Galapagos: Santa Cruz

I didn’t get much sleep as the yacht was rocking quite a lot. The rocking motions kept me awake but surprisingly that I didn’t feel seasick at all. I heard something fall and rolled around on the floor of our cabin but I couldn’t be bothered to get up and see what it was.

Most of the passengers would be leaving today so the wake up call was at 6am. I felt a bit grumpy at the thought of waking up one hour earlier. Even though back home, this was the same time I woke up on a normal workday. I ate a lot for breakfast. Today could be the most I ate for breakfast on this trip. Hee, it’s good to get my appetite back again.

Today we would be spending the whole day at Santa Cruz. In the morning, we took a 45 mins bus ride up to the highlands. The air felt cooler and more damp. Quite different from the sunny coastal areas. We stopped at a nature reserve where all of us changed into rubber boots. The rubber boots were covered in dried mud and kept together in one area. There was no order and all the sizes were mixed up. We spent quite a while looking for the other half of our pair. I had no experience wearing these rubber boots that reached up to my knees and had a bit of difficulty putting them on. I think we spent too much time looking and putting on our boots because Hernan told us to hurry up and reminded us that we had a plane to catch.

Once everybody had their boots on, we walked out into the reserve to try and look for giant tortoises. The ground was squishy and muddy. Sometimes our feet would get stuck so we need to use a bit of strength to pull them out.

Santa Cruz highlands

We found two giant tortoises in this muddy patch. They had roamed out of the nature reserve and onto private land. But I think there was some kind of arrangement between the government and land owners so the tortoises were not chased away.

Giant tortoise

They were big. During the whole time we were there, they did not move from their spot. They seemed contented to just stay motionless for hours which makes them rather boring creatures to observe. One of them looked at us in a bored kind of way.

Giant tortoise

The other tortoise kept its head in its shell and refused to look at us.

Santa Cruz highlands

We moved into the forest to search for more giant tortoises. The ground was firmer and not so muddy although there were puddles of muddy water. Green moss hung from the trees like hair. We were not able to find more giant tortoises so we went back. At the entrance, there were displays of the empty shells of giant tortoises that had died. An adult human was able to crawl into the tortoise shell quite comfortably. Some of the younger people tried. They crawled into the shell and then tried to lift it and walked on all fours. The shell was heavy so most people only managed a few steps. Hernan said that the shells were made of keratin which was the same material found in our fingernails. He also told all of us never knock a tortoise on its shell as the shell is connected to its backbone. So knocking on its shell would hurt the tortoise.

There was also a souvenir shop and most of us bought something from it. I bought three t-shirts; one for my brother and two for me. I wanted to buy more but the t-shirts cost around USD 15-20 each. I don’t think the price is cheap but I really wanted something about the Galapagos. Anyway, this place did not charge any entrance fee so the only way they could earn money was by selling food, drinks and souvenirs. I felt that if the people were able to earn some money from this, they would be more motivated to keep a place for the giant tortoises to roam.

Lava tunnel

All of us got onto the bus and took a short bus ride to the entrance of a lava tunnel. We saw a Galapagos owl sleeping inside the tunnel, just a few steps from the entrance, but it was too dark to take any photos. The tunnel was dimly lit with a row of lights. It was much bigger and wider than I had expected. Hernan said that this tunnel was 200m long. It could be much longer but the roof had collapsed at the 200m mark.

After visiting the lava tunnel, we said goodbye to the rest of the passengers. Hernan arranged for a car to bring KKH and I to the town while he would bring the rest of the passengers to the airport.

Puerto Ayora

KKH and I walked around the town, Puerto Ayora. This is the most populated town in the Galapagos islands.

Puerto Ayora

There were no tall buildings and most buildings were only two to three storeys tall. The roads were tiled, not paved with asphalt like in Singapore. They were also not very wide, at most two lanes but as there were very few cars, it was not a big problem. Maybe because it was a Sunday morning, most of the shops were not opened yet. We saw a lot of shops advertising cruises or diving trips to the Galapagos islands. There were also some hotels and restaurants in the town.

Puerto Ayora

There was a race in the morning. There were different age categories so different age groups would start at different times. The participants ranged from little children to adults.

Puerto Ayora

KKH and I spent most of our time walking along the seaside as we had little interest in shopping. There was little point in going to a cafe or restaurant as lunch would be provided on the yacht.

Marine iguana

Even at the jetties, there were still a lot of animals to see. There were marine iguanas basking in the sun. They were able to climb out of the water and up the rocky sides of the jetty with the help of their sharp claws.

Baby marine iguana

We also saw some baby marine iguanas.

Pelican

A pelican landed on the jetty. We thought it could be a juvenile because of the brown coloring. It remained wary of us and would fly away if we were too near for its liking. But it wasn’t too scared of us, as it would land just a few meters further away.

Puerto Ayora

A short distance away from the pelican, a sea lion was sleeping. A lot of people stood next to it and took photos but it did not seem to be bothered by the attention.

Sleeping sea lion

It ignored us and continued sleeping.

