"" Writer's Wanderings: Galapagos Journal - Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora

There are about 30,000 people who live on the Galapagos Islands. Most of those live on Santa Cruz and the majority of those residents live in Puerto Ayora. This island had been colonized before 1959 when the Ecuadorian government declared all the islands a national park. That same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was founded to promote scientific research and ensure the conservation of the Galapagos. In 1992, the waters surrounding the Galapagos were made a marine reserve.

The problem with people living on any of the islands is that they make gardens, plant flowers and trees and bushes not native to the area, and eat things that may have seeds that would be discarded and picked up by birds, washed away in the rain, or otherwise transported to the other islands that the park tries to keep pristine and true to its natural habitat. The only way they can combat the intrusion of foreign plants is to pull them out by hand when they are discovered growing in the park.

Just on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora is the Charles Darwin Station for Giant Tortoise Breeding. The zodiacs deposited us on a pier in town and buses took us to the Station about a five minute ride away. Jorge led us through the Station pointing out the various stages of growth of the most recently hatched tortoises.

The Charles Darwin Station was established in 1964 and is a part of the Charles Darwin Foundation which was set up in 1959 to help conserve the ecosystem and natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands. It began its tortoise program in 1965, just a year before the government of Ecuador declared the area a national park.

In the 1960s, the tortoise population of Espanola Island came so close to extinction that all the remaining tortoises-12 females and 2 males- were brought to the park and station headquarters for protection and breeding. The adult tortoises breed, nest and are cared for in captivity. The first successful hatching occurred in 1970-71. As with the other races (they breed several different kinds of tortoise), the young are reared to three to five years of age and then repatriated.

Unfortunately the Floreana subspecies is extinct and now with the passing of Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise, his subspecies has also disappeared. In 1977, the return of Diego, an Espanola tortoise from the San Diego Zoo, helped to repopulate the Espanola subspecies. Originally there were 13 Espanola tortoises taken back in the 1930s for the zoo and Diego was the last one left of that group.

Diego is not the top guy at the station at what they estimate to be 130 years of age and is still dedicated to the survival of his species. He wasn't out and about yet when we arrived. Probably sleeping in. We could see what Jorge said was his shell way back under the trees but it was impossible to get a picture.

Espanola tortoises -1 male with 5 females and 2 males with 7 females- are permanently housed in two corrals, each with several nesting areas. The tortoises breed before and during the nesting season from June to December. During the nesting season, the corrals are checked daily for nesting activity. A female tortoise builds her nest with her hind legs, forming a hole about 35-40 cm deep and 10-15 cm wide, slighter wider at the bottom. The eggs are lowered on strings of thick mucus, which provide a soft landing. The mother buries the eggs and delicately pats down the soil with the underside of her shell and her feet. The morning after the eggs are laid, one of the park wardens will carefully remove them and transfer them to the incubator.

When we had been through all the displays including some that feature iguanas, we opted to walk back through town to the pier. It was still early in the morning for the town folks but some were out waiting for the tide to come in and release their boats from the muck. One family looked like they wanted to get an earlier start and were trying to dislodge their skiff from the mud it was stuck in. The kids were having a great time of it.

We sat for a time near the fishing pier and watched a pelican try to down his over sized breakfast. Under one of the boats that was stuck in the mud of the low tide, a marine iguana munched on the algae that hung from the bottom.

A cool breeze from the sea refreshed us after a very warm walk through the Station and the town. Slowly storefronts began to raise their metal doors and merchants swept their steps and sidewalks as they prepared for another day of business. The time on the islands was an hour behind the time in Quito and the ship. Our cruise director, Bitinia, had told us on our first day that the ship would stay with Quito time to allow us a little extra daylight for exploring.

We weren’t interested in shopping so we meandered on down to the pier to catch the first of the zodiacs back to the ship. It was entertaining to watch the interaction or even the non-action of the sea lions and the people coming and going from the main pier. There were quite a few water taxis in the bay and they were picking up and dropping off. As people walked up the gangways or landing areas, they had to step around or in some cases, over sea lions.

One sea lion, not unlike a dog who is disturbed, threatened to nip one fellow’s leg as he stepped too closely between one sea lion and another. Earlier in the week, one of our fellow passengers had been nipped in the leg while snorkeling. Apparently the sea lion felt threatened as the snorkeler tried to get closer for a better picture. No real damage done though. It was more of a warning.

For some reason there were large swells all day long in the Puerto Ayora bay where our ship was anchored. It rolled back and forth testing the worthiness of our sea legs. While I was a bit worn out from the heat, I knew I didn’t want to spend the afternoon on the rolling ship either. I had to decide what to do about the afternoon excursion to the area where there were tortoises out roaming over some farmland. It would turn out to

be an easy decision.

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