A full day spent on Santa Cruz, the most populated of the Galapagos Islands

Special to AllThingsCruise.com

Monday, April 4 — To reach the shore of each island, we leave our 200-foot ship the MV Evolution, which has been comfortably converted from an old Japanese fishing vessel, in two pangas, small motorboats holding 15 people each.

Today we will spend the entire day on Santa Cruz without a midday siesta on the boat. Santa Cruz is the most populated of all the islands, with 16,000 people living in Puerto Ayora, the economic capital of the Galapagos and home of the Darwin Station Research Center.

Galapagos tortoise

First stop is the station, home of the Galapagos’ most famous tortoise, Lonesome George, who is more than 100 years old and is the last of his particular breed from the tiny island of Pinta. George refuses to impregnate any females, much to the chagrin of staff who are desperately trying to keep George’s species from becoming extinct. The Galapagos tortoises were nearly wiped out in the 18th and 19th centuries by pirates, buccaneers and whalers who landed on the islands. The giant tortoises, which could exist without food or water for months in the holds of their ships, were like walking refrigerators, stored meat for their future use.

It is believed that some 200,000 of these docile creatures were killed and eaten by the humans who discovered them here and the Darwin Center is dedicated to their re-population.

The face of one of these 300-pound tortoises (the word Galapagos is Spanish for “tortoise”) was used as the model for the classic film “E.T.”

We take a bus to the highlands of Santa Cruz, where we see lush forests of cedar and Scalesia trees, the latter found only on this island. The top branches of the Scalasia at the end of this rainy season resemble giant broccoli heads.

Next we visit two enormous volcanic craters named Los Gamelos (according to our guide they were technically sink holes created after the craters collapsed).

Sea lion in Puerto Ayora

The birders were far more excited by their first sightings of a rare finch, one of the 13 different species that were at the center of Darwin’s historic research on the origin of the species. Darwin’s evolutionary theories developed when he noticed that each of the 13 different finch species had a different sized and shaped beak. Eventually, he realized that the beaks had adapted over time according to the food that was available on each particular island. Long, thin bills were good for catching insects, short powerful beaks were suited for cracking seeds. Survival depends on adapting to the environment, and those creatures (and plants, as well) that adapt the best will survive the longest.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent that survives,” he wrote, “it is the most adaptable to change.”

Nine of the 13 finch species live on Santa Cruz. We watched a male building a nest and learned that — in the finch world — females choose their mates depending on how much they like the look of the nest. It’s all about real estate. The male finch also sings to the females. Females, unfortunately, cannot sing.

Following an open-air barbeque lunch at a farm, we drove back to Puerto Ayora, a port town with restaurants, dive shops, small hotels and souvenir shops. But whether you’re in a town or a lava field, you’re never far away from the protected creatures of the Galapagos. As we sipped sodas at a local restaurant, we shared the patio with a family of sea lions that had flopped up the cement steps from the nearby bay. They stretched out on the warm tile floor and lolled around under our tables, occasionally belching with apparent pleasure over their comfortable surroundings. At a small nearby swimming pool, a trio of Galapagos gulls took dips in the blue water as they pleased, while a great blue heron stood watch.

Photos by Timothy Leland

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