Galapagos Tortoises – Best places to view tortoises in the Galapagos

May 27, 2010 § 2 Comments

Galapagos tortoises are the enigmatic symbol of the Galapagos Islands.  Online readers have picked the Galapagos Tortoise as their favorite animal of these enchanted islands.  For many visitors viewing these gentle giants is considered a “must” part of their vacation.

San Cristobal Tortoises

San Cristobal Tortoises at Cerro Colorado

Giant tortoises first arrived in the Galapagos many millennia ago.  It is thought they originated in South America and made their way across the Pacific Ocean by floating on a piece of wood.  Arriving in the Galapagos the tortoises found their new home rugged and harsh, yet tortoises are able to survive long periods of time without food or water making them uniquely qualified to become the dominate grazing animal on these islands.  At one time 15 distinctive sub species of Galapagos Tortoise existed – today only 11 remain.

Each of the sub species evolved differently depending on the island where they lived.  You only need to take a look at a tortoise to quickly determine the type of environment existed on the island where the tortoise evolved.

Tortoises that evolved on the larger islands – like Santa Cruz or the Alcedo Volcano on Isabela benefited from the lush plant life and grew to be the largest of the species. They had plenty of food and did not need to travel great distances.  They can be identified by their larger size, domed shells (making it easier to push brush out of the way) and by their shorter legs and neck.

Tortoises that came from smaller drier islands had a saddleback or flatter shell with longer legs and a longer neck making them capable of traveling greater distances.  The main staple of tortoises from these areas was the pad of the opuntia cactus and the long necks allowed the tortoises to reach their meal.

Tortoises are quite elusive in the wild, and to help preserve the species the national park has made it off limits to visit many areas on various islands where the tortoises roam free. There are four islands in the Galapagos in which visitors can view tortoises: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela.

The most popular of these places is on the island of Santa Cruz.  For visitors traveling to a Galapagos Cruise the Charles Darwin Research Station is part of every itinerary. The Darwin Station, home of the Galapagos National Park and the Darwin Foundation is the heart of the great conservation and preservation efforts being made in the islands.

Established in 1969 these organizations quickly realized that the remaining species of tortoises were all endangered of becoming extinct.  They rapidly set up a tortoise breeding and rearing program in order to protect and repopulate the species. Tortoises were transported from their island to pens at the Darwin Station where they were able to breed and their eggs.  The eggs were put in incubators where they could hatch without the concerns they would have in the wild.

During early years of life, young tortoises are in constant danger primarily from introduced species.  Rats feed on tortoise eggs.  The shells of hatchlings are fragile and the hooves of feral goats and donkeys can easily damage the shell and kill young tortoises.  At the breeding center, there are pens for tortoises of different ages allowing them to develop without these threats until they were old enough and their shells strong enough to be released back into the wild.

The most famous resident of the Darwin Station is Lonesome George.  Discovered in 1971 George is noted as the last remaining tortoise on the island of Pinta.  A rather flat island, it was a favorite place for passing boats to fill their hulls with fresh tortoise meat.  At the time George was discovered it was thought his species was extinct.  Scientists were delighted to have found a remaining tortoise and plans began right away on how best to help George and his species survive.  Having him remain on Pinta had complications as feral goats overrun the island and were devastating the island’s vegetation and limiting the food supply available for George.  The solution was to move him to the Darwin Station, which would provide a safe haven while they searched for a mate and way to continue his line.

Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos Tortoise in the Highlands of Santa Cruz

Traveling to the highlands of the island is the best place in Galapagos to see these tortoises roaming free. From June to December during the dry cooler months the tortoises travel to the highlands in search of the area’s water and juicy plants.  During these months the tortoises can be found in the area near Santa Rosa.  The tortoises mate and then the female tortoises depart to lay their eggs.  Male tortoises remain here year round enjoying the muddy water of the lagoon and the many plants in which to eat.

On the island of San Cristobal, visitors can travel to the highlands to visit Cerro Colorado a recently built tortoise reserve not far from El Junco Lagoon. Tortoises of San Cristobal were endangered from feral animals, so the tortoise preserve was established as a walled area that protects them from other species.  Coming here visitors can enjoy a stroll along the boardwalks and grated trails seeing San Cristobal tortoises, local plants and a variety of birds including the endemic Chatham Mockingbird, Yellow Warbler and Darwin Finch.

Making your way to the island of Floreana provides yet another opportunity to view San Cristobal tortoises.  Floreana was a favorite island of sailors and as tortoise meat was an easy supply of food that would last for months on board their ships, Floreana Tortoises were collected to a point of extinction. In a rock wall area in the highlands of Floreana you’ll find the tortoises that were brought here by members of the Wittmer Family (who built a small hotel on the island).  The tortoises were viewed as a way to encourage visitors and they were left to roam the grounds of the hotel for the enjoyment of tourists.  As the tortoises were not natural to the islands and are considered now to be a mixed breed rather than pure-breed the National Park Service established a tortoise pen in the highlands of Santa Cruz where these tortoises can be seen today.

Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Program

Young Tortoises at the Isabela Breeding Center

Isabela is my favorite place to see Galapagos Tortoises. The largest of the islands, Isabela is home to 5 distinct sub species of Galapagos Tortoise. The National Park and Darwin Foundation set up a breeding center for Isabela tortoises just outside the town of Puerto Villamil.  A nice walk passing by flamingo lagoons takes you to this the tortoise center where you can see several species of tortoise next to each other.  It’s here where you can best identify the environment in which the tortoise evolved by looking at its size and the shape of its shell.

The tortoise breeding programs both on Santa Cruz and on Isabela have been very successful.  Many of the tortoises from both programs have been released into the wild allowing them to live the lives they were meant to live.    On Isabela you can see these newly free tortoises ranging in age from 5 years to 25 years roaming free in an area near Wall of Tears. Walking along the paths through the mangroves you can encounter these future giants walking along eating the smaller plants and enjoying the waters of small pools.

Read our blog on Galapagos Tortoises and the Evolution of Extinction

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