Wrapping one’s head around the history of these islands is a complex process. I am surely not knowledgeable enough about the Galapagos to share the history with enough accuracy to be credible. But for the purposes of this story there are a few facts that you need to know to understand the significance. We all know that Darwin came here with the sailing ship the Beagle and found finches that were different in character on each island. This would lead to the theory of evolution that many use today to explain diversity in the biosphere. The giant tortoises are another example of that. The different tortoises also had different characteristics manifest over time on the different islands. This place was still uninhabited by humans when the time of western sailors came through here looking for treasure, food and water. I’m told that there are stories of buried treasure in this place as pirates came and went throughout this landscape. But what we know for certain is that these marauders also took the treasure of resource from this place. There were hundreds of thousands of tortoises across the islands and over time they grew fewer and fewer in number. They were great source of protein on the sailing ships because they could live for a very long time. Also the oil from them was used as an early source of heating and lighting. Fast forward to just a few decades ago and we can clearly see the effects of all of that unchecked abuse of the resource, as invasive animals like the rat took up the work that the pirates started. We know the story of lonesome George who was the last giant tortoise of his kind anywhere in the world and on June 24 2012 the world also bore witness to the extinction of a species when lonesome George died. This sobering reminder is a story that gets repeated more often than most people would like to admit, but for the people here, they were already working hard to preserve what they could.
As this place became a National Park with the protections and resources of the Ecuadorian government, a program started to try to turn back some of the damage that had taken place to the giant tortoise populations. A protection and breeding program was started on this island of Santa Cruz in an attempt to save some of these species that were critically endangered. In one case on one of the islands, only 5 of these spectacular animals remained. In the course of only a few decades this hugely successful program has turned around the population of many of these animals. Literally thousands and thousands of these animals have been born, fed and grown to the size where they can be let out into the wild once again and live as their ancestors did. Everything in their lives is closely documented so that they can be returned to the same island and the same place where their eggs were harvested.
But the story does not become real until you get to visit this highly protected venue. Not many get to come to the tortoise facility as the lives of some species are literally held in the balance on this small piece of land in the corner of the National Park. A few of us from the crew got to go here for a special honoring of the voyage, but what we saw was nothing short of life changing. As we crossed into the secure location having to first clean our shoes in a water soaked set of mats, the environment quickly revealed a sea of pens with hundreds and hundreds of baby tortoises. They were grouped by island and date of birth. These creatures that become giants over the course of their lifespan of more than a century are just a few weeks or days old in some cases here. We learned about how the eggs are heated to a different temperature in incubation to get a male versus a female and that without this program many of these species would have already perished. Even in this secure facility, the tops of the pens are covered with thick screens to keep out the predators that are certain to be nearby at any time. This is a sobering reminder that much has changed in this place since these moving mountains were at the apex of the food chain here.
And so you can imagine how special each one of these gentle soon-to-be giants are. The head of the National Park brought us through the facility to make our captain of the voyage and PWO navigator Nainoa Thompson the godfather of tortoise number 82. This one was appropriately named Hōkūleʻa at the ceremony and further solidified the connection between the people of this place and the people of Hawaiʻi. We all agreed that we have kuleana here with tortoise 82 and will have to come back and visit. The hope and inspiration that comes out of a day like this is the fuel that propels us forward through these last few months of the Worldwide Voyage.
Hōkūle‘a Homecoming – Save the Date
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on June 17, 2017!
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