Day 3: Santa Cruz Island – Charles Darwin research station and the Highlands
We had another short sail at night from Santa Fe to Santa Cruz island. Santa Cruz has the largest town of all the inhabited Galapagos islands and is where all of the crew from our boat lived. It is also famously known for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises! Four of the other passengers left the boat that morning which meant there was only one other lady, Helen, apart from Dave and I. She had already done the tour on Santa Cruz Island so she went off on her own leaving Dave and I to have our own private tour for the day with Fabian, our guide!
We headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station which focuses on conservation by breeding and re-introducing Giant Tortoises back in to the wild. Giant tortoises are the largest terrestrial reptiles on earth weighing up to 250kg and are only found in two places in the world; the Galapagos and on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean (who knew that?! – we had to google it later – it’s a tiny island in the Seychelles). Only 10% of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise population remains due to pirates and whalers eating them in the 1700s and because of both introduced plants and animals that threatened the species. At the time we went in December 2017, the centre had 983 tortoises, ranging from babies all the way to 100 year old adults! The adults were ones that can’t be reintroduced in to the wild, perhaps because they had been kept as pets or in zoos previously. The majority of tortoises at the centre are young ones. Up to the age of 4, the tortoises are very vulnerable so they are kept until they are large enough to be safe out in the wild; they need to reach 23cm before they are released. One of the most interesting things we learnt was that tortoises don’t have X/Y chromosomes but rather you can determine the gender of the tortoise based on the temperature in which the egg is incubated! 28 degrees breeds males and 29.5 degrees breeds females! Since 1970, the Darwin station has released 5,456 tortoises on to the various Galapagos islands.
Up close, they were more fantastic than I could have ever imagined. They just looked so prehistoric and I still can’t get over their sheer size! We of course, went to see the world famous (now stuffed) tortoise called Lonesome George. He was the last remaining tortoise of his specie from the island in the north of the Galapagos archipelago called Pinta. His kind was previously declared extinct however he was discovered in the 1970s by locals. There was a great effort to find him a mate to breed with but alas, he was the last of his kind and he died in 2012. The other famous tortoise that we saw, alive this time, was Diego. He came from San Diego zoo in the US to save his species from extinction. He is over 100 years old and apparently has fathered an estimated 800 of the endangered tortoises from Española island. The research station was really educational and we even got our passports stamped there with the tortoise logo (obviously my favourite page in my passport now).
We had a bit of free time on Santa Cruz island before heading back to the boat for lunch. We wandered down the main street called Charles Darwin street and perused the many souvenir shops (I succumbed to a tea-towel with a map of the archipelago). We also stopped by the famous fish market where sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds and herons surround the fisherman in wait of a morsel! It was such a bizarre and comedic sight, I could have stayed and taken photographs there all day. It was my goal in Paracas, Peru to take a photograph of a pelican with it’s mouth open and I finally got one that I love! Lastly, we went to see the Santa Cruz Hollywood-style sign by the pier. Whilst we were there we spotted our first marine iguana actually swimming in the water! We were shocked by how quickly and effortlessly it moved, we almost had to jog along the pier to keep up with the pace to watch. On the pier, we also met Miguicho, an incredible man on a mission – who was also in a viral video. He turned his life around from being an alcoholic and a sailor who was shipwrecked for 77 days to someone who has collected over 822,500 cigarette butts! He turned some of them in to art sculptures to raise awareness about water contamination. He showed us videos of Galapagos albatrosses in particular who eat the ends. It made me even more thankful that I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (it’s been over 3 months now!) but also even more guilty for how much I owe the planet for any time that there wasn’t a bin and I stubbed out the cigarette on the floor.
We came back on board and had a private lunch for 2! Then we headed back out to Santa Cruz’s Highlands. We first went to Los Gemelos (the twins) which are two huge volcanic craters. On the walk around Los Gemelos is the Scalesia forest, apparently made famous by a David Attenborough documentary. There are 15 species of Scalesia endemic to the Galapagos islands; what is so interesting about this plant is that it is a type of dandelion that we have at home, however, here, it grows to be trees; some species even reach 15 metres! Unfortunately, it was quite misty and foggy, very common given the location at the very centre of the island and at higher altitude, so we couldn’t really see the full effect of the crater in too much detail.
Our last excursion of the day was to see the Santa Cruz Giant Tortoises in the wild! Technically, they are part of a farm, though they are free to roam wherever and to leave the area if they wanted to. It was even better seeing the tortoises here than it was in the Charles Darwin research station. It was just madness to see these enormous gentle giants just milling around. The best part was a small pond/water hole where there were FIFTEEN wild tortoises, we will treasure the photo of us together with that backdrop! Lastly in the farm/wild area, there are lava tunnels that you can walk through. Lava tunnels are formed by the outer skin of molten lava solidifying whilst the liquid magma continues to flow through. When the lava flow stopped, the molten lava inside kept going, eventually leaving behind a cavity of empty lava tubes. Very cool to say we’ve walked through a 60 metre lava tube.
As we waited by the pier for our zodiac, we saw a Galapagos shark swimming past! He was only about 60cm but still very cool! In the evening, a new batch of people arrived bringing our total up to 9. We were really surprised that it was such a young cohort; everyone was aged between 23-30. We had another small world moment when one of the new people was the twin of someone Dave played rugby with at university!
Thanks for reading and join us next time for day 4 of the Galapagos cruise!
Sophie & Dave