Giant Tortoises are unique to Galapagos. They were once very abundant, and ironically, are responsible for having given the Islands a place in history.
Early navigators somehow found out that a tortoise yields good and nutritious meat, and that it can survive a whole year without food or water. Tortoises then became the most valuable food item to keep on board of vessels –you did not need to take care of them and just stack them on deck accordingly.
These first navigators might have been pirates, and pirates were followed by whalers. Whalers took away from the Archipelago more than 100,000 tortoises, and when finding them began to get more and more difficult, they released animals not native to Galapagos which they could go hunting for -like goats and pigs. Goats, for example, were and are voracious herbivores which left nothing for a tortoise to eat. Thus, not only overhunted but also cornered by competition for food, their numbers began to dwindle -so much so that in the late 1950s, only about 15,000 Galapagos Giant Tortoises survived.
The joint efforts of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service have helped this figure to increase. A large restoration program was launched to recover populations, a program that implied eradication of invasive species, and breeding and rearing in captivity, and repatriation of the Giant Tortoises.
The Jacinto Gordillo Breeding and Rearing Center on San Cristobal Island was a good example of an infrastructure used as a conservation management tool. This morning we anchored in south-west San Cristobal Island to visit this breeding centre. It was exciting for me because I led a group and was able to share with the guests facts about the efforts, projects, and success of this program that aims to the restoration of the San Cristobal Giant Tortoise population.
So we went ashore at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the administrative capital of Galapagos, and rode on a bus from the west coast to the east coast, going through the humid highlands of San Cristobal to reach the Breeding Center. Here, amidst drizzle or “garua”, we saw several adults that belong to the intermediate morpho-type, but I believe that the highlight of the morning was to see the baby giant tortoises, ranging from months old to 5 years of age. They were all little darlings!
When we came back to town, we had about an hour to spare. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was quite picturesque, and its main feature was its sea lion colony. They were everywhere!
Our afternoon was delightful. We repositioned to Cerro Brujo, on the western coast of San Cristobal. This is a beautiful long sandy beach that hosts a large sea lion colony. We had time off here, so we walked along the shoreline, some went swimming off the beach, and others were looking for birds such as pelicans and shorebirds. The weather was on our side, and the gloomy, drizzly morning turned into a wonderful sunny afternoon.
There was some kayaking too, a very popular water activity among our guests. Cerro Brujo has stunning high, sheer cliffs made out of tuff-stone, a material that can be easily eroded by wind and water. Very impressive formations have been carved away at this site, making it an ideal place for kayaking.
Night time was fun because we had our Venetian Society Cocktail, so we could mingle around with the Captain, the officers, and the Expedition Staff. There were so many anecdotes to hear, so many more things to learn about.