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Destination: Galapagos Islands Cyber Field Trip

Sherri Steward's Expedition Journal
Day Five

Click here to see Sherri's video journal.

Click on the photo to see an enlargement.

Today has been absolutely indescribable! We began with the good news that the Scientific American Frontiers crew would not have to disembark the Polaris -- a ship I am really falling in love with. In order to reach some of the areas the crew was planning to film, we might have been required to move to a smaller ship. It also would have made getting updates to you pretty difficult.

Puerto AyoraAfter breakfast, we loaded into the zodiaks and headed toward Puerto Ayora, the town with the greatest number of tourist facilities. Santa Cruz has the highest human population and is the second largest island in the archipelago. It is also the location of the Charles Darwin Research Station, where giant tortoise breeding programs and marine studies are located. Since Mandy and I are with the film crew, we got to go behind the scenes where tourists are usually not allowed.

Today I interviewed Rodriquo Bustamente, who is involved in marine studies for the Galapagos Islands National Park. I was expecting a stuffy scientist type...and I got Rodriquo! He is a very friendly and funny guy who is doing research on sea cucumbers and how their dwindling numbers are affecting the marine ecosystems here.

Darwin's finchesWhile the crew was filming Alan Alda, I had a chance to take a close-up look at the incredible Darwin's finches, of which there are thirteen distinct species. I happened upon this pair of ground finches, a black male and brown female. The finches all evolved from a common ancestor, and each is very uniquely adapted to its specialized ecological niche. There is a saying around here that goes, "It is only a very wise man or a fool who thinks he is able to identify all the finches he sees."

Sherri and Galapagos tortoiseThe moment for which I have been waiting came when I first glimpsed the giant Galapagos tortoises. I've been fascinated with them since childhood, when I first saw them at the San Diego Zoo. They are even larger than I imagined when you are very close to them, and I must say, they have a very "friendly" disposition. There is only one species of Galapagos tortoise, but it has been divided into fourteen distinct subspecies, three of which are now extinct. Each subspecies can be distinguished by the shape of its giant carapace, or shell.

Galapagos tortoiseDuring the whaling years, many thousands of these wonderful creatures were killed. These tortoises can go without food or water for as long as two years, a characteristic which helped lead to their demise. Sailors would load them into the hulls of ships for long journeys as a source of fresh meat. Today, only about 15,000 exist, but the Darwin Research Station now has a wonderful captive breeding program in which hatchlings are incubated, hand-raised in pens and then introduced into natural surroundings. Eventually, they are released to the wild.

Lonesome GeorgeFinally, we saw the mascot of the Darwin Research Station -- old "Lonesome George," the last remaining tortoise of his subspecies. He is enclosed in a very nice natural area with two closely related female species, but unfortunately, George doesn't seem to be interested in them at all. Lonesome George is, indeed, a sad but important reminder to us all that "when the last individual of a species breathes his last breath, it will be another heaven and Earth before he shall breathe again."

The Galapagos tortoises reach sexual maturity at the age of 40 and have clutches of between two and 26 eggs. Approximately 85-180 days later, the very cute hatchlings emerge from the eggs. It is during the first two years of life that they are extremely vulnerable to predators, such as introduced rats and dogs. The Ecuadorian government is very serious about protection of the Galapagos and its tortoises, and it appears that the population will have a good chance of recovery.

Free-range tortoiseLater in the day, we traveled to a beautiful farm where a local citizen is caring for some giant tortoises. They are allowed to roam free in their natural habitat; it was truly one of the most wonderful parts of my journey to see these magnificent creatures in their natural home. I sipped a wonderful cup of steaming lemon grass tea as I watched the sunset on the island of Santa Cruz and my new friends, the giant Galapagos tortoises.

Read Mandy's Day Five Journal

Day 4 new entry Day 6


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.