Visits to Santa Cruz tend to be special ones. Sure, there’s always the greater presence of civilization, the dynamic Galapagos flora, scenery and changing weather patterns… but every now and then you get to see something rather special when it comes to the wildlife — specifically with Galapagos tortoises in the wild.
Our day began in Santa Cruz as we disembarked at the docks in the early morning and made our way to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Shortly after strolling in and around the station, we circled back to Puerto Ayora where we got to explore the city for a bit while stopping every now and then to grab a cold beverage, a coffee or an ice cream to fuel up for the journey ahead.
Noon marked our departure towards highlands, with a short bus ride taking us up into the more elevated part of the island; at which point guests have the opportunity to grab a mountain bike and ride to the next stop if they’re feeling adventurous. Bus or bike, we all made it to “El Trapiche” which is a coffee plantation that offers all its visitors a number of little surprises and treats.
After having lunch at a local restaurant named Fortiz, we headed over to our biggest stop of the day known as “Primicias” — a privately-owned farm that has some huge lava tunnels on-site as well as these wide-open fields where Galapagos tortoises roam freely in the open. When we got there this time there were numerous tortoises around, and it was quite easy to get up close to them. I always find it so nice to see these amazing animals moving around so slowly, acting like lawnmowers in slow-motion as they tend to eat pretty much everything in their path.
We managed to take pictures of this iconic member of the Galapagos Big15 right as a much smaller female specimen came out from under the shade of a tree. At this point, the male, having noticed the presence of the female, stopped eating and turned its attention to the female: jolting up suddenly and “running” (at tortoise speed, of course) towards the female.
Amazingly, given the spontaneity of it all, he managed to subdue the female and copulate with her right in front of us. It was a perfect candid moment that we were all lucky enough to get to see happen from one second to the next. It was also rather amusing for us to watch as the male awkwardly tried to mount the female and proceeded to vocalize the effort he was putting into the whole situation with occasional grunts. It’s interesting to note that mating is one of the very few instances where Galapagos tortoises vocalize themselves (apart from certain aggressive encounters).
In the end, we all walked away from the special event pleasantly surprised. It is uncommon to see Galapagos tortoises mating, but when it happens and their population grows, it always gives a sense of hope that the species won’t be at risk anymore, unlike Lonesome George, who could never reproduce and leave an heir that would continue his subspecies. So, it’s not always the case that many people can say that they got to witness such a spectacle with Galapagos tortoises in the wild!