San Cristobal Island: Giant Tortoises & Shopping
Today we would be going to the highlands of San Cristobal Island to visit La Galápaguera de
Cerro Colorado, a new interpretive center set up to reintroduce the
giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus)
to the south end of
the island. The center is located on protected land where the giant tortoises had once thrived. The government brought giant
tortoises from the north end of the island and set up a small breeding center to bring the population back to the area that had
once been natural habitat for these giant reptiles.
In order to get to the highlands we had to panga to the dock at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and catch a bus. The bay at Puerto
Baquerizo Moreno had plenty of boats similar to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, however, they seemed to be newer and in better
condition emitting less diesel fumes. The town itself appeared to be cleaner as well, probably due to a lower population and less
traffic than Puerto Ayora.
We traveled out of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno along a two lane highway, the only route out of the town, to the dry forest where La
Galápaguera de Cerro Colorado was located. At the entrance to the interpretive center there was a large garden showcasing many of
the Galápagos's native plants and trees including
opuntia cacti (Opuntia echios)
and several types of hibiscus with large, colorful flowers. The interpretive center itself was small and humble in appearance.
Inside the quaint wooden structure were the incubators where the tortoise eggs were brought to be hatched. The incubator was
about a meter (3 ft) wide and about four meters (13 ft) long covered in chicken wire. After hatching the young tortoises were kept
inside until they were strong enough to be transferred to a cage outside the building. There were several hatchlings still in the
incubator at the time of our visit. Inside the wired cage was a little pool of water surrounded by natural volcanic rocks to help
the little tortoises get acquainted with the natural habitat outside the facility.
On the last day of activities I was finally getting to see the symbolic animal of the islands for the first time, even though
they were only babies and not the giants I was anxious to see. But, we were told that we would see the giants once we left the
interpretive center and walked the trails around the facility. The trails leading away from the center were dirt paths lined with
black volcanic rocks and surrounded by the foreign looking dry forest.
The landscape was thick with trees and shrubs growing amongst large volcanic boulders strewn about. Some of the plants were
green with leaves while others were barren and ghostly with lichens growing along branches and hanging like thick spider webs.
Along the way some of the bushes had small colorful flowers that stood out against the mostly black/gray background, including the
gray of the overcast skies. But even with the many barren plants residing along the path, I could not see too far into the forest
because of its thickness of vegetation.
After having missed the giant tortoises at the Darwin Foundation I was worried I would not see one while on this trip. But as I
rounded a corner on the path, my fear was suddenly unfounded. I saw a giant tortoise through the underbrush with his head
stretched high observing the humans coming his way. Continuing along the trail a few more meters the brush had been cleared in an
area where two of the giants were feeding on plant stalks that had apparently been cut by the caretakers and given them.
My excitement level was high and I was snapping photos of these majestic creatures so happy to finally see them in their natural
setting. Looking at them closely through my camera lens it was very evident that these gentle giants had been the model for the
design of Stephen Spielberg's E.T., the faces staring back at me made the perfect resemblance. Luckily, I decided to stay a few
minutes and watch the creatures eat. It was good that I did because I got to see something I probably would not have otherwise.
The tortoise furthest from me was alternating his head between taking a bite of food to turning to watch the other that was
closest to me. The turtle nearest me was only watching his counterpart. Suddenly the tortoise closest to me began moving towards
the other tortoise who stuck his head out in the direction of the approaching animal. I was surprised to see how fast these
tortoises moved, albeit much slower than other animals, they were not moving at a snail's pace.
When the aggressive tortoise got within a meter of the passive tortoise, the passive fellow withdrew his head into his shell.
The aggressive one was charging with his mouth open and neck stretched almost touching the passive tortoise before withdrawing his
own head into his shell and ramming his foe with all of his momentum. Not wanting to fight back the passive tortoise came out of
his shell and started moving away giving up his position with the cut stalks. The aggressive tortoise then began to pursue his foe
chasing him away from the area.
The giant tortoises are known to engage in mock fighting during the mating season to win mates. But I had not read anything
that described them to be territorial or aggressive like I had just witnessed. However, when food is in the equation just like
other animals the dominant will act to secure the resource.
There were 14 subspecies of the giant tortoise in the Galápagos Islands before man arrived four centuries earlier and presented
them with their first predator. In the days of pirates the tortoises were taken on board ships as a source of food because they
could go without food and water for long periods of time providing the crewman with fresh meat on long voyages. Today, the
tortoises are protected from human predation, but the feral animals brought by man such as rats, goats and dogs continue to
threaten the survival of this species.
Now, the islands have eleven subspecies remaining, but Lonesome George, a tortoise kept at the Darwin Station, is the only
remaining individual from his subspecies to survive. The other surviving subspecies have been protected and since the 1960s have
been nurtured by scientists and reintroduced to islands such as Española where the population has made a dramatic comeback. Some
of the protections given by the scientists involve collecting eggs from the various islands where they are taken to the Darwin
Station and raised for four years and then returned to their natural habitat. Other methods to save these rare animals involve
the eradication of feral animals from the islands as they did with rats on Pinzón Island in 1989, preventing them from digging up
the tortoise eggs.
