After a short tonga ride to the busy town of Santa Cruz, we piled into a bus and drove about 45 minutes to the highlands of the island. We saw various types of vegetation including the coffee bean that grows in the wild. Our guides took us to 2 sink hole areas to show us how the land had just literally sunk down, but the plants and trees continued to grow regularly.
After our short hike in the area, we drove a bit further to the well-known lava tubes, which were tunnels that were naturally made in the ground from hot lava. We put our headlamps on and walked down the stairs past a couple-of-owls and into the entrance of the tunnel. We continued walking through the dark rocky tunnel until we came to an area where a large rock was all but covering the tunnel. We each had to get on our hands and knees and crawl through the small opening to get to the other side. It was entertaining to see Giff whine as he had to get a little dirty crawling on his hands and knees.
After brushing off the dirt from our knees, we jumped back in the bus and headed to the Charles Darwin Station, home to the breeding of giant tortoises. As soon as we arrived, we took off our shoes and slipped into the big rubber boots they provided for us. Then we walked into the big grassy area to find huge tortoises. We have never seen any land tortoises like them before. They weighed up to 880 pounds each, almost 6 ft long and a lifespan of over 100 years. They looked like they had walked straight out of Jurassic park…we walked around trying to avoid the giant piles of poop and taking pictures. We were literally right next to them watching them munch on grass or pull their heads quickly into their shells for protection. They looked ancient with their dark wrinkly skin and hard shells.
Our guides also brought us over to the breeding ground where 100s of baby tortoises are being bred and carefully monitored until it is safe to put them into the wild. The tortoises lay their eggs in the sand on the islands and the eggs are quickly picked up by employees from this breeding station to assist in maturing the egg and growing the tortoise. These giant tortoises were once in danger of being extinct due to the ships that use to visit the islands long ago. The ship crew would gather up as many tortoises as they could cram into their storage room and eat them while at sea. Turtle-meat made sense for the crew because the giant tortoise can actually go up to a year without food or water! However, the ships took too many which drastically impacted their population. In addition, the eggs when buried are eaten by predators thus making reproduction challenging.
The Charles Darwin Station has had an amazing outcome of increasing the population and continues today to make that number even greater. It was so amazing to see the huge tortoises roaming around the grass and then the facility where the tiny tortoises were just starting out. Each baby tortoise is marked by a drop of colored paint which coincides with which island they need to be returned to when ready.
After looking at the various baby turtles and the famous Lonesome George who is the last tortoise of his kind (although they are trying to get him to mate), we walked out of the station and into the little town browsing through the local stores and vendors. There were various little trinkets and souvenirs to be purchased by tourists. After shopping, we found a bar nearby and had a local beer and bowl of popcorn before getting back on the boat for the evening.