Day 7 - Morning: Darwin Research station and Puerto Ayora

Jessica Nelson

Instead of the usual fish jazz, it was Bob Marley, courtesy of Jake, in the morning, and as per usual, neither Kelly nor I heard the music until it was interrupted by the Spanish, then the English, and then the French versions of the "breakfast will be served in fifteen minutes." I had become accustomed to the buffet-style breakfast at 7 o'clock and the disembarkation at 8 o'clock, but that didn't mean that I hadn't also become accustomed to getting out of bed, dressing, brushing my teeth, etc. within the fifteen-minute time frame before breakfast, or getting ready for going ashore within the twenty minutes or so between breakfast and boarding the pangas.

So at 8 o'clock, the Fregatas were called to disembark to Puerto Ayora for the second time in a week. The water was abnormally rough, and it was a bit startling when the panga slammed into the stairs coming off the ship, but other than that, the panga trip, in addition to the bus ride to the Darwin Station, was uneventful.

We got off the bus before we had reached any of the main buildings of the Darwin Research Station, the first destination of our last full day in the Galápagos. As we walked down the cobbled road to the Station, Luis was pointing out various plants of the archipelago. The walk went something roughly like this:

Luis: This is a button mangrove.

Dr. Merck takes a picture.

Luis: This is a poison apple tree.

Student: Like the one we saw on Santiago?

Dr. Merck (as he takes a picture): Yes.

Luis: This is milkberry.

Dr. Merck takes a picture.

Luis: This is Galápagos Cotton.

Dr. Merck (as he takes a picture): Notice the red and the yellow flowers.

Luis: This is the endemic Scalesia.

Dr. Merck takes a picture.

Luis: This is an Opuntia cactus.

Dr. Merck takes a picture.

While Dr. Merck was certainly not the only one taking pictures, he was the most noteworthy photographer this morning, very politely waiting for everyone else to take their pictures, and then rushing up ahead to Luis to see what it was that he was pointing out to the group.

We stopped at polygonal building and stepped into the shade it provided. Within it, on its walls, were some descriptions of some of the things that the Darwin Research Station does to protect the indigenous species of the archipelago. Probably the most popularly known of the Station's projects is the tortoise breeding program. The Station has reintroduced 2,448 tortoises, and today about 22,000 are spread out through the archipelago.

portrait portrait
Dome - shaped Saddleback
Tortoises of the Galápagos have one of the two shell forms: dome or saddleback. Those with dome-shaped carapaces feed on ground-level vegetation, whereas those with the saddleback shape feed on vegetation higher up in the canopy (though not by much). Fourteen races of land tortoise were once found in the Galápagos Islands; today only eleven are extant, including the saddleback race from Pinta, of which there is merely a single male: Lonesome George. Lonesome George was discovered in 1971, and he is unfortunately the last of his kind. April, Adam, and Kelly had been itching to see Lonesome George since before we even left for trip. They have a friend named George, and they wanted to make a poster of the tortoise for him.

In the building there was an example of the refrigerator-sized incubators that they use to hatch tortoise eggs that are laid by captive and wild tortoises alike. The eggs are marked with codes to tell the scientists at the Station where the eggs came from and whether the eggs are meant to be males or females. What's cool about tortoises, as well as most other reptiles, is that the sex of the offspring depends on the temperature at which the eggs are incubated.

Another thing that I found interesting is that they have to be very careful when they are transporting the tortoise eggs because if they rotate the embryos could drown in the amniotic fluid. It makes complete sense, but I am accustomed to incubating chicken and quail eggs, which need to be rotated twice daily to prevent the embryos from drowning.

The hatched tortoises are labeled like their eggs are and raised until they are four years old, at which point they are released onto the islands from which their parents originated. We were fortunate enough to see some of the baby tortoises later on.

The Station is also making attempts to eradicate introduced species, such as goats, rats, dogs, and feral cats, from the islands. As an example, people from New Zealand had been hired at one point to helicopter over Isabella and Santiago to shoot the goats on those islands. On Pinzen, rattraps were set because the introduced rats were endangering the native land tortoises by competing with them for food resources. At Cerro Dragón, dogs had wiped out the land iguana population, but in 1982-83, the Station managed to destroy all of the dogs and reintroduce the iguanas. Cerro Dragón was opened to the public only nine years ago due to the efforts of the Darwin Research Station. Unfortunately, all of the formerly domesticated animals that have invaded the islands have not been eliminated, and it is next to impossible to do so.

We left the polygonal building and walked down a short path. As we turned a corner, we finally got our first glimpse of the tortoises! -But- What was that one doing? Is he mounting that other one? Is that what he's doing? -Oh, that's what he's doing all right.

"It's like 'Animal Planet - Late Night'"

Fear the turtle.

