March 31, 2010 – At Sea, 02º 10’N, 088º 46’W
By Herb McCormick
You don’t come to the Galapagos Islands without making a pilgrimage to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayoro on Isla Santa Cruz and having a good, hard look at the gargantuan tortoises. Heck, it’s how the place – “galapagos” means “giant turtles” – got its name. So the other morning, on a searing day in the archipelago, I rented a bike, peddled up to the station, wandered down a path of crushed lava rocks, slipped through a gate, got down on my haunches, and looked one old, leathery fella square in the eye.
Even I can tell a saddleback turtle when I’m placed directly in front of one – they’re the kind with the notched, saddle-shaped shell and the long neck and legs – and this dude was a beauty. With his bald pate, piercing peepers and reptilian hide, he looked like a cross between the crazy uncle on The Addams Family and something out of a bad horror movie. He probably had at least fifty years on me, which put his age well into three figures, but I felt like I’d found a peer. I moved my head a little to the right, and so did he. I cocked it the other way and he followed my lead. There’s no question about it: We were simpatico. After nearly ten months aboard Ocean Watch, I finally found someone who really, totally accepted me…yes, me…just the way I am.
Today on Ocean Watch, the crew continued their voyage onward towards Costa Rica, having put yet another milestone behind them. In the last 24-hours, the 64-foot cutter re-crossed the equator and returned to the Northern Hemisphere. Skipper Mark Schrader summarized the situation in his personal log:
“I love putting the ‘N’ notation after the latitude; it has been a very long time coming. This is the 304th day of the Around the Americas voyage, the log registers 22,850 miles sailed, and the last time Ocean Watch saw north latitude was just before crossing the equator going the other way on November 11th, some 9,596 nautical miles ago. The temperature that day was 81°F; the temperature today is exactly the same.”
The skipper went on to note that two “lowly Pollywogs” who had never crossed the equator – new crew Bryce Seidl and Dan Clark – would be initiated into the order of Shellbacks before the day was through: more on that tomorrow.
Back in the Galapagos Islands, the most famous of all the giant tortoises is known as Lonesome George, perhaps the most stubborn bachelor in the long and storied annals of wifeless chaps. Now nearing his 150th birthday, the “Georgester” has yet to find a mate, and he’s seen his share of hard-backed lasses. This, my friends, is one choosy guy.
That said, if one looks back at the history of Galapagos tortoises, he’s probably lucky to be around.
In his wonderful chronicle of the fall and rise of the isle’s turtles, Restoring the Tortoise Dynasty: The Decline and Recovery of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise, author Godfrey Merlen takes us back through the centuries before the arrival of men and ships, when “the archipelago remained a lost world where reptiles had become a dominant feature in the wild volcanic landscape.”
Merlen continues: “Above all, there was nothing to compare with the giant tortoises. Nothing could startle the eye nor catch the imagination more than the sight of thousands of these monstrous reptiles grazing in the pastures of the volcanoes. Their dark, almost black bodies moved hither and thither, reflecting the sun like water or glistening when wetted by the mists which swept through the orchid and moss-laden trees. Their colonization of the islands had been extremely successful.
“They not only succeeded in establishing themselves on dry, low islands, but on high, moist ones as well. Tough as the land they lived upon, their scaly feet withstood the harsh, rocky ground. Strong, curved, knife-like mouths allowed them to feed upon the spiny cactus and acacias when all other vegetation was dry and leafless through the lack of rain. Above all, their slow metabolic rate permitted them to beat the droughts which periodically smote the archipelago. Living at a low ebb in the shade of caves and rocky crevices, they remained like stones through months of blasting heat, when the soil turned to dust. When the rains finally came, the great animals eased out of their slumbers and rocky recesses and lumbered off to feast in a fresh and vitalized world, now leafy and green. Pools of water, caught in the baked land or on the sculptured rocks, awaited them. And they slaked their thirst by the gallon.
“How many tortoises were there? No one knows, yet there is no doubt that there were many thousands – even hundreds of thousands. Some say a million.”
And then…there weren’t.
On our ongoing travels Around the Americas, we’ve been struck time and time again – in the Bering Sea, in the high Arctic, in the Canadian Maritimes – by the havoc once wreaked by the worldwide whaling trade of the 1700s and 1800s. In the Galapagos Islands, the whalers struck again.
The big, rich saddleback and dome-backed turtles were prized specimens to the crews of the whale ships. Easily bagged, laden with delicious “sweet meat,” and with a long shelf life, requiring neither food nor water, the giant turtles – which can weigh up to 500 pounds and live for a century and a half – provided fine provisions for the far-ranging whalers.
In fact, the Galapagos was a doubly enticing destination: there were sperm whales for the taking, and crews could stack their holds with literally hundreds of turtles for the long voyages in front of them. A cargo of three hundred turtles or more was not unusual. Aboard one ship, the Niger, a misplaced turtle lost in the water casks was discovered two years later, fresh and ready for the table. In 1846 alone, there were 735 ships in the Pacific fleet. Aboard every one of them, there were dozens of hungry sailors. And they all loved their turtle.
They took them by the tens of thousands. They almost loved them to extinction.
Later, it wasn’t the men on the boats that endangered the turtles, but what they’d brought with them and introduced to the islands: pigs, dogs, donkeys, cattle and goats. Some were predators, raiding nests in search of food; others were competitors for the sparse vegetation. For the tortoises, all of them were extreme hazards to their long-term health and survival.
All Galapagos turtles are considered to be members of the same species, notes travel writer Steve Rosenberg, but there were originally fourteen so-called subspecies scattered about the islands. Before all was said and done, only eleven subspecies remained.
Ironically, the same creatures responsible for the devastation of the tortoises – human beings – ultimately came to their rescue, first in the pursuit of scientific research and later in the name of conservation and preservation. In 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established and in the years since, thousands of giant tortoises have been bred and/or raised in captivity at the center’s captive breeding center, and returned to their natural habitat. The turtles again frolic; the tide has truly turned.
The ancient character I encountered at the station had obviously lived long and prospered. Before I hopped back on my bike, I gazed into his eyes one more time. The list of things I don’t understand is endlessly long, but I have to believe that even I know a wise soul when I see one.
-Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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