After my friend dropped off two pieces of bread for my breakfast, I decided I could not miss out on the day’s activities and forced myself to eat it and get dressed. This was the day I was looking forward to the most – and again, I was in the G-A-L-A-P-A-G-O-S! No upset stomach was going to keep the Traveling Bard from an adventure.
The zodiac pulled up to a pier on Santa Cruz island and we unloaded. After Isabella, Santa Cruz is the second-largest island in the Galapagos and has the largest population located in its capital, Puerto Ayora. Before landing here, we had been hopping around uninhabited islands where the animals reigned. On Santa Cruz, however, it was an urban development with a bustling city center.
Once we regrouped, Tour Guide George started leading us along the road to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which has been in operation since 1964. Scientists and researchers work on projects to help conserve the Galapagos Islands and it’s animals, while learning more about the archipelago. Along the way, we stopped to watch a man sort through a fresh batch of caught lobsters where we happened to spot a Lava Gull, which is apparently very rare because there are only 400 left. We continued on and passed a small, green road sign that had an arrow pointing in the direction we were heading that read, “Estacion Ch. Darwin”.
At the park entrance building we were able to get our passports stamped. Another amazing souvenir that will compliment the equator stamp nicely. Eventually we passed the sign that let us know we had made it and entered a room that was dedicated to educating people on The Restoration of the Tortoise Dynasty. Tour Guide George explained the different species that are found on each island and their current predicament. I learned that the Galapagos Tortoise is the largest tortoise species in the world, and that the National Park and Research Station are trying to eradicate the dogs, pigs, donkeys and rats that hinder their populations.
We walked to an area where we could watch the baby tortoises wandering around and climbing all over each other. The baby tortoises weren’t always placed behind bars, according to Tour Guide George. Apparently, travelers would be caught at the airport on their way back to Ecuador trying to sneak out tortoises they picked up. I couldn’t believe anyone would even think of doing something like that – or think they had any chance of successfully getting away with it. Moving on, we went to visit the two celebrities of the Charles Darwin Research Station: Lonesome George and Diego.
Lonesome George is named because he is the last known Pinta Island tortoise in the entire Galapagos archipelago. Goats had destroyed the species and he was moved to the research station for protection. Restless searches have not turned up any others of his kind. He is kept in an environment with two females in the hopes that he would mate with them to produce offspring. George has produced batches of eggs with the females, but all have unfortunately become inviable. When he dies in a hundred, or so years, his conservation status will become: extinct.
On a brighter note, one tortoise has been able to help repopulate the entire Española island with his offspring. His name is Diego and he was returned to the Galapagos after spending a large part of his life in the San Diego Zoo, which is where he got his name. His species was in decline due to the goats that were harming the vegetation that the tortoises relied upon. There were only 12 females and 2 males left when he returned and produced more than 1,400 babies that are now back in their natural environment, helping maintain their population on Española. Even at more than 100 years of age, Diego continues to mate with the females at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
After visiting the tortoises and iguanas, we met up with our bus that would be taking us to the highlands. We had decided to spend the entire day on Santa Cruz instead of just the morning, and then sailing on over to an island to snorkel and see more of the animals we already had on the other islands. The highlands offered us a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural environment at the Highlands National Park Tortoise Reserve. It was a quick ride and our chefs from the catamaran brought all the food for lunch in a nice buffet-style setting for us to enjoy in the park. As we gradually finished eating, one by one, people from the group began to disappear and explore the tortoise landscape.
The giant tortoises, which can weight more than 650 pounds and live up to 200 years, were scattered all throughout the green landscape. Most could be found in the shade of trees in order to stay out of the afternoon heat. We were able to get inches away from the endemic animals and pose for multiple pictures. In the park, the tortoises have the luxury to roam wherever they like, whether that be across the roads or into the deep forest of trees on the reserve. A few were lounging in the muddy waters of one of the ponds. At one point, we were lucky enough to see the beginnings of a possible mating – the male was trying to crawl onto the back of a female, but the female began to take off with the male following closely behind. Eventually, the female was able to seek refuge in a large bush, which made it difficult for the male to crawl on top again due to all the branches in the way.
Some of the group went back to the lunch area while the rest of us followed Tour Guide George on a trail through the trees. Ever so often I could spot the shell of a tortoise in the distance. The lush vegetation of Santa Cruz provides a suitable environment for the tortoises and the reserve protects them from invasive species – although I did spot two kittens hiding beneath branches and leaves at one point during our hike. We also spotted fruit growing in bushes and trees with the help of Tour Guide George. He wrangled a papaya down and fed it to one of the tortoises who devoured it and made quite a mess. I guess the others got worried about us being gone for so long because one of them somehow found us even though I had no idea where we even were in the forest.
We hopped back on the bus for a five minute drive to our next stop. A dirt path led us to a small set of stairs where we walked down into the opening of a lava tunnel. It reminded me very much of Mammoth Caves, which I just visited in Kentucky in the summer before leaving for Ecuador. Lava from a volcanic eruption flowed and eventually hollowed out, creating the tunnel we were walking through. We could only go so far because of boulders that blocked our path, so that was our turning point. The string of lights didn’t help much. It was still dark enough that my clumsy self would trip over some of the rocks in the path but I eventually made it safely back up the stairs and to the bus with no broken bones. The group went back to the city center where we were given a bit of time to look around. My Norwegian friend, the friend I came with and I went for some coffee and ice cream before venturing back to the meeting point. We boarded the zodiacs, but had to wait for the other zodiac to arrive with the life-jackets before we eventually got back on the catamaran.
It was our last night aboard the Nina. Throughout the duration of the entire voyage, the group had become very much like a family. At dinner that night, the two tables were pushed together and we ate like a family, complete with random side conversations. In the morning, we woke bright and early with the sight of giant waves crashing ashore on North Seymour – the final island we would explore. The waves made getting out of the zodiac incredibly hard but everyone made it safely on land where we were greeted my numerous bird sightings. We walked the rocky trail and saw blue-footed boobies – a mom and her babies. In the trees we noticed two male Magnificent Frigate birds with their red pouches puffed up to attract a female.
With only an hour of time to enjoy the island, the group quickly made it’s way to the coast where the waves crashed upon the rocky shore. Here we saw more sea lions and iguanas basking in the sun that was growing stronger in the waking morning. After slipping and sliding our way back into the zodiacs, we all looked back for one last glimpse of the Galapagos before we hopped back on the catamaran to say our final farewells to the crew as it took us to the drop-off point where buses were waiting.
At the airport, the group remained intact. On the flight, the group remained intact until we lost an Australian couple at the first stop in Guayaquil. The rest remained together until we said our goodbyes at the baggage claim in the Quito airport and went our separate ways,. However, we all still had the memories of Darwin’s Land intact.