Tortoises and Turtles of the Galápagos

A giant tortoise with people gathering fairly close to view it.

Photo © Ben Westwood.

Giant Tortoises

Of the 20 species of endemic reptiles, these slow giants are the most famous. They also gave the islands their name—galápago is an old Spanish word for a saddle similar in shape to the tortoise shell. They are only found on the Galápagos and in smaller numbers on a few islands in the Indian Ocean.

The shell of a giant tortoise reveals which island its owner originates from. Saddleshaped shells evolved on low, arid islands where tortoises needed to lift their heads high to eat tall vegetation, while semicircular domed shells come from higher, lush islands where vegetation grows closer to the ground.

Of the original 14 subspecies, 10 remain, and 3 species (Santa Fé, Floreana, and Fernandina) have been hunted into extinction. The giant tortoise population has plummeted from some 250,000 before humans arrived to just 20,000 now. Today, the main danger comes largely from introduced species, but there is a comprehensive rearing program to release tortoises back into the wild, most recently on Pinta Island.

Five of the remaining subspecies are found on the five main volcanoes of Isabela, and the other species are found on Santiago, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Pinzón, and Española.

Where to See Giant Tortoises
Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is the most famous place to see these amazing creatures. There is a breeding center with 11 subspecies and a walk-in enclosure. Lesser known but with a larger population is the Centro de Crianza breeding center on Isabela, which has more than 800 tortoises in eight separate enclosures. The best places to see tortoises in their natural environment are La Galapaguera, a reserve on San Cristóbal where tortoises reside in 12 hectares of dry forest, or the larger El Chato Tortoise Reserve, which fills the entire southwest corner of Santa Cruz.

Sea Turtles

There are four species of marine turtles in the archipelago. The eastern Pacific green turtle, also known as the black turtle (tortuga negra), is the most common species. Also present but rarely seen are the Pacific leatherback, Indo- Pacific hawksbill, and olive ridley turtles. Green sea turtles are rarely seen in large numbers, preferring to swim alone, in couples, or next to their young. They usually weigh about 100 kg but can weigh up to 150 kg. The females are actually bigger than the males and can grow to 1.2 meters long. The mating season, November to January, is the best time to see them. Sea turtles must come ashore to lay eggs, and females often do this as many as eight times during the mating season.

Where to Spot Sea Turtles
With a little luck, sea turtles can be seen swimming all over the archipelago, but the best-known nesting sites are Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, the beaches of Bartolomé, and Gardner Bay on Española.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Galápagos Islands.

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