Walking with Giant Tortoises in Galapagos

How much wildlife can you encounter on a single trip? If you’re visiting the Galapagos, the answer is a lot. In the span of a week, we had close encounters with land iguanas, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, great frigatebirds, sea lions, sea turtles, Galapagos penguins, and plenty of others. We also got to see a lot of giant tortoises, most of which were at the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz, but we also saw plenty in the wild at Urbina Bay.

galapagos giant tortoise
One of the smaller giant tortoises we saw at Urbina Bay

These endemic animals vary in shape and size depending on the island, with larger domed shells and shorter necks in highland regions and saddleback shells and longer necks in lowlands. Unfortunately, the population of Galapagos giant tortoises has declined significantly since the Spanish and Darwin visited — they were captured for food and blood, and their habitat was destroyed by settlers. Their greatest threat now, aside from climate change, is the invasive rat population. Fortunately, the Darwin Foundations efforts to breed and reintroduce the animals into the wild has helped increase the population since the 1970s.

saddleback tortoises
Saddleback tortoises have long necks

This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the Galapagos giant tortoise, but it was the first time in the wild. Some years ago, I stopped at the Cape May County Zoo, which has two of the animals. While seeing them in a zoo can be interesting (and that is a terrific zoo), it is not nearly as impressive as seeing them in their natural habitat.

darwin center tortoise
This tortoise at the Darwin Center looks a bit grumpy

The Darwin Research Center is home to the Galapagos giant tortoise breeding center, which has been operating since 1965. The walk through the breeding center is interesting as visitors can see a range of ages of giant tortoises before they’re sent into the wild — of course, most people are interested in seeing the youngest residents because baby animals are always the cutest.

baby tortoises
The baby tortoises at the Darwin Center, not even a year old

One of the stops on the tour through the Darwin Research Center is the taxidermied body of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise who was found in 1971 after the subspecies was thought to be extinct. Researchers sought to find a mate for the giant tortoise, and he successfully mated at the ripe young age of 98. Unfortunately, all the eggs laid that year and the next produced no baby tortoises. Lonesome George was approximately 102 years old when he died, which is not particularly old in giant tortoise years as the species can live over 170 years. On display at the research center, he is kept in a dark climate-controlled room with his long neck fully extended, and the lighting (or lack thereof) makes taking pictures challenging.

lonesome george galapagos
Lonesome George and his long neck at the Darwin Center

Prior to our visit to the Darwin Research Center, we took a slow walk around Urbina Bay on the western coast of Isabela Island to see the giant tortoises in the wild and catch up to a few colorful land iguanas. By slow walk, I mean it was over two hours to walk one mile.

galapagos giant tortoise
One of the larger tortoises we saw around Urbina Bay

Urbina Bay, at about the middle of Isabela below Alcedo Volcano, is home to a significant number of Galapagos tortoises — it didn’t take long before we had our first encounter. As with all our encounters, we were instructed to not approach the wildlife, though they could approach us. We moved as slowly as possible when near our giant friends — they got frightened easily and retreated into their shells when they felt movement nearby. In some instances, we couldn’t avoid walking past the tortoises as they were set in the middle of the path we had to stay on (we apologized as we walked by).

Urbina Bay Tortoise
One of the first giant tortoises we saw on the walk

Of course, it wasn’t all Galapagos giant tortoises around Urbina Bay. We saw a few land iguanas, which were unlike any I had seen before. This made our visit to Iguana Park in Guayaquil look unimpressive. The land iguanas of the Galapagos are big and bright — these are not those slender green iguanas most people are used to seeing.

galapagos land iguana
A land iguana eating a poison apple (only poisonous to humans, so it’s ok)

On the same day we visited the Darwin Center, we had lunch at Manzanillo, a ranch along the migratory route for the Galapagos giant tortoise. We were given rubber boots after our meal to wander the grounds and see more of the largest land creatures in the archipelago. The boots are necessary during some parts of the year as it can be muddy, plus there’s the danger of stepping in tortoise poop. I was, however, entertained by the choice of sculpture where everyone was putting on the boots.

tortoise sculpture
A welcoming sculpture while putting on boots

That choice of sculpture was a sign. We encountered the majestic Galapagos giant tortoises mating on the ranch grounds. And in case you haven’t bared witness to such a natural occurrence, they are loud (good thing they have no predators).

urbina bay tortoise
This one didn’t want to get out off the path

For the most part it was a leisurely walk through a semi-wooded area with plenty of mud to see these endemic creatures as they cooled off in the mud or shallow pools. What could be more relaxing than watching slow-moving reptiles living their lives at a such a pace?

muddy tortoises galapagos
Just cooling off in the mud

An added bonus to walking through an area full of large, slow animals, is that it provided opportunities to talk with other people on the Lindblad Expedition. Sure, I was able to talk with almost everyone during dinners, drinks, and other tours, but this was a slower atmosphere. And our smaller groups with the naturalists overlapped, giving us bigger groups to move among. We also weren’t specifically looking around for all the smaller species that inhabit the Galapagos — if we turned away for a minute, we weren’t going to miss anything with a 100-year-old tortoise enjoying a soak in a mud pool.

urbina bay tortoise

The slow movement and longevity of these wonderful animals is a reminder that maybe we should slow down a bit on our travels.

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