Galapagos

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For the first time in more than one hundred years, researchers have found newborn baby tortoises on the tiny Galapagos Island of Pinzón. Good news indeed since the population has struggled after being nearly decimated by human impact.

Whalers and invasive rats devastated the species when they arrived aboard ships in the 17th and 18th centuries; the rats then spent more than a century preying on the island’s hatchlings, according to the Galapagos Conservancy.

Tortois on the beach in the Galapagos.

Tortoise on the beach in the Galapagos.

The tiny turtle find validates more than 50 years of conservation efforts, which have included growing hatchlings in captivity until they are large enough to be released without falling prey to rats, as well as a push to eradicate the rodents. The arid island was finally declared rat-free in 2012.

The Galápagos Islands, home to the giant tortoises and many other unique species were first discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, when his ship drifted off course while on its way to Peru. He named the Islands Las Encantadas, “The Enchanted,” and marveled at the thousands of giant tortoises living there. Because of these tortoises, the Islands became known as the Galápagos—the Spanish word for tortoise.

Sailors—explorers, pirates and whalers, saw the huge tortoises, which weigh up to 550 pounds, as a convenient source of fresh meat, for the tortoises can survive long periods of time without food or water, and can live in the hold of a ship for up to a year. When British naturalist Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, aboard the HMS Beagle, the islands’ residents showed him how to tell which island a tortoise belonged to by the shape of its shell. Pondering the causes for this localized diversity led Darwin to develop his Theory of Evolution.

Galapagos tortoise

Galapagos tortoise

At the time of his visit there were around a quarter of a million tortoises living on the islands. Today less than 15,000 remain. Of the original 15 subspecies, only eleven are left—three have become extinct and the fourth has only one individual left. Thousands of the animals were slaughtered by the crews of sailing ships and, when the islands were colonized in 1832, pigs, goats, rats and other animals also arrived, eating eggs and young tortoises and destroying nests and food supplies.

It is believed that the tortoises, who can float on the sea for several days, came to the Galapagos from the South American mainland. Once on the islands they encountered no enemies. Each of the islands presented its own unique environmental challenges, and the isolated tortoises evolved to take advantage of these differences—tortoises on islands with taller vegetation have longer necks.

Because of the tortoises extreme longevity, visitors to the Islands may unknowingly photograph some of the same tortoises that Darwin himself observed back in 1835.

There are so many strange stories, landscapes, and creatures on these islands which inspired Charles Darwin to discover the principles of evolution. Please join us on our Galapagos Islands tours.

Last week, Lonesome George, considered the rarest creature on Earth because he was the last member of his species, died. George was a giant tortoise of a species found only on Pinta Island in the Galápagos. For the last forty years he has been living on Santa Cruz Island at the Darwin Research center. He was estimated to be around 100 years old, young for a Galápagos tortoise which sometimes live past the age of 200. Over the years attempts were made to breed him with females of closely related species but he never found a lady tortoise that interested him.

Lonesome George, the last of his species.

The California Native's Lee Klein (right) and guests visit Lonesome George.

The Galápagos Islands, home to the giant tortoises and many other unique species were first discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, when his ship drifted off course while on its way to Peru. He named the Islands Las Encantadas, “The Enchanted,” and marveled at the thousands of giant tortoises living there. Because of these tortoises, the Islands became known as the Galápagos—the Spanish word for tortoise.

Sailors—explorers, pirates and whalers, saw the huge tortoises, which weigh up to 550 pounds, as a convenient source of fresh meat, for the tortoises can survive long periods of time without food or water, and can live in the hold of a ship for up to a year. When British naturalist Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, aboard the HMS Beagle, the islands’ residents showed him how to tell which island a tortoise belonged to by the shape of its shell. Pondering the causes for this localized diversity led Darwin to develop his Theory of Evolution.

At the time of his visit there were around a quarter of a million tortoises living on the islands. Today less than 15,000 remain. Of the original 15 subspecies, only eleven are left—three have become extinct and the fourth has only one individual left. Thousands of the animals were slaughtered by the crews of sailing ships and, when the islands were colonized in 1832, pigs, goats, rats and other animals also arrived, eating eggs and young tortoises and destroying nests and food supplies.

It is believed that the tortoises, who can float on the sea for several days, came to the Galapagos from the South American mainland. Once on the islands they encountered no enemies. Each of the islands presented its own unique environmental challenges, and the isolated tortoises evolved to take advantage of these differences—tortoises on islands with taller vegetation have longer necks.

Because of the tortoises extreme longevity, visitors to the Islands may unknowingly photograph some of the same tortoises that Darwin himself observed back in 1835.

Lee at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan.

California native founder, Lee Klein, at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan. What a way to make a living.

This June we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary—30 years of leading fantastic trips to exotic destinations around the world.

This anniversary comes as a proud moment for our company’s founder, Lee Klein, who continues to scout new locations world-wide in search of new destinations for the active traveler. Klein, who holds an MBA in Management and a BS in International Marketing, spent more than two decades as a corporate manager and college professor until, in 1983, while climbing Ayer’s Rock in the Australian Outback, he decided to drop out of the corporate world, take off his suit and tie, and create an adventure travel company based on the lessons he taught his students on how to succeed in business: “keep the quality high, keep it affordable, and treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

Lee and Ellen on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

Lee and Ellen Klein hiking on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

The initial offering from The California Native was a tour billed as “The Other Los Angeles.” This day-long excursion traced the route of the San Andreas Fault from the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel Mountains without ever leaving Los Angeles County. The tours became so popular that colleges in three California counties offered them as part of their community-education programs. From this, the company expanded its offerings to include tours to the Channel Islands, Death Valley, Yosemite, and other uniquely California destinations, as well as white-water rafting, ballooning, spelunking (caving), sailplane gliding, and other outdoor adventures. “My family has lived in Los Angeles for generations,” writes Klein in the company newsletter, “hence the name The California Native.”

