A giant Galapagos tortoise on the island of Balta.
Giant Tortoises Are Iconic Symbols of the Galapagos
"We will go to 12 of the possible 17 islands one can visit in the Galapagos," said Juan Salcedo, naturalist and owner of our boat, the Samba.
"Before we get onto the boat, we will make a stop to see the giant tortoises, one of the iconic symbols of the islands," Salcedo continued.
Spanish explorers, who discovered the islands in the 16th century, named them after the Spanish word galápago, meaning tortoise. Ten of the original subspecies of turtles still exist on the islands. But it has not been an easy task to survive, and the population has declined dramatically.
When Europeans first landed on the islands, it is estimated there were over 250,000 tortoises; now, the number stands at 19,000.
The tortoises had two things working against them. They could live a long time on a ship without food and water and they tasted good. Both were valuable assets for seafaring men who spent many days on ships during voyages.
The largest male tortoises can weigh up to 500 pounds and are estimated to live more than 100 years. Because they move slowly, this made easy pickings for the early visitors.
A giant Galapagos tortoise on the island of Balta. These gentle giants can live to be well over 100 years old.
As I walked around, I got a little too close to one giant tortoise. As I attempted to take a photo, the giant tortoise pulled in its head and made a long, drawn out hissing sound. Apparently, it hadn't forgotten it once was a favorite meal of mariners.
The tortoises on Santa Cruz Island migrate. The tortoises' journey begins in the humid highlands of the island where they load up on grass and perennial plants. Once the rainy season starts in December, they migrate to the lowlands where herbs and shrubs thrive.
The grassy field where I stood had migrating tortoises everywhere. "In a week, they will all be gone as they slowly make their way to lower elevations," Salcedo explained.
Come June or July, when the rains stop and the vegetation dries up, they return to the highlands. It's not the mass migration like the wildebeest in Africa but still impressive. Migrations have always impressed me. Every year I stand in awe as the Nebraska sky is filled with migrating geese or sandhill cranes.
A giant Galapagos tortoise eats grass on the island of Balta. Scientists have recently discovered on some islands, the tortoises migrate each year.
I stood in awe once again as I watched these giants slowly move around trees and over the grass.
After a couple of hours, we headed to the port and climbed onto an inflatable dingy that took us out to the Samba.
For the next seven nights, this would be my home. A live aboard, which is what they call a boat the tourists stay on, is one of the best ways to explore the Galapagos Islands. It allows access to islands and locations that are otherwise almost impossible to reach. In addition, it offers more time to spend on site instead of traveling from town and back to one of the destinations.
The crew welcomed us with warm, big smiles. "We are all family on this boat. Most of us have been working together for years and we treat each other like family. We welcome you to be a part of our family," Salcedo said.
The Samba, our home for the week in the Galapagos (left). A zodiac leaves the Samba with passengers to go explore one of the islands of the Galapagos (right).
My fellow passengers came from locations all over the world. But we all had one thing in common - the dream to explore the Galapagos Islands.
"Tonight we will have dinner and review our upcoming week," Salcedo said. "In the middle of the night, the captain will motor to our first destination. This way we can start exploring first thing in the morning."
Salcedo explained how he liked to be at the locations early before other tour boats arrived. The animals on the Galapagos are not tame, but they don't run away either.
"Getting there early allows for the best viewing and for better light for photos," Salcedo said.
A guide who understands and appreciates photography. I'm going to like this.