Thursday, October 16, 2014

Santa Cruz Turtles

We start with an early breakfast. At 7:30 we leave with the panga toward toward the main pier. From the pier we walk to the Darwin Research Station. It is located on the other end of the town along the main street which winds around the bay.

Pelican awaiting the opening of the fish market

This is relatively early, but the streets are busy with people. Many of the locals ride bicycles and small motorbikes. Many motorbikes carry three or even four family members.

Marine Iguana on the water edge close to the Darwin Research Station entrance

Inside the station we walk to the turtle nursery, which is few hundred meters. I thought we are in early since we have an appointed tour, but it turns out that David will provide the tour. As usual, he did so in a very minimal way.

The first enclosure we see is the nursery itself. Researchers collect turtle eggs from different islands and incubate them here to ensure higher survival rates. The first three years the young turtles are roaming in a small protected box where they have water and food. There is a specific one for each species of turtle.

Young turtles in protected nursery 

When they grow up they are moved outside the box to the enclosure. This enclosure simulate more realistic conditions, requiring them to search for food, climb over obstacles for water, etc. After few years in this area, when they reach sufficient size, the turtles are released back to the wild in their respective habitat.

Climbing up to reach the water source

I am stuck!
According to David, the estimated number of turtles in the islands right now is 30,000 individuals. This sounds a lot, but estimate suggest that during the 18th and 19th century, explorers, pirates, and whalers "harvested" several hundred thousands of turtles. These were used as food source for the ships. The main attraction of the Galapagos turtles was their size and the fact that they can stay alive without food and water for several months or even a year. Thus, they can be stored on board of the ship and eaten fresh long after the ship set sail.

Hans and Ruth next to a large cactus tree on the way to the big turtles

We continue along the path toward a collection of pens were different turtles are kept. These are either for protection of species whose habitat is not restored yet, or for hosting turtles that were pets and reclaimed by the national park.

A dome-backed turtle

The different species are related, but specialized for different environment. The most noticeable difference is between dome-backed and saddle-backed turtles. The dome-backed have a nice round shell, similar to what we are used to think of turtles. They live in areas that are dense with vegetation and get most of their food at ground level.

A saddle-back turtle showing his long reach

In contrast, the saddle-back turtles have a saddle-like "collar". This allows them to raise their necks much higher. These turtles live in environment where most of the food is higher up, for example the pear-cacti. These turtles also have a longer neck. The result looks like ET (or more precisely, ET maybe was inspired by these turtles).

On the way we meet some Lava Lizard courting on the rocky fences. Jon stopes everyone to observe these.

We pass a pen with land iguanas. Surprisingly, we see field mice living between the rocks. I think that they are invasive species here in Santa Cruz, although there is one type of mouse endemic to the island.

Small mouse in the iguana enclosure

Land iguana
The last two pens we see have a mix of different species. These are "reclaimed" turtles that were collected from private people. David explains that since they do not know their exact origin, they are separated to male and female turtle so they cannot breed. I am not sure why at this day and age they do not use DNA tests to find the species of the turtle. I am sure that this has been looked at by some researchers, but David is not the person to ask about this.

We finish the tour at a small kiosk that sells soft drinks and coffee. The roof of the kiosk hosts a flock of finches and provides a good opportunity to photograph them.

At the end of the trip we said good byes to Kelly who is leaving from Baltra later today.

Since we finished the tour early, we now have two and half hours to spend in the town until we are picked up. Originally, David mentions the option to go to a beach near the station, and said there will be some wild life there.

A lava lizard on the way out of the station

I am searching for the beach and walk almost all the way to town before I realized that I miss it. By now it is hot. I return along the way and find that the beach entry was just across from the kiosk where we finished the tour.

The beach is really a very small stretch of sand with a little outlet between the rocks to enter the water. I was hoping to photograph iguanas entering the water, but I do not see any on the rocks. Instead, I spend some time photographing Light-footed Sallys. Sitting still on the rock, they slowly got out to the open.

Younger crabs are black, providing good camouflage on the lava rocks
I grow tired of the beach. I start walking back toward town. Since we passed the stores last night there was not much to do.

I get to the local fish market. Few fisherman's are selling fish (very little amounts). Next to them on the floor there are two sea lions watching the transactions with interest. One pelican was inching closer on the counter, trying to get some of the fish. He was being chased away every time, but he still persist in his attempt. Other pelicans were more discrete sitting on the ground and watching from afar.

Fish transactions under the watching eyes of two sea lions...

and a pelican

These guys are not as aggressive, and wait at a slightly more respectable distance
Next to the fisherman's market there was a small walkway between mangroves. On the path large iguanas were basking, while on the tree several pelicans were resting.

Sleeping Pelican

I continued toward the pier. There were few birds fishing in the shallow part of the port just next to the pier. One of them kept repeating the same pattern, circling around, shooting into the water, and then taking off again. This was a chance to get some bird photography.

A young booby about to hit the water

The take off afterwards

Pelican taking off from the water

and stopping to rest on the pier

We got back to the boat for lunch. There we met two new passengers, Kevin and Andrea that join the trip instead of Kelly.

After lunch we got back again on the panga, and got to town. There was a small bus waiting for us. We rode the bus up to the highlands. We left Puerta Ayora and drove up the mountain. The landscape changed, and now we were in tropical area, with lush green trees growing in all directions. The houses along the road were small and dispersed from one another.

After a while, the driver went off the main road into a dirt road lined with trees on both sides. 

The road took us to a farm where turtles were roaming. These farms deal with agriculture as well as turtle tourism. When were there four other groups also showed up. This felt a bit like a zoo and less like a reserve.

Turtle farm

One of the birds flying around the turtle

Many turtles were going about the area, some active and some seemed less so.

On the move

On the path to the water


The pool surface is covered with algee

Social interactions next to the pool

On the way back from the highlands we stopped at site near the road where there are "lava tunnels". These are formed when the lava cools down on top and continues to flow below the surface. The tunnel was exposed when part of the ceiling caved in.

Lava tunnel

Ben is protesting against the light

We returned to town, and again had "free time". Ilan and I sat down for a beer, and then went back to photographing birds on the pier.

I suddenly see golden rays swimming through the shallow water.

The sun began to set and painted everything with a golden color

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