Galapagos Islands

Visiting the Giant Tortoises

One afternoon we visited the lush green "highlands" of Santa Cruz Island, a miniature cloud forest with 40-foot banana trees, delicate ferns, and fragrant orchids.

Our destination was a private farm, almost 1,600 feet above sea level, that has become an informal sanctuary for giant tortoises. Perhaps 50 of them grazed in deep grass or rested in shallow ponds.

Four or five feet long, the larger males weigh more than 600 pounds. Living for more than 150 years, they exist only in the Galapagos.

They seemed unafraid, but as soon as one tired of company he would tuck his head deep into his shell and hiss. That's the only sound tortoises make and there's no mistaking its meaning. If hissing didn't achieve privacy, he would rise on surprisingly long legs and lumber off like a prehistoric tank, sublimely indifferent to minor obstacles.

Three centuries ago, a quarter million giant tortoises roamed these hillsides. Now, after ruthless attacks by pirates, whalers, and others, fewer than 15,000 survive. Human beings weigh far less than a tortoise but they've left a much deeper footprint in the Galapagos Islands.

Rounding Out the Day
A fine day might end by sharing a beach with dozens of sleek brown sea lions. They permitted us to sit cross-legged on the sand within a few feet of them as they carried on family life. Newcomers arrived as dark shadows in the shallow water, suddenly lurching out of the surf and across the sand.

Most of the sea lions lay in clusters, occasionally coughing and grunting, nearly dormant in the fading sun. Only if visitors carelessly blocked a sea lion's path to the ocean might one rare up on its flippers and roar its disapproval. The point was made—every time.

As we returned to the ship, trading stories about the excitement of the day, the orange sun might slide down a volcanic slope and dip into the ebony and silver sea. From below the horizon, the last rays of the sun would turn the rising moon to gold.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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