We arrived exhausted. As the plane made its final descent onto the old military landing strip on the tiny island of Baltra, we were treated to a comical video about the do’s and don’ts of Galapagos, starring a very confused muppet traveler. The basics: no flash photography, and stay two meters away from all the animals. Beyond that, it was pretty self-explanatory, although the park service did have to warn us not to take anything natural as a souvenir. This included penguins. We went through customs, gathered our gear, and hopped aboard a bus that took us directly to the dock overlooking a crescent-shaped bay of beautiful blue water. The sun felt warm and focused, like a perfectly positioned magnifying glass. We made our way to the shade of the dock only to find our first sign of wildlife a little early! A sea lion. Laying right on the bench normally reserved for the tourists. She’d taken the liberty of shitting on the concrete ground as well.
The yacht crossed over to Santa Cruz Island, a one-hour jaunt that happened after lunch. We took the pangas to a concrete dock and hopped onto a bus that took us to the south end of Santa Cruz Island, one of the few inhabited areas in Galapagos. The view was incredible. Palo santo trees (incense trees) ran along the road, their ghost-white bark and gangly limbs reaching out in every direction for just a hint of water. Galapagos is a dry, harsh place, but it became obvious that at the higher elevations there was enough moisture to accommodate lush, green grass fields and taller trees.
Tortoises. We saw one, then another, and then you couldn’t unsee them! One, ambling near the road, was a giant whose domed shell easily topped three feet. More moved in the grassy fields where sparse cows and horses grazed. One made its way on a bike trail on the road, heading toward the lowlands.
Big fields and ranch-style farms gave way to more buildings, skeletal and unfinished, as if a building company had simply decided to lay the foundations for a second story and would return in the morning. But the steel rods snaking out of the concrete pillars holding up sky looked rusted and old, and the piecemeal exterior of the first floor of these buildings looked old. It was easy to imagine: not much money, and of course sparse materials, no doubt made amenities difficult. Clotheslines ran between the homes. A single church beside a concrete school building offered a small gravel parking lot. Before it was a national park, Ecuador gave away the land to anyone brave enough to settle. Some did. Some had been here much longer, though they rarely stayed. Pirates often raided the island for tortoises, who could be both a supply of freshwater and a supply of food, since tortoises could be easily kept alive for an entire sea voyage.
The town of Puerto Ayora was small, with narrow streets and old buildings one and two stories tall. We passed through the town center, parking on a street parallel with a beach just beyond a forest of mangroves. The road took us up to Charles Darwin Station, where the island’s tortoise breeding program had successfully, over a period of decades, saved the remaining tortoise species that hadn’t already been hunted to extinction. Here were saddleback tortoises and land tortoises, spending their first five years safely behind rock walls in large compounds until they were of a suitable age to be released into the wild. Here was natural selection at its most obvious: every single species was unique to an island.
For the land tortoise with the rounded shell, eating grass and low-lying plants on Santa Cruz was easy. Not so on other islands, where the habitat could be much less hospitable. Saddleback tortoises could lift their necks up (imagine the shell shaped like a horse’s saddle) to reach leaves on plants growing much higher.
But on Espanola, wild goats (left by settlers long gone) had destroyed most of the lush environment, killing off nearly all of the native tortoises. Only a few females and three males remained by the 1960s. The males didn’t know how to mate, and things looked dire. The only hope was that somewhere, a zoo might have a male of the right species. It turned out San Diego had one, though how they originally acquired the reptile is a bit of a mystery. Regardless, Diego went on to sire hundreds of offspring … and made a point of showing the other surviving males how to get it done, too.