In Search of the Giant Tortoise

Giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Santa Cruz, Galapagos; Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic  National Geographic Endeavour II spent last evening at our anchorage just outside the main harbour of Puerto Ayora, a small town located on the island of Santa Cruz that is the largest settlement in all of the Galapagos.
A smattering of hotels and trinkety tourist shops line the Avenida Charles Darwin, which perhaps unsurprisingly leads straight to the Charles Darwin Research Station. It’s a weird combination of conservation and research situated alongside the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in Cancun or the Canary Islands.

Zipping away from National Geographic Endeavour II…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…bound for Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Santa Cruz is also home to the second major airport in Galapagos, Baltra, which is about an hour’s drive to the North. We’ll be disembarking in Baltra and flying back to the mainland when our cruise concludes on Saturday.
This morning, we set out bright and early once again, this time for a full day ashore, including lunch at a local restaurant. Our goal: to seek out the giant tortoises that inhabit this island.
Breakfast was served early, and guests were disembarking the National Geographic Endeavour II shortly before 8am. Don’t let the overcast skies in early-morning photos fool you; the air was plenty hot and humid. In fact, during the wet and rainy season from November to May, expect to do many early-morning activities as our expedition guides seek to shelter us already sunburned tourists from the worst of the sun’s rays.

Much of the Galapagos fleet is made up of ships under 40 passengers…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…and even these ships still have to tender passengers ashore. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

A quick bus ride brought us to the entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Station, where more than 200 volunteers and scientists work to conduct research that includes a breeding-in-captivity program to rebound the numbers of giant tortoises on the island. Once the program is a success, our guide indicated that the Research Station would abandon the current zoo-like strategy whereby tortoises are kept in enclosed areas.
The area’s most famous resident, Lonesome George, was a giant tortoise born in 1910 that acquired his name because for the first 90 years of his life, he failed to mate. As author Carol Ann Bassett relates in her excellent 2009 book, Galapagos at the Crossroads, “…George isn’t his normal indifferent self. Then the news hits like a bomb: the 90-year old virgin has discovered sex and has mated with both of the females from Wolf Island. His caretakers are stunned…”

Our first stop: the Charles Darwin Research Station. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

It was here that a famous Giant Tortoise called “Lonesome George” resided. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

It’s also a restful sanctuary of research and preservation. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Sadly, the eggs produced from this union would prove to be infertile. Lonesome George died in 2012 at the age of 102 and his subspecies of giant tortoise (the Pinta Island tortoise) went extinct along with him. That’s how fragile the ecosystem is out here. Since February of last year, you can still see Lonesome George at his home in the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he has been lovingly preserved and placed in a climate-controlled room for future generations to see.
Of course, early research expeditions didn’t help matters much. Viewed through the lens of modern conservation, the 26-year-old Charles Darwin acted like a total “bro” when he came here in 1835, knocking animals off their perch with his musket, riding giant tortoises, and killing everything that moved in the Holy Name of Science. In an age where refrigeration had yet to be invented and scurvy represented a real danger for seafarers, the discovery that these giant tortoises could be stacked upside down, one atop another, and live for up to a year without food was a revelation. Ships loaded their holds with the creatures, guaranteeing sailors fresh meat until they returned home but decimating the local tortoise populations in the process.

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

You can’t blame Darwin or the whalers that landed here hundreds of years ago; they were working in what was known of the world at that time. It would take Darwin decades to challenge the deeply-held theory that God created the earth in six days, and his theory of evolution would, for a time, damage his reputation and his credibility.
After about an hour at the Research Station, guests were invited to walk along Avenida Charles Darwin for about a kilometre and a half, back into town, to enjoy complimentary refreshments at a local restaurant called The Rock. Fresh water or fruit punch was served, and other items like pastries or ice-cold cerveza could be purchased. Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. Dollar, which makes transactions easy. Euro’s are also accepted in many stores, at the posted exchange rate.

High in the mountains at El Trapiche, a look at the way things used to be. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

I actually really like Puerto Ayora. It’s a quaint, interesting seaside town that looks like it belongs in mainland Ecuador. Apparently, the streetlights that line the road were installed just a few months ago, confirming my suspicion that something was different from my last visit in the fall of 2014.
I’m less of a fan, however, of the trinkety commercialization of the Galapagos. You’ll see t-shirts with all the usual groan-inducing slogans, including, “I love boobies” (because of the blue-footed boobies – you know, the birds), and “So I was unfaithful, but that was 150 years ag

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