As the sweat pooled in my rubber boots, we followed our guide in search of giant tortoises through the Highlands of Santa Cruz, the second largest of the Galapagos Islands. Giant tortoises once thrived on most continents but now the Galapagos tortoise represents only one of two remaining groups in the world. You will have to take a trip to the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean to visit the other.
We spotted many of the massive creatures with shells revealing their locations among the lush green grass. Spending up to 16 hours per day resting, the giant tortoise is driven by the search of shade and food availability.
“Is that a cow?” Came my query upon hearing what this farm girl recognized as bovine banter. Our guide smiled as she said ” It sounds like a cow but you are in for a treat!”
Male tortoises make a low moaning or mooing like sound while mating. It is the only vocalization ever heard from tortoises. The female is silent. Go figure.
What we had come across was a very steamy, and I might say awkward, romantic encounter, Galapagos tortoise style. The male tortoise, weighing in the vicinity of 500 pounds, rhythmically romanced his far smaller female companion underneath.
The female tortoise appeared to be playing very hard to get. Her head, and I might suggest other parts, drawn into her shell so far one wonders if the male tortoise with his mooing melody had fallen for a rock.
Breeding season for the tortoises is primarily during the hot season of January to May. Our encounter was in June so apparently these two had not read the guide book.
Once the cool season arrives, June to November, the female tortoises migrate to lay their eggs in nesting areas. There she prepares the hole with her hind feet, then lays the eggs in the hole or next she has dug. Lastly she covers it again with her hind feet. The clever girl manages all this without seeing what she is doing.
The giant tortoise has the astounding ability to survive without water or food for as long as one year. This marvelous adaptation became the near demise of the giant tortoise when whalers and explorers discovered they could store live tortoises in their ships for long voyages and then have fresh meat during the journey. The gigantic exploitation of tortoises began.
At the same time giant tortoises were also exploited for their oil used for lamps on the mainland of Ecuador. Over two centuries it is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 tortoises were killed.
Three species of giant tortoises became extinct and in 2012, with the death of Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise, four species of the giant tortoise were lost forever. Today the Galapagos Conservatory group estimates there are 20,000 to 25,000 giant tortoises on the islands.
In our chance encounter, with the bellowing from the male echoing in the steamy forest, whether the female could speak or not she was getting her message across. Giving her suitor the cold shoulder, or in this case the cold shell, she managed to wiggle away.
In a slow motion chase she made a run for it with her much larger beau in hot pursuit. Worn out from his noisy escapades he didn’t have a chance in this steamy game.
There sat the lovelorn giant tortoise.
He was just trying to do his bit to sustain the population numbers.