I think the most striking thing about the Galapagos Islands is how cool all the animals are. Nesting Boobies gaze into your eyes, sea lions gawp through your goggles, penguins swim past your nose, giant tortoises hobble over your feet, and turtles drift past on the currents. Even a reef shark darting out of the mangroves only came to say hello. Since the archipelago gained protected status a Zen-like calm appears to have descended over its inhabitants. Though it wasn’t always so. When the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, drifted off course in 1535, accidently discovering the islands, he promptly began chomping his way through the locals. He penned a letter to King Charles of Spain telling him ‘…the birds are so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.’ Even Charles Darwin wasn’t beyond a juicy tortoise steak.
Attracted by the hordes of gold the Spanish were hauling out of the New World, pirates began operating along the Pacific Coast, in order to raid the Spanish vessels running between Peru and Panama. The Galapagos, with its abundant supply of tortoise meat, became a favourite place to resupply the larder. By 1790 the pirates had been replaced by the whalers. Captain James Colnett was commissioned by the British Government to investigate the possibility of establishing a sperm-whale fishery based on the islands. The whalers were a hungry bunch. During the 19th century it’s thought that they ate some 200,000 giant tortoises.
For our six day trip of the western islands we joined the 72 metre MV Santa Cruz. We had wanted to take a smaller boat but the sea at this time of year is pretty choppy. During the passage from Isabela Island to Santa Cruz island the glasses, cups and books on the bedside table flew across the cabin, so we were pretty happy to be on a bigger boat.
Today, some 30,000 inhabitants live on the islands. Tourism is the principal employer, followed by fisheries and farming. One of the earlier inhabitants was an Irishman called Patrick Watkins, who was marooned on Santa Maria Island in 1807. He grew vegetables, which he traded for rum with passing ships. For two years he remained as drunk as a lord, and then he stole a boat, crewed it with five slaves and sailed for the mainland. When he arrived in Guayaquil none of the slaves were with him and he never let on what happened to them. In 1891 Manual J Cobos established a sugar factory on San Cristobal. He employed prisoners and it took thirteen years before they eventually killed him. In the 1930s three groups of Germans arrived on Floreana. Baroness Wagner de Bosquet came armed with her three lovers. Another was Dr Friedlich Ritter, who pulled all his teeth out to avoid dental problems. The third to arrive were the Wittmers of Cologne, who lived in a cave vacated by pirates. One by one the settlers died in strange circumstances. The baroness and her three lovers simply disappeared. Dr Ritter ate a chicken and died a couple of days later. Only the Wittmers survived. Margret Wittmer died in 2000 at the age of 95.
Lonesome George, the last of his lineage, was quite a famous tortoise. Apparently they brought him from the island where he lived to the Charles Darwin Research Centre in the hope he would mate with the three lusty females placed in the same pen. But George was too fat to do anything other than nibble a bit of lettuce, and so they put him on a diet for six months , which did wonders for his sex drive. However, being the human equivalent of several hundred years old, unsurprisingly he was firing blanks. No matter how long the eggs remained buried nothing popped up from the earth. So, after all the dieting and the sex and the disappointments, George dropped dead – which might have told the scientists a thing or two. Hardly had George been laid to rest than the folks at the research centre imported a new stud from America. His name is ‘Super Diego’ and things are going just swell. 2000 new tortoises have been created at the research centre (not all of them by Diego). A great success! How many giant tortoises can these islands support? I never asked. I’m sure the scientists have it all under control.