town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town of San Cristobal Island, where dive shops, boutiques and souvenir shops line the pretty harbour, yachts moored a short panga (inflatable boat) ride away from the dock, bobbing on the beautiful blue water, the sun's rays reflecting like diamonds on its calm surface.
Under a small thatched shelter, our first taste of the incredible wildlife that awaited us was a pleasant surprise. A huge sea lion was stretched out on one of the benches, occasionally yawning and rolling over as it snoozed in the midday heat. As we walked further along the dock, the smell of fish hit us like a sledgehammer, sea lions stacked up, one on top of the other, covering the steps to the jetty. As we passed, one gave us a sleepy wave and then flopped back over, while one pulled his flipper protectively around another before sliding into the crystal clear water, thousands of fish teeming around the shallows. Sally Lightfoot crabs picked their way over the volcanic rocks that lined the shore, their bright red shells standing out on the deep black background as they scuttled past.
We took a small speedboat (panga) that was to be our main source of transport from boat to island for the week and then boarded the yacht that was to be our home for the next 7 nights, the Monserrat. With just 19 of us on board and 10 staff, we knew we would be looked after. We unpacked in our tiny cabin, the walls of the front of the boat rising steeply around us, enjoyed our first delicious lunch onboard the boat and headed onto deck for our first briefing. Here, we learned that we would be visiting the highlands of San Cristobal, where there is a huge breeding centre for the giant tortoises that roam the island. Frigate birds soared past the window, their forked tails trailing behind them, huge red chests bold against the sky.
After another panga ride back to the docks, our bus drove us up through lush vegetation, higher and higher to the hilly top of the island. En route, we passed beautiful plants and trees, stretching out unspoilt and untouched for miles. Eventually, we arrived at the tortoise breeding centre, where we took a rocky trail around the protected site, giant tortoises lumbering past us, rattling the undergrowth with each trembling step. These were not wild tortoises, however, but protected ex farm animals and pets that had been rescued when the islands were deemed a protected area. Because of the sharp decline in numbers until the 1970s, with at least four species becoming extinct, and with the famous plight of Lonesome George, an intense breeding programme has been developed, with any eggs laid by the tortoises on the island being taken from the nests and placed in incubators, where, under controlled conditions, more males can be born than females (it was mostly females that were taken by explorers and sailors, due to the vast difference in size and the portability of the females at 70kg compared to the males' 200kg mass).
When the hatchlings are born, they are numbered and raised in tanks similar to a vivitarium, then once they are older, they are given more space to roam around. Food isn't given to them in a traditional sense and they are encouraged to find their own food, preparing them for life in the wild. After about 4 years, they are released to one of the islands that they are native to, to encourage the repopulation of the species. We wandered through the centre, oohing and aahing over the babies, and laughing at the ungainly wobbling walk of the older ones, some clambering over others completely unaware of their presence. Mockingbirds flew around us, chattering and bobbing their heads, while yellow warblers flashed their vibrant feathers and chirped on branches next to our ears.
After our final goodbyes to one of the larger tortoises who heaved himself off into the undergrowth, we made our way back to the boat where a delicious dinner awaited us in the sunset.
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