Route map (click on map for a larger version)
Santa Cruz (click on map for a larger version)
Monday, 9/14, morning
After another not-terribly-rocky long ride from Genovesa to the southern shore of Santa Cruz, we greeted the day anchored in Academy Bay, with a number of other boats scattered about. We were indeed back in civilization. Several Magnificent Frigatebirds decorated the rigging of the boat next to us, perched in a row much like urban pigeons on a power line.
After the pangas dropped us off at the pier in the main town of Puerto Ayora, we boarded a small bus to head up into the highlands. Thanks to Carlos’s warning, everyone had brought rain gear. The garúa greeted us as we headed inland. The garúa are mists created when the warm tropical air passes over the cold Humboldt Current. The moisture evaporating from the sea concentrates in an inversion layer about 1,000 – 2,000′ above sea level—where the highland areas of the islands intersect the moist layer, resulting in the garúa mists.
Driving through the small towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa, we stopped at Los Gemelos (The Twins)—a pair of collapsed volcanic pit craters, one on each side of the road. Here, we got our first experience with the ScalesiaZone—the first and lowest of the 4 moist zones in the islands—named after the Scalesia genus of plants that are dominant in this highlands area. (You can see several Scalesia pedunculata behind the giant tortoise in the photo on the left. This photo was taken not at Los Gemelos but at the next stop.) Members of the daisy family—and here, daisies gone wild and grown into trees that can reach 45′ or higher—Scalesia are endemic to the Galápagos, with 15 species and 6 subspecies found in various areas. Ironically, since the Scalesia Zone contains some of the best farming on the islands, much of the Scalesia has been cleared away for agriculture. The area around Los Gemelos has one of best remaining areas of Scalesia forest.
Although the craters were interesting, the tortoises seemed to be calling us on. We did take a couple of photos of a Smooth-billed Ani (left). This ani was introduced on the islands around 1970 to feed on cattle ticks. Nice plan, but… Not surprisingly, the anis found many more interesting things to eat and have now become a major invasive species—in some cases, even out-competing the islands’ finches for food. In the photo on the right, you can see this strange-billed bird indeed eating something more interesting than ticks (a beetle?). Just click on the photo for a larger version; use your browser’s “back” button to return to this page.
After very short walks to both pit craters, we got back on the bus. On to the Galápagos Giant Tortoises!
We continued north on the road and came to Rancho Primicias, a private farm of about ~370 acres that have been “turned back” to share with the Galápagos Giant Tortoises on the island. Tourists paying a modest sum ($3 each) to wander the grounds (led by Carlos, of course) and observe the giant tortoises in the wild. Let talk for a bit about the migration patterns of these amazing animals. The tortoises move (albeit it VEEERRRRYYY SLOOOOOWWWWWLLY) from the lowlands to the highlands and back again, looking for shade, water, and nesting places. It’s important to know that the tortoises can only be seen on Santa Cruz when they are in the highlands. However, the information available about the seasonal and breeding migrations of these gentle giants is a bit mixed and may vary by subspecies. For example, the dome-shaped tortoises—such as those that live on Santa Cruz—inhabit the humid areas, where they live most of the year. Some sources report that during cooler months, these cold-blooded (a.k.a. ectothermic) creatures may find it difficult to stay warm—especially the smaller females—and may head to the warmth of the lowlands. However, that would mean that many tortoises would be absent in the highlands, warming up in the lowlands from Sept. to Dec. Yet people generally don’t seem to have much difficulty seeing tortoises during this period. (Our experience is a good example of that. We saw plenty in Sept., one of the coolest months.) Other sources mention only a migration for breeding, which definitely occurs: The females move to the warm, sandy beaches in the lowlands, which they need for nesting, during May/June through August and may be difficult to see during that period. The males don’t necessarily move during this time, since they’re not involved at all in the nesting process; so you may or may not see them in the highlands. I’ve read of folks who didn’t see them during this period and folks who did. (You don’t really need to see lots of them to thoroughly enjoy their magnificence!) So if these beautiful behemoths are on your list of important species to see, choose a period that will enhance your chances and plan accordingly!
Just as we were walking in, we spotted a Cattle Egret preening atop a tortoise (left) much as one might see a Cattle Egret perched on a cow in the U.S.—yet another indication that these large reptile land browsers have taken the place of what in other areas are typically mammal browsers (such as cattle or goats). You can get a sense of the size of these behemoths; a Cattle Egret stands around 2′ tall. We began the visit with a brief lecture from Carlos about the tortoises and a close-up view of a tortoise carapace (a.k.a. its shell; photo on the right). One of our group (the smallest, by the way!) volunteered to crawl into the shell; we teased her mercilessly, but she was a great sport. (I bet at least 1 person in every group gets into that shell for photo ops.) Who wouldn’t have loved having this lively spirit for his or her elementary school teacher?
Continued on p. 2; click below.