Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lonesome George is not gay, not that there's anything wrong with that! - Santa Cruz, Galapagos


Destination: Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Best of: Giant Tortoises in the wild - the gentle giants of the Galapagos who only exist in the wild here and an island off the coast of India

Worst of: Santa Cruz has the largest population of all the islands with over 20,000 inhabitants. Seems a little out of place and could be a much smaller town just to facilitate tourists.

*With the islands being so diverse, we decided to post each one separately. The Galapagos Islands will be an 8 part series. Here is Part 4.

Day 04: Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin Station/ Highlands

We arrived around 7pm into Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos at over 20K people. I had always pictured the Galapagos as devoid of human's with the exception of a research station and a few scientists. I thought that the only way to see the islands was by a cruise. Boy was I wrong. Of the eighteen principal islands, five are inhabited to some degree, with Santa Cruz making up nearly 2/3's of the total population. Puerto Ayora is the main tourist center with loads of shops, restaurants and hotels. The "original 8" (Dave and Diane from California, Pat and Margaret from Yorkshire, Allen and Sylvia from London and Tracy and I) on board the Beluga decided to head into town and have a drink. It was Dave and Diane's last night with us and the next day eight new people would be joining us (Mike and Jill and their kids Kate, Susie, and John as well as James all from the UK along with Wing and Helena from Canada).

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The next day we started off at the Charles Darwin Research station. The station was established to research and help the endangered species that exist on the islands breed and repopulate. It provides a good overview having a couple of each of the different types of species that exist on the islands, but it's main focus is on the Giant Tortoise.

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They have several pens dedicated to the different sub-species of Giant Tortoise. Each Island has a different sub-species that had adapted specifically to the environment in which it lived. On islands where the only vegetation is on trees, the shells allow more space for the neck to stretch up as well as the necks are longer to reach the branches of the trees. On the islands where the vegetation is plentiful on the ground, the shell comes closer to the neck to provide more protection. One of the aims of the station is to repopulate the islands back to pre-human numbers of tortoises living in the wild on the islands.

Here enters the story of Lonesome George (the big boy in the pool below), the most famous tortoise of them all. Back in the sailing and whaling days, tortoises were sought after because there were easy to catch and flipped upside down in the stores of the boat, they would survive for weeks without food or water providing fresh meat to the crew. Ships would stop at these islands, pick up mainly females, because they were smaller and easier to carry back to the ship, thus devastating the fragile populations. On Pinta Island this happened until there were none left...or so they thought. In a little place far far away known as the San Diego Zoo there lived a tortoise who went by George. When it was determined that George was the last remaining survivor from Pinta Island, he was brought to the station in the 1970's to begin an attempt to breed with similar female tortoises from a neighboring island. Over thirty years passed and despite all attempts by researchers and workers at the station, Lonesome George just would not having anything to do with the females. Some began to speculate that George was gay. Then, just a couple of years ago, George did a complete reversal and is now quite the ladies man chasing around the other females. Sadly, however, George is shooting blanks at the moment...but keep trying we have faith in you!

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The station has also rescued several tortoises from private homes were they were kept as pets and passed down from family to family. It is unknown exactly how long they live, but it is estimated that they can live for over 200 years.

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After the station, we took a quick stroll through town doing a little souvenir shopping. Tracy and I got suited up for diving (which we will recap in the last part) while the others grabbed a drink at a local pub.

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The afternoon was a visit to the Highlands of Santa Cruz. First stop were the massive twin sink holes that straddle the main road to Baltra. They were formed when a fault line collapsed. The Galapagos are also a geologists dream as well with all different types of lava (which is more prevalent in the upcoming islands) and different land formations. Not only did Darwin hypothesize the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest, but he also theorized that the earth was on plates that were constantly moving. One would think he spent years here, but he was merely a passenger on a ship and only spent about four months here. Certainly a scientist ahead of his time.

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One other geological wonder found on Santa Cruz are the lava tubes. When lava flows slowly, the outer edge cools while the interior part still flows. Once the flow stops, what is left are tubes that start out small and grow to the size you see below. This is the very end of the lava tube.


A trip to the Highlands would not be complete without witnessing the tortoises in the wild. While the island is populated on the southern coast, there is an agreement with the farmers not to bother the tortoises. The tortoises don't know where the national park ends and the farms begin. Most "farms" have turned into snack shops and charge admission to see the tortoises which is exactly where we went! Again, they don't seem bothered by humans too much, but they are a bit more on the shy side than some of the other animals.

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After our trip to the highlands, it was time to wave goodbye to Dave and Diane from California who were off to the jungles of Ecuador! Back on the Beluga we greeted our new sailing mates and headed off to Isabela!

To see more photos of Santa Cruz please click here!

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