Day 6: Santa Cruz Island / Puerto Ayora
This is part of a series about our vacation to the Galápagos Islands. To see the first article in the series, click here.
August 11, 2010
Endeavour travelled all night in order to go from Fernandina around Isabela and back to the southern coast of Santa Cruz island near the center of the archipelago, a distance of about 110 miles. Two more crossings of the Equator, but no fanfare this time, especially since both were late at night. Today’s itinerary included the Charles Darwin Research Center, the city of Puerto Ayora, and other activities in the highlands north of Puerto Ayora.
A large focus of the Charles Darwin Research Center is repopulation of the native giant tortoise populations on several of the neighboring islands. We got to see a number of enclosures within which they maintained separate populations of tortoises from each island, growing them until they are of sufficient size that they are ready for return to their “home” islands. As with baby animals of all sorts, the baby tortoises were extremely cute. Each one has a number pointed onto its shell as well as an implanted RFID chip to identify them and their home island. We also got to see Diego, a famous tortoise from Española Island that had been at the San Diego Zoo. When the tortoise population on Española was near extinction, the remaining male tortoises on the island were not, um, doing their jobs and a call was put out to zoos for help. Diego helped reestablish the tortoise population on that island, and today nearly all of Española’s tortoise population is descended from Diego.
Santa Cruz Island, and the town of Puerto Ayora in particular, is a bit of a shock after several days of being on pristine, well-protected islands like Fernandina. The waterfront area of Puerto Ayora was quite touristy, with everything from inexpensive souvenir shops to expensive-looking art galleries. You begin to realize what the inevitable consequences of modern human habitation are: motor vehicles, restaurants, stores, and litter. While there wasn’t as much litter as we had seen in Guayaquil, the total amount of litter we saw the last few days consisted of a single cigarette pack that Kenna picked out of the water on one of our snorkeling trips.
The introduction of non-native species was also very evident here. As we traveled around the island, we saw banana and coffee trees, and were told that there were many avocado trees and coconut palms as well. Many cattle were seen grazing on elephant grass that was introduced to feed them, but the grass seems to have invaded everywhere. Blackbirds were introduced to rid the cattle of insects, but are now a problem as they have been observed eating the eggs of the native finches. Introduced blackberries block movement of the tortoises and are also extremely hard to control, since the birds eat the seeds and deposit them everywhere. The good news is that the birds that eat blackberries apparently don’t travel from island to island, so this problem hasn’t spread to the pristine islands.
After a short shopping break, we took a bus up the hill a few miles to a restaurant for lunch. Kenna, Celeste, and I had the driver let us out a couple of miles before we got there and walked the rest, giving us a better chance to see the countryside up close as well as a little extra exercise. After a great lunch, we headed out by bus for the Los Gemelos pit craters further up the hill.
The pit craters were striking by their abruptness, a sudden drop off with almost no warning (and fences only in certain places). They were surrounded by a forest of endemic Scalesia trees that supported a variety of bird species. Notable among the birds we saw was an albino ground finch.
We then proceeded to the property of a local farmer that sits in the middle of a tortoise migratory route. It was an unusual sight to see what looked like a typical field strewn randomly with giant tortoises. We saw somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen to 20 tortoises milling around and eating the vegetation.
On the way back to Puerto Ayora, we stopped off at a lava tube very similar to the walk-through tube in Volcanoes National Park. The Galapagos Islands, we are told, have many notable lava tubes such as this one.
This evening’s activities back on the Endeavour included a presentation from one of the scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station. After dinner, we had entertainment from a local musical group along with lively dancing. Celeste particularly got into the dancing, but they even managed to recruit me at one point to join in.
For more information on the day’s activities, see the Lindblad Expeditions Daily Expedition Report.