In the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, damp tradewinds from the southeast meet the fertile landscape at elevations around 1,100 feet (350 meters) and higher. As I mentioned in my previous post, Galápagos Islands: The Real Thing, the flourishing “cloud forest” is quite a contrast to the “arid zone” found to the north in the lower elevations.
The one thing I noticed immediately was the lack of sound in the highlands. Away from the ocean crashing into the beach and well beyond the small town of Puerto Ayora, the low clouds seemed to silence the world around us. Though there were several species of finches and even a few smooth-billed ani flying here and there, few, if any, were making any notable noise.
Walking through the grasses and low trees of the highlands, it was not long at all until we came upon several of the legendary giant tortoises. Massive and slow, but far from lumbering, these gentle giants grazed on the soft young grasses that grow abundantly in this captivating environment. As I sat and watched these large reptiles, the quiet was soon broken as two tortoises began to square off for a fight. It was the initial loud hiss that grabbed my attention: both had their necks outstretched, heads held high, and mouths gaping. From what I understand, this is usually the most that occurs between two passing tortoises; but these two took it a step further, tucking in their heads and slamming into each other with a sound that could only be described as two boulders knocking into one another.
Hiking a bit further on, there were several other tortoises throughout the area. Many would see me coming and turn away, as if not wanting to be disturbed, so I let them be and continued on. Some allowed me to get a few photos, and then they, too, turned as if to say they were done posing and needed to get back to grazing. However, there was one that I was able to sit about 8 feet (2.4 meters) away from and just watch. He did not seem to mind my wanting to observe, and thus he continued with his grazing for a bit. Then, raising his head, he started to watch me. I could not help but take countless photos as I became the observed. For several minutes, in complete quiet, we just sat and watched each other. He then looked around and continued eating.
Having had the opportunity to observe and watch these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, I can see why these islands were once known as the Enchanted Islands, albeit perhaps for different reasons. It is also no surprise that in years past, these slow-paced grazers became easy targets for humans to hunt and gather as they passed though the region. I feel very fortunate to have been able to sit among these giants, and we should all be thankful for the efforts that have gone toward their conservation.
My next stop will be the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park, where work has been underway for over 50 years to protect these unique islands and the animals that call them home.
Rick Schwartz is a zookeeper and the San Diego Zoo’s ambassador.