Urbina Bay: Searching for the Galapagos Tortoise in the Wild

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The textures of Urbina Bay

Our afternoon hike today is through the lowland scrub in Urbina Bay, and now we’re getting serious about our search for the Galapagos tortoise. There were signs of tortoises at Tagus Cove earlier in the day, but only trails through the grass. Our guide suggests we might have better luck here in the lowlands of Isabela, where many more tortoises can find food to sustain them between the dry and wet seasons. But nature is not beholden to a human schedule; we’ll have to wait and see.

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A hibiscus flower, nearly identical to one found in ornamental gardening

The lowland scrub along the trail here is greener and denser than in the highlands, likely thanks to more abundant water sources. Some plants also look familiar. In the thickets of woody bushes and small trees, I spot a yellow hibiscus in flower, a native species of hibiscus that looks much like the ornamental plants in so many gardens. The trees give way to a large clearing, and the guide gives a shout, “Hawk!!” Far off in the field, a Galapagos Hawk stands nonchalantly on a log. It’s larger than the hawks I’m used to seeing back home.

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The Galapagos hawk, from hundreds of feet away and a lot of camera zoom

The other interesting things in this field are skulls, horned and lining our path, on rocks, and perched atop signs. These are goat skulls, left from the extermination of the animals from the islands starting in 2001. Goats were introduced to many of the islands in the Galapagos in the early 1900’s, as this Nature article describes with deadpan anti-humor, “successfully”: they ate everything in sight, threatened rare native plants and denuded whole areas, which led to erosion and the starvation of many native species, including tortoises. With the situation dire, conservationists created an ambitious (and sordid) program to rid the islands of goats that was nearly 100% successful, as Radiolab details in good scientific drama. At the end of the program, only a few sterile goats were left on the islands, and the skulls of dead goats now adorn trails and landmarks in many places, a morbid reminder of what sometimes must be done to save a unique species, a singular ecosystem. They are the death of the few for the many, the unquantifiable price we put on the continued existence of a species.

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A goat skull purches atop a sign warning visitors not to stray from the trail

It’s getting late and so far we haven’t spotted the fabled tortoise, though. We’ve seen depressions in the dust where they burrow down to rest, and tracks in the dry leaf litter in the underbrush, but neither shell nor scale of a tortoise. It looks like it’s going to be an unlucky day until our guide hears a crackle over the radio: one group has spotted a tortoise! We race to their location on the path and find a massive animal, a moving-hill-of-a-creature, something that looks like it could have cohabited the Earth with the dinosaurs. A Galapagos tortoise.

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At last, the Galapagos tortoise

Like all the animals we’ve seen so far, the tortoise shows little interest in us and is intent on fulfilling his day’s chore: filling his belly. Given that this tortoise is the size of a small washing machine (but turned on its side, sprouting a head, legs, and a tail), that’s no small task. Galapagos tortoises subsist on nearly any green fare they can find, including grass, cacti, leaves, and fruit. This particular fellow has found himself a treat: a poison apple, or la manzanilla de muerte (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchineel). While the fruit is toxic to humans and most animals, the tortoises here consume them with gusto and without ill effect. Like the rest of the harsh, dry, volcanic, windswept Galapagos environment, the tortoises have found a way around the problem. They’ve adapted.

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A toxic treat: the tortoise eats a poison apple with gusto

And though harsh, I’m slowly realizing how beautiful and mesmerizing the environment of the Galapagos is. There are inexplicable patterns in the scenery that melt into one another, tapestry of landscape, sea, and sky, embellished with the creatures that have managed to survive here. The grass is windswept and dense, forming feather-textured, miniature hills and valleys in fields. Thin, pointed brushstrokes of trees jut into a storm-gray sky, framed by a smattering of green leaves and lowland underbrush. It all looks so uncurated, untouched, so natural. This is what makes the Galapagos so unique; it’s a rare place unchanged by human hands, sculpted only by the forces of nature.

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The texture of grass in the Galapagos
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And as usual, a perfect sunset
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