Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
The Poison Apple Tree
Santa Cruz Island does not have poison ivy or oak, but it does have the poison apple tree. It is also called manzanilla de la muerte which means “little apple of death.” It is quite poisonous.
And the Poison Apple
Charles Darwin Research Center
Overnight the Islander cruised to Santa Cruz Island, home of the Charles Darwin Research Center. We disembarked and took a bus from the port to the Darwin Center. The Center is working hard to restore the Galapagos to a pristine state. The Galapagos Islands were a stop over for whalers, fishermen, and sailors. Often they would drop livestock they carried for food aboard ship and replace them with tortoises. Tortoises could be stacked upside down and were easily managed aboard ship. They will live for months without water and were good eating. The goats and pigs that were left thrived. The goats eventually destroyed the highland forests (don’t think dense forests) and with them, the shade that the tortoises needed to survive. The tortoises population plumited.
An effort to eradicate the goats and pigs has been largely successful. Initially goats were shot from helicopters in large numbers. The surviving goats learned to avoid being spotted from the air. Enter the Judas Goats. These were nutered goats tagged with GPS trackers and released on the islands. Goats are social animals. When a Judas Goat hooked up with a goat herd, that herd was eradicated.
Today the upland forests and tortoises have returned. The Darwin Center has been trying to breed tortoises to replace the descimated population for years. One tortoise in particular was the spearhead of the effort, “Lonesome George”. Over the years he refused to mate with other females. Eventually George died. He is now at the American Museum of Natural History getting a make-over. He will be on display at the Darwin Center when he returns to the Galapagos.
Meanwhile, the Darwin Center found another male Tortoise to replace Lonesome George. Enter Super Diego, from the San Diego Zoo. Now Super Diego had not seen a female tortoise in over four years. He has done what Lonesome George failed to do. Together with two other male tortoises, Super Diego has sired over two thousand tortoises.
To maintain the biodiversity of the islands, the Darwin Center has researched tortoise DNA and found that their DNA differs island to island. The have been breeding tortoises with DNA as close to the original as they can and releasing tortoises on specific islands.
We met Super Diego and a number of other tortoises at the center and watched the captive tortoises being fed. They move very slowly, but when the food arrived (green leaves and succulent shoots), there was a race on to get to the food. At break-neck speed they raced to the food, at tortoise speeds of course.
The Feeding Frenzy
The Race is On
At the Finish Line
From the Center some of us chose to ride bicycles to a local coffee and cane liquor producer for some samples then off to a restaurant for some local food. I was dallying with Ellen at the center when Jeanne Curry (I think) asked if I was going on the bike ride. “Yes”, said I. She said, “You’ll have to run to catch the group. They left a while ago.”. So off I ran in the mid-day heat of the Galapagos to catch up. There was a breeze and the group wasn’t too far ahead, but it was a crazy thing to do. We met at “the Rock”, a bar known for it’s name prominently posted upside down atop the building. The bus ride to the bicycle staging area was uphill. We were told we would be bicycling over rolling hills for three miles to the coffee producer. “Ok, No Problem”. The trouble was, there were two downside “rolls” and that was it. Everything else was up hill. The 21 speed bicycles were in good condition, but that heat will drain the most avid cyclist. Toward the end I was asking myself, “why, why why did I do this” I know the answer….
We had some coffee and a shot of hooch as we relaxed in the shade. I bought a small bottle of 108% cane alcohol that sits at home for my more adventurous guests.
Checking the Alcohol Content of the Hooch
Barn Owl and Baby
Lunch at the restaurant was again in the shade and with a breeze. You would think that the Galapagos Islands would be oppressively hot being on the equator. Surprisingly, on our trip there was an comfortable breeze most afternoons and the humitidy did not feel that bad. Miami felt more humid to me. The sun is punishing. Without a good hat and heavy sun screen, we would have been fried.
Ellen and I had the chicken for lunch. It was different than our free range chicken. The meat was more dense. The flavor was what you would expect, “It tastes like chicken”. After breakfast we boarded busses again for a trip to a ranch to see tortoises in the wild. The ranch was a working rance raising cattle for market. We drove past cattle that were lean by US standards, turned up a dusty dirt road and arrived in a parking lot surrounded by a “forest” of stunted looking trees growing wide apart. The trees cast shade that was mostly filtered and with few hard shadows. There were the moving rocks, creatures from another age entirely. We roamed freely, staying three feet away from them. Get too close and a tortoise will withdraw inside its shell and my not come out for hours! We all avoided getting “too close”. I can imagine children actually sitting atop them in earlier times. Conservation, something is gained and something lost. As a society we are losing our innocense. But I run astray…
Tortoise Have Claws
The Tortoise and the Hare
In a Lava Tube
With the day coming to a close, we took busses back to town. Ellen and I chose to take free time in the town to just look around. The zodiacs would bring us back to the Islander on the hour with the last boat at 6 pm. We bumped into some of our group searching for a particular hat. Will had found a hat earlier in the day that everyone really liked. When he was hat shopping I was frantically running to catch the bike bus. So here we were, seven of us searching high and low for a reversable “I Love Boobies” hat. We missed the 5 pm zodiac on our search. Eventually, we settled on hats that were similar to Will’s, but no cigar. Will definately had the absolute best hat.
A Brown Pelican
We had a welcome dinner and slept soundly.
National Geographic, Lindblad Expedition Daily Report
Santa Cruz Island
Apr 13, 2016 – National Geographic Islander
We landed on the largest of the Galapagos Islands. We saw civilization from the ship and soon thought about a different Galapagos, the one where conservation now jumps into the main focus. We had a dry landing on the Pier of Puerto Ayora and continued on a bus ride toward the Tortoise Breeding Center of the Galapagos National Park. We encountered many specimen of Giant tortoises from a few different sources, some of them had a saddle shaped shells and others had domed shells. Some land iguanas were also spotted in captivity within this facility.
After an interesting visit and learning about all conservation efforts being done in the Galapagos to help restore the dynasty of the Giant tortoises, we spent some time along the waterfront of Santa Cruz Island. We soon got ready to go to the highlands of Santa Cruz, riding a bus for about a 25 minute ride. Some of us chose to go biking to our destination instead on a length of approximately 3 ½ miles.
At the highlands we stopped at a small family owned hacienda where there is a sugar can press and we had the opportunity to learn about the processing of brown raw sugar, sugar cane alcohol, and also the processing of how to make coffee from the moment they pick the beans from the plant until the process of roasting.
After lunch we visited a different area of the highlands where we encountered several giant tortoises around the greenery of the humid zone. Some of these tortoises were cooling off in a rainwater pond, while others were grazing off the ground and shading under trees.
An underground expedition was also done through a large lava tube. We entered the fascinating geological feature to learn about basaltic lava composition and its solidification processes.
After a great day, we returned to the National Geographic Islander to continue our expedition.