A magical moment on San Cristobal, where dozens of sea turtles cavorted in the surf. Our boat, the Tip Top II, is the big one on the horizon.

Where did November go? It seems like yesterday that we were in the Galapagos, and I’ve had one more blog post in me from that trip for . . . weeks. But life gets in the way sometimes.

Ah, the reptiles. In many ways, we’ve saved the best critters, and most emblematic of the Galapagos, for last. What’s the animal you’re most likely to picture if someone says “Galapagos” to you? Chances are it’s a giant tortoise or iguana. We really loved getting to see these fascinating creatures up close and learning more about them.

THE SEA TURTLES

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a connection with sea turtles for a long time, going back to a mystical moment I had swimming with a green sea turtle in Santiago Bay on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. But that’s another story! Fifteen years and one turtle tattoo later (a little honu, done on Kauai to mark my 50th birthday), they’re still just as magical – and John and I were able to come full circle and swim with them once again. Like their cousins the honus in Hawaii and my friend in Mexico, the ones we saw in the Galapagos were green sea turtles.

Here’s a little video we put together from our time swimming with the Galapagos turtles and sea lions.

THE GIANT TORTOISES

We visited the giant tortoise breeding center and sanctuary on San Cristobal Island and fell in love with these lumbering, stately, and highly endangered creatures.  A few facts:

  • They are the largest tortoises on earth and among the world’s largest reptiles, and they can weigh up to a quarter ton.
  • They can live to be up to 100. The biggest ones we saw were several decades old.
  • The tortoises on different islands have evolved separately to adapt to their particular surroundings. For instance, the ones we saw on San Cristobal have long necks and “saddleback” shells that enable them to reach up and grab vegetation on trees and shrubs. Charles Darwin observed these variations, which gave him more data points as he developed his theory of evolution.
  • The islands themselves are named after the tortoises. Apparently, galápago is an old Spanish world that means either “tortoise” or “saddle,” depending on whom you talked to back in the 16th century. It could be that the early explorers of the islands spotted the tortoises and saw the resemblance of their shells to saddles, and that was that.
An old soul
Showing off her long neck, with the arched shell that lets her reach up for vegetation
A placid pair
They didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by our presence. Here are two hanging out on the footpath just ahead of us.

THE LAND AND MARINE IGUANAS

Both the land and marine iguanas in the Galapagos are entirely endemic to the islands – found nowhere else in the world. Supposedly they both evolved separately from a common ancestor, but developed separate characteristics for adapting to their own habitats. And they also show variation from island to island. More data points for Darwin.

A marine iguana on Santa Cruz Island strikes a proud pose
A face only a mother could love. The marine iguana has evolved to have a blunt nose, the better to eat algae off submerged rocks. It also has the ability to clear its nasal passages of sea water – thus the salty white marks on its face.
A land iguana. Note his different coloring and his less-blunt nose, the better to feed on cactus and other land plants.
Three-iguana pileup, with a Sally Lightfoot crab topper
Marine iguanas on Espanola Island. They were so thick on the beach that we had to step around them.
The iguanas on Espanola have evolved differently than those on Santa Cruz, with the bright coloring coming from the algae they eat.

AND NOW, ON A NON-REPTILIAN NOTE

Just a quick word about Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, per the photos below. The human history of Floreana is really fascinating (and sometimes scandalous) – just Google it. As a matter of fact, the island was home to the first person ever born in the Galapagos, Rolf Wittmer, who founded the cruise outfit that operates the boat we were on.

Post Office Bay is rooted in the 19th century, when passing whalers would leave mail for the European settlers on Floreana and take outgoing mail. It’s a tradition that continues (albeit in a touristy fashion) today. If you’d like, you can leave a postcard or two in the mail barrel, and passers-through are supposed to sort through them and find some they can hand-deliver once they get back home. Since I had a later trip planned to Austin, Texas, I took a couple for the Austin area. Once I got there, I was able to deliver one of them to a delightful man who had actually been in the Galapagos a few weeks before and “mailed” the postcard to himself. He was thrilled to see that “it worked!” And the other postcard? Well, I just ran out of time and had to mail it to the lady. Theoretically that’s against the rules, but I did include a note!

The mail barrel at Post Office Bay, Floreana
Our group looks through the mail awaiting delivery

 

18 Comments

  1. Bill Crabbe Reply

    This is a wonderful travel blog. If you are planning to visit an area, these folks have a lot of information to share and it is presented beautifully.

  2. Another great post, thanks! I’m not sure even a mother could love that face! Ugh. I guess those data points Mr. Darwin was seeking left no room for our concept of beauty. Thanks for the memories of Kauai, too, we loved the honus. Good stuff, keep it up!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder – to the iguana ladies he’s probably quite a catch! And thanks for being such a loyal reader (and great friend) 🙂

  3. Mary Lea (Mimi) Reply

    Loved the big turtles! Thanks for making us feel like we were on the trip!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Glad you liked it, Mimi! And thanks for helping with my “mail delivery” in Georgetown.

  4. I really love this post, Susan! Getting to see wild animals in their habitat is always a humbling and rewarding experience. I love how you captured those different iguanas (and a crab perched nonchalantly on one of them!).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much, Bama! This was the trip of a lifetime and the wildlife make photography so easy. That iguana pile-up is one of my favorite pics – that crab was actually scuttling away really fast and I was lucky to catch it!

  5. Your video is so serene and peaceful. What an experience! Several things caught my eye about your amazing post. First, the tortoise evolution on the different islands and the long necked saddleback tortures who needed to develop long necks to reach the vegetation. How incredible. Second, the layer of iguanas you had to carefully step over. I’ve never seen so many in one place before. And finally, the post office, that is so cool! Thanks for the great read.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Debbie! We always appreciate your kind words 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Debbie – I got a little confused because we didn’t actually spend the night in the town of Colonia (although we wished we had) and then I reread John’s comment to you. He was talking about Old Town Montevideo and the AirBnB we booked there. If you’re staying in that unit, you will love it! It’s snug and cozy (it was pretty cold when we were there) and perfectly situated right across from the Mercado de Puerto, AKA Meatopia.

      Regarding Colonia – we took a day bus trip up there and, as I said, wished we’d stayed over The bus ride itself is 2.5 hours one way. And Colonia is a little gem, worth spending at least a night.

      Looking forward to seeing your posts from your trip!

      – Susan

  6. Great posting. Loved all the photos and the video. That seal was really entertaining. Looks like he was going to go over and greet you ( or eat you?). What was “chasing his tail” all about?
    Really enjoy your blogs
    Gwen

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      He was just playing, Gwen – trying to get us to join in the fun. Glad you like the blog!

  7. So adorable creatures, all of them! Even iguanas, I still see them so adorable. Thank you for sharing this post, Susan.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Anna! The Galapagos are a really special place.

  8. I’ve loved your Galapagos posts, John and Susan, as they brought back a lot of happy memories of our time there a few years ago. Everything just seemed to be more more astounding and bigger-than-life there which made our ‘Bucket List’ visit even more epic. It sounds like this was the same for you too! Anita

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That sums it up perfectly, Anita! Thanks 🙂

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