California Native founder, Lee Klein, rappelling in Argentina

Lee rappelling in Argentina. Hey, this is research.

Satisfying the growing client base led to the development of The California Native’s most popular destination—Mexico’s Copper Canyon. These escorted and independent tours feature the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (labeled as one of the most spectacular train rides in the western hemisphere) and highlight one of the most primitive indigenous cultures still subsisting in North America—the Tarahumara Indians. The California Native has become a leading source of information on this remote area and the company and it’s guides are known throughout the area for their work with the Tarahumara.

Today, The California Native offers a wide selection of tours to destinations including Costa Rica, Yucatan, Patagonia, Peru, the Galapagos, Ireland, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, and more destinations are in the planning stages.

“The day was overpoweringly hot, and the lake looked clear and blue: I hurried down the cindery slope, and, choked with dust, eagerly tasted the water—but, to my sorrow, I found it salt as brine.” — The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin

The soldier looked again at the terrible landscape—thorny, dry vegetation, fields of sharp broken lava, and the volcanoes, following each other as far as his dry eyes could see.

Isabela Island, named after Queen Isabela of Spain, called Albermarle Island by the British, is the largest of the many islands and islets which make up the Galapagos. Larger, at almost 1,800 square miles, than all of the other islands put together. Six volcanoes form the backbone of the island, all but one of which are active, and the island, particularly the northern part, is wild and rugged.

In 1893, Don Antonio Gil settled on the island on a plantation he called Villamil. There he dabbled in agriculture and mining, rendered turtle oil, and exploited feral cattle for their hides. He also exploited the abundant tortoises, using their shells to decorate the path up to the plantation.

Thirty miles inland on the slopes of a mountain, he established a second plantation, Santo Tomas, primarily for mining sulfur from the fumaroles in the area.

Other plantations sprung up on the island as time went on because of it´s abundant resources. It was the custom in those days for plantations such as these to employ workers who were fugitives of the law. This made discipline on the plantations very harsh. Punishments could include death or exile, and some plantation owners traded workers for cattle.

As the plantations grew in size and number of workers, the owners petitioned the government of Ecuador for police and military protection, although there had been no trouble thus far on the island. In 1902 two small garrisons were dispatched to the island, consisting of a total of 12 soldiers. Nothing much happened, and the soldiers became terribly bored. So bored, in fact, that they decided to secretly leave the island.

In 1904, eleven of the soldiers quietly set out towards the interior of the island carrying neither water or supplies, certain they would be able to find a way back to the mainland. The owners of the plantations, realizing they were gone, searched for days but never found them.

After awhile, they gave up hope and had all but forgotten about the missing soldiers, when one of them, near death, reappeared at the plantation entrance. Once nursed back to health, he explained that the soldiers left thinking that such a big island should be filled with villages, and that they would be able to find sea transport back to Guyaquil. Overtaken by hunger and thirst, they began to hallucinate, and eventually separated. None, except the one survivor, was ever seen or heard from again.

There are so many strange stories, landscapes, and creatures on these islands which inspired Charles Darwin to discover the principles of evolution. Please join us our Galapagos Islands tours.

The Flightless Cormorant is found only in the Galapagos.“Get out there and loot!” she seemed to squawk as she roughly shoved her mate out of the nest. He looked about, spotted a nest whose residents had temporarily left unattended, snatched some nesting material from it, and hurried back to his sweetie who nuzzled him appreciatively before sending him out again on another pillaging mission.

Cameras clicking away, we watched this domestic scene of Flightless Cormorants, only a few feet away from us.

Flightless Cormorants are found only on the Galapagos islands of Isabela and Fernandina. They are the largest of the cormorant species and the only ones who can’t fly. Since they have no natural predators in the Galapagos, and their food source (fish, squid octopus, eel, etc.) is easily accessible, these birds had no need to fly, and instead evolved powerful legs and short stubby wings. Since they do not produce a lot of oil, their feathers become waterlogged and so once back on land they pose with their wings spread to dry.

Their courtship “dance” is a sight to behold. The male and female circle each other in the water, eventually interlocking their long necks and making a grunting noise (the only sound these birds make). Then the female follows the male to shore, where they build their untidy nest, the male bringing items to the female to add to the nest. Eventually, three white eggs are laid, and both share the responsibility of incubating them, taking turns getting food and staying on the nest. After the chicks have hatched (and often only one survives), they continue to share the responsibilities of food and protection. Once the chicks can feed themselves, the fickle female leaves in search of a new mate, sometimes breeding three times in one year—the little tart!

In recent years, domestic animals and man have reduced the population to the point where fewer than 1000 pairs remain. They are considered endangered and efforts are being made to keep the current population of birds from decreasing further. Only in the Galapagos, with its protected environment, do we have the opportunity to watch these birds, as well as the other unique species, go about their daily routines, completely unthreatened by our presence.