And since these six tortoises were all males, several prison jokes were also made, but I will spare the reader of that particular perverseness. But alas, I dare not spare you from the perverseness and hilarity of the on-top tortoise moaning and groaning, or of the perverseness and hilarity of the on-bottom tortoise slowly rotating until his face was- well- you know- THERE.Thank God that that poor on-bottom tortoise kept moving because otherwise- well, I won't get into that perverseness because to do so would be quite unnecessary. But these recounted events bring to mind the interesting fact that the underside of a male tortoise is curved into his body so that he can do his reproductive business with relative ease.

The Station was set up like a sort of zoo, and we strolled from pen to pen looking at the different tortoises with their domed and saddlebacked carapaces. Luis pointed out a lava lizard to us, but this one was different from all the rest. Well, each island does have its own brand of lava lizard, but this one was something else. He was bright green. What an especially special lava lizard. I'm certain that everyone and their mothers got a picture of that lava lizard.

As we continued to wander through the paths among the pens of Galápagos reptiles, a bird was spotted. A Galápagos flycatcher! But Dr. Merck was out of film! Had he used his last picture on that spectacularly brilliant lava lizard? Many attempted to get a picture, but to my knowledge, none succeeded.

Not only did we get to stroll among the pens, but within them as well. A path had been cut through the pen and more than once we had to walk around a tortoise. At the end of the path, just before we exited the pen was the toughest tortoise I had ever seen; he was chowing down on some spiny opuntia cactus. Mmm mmm, good.

Lonesome George

And then there was Lonesome George!- back in the distance. Was his head sticking up? Is that his head? Oh! There it is. Is this the best picture I'm going to get of him? Oh well. At least I can see him. And I can at least get a picture of the sign that has a big picture of him. Needless to say, April, Adam, and Kelly were slightly disappointed that Lonesome George was so far back in his pen, but I'm sure they got over it quickly.

As we continued on, we saw the baby tortoises that were being raised for reintroduction. There were dozens of them, all with codes painted on their backs. They were the last tortoises we saw at the Station, and the last we saw during our trip. We were led to a souvenir shop, told which direction the town was in and at what time to be at the panga, and we were left to shop in Puerto Ayora.

I would have to say that my nerdiest purchase was made immediately following our tour of the Darwin Research Station at the little souvenir shop that was there. I bought a t-shirt with a picture of a land iguana, and "herpetology" in big black letters above it. And when I wear it, I will be saying to the whole world, "I am a nerd and I am proud of it and my super-cool shirt!"

A few of us meandered over to the kiosk next to the souvenir shop and purchased some snacks; my treat was a rather delicious mango popsicle, which I managed to eat before the dry Galápagos heat made a mess out of it. So it was a small group of popsicle-eaters that began walking down the cobbled road: Adam, April, Christina, Kelly, Melody, and myself. And it was this same small group that, after having finished their respective snack foods, hitchhiked a ride back into town in the back of a Darwin Research Station pick-up truck.

Adam and Kelly found their way into a church with very original stained glass windows; within each was an animal native to the Galápagos.

Kelly, Melody, and I happened upon an oddly shaped silver store. I think that the best words that I can come up with to describe the building are probably white and amorphic. It was somewhat of a blob of a building. As we approached the store, a man ran across the street and rang the doorbell of the store. A lean woman with flowing clothing opened the door for us. We looked at the beautiful silver jewelry that she had to offer, but we quickly realized that we had stepped into a store selling items that were way out of our price range.

April made an original purchase in Puerto Ayora: a red coral necklace. She saw a native woman wearing it and April asked where she could purchase her own. The woman said that that type of necklace was not sold in the Galápagos. It was a type of necklace made in her hometown on the mainland, and the specific necklace that she was wearing had been in her family for three generations. How exactly April managed to buy the necklace off the woman's neck is somewhat of a mystery to me, since I was not present during the passage of these events, but the woman was willing to give up the necklace because she needed the money and her daughter was in possession of a second coral necklace.

Dr. Merck was fortunate to come upon a store that sold the specific type of film that he was looking for, and must have considered himself especially fortunate when he and Dr. Holtz spotted a Great Blue Heron just walking down the main street, traffic slowing and avoiding it, and Dr. Merck was able to take pictures again.

April, Melody, and I made a trip to the grocery store before we left to pick up some snacks, and just barely made it back in time to avoid a scolding from the Doctors and Ms. Shaw.

As we began the trip back to the ship in the panga, a stowaway was discovered by some of us at the bow. Many of us called out to those in charge with a sort of urgency and confusion. When the guide that we were with noticed the hitchhiker, and he did what any good captain would do: he picked up the stowaway - foot-long marine iguana - and simply tossed it overboard.

As we boarded the Ambassador II, we signed off that we had returned, grabbed our little toothpicked goodies and went back to our rooms to get ready for lunch. I was quite satisfied with my morning, and I expect that others were as well.

To travelogue menu
To day 7b: Cerro Dragón