In general, the subspecies of the giant tortoise developed independently in isolation on the various islands where they were
found. However, the large island of Isabela has five distinct subspecies and the largest surviving populations of the
archipelago. Each volcanic caldera on Isabela has its own subspecies of these giant tortoises, separated by hard to traverse areas
in the lower altitudes allowing for the sub-speciation to take place.
One of the most interesting adaptations that have occurred in these subspecies is the difference in carapaces, or shells of the
animals. Most of the giant tortoises prefer to live in the more vegetated highlands and have dome-shaped carapaces. However, the
subspecies on Española have saddleback carapaces.
The saddleback variety came about from an adaptation to the opuntia cactus on the island that grows tall like a tree rather than
growing close to the ground like on other islands. In order for the tortoise to reach its favored food source it adapted with a
shell that was high in front and a long neck and legs that allowed it to raise its head much higher. This adaptation is even more
interesting when one considers that the opuntia cactus probably evolved to its taller growth as a likely response to survive the
predation of the once dome-shaped carapaces of the tortoise.
When the sparring ended from the two tortoises I was watching I continued along the trail hoping to see some saddleback
tortoises, but only the dome-shaped were in the area. But I did come to a wading pool that probably had been built by the human
caretakers that had five of the gentle giants soaking in its water. When they are not eating this species likes to spend its day
soaking in shallow pools like this one. In the pool were five individuals, three males and two significantly smaller females. All
of them had numbers painted in white on the rear of their shells for identification.
As I followed the path I saw a few more of the tortoises wandering through the brush. Strangely enough, these were the only
animals I sighted in the preserve area. I did not even see any finches or other ground birds, nor did I hear their singing. I was
very satisfied to have seen the tortoises though and now that I had it was time to board the bus and go back to Puerto Baquerizo
Moreno for lunch and a little shopping.
Shopping in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Upon our arrival back into the port city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno we were informed we
would have an hour-and-a-half to spend in the city before going back to the Letty. This would allow us enough time to grab a bite
and do some souvenir shopping. As we disembarked from the bus the group split up going their separate ways to explore the town.
My first stop was a quaint bar and grill of sorts. The establishment was not busy so just the ones I went with were the only
patrons. We decided to go up the spiral staircase to the second level terrace that was open and looked out across the bay. From
that vantage point we could see the entire dock and a good deal of the city, not to mention the Letty floating out in the bay.
On the second floor I settled into a chair facing the bay and ordered a Coke while I took in the scene. Some of the others
ordered appetizers for a snack as we sat and chatted about the experience in the Galápagos. When the food came out a
yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia)
flew in likely in search of a handout or some crumbs that might be left. It was obvious that this
bird had learned to forage on the scraps left by human inhabitants, probably getting its fill without having to forage in the
I missed the day in Puerto Ayora due to getting seasick, but today I would be able to stroll around the town and see what life
was like living in the archipelago. After finishing my refreshment I started walking down the main avenue peering into the shops.
There wasn't much traffic on the streets this day and some of the shops weren't open probably for that very reason. However, some
shops were open and willing to make a deal to get a sale.
I had not been planning on buying many souvenirs if any at all. But, being an American consumer I would find it hard to resist
once I started looking at the merchandise. The first shop I stopped at had some interesting t-shirt designs, but I felt they were
too expensive and figured I would keep looking before making any purchase.
I walked down the street doing more window shopping looking for anything that might be of interest. I usually buy fridge
magnets of the places I visit, so I was definitely looking for them. I found some in a little shop that mostly displayed various
trinkets and a few t-shirts. I bought two flat magnets, one with a penguin and the other with a marine iguana in the forefront
over the islands themselves. I also bought figurine magnets of the giant tortoise and a marine iguana.
I went into a couple of other shops but I didn't purchase anything. I was thinking I might get away without spending too much
money. But then, I saw most of the group in a store that had a lot of t-shirts to choose from. I decided to go inside and see the
others and what they were buying. Then my consumerism kicked in and I was going through the t-shirts thinking of all the people
back home I should buy one for.
Ultimately, I ended up buying 15 t-shirts and two baseball caps. It was like I wanted to buy a t-shirt of each and every animal
on the islands! But, when I was at the register the cashier, and probably the owner, was happy to sell me so many shirts. She
gave me a discount of 10% off the already good deal of three for $10 and threw in a dive flag with a hammerhead shark on it. At
this point I had all the bags I could carry, so my shopping was over. Our time was expiring as well, so all of us starting making
our way back to the dock to catch the pangas back to the Letty. The next activity on the list was our final snorkel just up the
shoreline at Playa Ochoa.
The final Snorkel at Playa Ochoa
Just off the coast the Letty set anchor and we boarded the pangas for a wet landing on
Playa Ochoa (Ochoa Beach). This was another white sand beach tucked away on San Cristobal Island. We would be snorkeling for our
last time and I was hopeful my luck with underwater photography would change and that I would snap some good shots. I double
checked my underwater casing for my Canon Powershot making sure the rubber gasket was clean and oiled and that I put ample
defogging liquid on the area protecting the lens to prevent fogging.
