The tortoises really were amazing. It was so surreal to spot our first one just standing in a field as if it were a cow. I suppose that’s the niche they fill. No large mammals made it to the Galapagos, so the few reptiles that did evolved to fill that niche. We had some wonderful up close moments with these lumbering giants. It was great watching them eat, which they seem to do most of the time, and occasionally making the effort to put one foot in front of another. We even heard the sound of tortoise love from the woods and found a mating pair, he had even brought a bunch of flowers for the occasion!
We learnt a lot about how the different shell shapes suited the diet available on the different islands and how their populations had been decimated by the earlier visitors to the islands who used them as a source of fresh meat on long boat voyages before refrigeration. Apparently a large tortoise could survive in a ship’s hold for a year without food or water. The same adaptation that had allowed their ancestors to survive the long journey on a raft of logs that brought them to the Galapagos led to their near extinction. Not only were the tortoises and turtles of the islands a source of meat. The fats that could be extracted from their bodies were used as lamp oil before the discovery of oil fields in the United States of America.
The name Galapagos comes from the Spanish for the saddle shape that the shells of the tortoises from the drier islands have to allow them to reach leaves from shrubs and trees. We saw a wide range of shapes on the different islands, including the last remaining Galapagos tortoise from the island of Pinta, the world famous Lonesome George. George had been removed from Pinta in 1971 and taken to Santa Cruz. A reward of $10,000 was offered for a female from Pinta, but no females have ever been found. Attempts to breed Lonesome George with related species have failed. There have been numerous success stories with the populations of tortoises from other islands and we saw lots of young tortoises up to the age of 5. Then they can be released into the wild; when their shells are hard enough to resist all predators, native – the Galapagos Hawk, and introduced predators like feral pigs and dogs.
It was great to see the symbol of the Islands now in good health, with populations increasing. A sure sign that the projects and policies in place, as well as the management of the tourist industry are compatible with unique biodiversity of these special islands.