Today was tortoise day! In the morning, we had a chance to see Giant Tortoises in the wild and in the afternoon we visited the Darwin Research station to view the captive breeding program.
We awoke in the morning to find our ship anchored in the harbor off Santa Cruz, one of the two main inhabited islands, with a population of approximately 20000. Most of the other Galapagos islands are largely uninhabitable, primarily due to a lack of water. Luckily, this serves to help protect the native animals and plants from human development.
After breakfast, we were ferried to the main pier and boarded a van for our trip to the highlands. On the way, we stopped at a local fish market in town. Fishermen were selling their catch while relatively tame pelicans looked on.
As we drove up into the highlands, we became aware that this side of the island is quite lush and the degree of precipitation increases as one climbs in elevation. A few years ago, it was discovered that the giant tortoises seem to prefer a particular privately owned farm which used to raise cattle. The owner of the farm was approached with a business proposition--help protect the tortoises and receive compensation from the tours that visit the farm. The owner is now doing quite well and the tortoises are apparently thriving. It is hard to appreciate just how large these animals are until you see them up close. They can weigh hundreds of pounds and reportedly can live up to 150 years. As we strolled through the lush vegetation in our mud boots, tortoises were scattered about in ponds, wallowing in the mud or grazing on vegetation. As you approach them, they sometimes retract their heads and let out a hissing sound.
In the afternoon, we took the pangas to a smaller pier adjacent to the Darwin Research Center. Here, we learned more details about the captive breeding program and the different types of tortoises on the islands. There are three general shell types, ranging from bowl-shaped to saddle-back. The saddle-back evolved on dryer islands to allow the tortoises to extend their necks and reach for vegetation higher off of the ground.
Lonesome George is the last of his species and was discovered alone on Santiago many years ago. He has been sharing a pen with two closely related females for over 30 years. Suddenly, last year two clutches of eggs were discovered and there was hope that new turtles might help start to re-populate the species. Unfortunately, the eggs had not been fertilized. Hopefully, George will try again next year!
Diego is another famous tortoise who spent several years at the San Diego Zoo in California. He was brought back to Galapagos and has helped save his species from extinction. Dogs, cats, goats, black rats and people have all managed to reduce the total tortoise population in the Galapagos from over 200,000 to about 20,000.
After visiting the Darwin Research Center, we decided to have dinner in town. Our guide, Luis, recommended "The Rock" and we had a great dinner consisting of lobster, shrimp, tuna and octopus. Many of the locals were congregated in town, playing volleyball and Latin music could be heard over loudspeakers, creating a festive atmosphere.