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Most trips to Galapagos stop at Santa Cruz Island (formerly called Indefatigable). Located west of San Cristobal, east of Isabela Island and southeast of Santiago, Isla Santa Cruz has the largest population in the Galapagos Islands.

Brown pelicans watch men clean fish in fish market.
Brown pelicans watch men clean fish in fish market.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During our Galapagos cruise, the M/Y Letty anchored in Academy Bay so we could visit Puerto Ayora (population 25,000). Most of the hotels in Santa Cruz are in Puerto Ayora.

The town also has restaurants, bars, shops, an Internet café and a fish market. When the fishermen clean their catch to sell to customers, brown pelicans patiently line up for the scraps.

Extinct species

The main attraction in Puerto Ayora is the Charles Darwin Research Station (Estación Cientifica Charles Darwin), which works with the Galapagos National Park Service.

Our Galapagos cruise guide, Cecibel Guerrero, explained that there were 14 subspecies of Galapagos tortoises that evolved from one common ancestor from the mainland. "Three subspecies are now extinct," she said. Pointing to a map of the Galapagos Islands, she identified the islands where 11 tortoise subspecies are found.

Darwin Research Station sign
Darwin Research Station sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1965, the Charles Darwin Research Station started its captive breeding program to help preserve endangered subspecies.

Ceci showed us a demonstration incubator where tortoise eggs are kept warm until they hatch.

"Higher temperatures in the incubator result in more female tortoises hatching," she said. "More males hatch with a lower temperature. Just remember, hot babes and cool dudes!"

Baby tortoises

"After the eggs hatch, staff put the hatchlings in a dark box until the yolk sac is absorbed," she explained. They then move to protected enclosures, where we saw one-year-old baby tortoises, about the length of our hands.

Tortoise egg incubation
Tortoise egg incubation
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

How do Darwin Research Station volunteers and employees know which baby tortoises come from which Galapagos Island? Tortoise identification is easy because a color-coded number is painted on the shell of each baby tortoise.

Ceci pointed out an Espanola Island tortoise baby with a blue number painted on its shell. "Santiago Island tortoises have yellow numbers. Santa Cruz tortoises are painted with red numbers and Pinzon Island tortoises have white numbers."

Baby Galapagos giant tortoise with blue number denoting Espanola Island origin
Baby Galapagos giant tortoise with blue number denoting Espanola Island origin
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When the baby tortoises are eight inches (20 centimeters) long, they are repatriated back to the Galapagos Island where the eggs were collected.

Lonesome George

For years, Lonesome George was the main attraction at the Charles Darwin Research Station. He was the last surviving Pinto Island tortoise subspecies (scientific name: Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni).

Lonesome George sign
Lonesome George sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1971, scientists found George on Pinto Island. They moved him to the Santa Cruz research station in 1972. All efforts to find other Pinto tortoises have been unsuccessful.

Lonesome George was a genetic bottleneck. He did not successfully mate with closely related tortoise subspecies.

When did Lonesome George die? On June 24, 2012. How old was he? "We estimate that he hatched around 1930," said Ceci Guerrero. Because the lifespan of Galapagos tortoises ranges up to 150 to 200 years, he was middle-aged.

Diego, a Galapagos giant tortoise with a saddle-shaped shell
Diego, a Galapagos giant tortoise with a saddle-shaped shell
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Saddleback Galapagos tortoise

Not so for Diego, a tortoise from Espanola Island who was sent to the Darwin Research Station because he was fighting with other tortoises at the San Diego Zoo.

This Casanova tortoise has fathered nearly 2,000 offspring. "He is the hero of all the male naturalists at the research station," said Ceci with a grin.

Charles Darwin bronze bust by Gabriel Navas Vinelli
Charles Darwin bronze bust
by Gabriel Navas Vinelli
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As we observed Diego's saddle-shaped shell, she explained that the word Galapagos comes from the Spanish word for saddle.

The peak in the saddle allows tortoises to raise their long necks to eat from high cacti, bushes and trees on drier islands.

Tortoises that live on wetter islands with lush vegetation have domed shells and shorter necks for grazing.

Which Galapagos Islands did Charles Darwin visit?

It takes less than a half hour to walk from the research station along Avenida Charles Darwin back into Puerto Ayora.

A bronze bust of Charles Darwin, by Gabriel Navas Vinelli (October 2011), presides over the avenue named after him.

Ironically, Charles Darwin did not land on Santa Cruz Island during his HMS Beagle cruise in 1835.

On his five-week trip to the Galapagos Islands, Darwin visited San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago.


Ecoventura: www.ecoventura.com

Copa Airlines: www.copaair.com

Ecuador Ministry of Tourism: www.ecuador.travel

More things to see & do in the Galapagos Islands:

Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock Galapagos Cruise Tour

Punta Espinoza Fernandina Island Galapagos - Flightless Cormorants and Lava Cacti

Darwin Bay Tower Island Galapagos - What to See

Santa Cruz Island Galapagos - Lava Tubes and Pit Craters

Galapagos Travel - Incentive Programs and Corporate Meetings