Santa Cruz Island

Apr 20, 2018 - National Geographic Islander


As soon as I opened the door to the outside, I could feel and smell the warm air coming from shore. The town of Puerto Ayora was off our stern, we were at anchor, and civilization was in view. A mixed sort of excitement; access to other species of giant tortoise we couldn’t see otherwise, shops and movement, but…civilization. Not everyone was ready for it.

But ashore we went, and at the giant tortoise rearing center operated by the Galapagos National Park, “Superstud” Diego was living up to his name and doing his best to produce even more youngsters, destined for release in a few short years. This tortoise, with a little help from the other two males, and with a lot of help from the twelve females of his population, have re-populated their island to the tune of over 2,000 – saving from extinction a unique, saddle-backed form of Galapagos giant tortoise. In fact, some of the offspring from the Espanola population are being released on islands that no longer have their original tortoise populations – exterminated through removal for food over the last two centuries by pirates and whalers. However without a major grazer, the ecosystems were getting out of balance, so tortoises have been brought back to bring everything back into line – and to live out a free and natural lifestyle at the same time.

After exploring the town, doing some obligatory shopping for stamps and presents for the unfortunate friends and family who couldn’t make it on the expedition, we rode buses into the slightly cooler highlands. I wasn’t too surprised really, when after offering the option of riding mountain bikes for a short 3-mile distance, I had a huge number of takers! Fantastic! So we visited the entrance to an impressive lava tunnel, then got helmets on and off they went! Rolling hills, occasional up-grades – and very sunny skies! But everyone made it, and we all re-united at the coffee farm for drinks, snacks (those sun-ripened bananas!), coffee, sugar cane juice…all spiking our appetites for lunch.

Finally lunch was delivered on an open-air veranda over-looking farmland that borders the Giant Tortoise Reserve, part of the Galapagos National Park. We were here specifically because the owner has allowed us access to his lands, and even provided rubber boots if necessary, to search for the Santa Cruz population of domed tortoises who wander over the line in search of greener pastures.

With our fill of giant tortoise in our hearts, minds and camera memory cards, back we drove into town, and eventually to return on board our home-away-from-home, the National Geographic Islander.

But the day wasn’t finished by a long shot! After dinner came on board a wonderfully talented musical group with a troupe of dancers!

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About the Author

Cindy Manning

Expedition Leader

Born in Lima, Peru, of North American parents, Cindy and her family subsequently lived in several South American and European countries with a couple stops in Peoria, Illinois. Cindy received a degree in biology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Afterwards, Cindy spent a year and a half teaching science in the Western Province of Kenya, East Africa. 

About the Photographer

José Guerrero

Naturalist

José Guerrero Vela is an Ecuadorian permanent resident of the Galápagos. His mother was born in the Galápagos and his grandfather was one of the first generation of teachers there, which has always inspired him to promote education as the main path to protect the islands.  

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