Top right: A giant tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz. The fields had at least 30 of them. Top left: Students at the Tomas de Berlanga Outdoor School use recycled objects from home to make artwork and furniture. Here are they exploring Lindblad videographer Brian Christensen's camera. Bottom: Tourists move down the dock of Puerto Ayora, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the major town in the Galapagos. Photos by Janet Shedd
Thursday, Day 6 – Santa Cruz Island We woke up today to a very different sight – buildings, people, boats, civilization of a sort. Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, is the largest town in the Galapagos, home to about 20,000 people and an ever-increasing tourist structure. Hotels, hostels, diving shops, souvenir shops, restaurants and internet cafes are all crowded into the main street of this town. It was jarring after being on remote islands with no signs of modern life, but a nice contrast as well. Puerto Ayora is home to the Charles Darwin Research Foundation, a privately funded organization that helps researchers and runs program such as the giant tortoise breeding program to help preserve endangered endemic species. This is the former home of Lonesome George, a more-than-90-year-old tortoise that died several years ago and is being stuffed by the American Museum of Natural History, eventually to be returned to the research station. The station is undergoing renovations and so only the breeding pens for the tortoises and iguanas were available for viewing. This was our first sight of giant tortoises and it was very impressive. The saddleback tortoises have a shell that truly is shaped like a saddle, including a front part that is raised. This allows the tortoise to extend its neck to reach higher vegetation. Other giant tortoises have domed shells, and can’t extend their necks as high. That means they eat vegetation that is lower to the ground. It’s an example of adaptive radiation – different islands have different types of tortoises, depending on the vegetation. Invasive rats on some of the islands will eat the tortoise hatchlings, so the foundation brings the eggs to the station’s breeding program and raises the tortoises until they are old enough and big enough to survive to return to their home islands. At the same time, efforts are also underway to eradicate the invasive rats. It’s interesting seeing how nature is interconnected and how one change can lead to a snowball effect (goats eating vegetation means tortoises and land iguanas have less to eat, for instance. That means the population of tortoises and land iguanas decreases, so Galapagos hawks, which eat young iguanas, have less to eat and their population declines). When scientists and researchers consider how to combat an invasive species, they have to make sure that the “solution” doesn’t lead to other problems. The major problems facing the Galapagos include boosting the islands’ self-sufficiency (food and water have to be brought in by cargo ships, and with cargo ships come invasive species such as parasitic flies that are now threatening bird populations), managing the growth in human population, and controlling and eradicating invasive species. It’s an ongoing, highly complex and expensive balancing act… Later in the day, we went to the highlands. The highlands are considered anything over 1,000 feet above sea level. In the highlands, water collection is easier because of the light rain from the low-hanging clouds. Everything is shockingly lush and green compared to the arid landscapes of the islands we have visited, and brilliant red, pink and yellow flowers decorate the sides of the road. Our guide said Puerto Ayora is a town because of the highlands here – the highlands mean water. In the highlands, people can grow crops and raise cattle because of the accessibility of water. Water is a precious commodity on the Galapagos. Rain water is carefully stored for use and the people who live here use water very sparingly – no long showers! One of the issues with the influx of non-native Galapaguenos is the lack of understanding or regard for the rarity of fresh water here. In the highlands, we visited the Tomas de Berlanga outdoor school, a private bilingual (Spanish/English) school for about 250 K-12 students in buildings set in the forest and connected by paths. The buildings are open-air – no windows, doors wide open, and birds and insects fly in and out of the classrooms. Like Providence Montessori School, where I teach, students are free to move around and different ages mix together. There is a lot of energy and students seem really happy and engaged. The goal of the school is to train the future leaders of the Galapagos by educating them about the nature that surrounds them on the islands. We observed an art class where children brought objects from home – empty toilet paper rolls or soda bottles or old CDs – and made furniture or decorations from this objects. Conservation is very important on these islands. I wished we could have spent more time at the school, though I understood why we could not. I loved seeing how students here are just like students in Lexington -- the universality of being human. We teach that to our students and know it as a truth in our hearts -- and now I see it, in person. A true highlight of the day. Then, after lunch, we to another highlands attraction --- the giant tortoises! We visited them on a private farm that is next to the national park boundaries. The tortoises, of course, pay no attention to boundaries and so will migrate across the farm. Tortoises need lots of space and roam over large areas of the landscape, migrating from the highlands to the lowlands and back. The females lay their eggs in the lowlands in a hole at least a foot deep. The hatchlings have to dig their way out, a process that can take days. They are born with a food sac attached and get nourishment from that during their struggle to emerge, then discard it once they are out. The tortoises were all over the farm, big and little tortoises, slowly moving across the green, grassy hills and munching the grass with single-minded focus. If you get too close to them, they hiss at you (it sounds like a horror movie, especially if they are in the high grass and you don’t see them!) and withdraw their heads into their domed shells. Our guide showed us how to make a wide loop around them so we would not disturb them. They are wonderful to watch …. All their movements are slow and deliberate and there is something so prehistoric about them. Their shells have growth rings on them, but once they are older the vegetation they brush through smooths out the rings, so it is difficult to tell just how old they are. Tomorrow is our last full day…. Red-footed boobies!