Today we visited Santa Cruz Island, arguably one of the most interesting visits of the week. Here we find the largest human settlement in the islands, as well as a big and healthy population of wild giant tortoises with over 5,000 individuals. Our first visit of the day was to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We had the chance to learn all about this iconic institution’s important conservation projects, like the work they are doing to counteract the damage of an invasive parasitic fly to Darwin’s finches. Above all, the most interesting project is the breeding of giant tortoises to recuperate the population after their decimation by whalers in the 1800s. We got to see less than one year old babies and their reproductive adults, as well as hybrids between the different islands and the taxidermized body of Lonesome George. After this very interesting morning, we roamed around Charles Darwin Avenue. We saw a little bit of the local life, like the fish market where sea lions and pelicans wait for leftovers.
For the rest of the day, our destination was the highlands of Santa Cruz, which are around 2,000 feet high. Thanks to the predominance of the south trade winds and the topography of the island, there is a tremendous variability in vegetation and climate. First, we went to a local farm to meet Don Adriano, a charismatic character who showed us how coffee, sugar, and moonshine were produced in the islands before roads were even built! It was entertaining to learn about the artisanal and simple ways to make the products. It was also delicious since we got to try all of them! Lunch was served on a tortoise ranch. You may be asking yourself, “What is a tortoise ranch?” Well, before this was a national park, many people settled in the highlands, where there was fresh water and a more productive soil. For these same reasons, giant tortoises are found here. Now that tourism is a way of living on the islands, the owners of some of the farms let visitors in to get a close look at these gentle giants. After a delicious meal, we put on rubber boots to walk around, take pictures, and learn about the natural history with our naturalist guides. What a surreal experience it is to be surrounded by these famous, giant reptiles.
By sunset, we were back on the ship to share our recap session and cocktail hour. We can only say that this was another extraordinary day in the Galapagos Archipelago.