A dinghy was sent to pick us up around 11am. KKH and I lazed in the lounge chairs on the top deck and read our books. It was quiet and peaceful and both of us dozed off after a while. The new batch of passengers arrived after noon. Lunch was at 1:30pm after everybody had settled down and the new passengers were briefed on the rules. I noticed that some of the new batch of passengers did not go barefoot and wore slippers on the yacht. Once again, most of the passengers were from USA. A few of them spoke Spanish well and were able to converse with the crew in Spanish. There were three Australians who lived in Peru for the past three years so their Spanish was quite good too. A Japanese man was the only other Asian, besides KKH and I, on the yacht.

The new passengers quickly discovered the top deck and when I went up after lunch, all the lounge chairs were taken. Tsk.

Sea lion

When it was time to disembark for our afternoon hike at 3pm, we found a sea lion resting at the disembarking area. We had to use that area to board the dinghy so Hernan and some of the crew tried to get the sea lion to go away. It took a while as the sea lion was reluctant to leave. After complaining loudly, it went into the water and swam away.

Charles Darwin Research Station

We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in the afternoon. The bus ride to the station was shorter than the morning ride. The bus stopped some distance away from the research station and we proceeded on foot. Admission was free as it was included in the USD 100 park fee.

Giant tortoises at Charles Darwin Research Station

Hernan brought us to see the giant tortoises first. We found three of them motionless under the bush. We could enter the enclosure and go right up to them. Hernan said these tortoises were over 100 years old as their shells had become smooth. A baby tortoise had a shell with many wrinkles and folds so that the shell could expand when the tortoise grew bigger. The shell would be completely smooth when the tortoise reached 100 years.

Giant tortoise

Giant tortoises could live for 150 – 200 years. They moved so slowly and lived for so long that I felt that they must experienced time in a different way from us humans. Hernan asked us to look at their legs which he said were thick and powerful like elephant’s legs. The legs had to be strong to hold up the heavy shell. Hernan called them the 4-wheel drive of the animal kingdom.

Lonesome George

We visited Lonesome George which was the most famous of the giant tortoises. It was the only surviving member of the Pinta Island tortoise. Hernan told us that in the past, many tortoises were killed by the sailors for food. The tortoises could survived for a year without food and water so the early sailors captured and brought them on board to be slaughtered when they needed fresh meat. They killed so many that some species became extinct. The tortoises had few natural enemies on the islands. Man was always the main and most destructive predator.

Lonesome George

Lonesome George is a saddleback tortoise and his shell is different from the domed tortoises we saw earlier. The shape of his shell and long neck was because he had to feed on food which were higher off the ground. Hernan said Lonesome George is a young tortoise as he is only around 100 years old.

Giant tortoise

Lonesome George shared his enclosure with two female tortoises from Wolf Island in an effort to save the species. Genetically, they were the closest to Lonesome George and it was hoped that they would mate and reproduce. Although eggs had been laid twice, none of them hatched.

Baby tortoises

Next we visited the baby tortoises. The eggs were collected from the various islands and hatched at the research station. Each cage was labelled with the name of the island and the year they were collected. The baby tortoises were kept at the research station for two years before releasing them back into the wild. Hernan explained that it took two years for the tortoise shell to harden. In the meantime, the baby tortoises were kept in the research station so that they would not fall prey to the rats.

Baby tortoises

This batch from Pinzón Island were hatched in 2009 and would be released back into the wild soon.

Baby tortoises

At first glance, there did not seem to be any tortoises in the cage for Española Island.

Baby tortoises

On closer inspection, I discovered that they were all hiding under the rock. So cute. Obviously they were aware of our presence and went into hiding for their safety.

Besides the giant tortoises, the research station also had one or two land iguanas. After showing us all the facilities, Hernan told us that we were free to roam around the research station and the town. As there was only one way out to the town, he told us do not even pretend to get lost.

Finch

KKH and I stayed at the research station for a while longer and saw one of Darwin’s finches. The curve of its beak made it look grumpy.

Galapagos mockingbird

We also saw a Galapagos mockingbird which landed quite close to us.

KKH and I dropped by the souvenir shop before we went into town. I bought a t-shirt with the Charles Darwin Research Station logo on it. We exited out into the other side of Puerto Ayora. We did not walk to this area when we visited the town in the morning. There were a lot of souvenir shops in the area. KKH and I took our time to visit most of them. There were also some expensive-looking art galleries but we did not go into them.

Back on the yacht, we had a welcome cocktail for the new passengers before dinner. This time the cocktail was a creamy, minty drink that was called Grasshopper. It was very nice. I only had grasshopper once before and it didn’t taste great then. I wondered if it was because the previous bartender was lousy or my taste buds had changed. KKH and I sat opposite a couple from Portland. The wife liked the cocktail so much that she wondered if she should keep it for dessert. I was able to eat my normal amount for dinner, yeah!

At night, I saw pelicans fishing again near the yacht. I could also see stars in the sky which got me quite excited. Back in Singapore, I can’t see the stars as Singapore is too bright. When I commented to KKH that there were a lot of stars tonight, KKH glanced up and said, “You consider this many stars?” I forgot that KKH had been to more exotic places than me so my comment was like the frog in the well. I looked at the twinkling stars and remembered reading somewhere that the stars don’t twinkle, it’s our atmosphere that made them seemed to twinkle. Then I chuckled because it was such an unromantic thought.

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