Galapagos travel has been linked to the giant tortoises that have roamed the islands since time immemorial. Apart from the brief visit by Spanish conquistador Tomás de Berlanga —it was he who hinted at calling the islands “Galápagos” in honor of the reptilian inhabitants —pirates and navigators, for centuries, made crucial, strategic stops here to collect as many tortoises as possible, which would serve as food during their long bouts at sea.
These giant tortoises were actually called Galapagos because their shells resembled a “galápago”, or saddle, in old Castilian Spanish. One wonders if the Spaniards ever tried to ride them. In any case, we’ve definitely seen many Galapagos black-and-white pictures showing early colonizers sitting on top of the tortoises’ shells, a disturbing vision indeed, especially with the advent of ecotourism – a fundamental pillar of Galapagos Safari Camp.
How the Giant Tortoise Became Endangered
Our environmental awareness has certainly come a long way. When the earliest visitors arrived, the giant tortoise population was about 250,000 to 300,000 individuals throughout the archipelago. Enough to make them instantly findable, for sure. They were, of course, too slow to escape their captors and thus thousands were seized, resulting in the extinction of giant tortoises on several islands. Today, great efforts are employed to save the emblematic species and its many subspecies from extinction. The current population stands at around 20,000 individuals.
The Best Places to See the Giant Tortoise
Thankfully, we can visit the islands and still get to see these spectacular reptiles not only at their breeding centers, but in the wild, as well. Tortoises are not always easy to find during Galapagos travel. You have to be at the right place, of course. At first, they may even deceive you, since they can look like large boulders nestled in the grass when seen from afar. But you’ll know what you’re looking at soon enough. An encounter with one of these ancient beasts is unforgettable as they fascinate us with their dinosaur-like presence, gargantuan size, gentle demeanor and bizarre face (which, by the way, was the inspiration behind Spielberg’s classic character E.T.).
Extra-terrestrial or Galapagos tortoise?
Famous Giant Tortoises in the Galapagos
Wonderfully prehistoric, the largest tortoises can reach up to 400 pounds in weight, two meters in length, and can live up to over 150 years in age. A famous Galapagos tortoise Harriet, lived to 176 years old and died in 2006! She was purportedly brought from the Galapagos to Europe by Charles Darwin (although this story is most likely untrue) and spent her final days in a zoo in Australia, property of none other than Steve Irwin, the ill-fated crocodile hunter. And one cannot mention the Galapagos tortoise without a nod to Lonesome George [https://www.galapagossafaricamp.com/newsblog/lonesome-george-a-galapagos-islands-vacation-legend/], the last La Pinta tortoise who failed to procreate, thus rendering his subspecies extinct. Quite unlike fellow celebrity Diego, a stallion of an Española giant tortoise who fathered some 800 offspring.
Charles Darwin and the Giant Tortoise
A major aspect of the Galapagos tortoise’s biology is “subspeciation” according to the island in which they live. Today, there are ten subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild. Each tortoise subspecies found on a different island. It is a curious fact that Charles Darwin did not base his evolutionary hypotheses on this fact, even when, during his visit to Galapagos, he was told just that that each tortoise was different, that some had longer necks, others different-shaped shells. Of course, now we know that through adaptation, each tortoise develops different characteristics as part of their evolutionary process. But Darwin made no mention of it in his seminal book On the Origin of Species.
A Galapagos Icon
A true Galapagos travel icon, Galapagos tortoises are also an almost spiritual presence in the islands. They may seem a little like the Buddhist monks of the natural world. They move slowly, they hide inside their shells, and have seen so much of the world … they certainly seem wise as we come face to face with them during Galapagos travel. Who really knows what they sense and see behind those beady eyes?
Plan your Galapagos Island Vacation!
See our Safari Holidays for our suggested Galapagos itineraries and recommended activities, including plenty of time to get to stroll among these gentle giants in their natural habitat.