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Wednesday 1 Jan 2014
Puerto Ayora, Ecuador

Charles Darwin and Lonesome George

Sadly, last night’s partying didn’t change the itinerary this morning, so we still had to get up for breakfast at 6am.  We said farewell to half the group – Juliette, Shane and Sara, Leigh and Jack, Adam and Mark, who were crossing Santa Cruz with a different guide and flying out of Baltra airport again that afternoon.  Their 6-day trip had barely given them three days on the islands, so we were glad we’d gone for the longer option to get a full week.  We hadn’t realised the groups would be mixed on the same boat so we’d be getting new shipmates at lunchtime.  Luckily, the rest of us were able to go back to bed until 8am.

Back on Santa Cruz, we strolled through the deserted town amid the debris of last night’s festivities (including a couple of people in doorways who’d definitely had a few too many).  Fabian pointed out a number of good souvenir shops and galleries, which may or may not be open later – they open at 10am and close at noon for a 3-hour siesta!  We explored the Red Mangrove, a café hostel with a wooden deck overlooking the harbour.  The whole building is built around a mangrove tree so we had to walk under a tunnel of branches to get in.  The deck was covered in small marine iguanas, while the sea lions had laid claim to the chairs in one corner – like those on Pier 39 in San Francisco – and turned it into something resembling scruffy student digs.

The name of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution are synonymous with the Galápagos Islands, but their influence on him may have become exaggerated.  Darwin came here on the Beagle when he was only 22 and spent just five weeks collecting specimens.  He never left England again.  In fact, he was quoted after his five-year voyage as saying:

“I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it.”

It was another 22 years before he published his Origin of the Species.  Although he cites the example of the Galápagos finches (now known as Darwin’s finches), the islands represent only 1% of the final book.

That said, his influence on the islands’ reputation cannot be underestimated.  The Charles Darwin Research Centre houses another Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre and was home to Lonesome George for the last 40 years of his life.  Although he mated with females from other subspecies, the offspring were all born sterile.  At least he got to enjoy himself. 

I crouched down to watch one of the female tortoises in her enclosure.  She came right up to the gate to investigate the clicking from my camera and I got some superb photos.  They already look ancient when they break out of their eggs, but this tortoise had real beauty in her eyes and weathered face.  I felt truly privileged to be so close to her.  We also saw some of the endemic land iguanas from Punta Sur, resplendent in their gold colours ready for mating season, but it was the tortoises that captured my heart.

Our new shipmates had arrived when we got back to the Queen Beatriz.  Karen and Kim were both from Australia, while the remaining guests were a family of 4 from Poland – Mum, Dad, Grandma and 7-year-old daughter, which came as a surprise as we thought this was an adult-only trip.  Fortunately, Anya turned out to be a real sweetheart and very well behaved.  Unfortunately, the Polish family couldn’t speak English that well, so it was difficult to get to know them and made mealtimes a little awkward, with a few people being separated from the rest of the English-speaking group.  That said, our conversations seemed to resolve around language differences within English in the UK, US and Australia, getting progressively sillier each night, so that may not have been such a bad thing after all.  Even Francesca, who’d been born in the US, joined in taking the mickey out of Torrey occasionally.  It was all good-natured, but British humour can be dry at the best of times and poor Torrey was well and truly outnumbered.  Even so, she held her own pretty well.

After lunch we went back into Puerto Ayora and took a rickety bus up into the highlands for a visit to Rancho Primicias, a private ranch on the migration route of the island’s Giant Tortoises.  For at least the first 20 years of their lives, the tortoises remain in the lowlands until they have grown big enough to cope with the migration.  The grasses in the highlands are lush and plentiful, which lures the older tortoises up the mountain slopes.  It takes 20-25 years before they reach their sexual maturity and then they return to the lowlands to breed each year.

We spotted a couple of these giant creatures from the bus as we drove in and were greeted by a female in the middle of the car park.  Even so, it wasn’t until we saw them grazing in the meadow that we truly appreciated just how enormous they could get.  Fabian warned us to approach them slowly from behind, so as not to scare them into their shells, but like most of the wildlife we’d seen, they glanced at us for a moment and then ignored us, just carried on eating grass.  The biggest we saw had shells that came up to my waist, and I couldn’t begin to guess what they weighed – I certainly wouldn’t want one to step on my foot.  The biggest recorded individual in Galápagos apparently weighed over 400kg!

The saddle-shaped shell of those on some of the drier islands allows them to stretch up for access to the sweet prickly pear cactus buds.  However, it also provides a simple means of conflict resolution: Whichever tortoise can raise their head highest is the winner, end of story.  They have necks that can stretch up to a metre and a high ridge in their shells to allow the necessary movement.  This leaves a very vulnerable patch when they withdraw into their shells, but it is an indication of the lack of predators that they have evolved this way.  The Santa Cruz tortoises, by contrast, have dome shaped shells.  The plentiful grasses on the island mean that food is readily available at ground level and conflict is less common.

We had time to explore the meadows and forests by ourselves, following the trails worn by years to tortoise migration.  We found a smaller tortoise in the woods – which was still huge – and several more by the water or making their way slowly across the field.  They use their powerful legs to shift their shell forwards by a foot, then eat all the grass they can reach in the semicircle range of their necks, before repeating.  It was fascinating to just sit and watch these enormous gentle creatures.  Even having been there and seen them myself, I still think my own pictures look Photoshopped!

 

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

Travel blog by zobeedoo

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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