It was a good thing I took the extra precautions because the snorkel we were about to do would turn out to be the one with the
most marine life, possibly due to the shallow waters off the beach offering rocky habitat for the sea creatures. This area
contained many of the same animals we had seen in other snorkels, but it seemed to have a higher concentration of them. That
being said, there were some new species of fish and a new black sea urchin,
crowned sea urchin (Centrostephanus coronatus),
thatI had not seen on the other snorkels.
Some of the recurring species I saw on this snorkel and the previous ones included a
pencil urchin (Eucidaris thouarsii),
Galápagos green sea urchin (Lytechinus semituberculatus),
Mexican anemone (Bunodactis mexicana),
Mexican hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia),
large-banded blenny (Ophioblennius steindachneri)
king angelfish (Holacanthus passer).
In addition, there were schools of
razor surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius)
sardines (Sardinops sagax).
Some of the new species I saw on the snorkel included a blenny with vertical stripes called
bravo clinid (Labrisomus dendriticus)
lying on the bottom and a very colorful fish known as the
Cortez rainbow wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum)
swimming around the Mexican anemones. I also saw a
giant hawkfish (Cirrhitus rivulatus)
lying on the bottom, a striking fish with fluorescent blue circular lines all over its body.
There were several schools of small fishes, some silver and some red that I have not been able to identify. In addition, there
was a tiger-striped damsel fish of some sort. Finally, there were some species of seaweed growing from the sandy bottoms and on
The area by the beach was mostly rocky under the water, but as I swam towards the beach the sand became the dominate feature.
The sand made dunes much like a desert, but these were formed from the waves rather than from wind.
The sea lions made a big presence on the beach and in the surrounding waters. There were sea lions playing and rolling in the
water, but not foraging it appeared. I think they were simply checking up on the humans to satisfy their curiosity. At one point
I swam right up to the beach and started to surface with my knees on the sandy bottom when a male sea lion started charging me. My
companions on the beach were yelling at me to move out of the way. I was slow to respond not knowing what was happening, but I was
able to get out of the way and avoid being injured by the animal.
After the sea lion incident I went back out into the water for a final snorkel experience before retiring. On this little
adventure I ran into a
green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizii).
I watched the giant reptile fly through the water flapping his flippers and diving down on occasion to scrape some algae off the rocks with
his sharp beak.
I continued to follow the turtle for about 15 minutes snapping shots along the way. At one point I got too close to him to take
a close-up of his face. However, he did not seem to appreciate me being that close and let out a deep grunt. I took that as a
sign to back off and took the rest of my photos from a greater distance.
Completing the last snorkel was somewhat of a let down because it was over. But all good things must come to and end. So, I
made my way back to the beach and waited with the others to be taken back to the Letty.
León Dormido (Sleeping Lion, a.k.a. Kicker's Rock) at Sunset
To finish the last full day of activities we would take a cruise along the shoreline of San
Cristobal and then circle León Dormido (Kicker's Rock). As we left the beach we could see Kicker's Rock in the distance, but it
took an hour to get to it. I snapped shots along the way, but got the best ones when we were right upon it.
Kicker's Rock is an old and dormant volcanic tuff, split where the lava once flowed up to the surface creating what appear to be
two large rocks jutting out of the ocean. The larger side of the tuff slopes down and away towards the sea and is much larger than
the jagged spire shaped smaller rock. Although the cathedral tuff is not large in comparison to the islands, I saw
Nazca boobies (Sula granti)
great frigatebirds (Fregata minor)
on the top surface where they had made their nests. Mike T. had gone scuba diving around the rock earlier and
said there were hammerheads down below.
As we rode around the entire perimeter of Kicker's Rock it was interesting to watch it change shapes and colors in the warm
glows of the fading sun. On the north side of the rock it appeared more white than on the sunny side that had an orange glow to
it. The formation also had tunnels underneath the larger tuff where I could see along the water's surface to the opposite side.
The western side of the rock had a wider surface than I would have thought seeing it from the other angles, looking more like the
side of a volcano where the lava flows.
The sun was going down as we completed our circle around Kicker's Rock. It was great to see the orange ball of fire fade away
far across the sea as it fell behind the horizon. I took some final shots directly into the sun, even though the camera
manufacturer suggests not doing so. But the photos turned out great with the light of the sun making a path towards me in the
slightly rippling waves of the water.
After the sun disappeared we all went to the dining room to have our final dinner, of which I thought tasted a little stale.
But we had been on the move for seven days without restocking supplies. At least it was a vegetarian meal, because a meal with
meat may have been even worse on the taste buds. Overall, the food was excellent, barring the final meal of the trip.
After dinner the crew gathered to thank us for coming and to collect their tips. Dr. Church had told us to plan ahead and bring
around 10-15% of the cost for a tip. Of course most of the people in the group were poor college students so some did not have the
extra funds. However, between me, my roommate Bob, Dr. Seville and Dr. Church we collected enough money to make a good tip to our
very attentive crew. In the end it all worked out.