Tree Planting and Tortoises

Today would turn out to be a very full, different and interesting day spent on Santa Cruz island.  We were up and ready and breakfasted in time for our usual departure at 8.00am; in fact, ours was the first inflatable to depart for the island.  Today we were going to see that most famous and symbolic Galápagos animal, the Giant Tortoise.

On arrival, we had a short bus ride until we were led by our guide Myra to the Charles Darwin Research Station where baby Galápagos tortoises are hatched and raised before being released back into the wild.  The tortoises have a very long lifespan, some living between 150-180 years, and the young ones are not released until their shells measure at least 21cm in length.

The Research Centre aims to preserve the delicate ecology of the islands and prevent the spread of the non-native, or ‘invasive’ species of plants and animals.  All its staff are voluntary and visitors can make a donation by purchasing various items in the on-site shop.

We looked at the tortoises in various stages of development, from tiny ones only a few inches across to larger ones that were over 100 years old.  We were quite awed to look at a creature that had been alive and kicking long before any of us had even been born.  We were quite amused by some t-shirts you could buy in the shop that had a picture of a tortoise on them with a speech-bubble coming out of its mouth saying “I knew Charles Darwin”, alluding to the great age some of them reach.  😊

We also learned all about “Lonesome George”, a famous Pinta tortoise who was discovered in 1971 and was the only one of his species, making him the rarest animal in the world.  You can read an interesting Wikipedia article about Lonesome George here.  We finished by going to see the stuffed remains of this remarkable tortoise after he was brought back to the Galápagos islands in February 2017.

After spending quite some time looking at the baby tortoises and learning all about them, Myra told us we now had some free time to spend; we would meet later on at the fish market in the town.  She said we couldn’t get lost; all we had to do was make sure the ocean was always on our left hand side.

We walked along the road at a leisurely pace, with the tang of salt in our nostrils and the soporific, unceasing sounds of the sea washing onto the shore.  Eventually we came to the town and walked along, looking in the shop windows at the unusual little souvenirs and the enjoying the shabby-chic charm of the place.

We casually strolled among the shops and I bought a necklace and earring set I liked the look of; we then continued ambling along until our noses told us we were near the fish market.  We saw some guys stacking crates of fresh lobsters and langoustines, and nearby we saw several pelicans and a large sea-lion who had obviously been attracted by the smell of the fish.  Small boats bobbed on the shoreline and once again we were captivated by the scene.

We wandered further along to the end of the road, and a large square, before making our way back to the fish market to meet up with our guide and the rest of our party.

Afterwards we retured to the bus for the next exciting part of our adventure, something we’d never participated in before – tree planting.  We were each going to the Galápagos highlands to plant a tree of the Scalesia genus, a tree endemic to the Galápagos.

After a journey of about 20 minutes, in which we climbed higher and the landscape gave way to more trees, bushes and flowers, we arrived at the planting site, and we first of all had to exchange our trainers for a pair of Wellington boots that we’d reserved in advance with our sizes.  We found a mesh bag marked “416” (our cabin number), which contained a pair of wellies each for Trevor and me.  One we’d donned our wellies we were each given a trowel, then an immature plant and a cork label, marked “Xpedition” plus a unique number, and we ventured into the forest where several holes had already been dug in which we were to plant our trees.

We each selected a hole, then knelt to our task, the scent of freshly-dug earth in our noses.  We planted our little trees, tied the labels on loosely (to allow for growth), the took a photo for posterity.  I was enchanted by the thought that these plants would flourish and grow, and form full trees long after Trevor and I had departed this earth.  Amazing!

After everyone had planted their trees, we all handed our wellies back in and reclaimed our trainers before boarding the bus once more for a visit to The Ranch, a large open-sided restaurant set in acres of rough grass and some trees and small pools.  On our way, we could already see several of the famed Galápagos giant tortoises at every stage of growth.  These were the wild ones, out in their natural habitat.  Several times the bus had to slow right down because a large tortoise had wandered into the side of the road.  😊

We arrived at the Ranch (in fact our bus was the first one to arrive) and we made a bee-line to wash the remains of the soil from our hands before lunch.  We were then shown to our long table and offered, juice, water, wine or beer before being invited to help ourselves to some fresh sliced fruits from the buffet.

This was then followed by a delicious meal consisting of Ecuadorian ceviche, various meats, vegetables, rice or quinoa and followed by crème caramel, a sort of milk pudding, or sticky cake, all washed down with another chilled glass of vino blanco.  😊

Afterwards we were all entertained by a group of children and young people, who were dressed in traditional Ecuadorian costumes and who performed a series of lively songs and dances for us.  At the end, they asked members of the audience to get up with them; I was dragged up to dance by a teenaged Ecuadorian boy, with whom I found it impossible to keep up.  It was all good fun though; a fantastic meal and fabulous entertainment.

After we all assembled outside once again, we had to put on another pair of Wellingtons because this time we were taking a walk around, looking at the giant tortoises in the wild.  There were quite a few of them, and you had to be careful not to get too close to startle them, otherwise they’d retract their heads into their shells.  We got lots of great photographs of what is probably the Galápagos most famous icon.

Then we were all back on the bus for around 3.30pm for a ride back to the pier.  The Zodiacs were going to be leaving every 30 minutes (until 6.30pm) to take us back to the Xpedition if we wanted to stay later.  Trevor and I had seen and done so much today already though, and in the back of our minds was the niggling reminder that we’d have to make a start with our packing, as tonight was our last night on board this beautiful vessel.  ☹

We arrived back to the Xpedition around 3.45pm, and went back to cabin 416 to get showered and changed, and chuck a few things in the cases that we wouldn’t need again this cruise.  Then we had a couple of drinks in the fairly quiet Discovery Lounge, where a local artist had been invited to display his original paintings and other crafts.  The paintings all featured Galápagos wildlife and colours in all their glory, and were not bad value at $180.00 each, however we simply have no available wall-space left at home on which to hang them, so we had to give it a miss.

We returned our cabin for a half-hour power nap, then met up later on with Jeff and Jan for the “Best Pictures of the Cruise” slide-show which was to be shown in the Discovery Lounge.  This was a PowerPoint slideshow featuring the best of the photos that our naturalists had taken over the duration of the voyage, and each colourful photo elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience, accompanied by panpipe and Latin music.  The slideshow featured all of Mother Nature’s Galápagos wonders and creatures in all their splendour, and it brought a gigantic lump to my throat, particularly when the show ended with the sight of the Ecuadorian flag flying from the rear mast of the Xpedition as the sun went down over the Pacific.  Oh wow – how completely privileged had we all been to be a part of this?

After the show, we were surprised and delighted when Monica, the cruise director, announced that each of us would receive a USB stick containing a copy of the slideshow, as well as all the other photos that had been taken, a recipe for Ecuador ceviche, and recipes for some of the many cocktails we’d enjoyed on this incredible voyage of discovery. What a lovely gesture on the part of Celebrity Cruises.  😊

After the show there was a brief Farewell Cocktail party at which we were joined by Captain Fausto Pacheco and some of his officers, and they thanked us all for coming and hoped we’d be back on a Celebrity ship soon.   Then it was time to go to dinner, and everyone made the most of our “last supper” before going back to our cabins to finish the packing and seal our cases; which would be taken ashore at 5.00am tomorrow morning for the flight back to Quito.

We ended the evening by going along to the Discovery Lounge with Jeff and Jan, and were surprised to find the place nearly empty; we thought everyone would have been making the most of the last evening.

Then around 11.30pm we settled down in cabin 416 for our final night aboard the fabulous Celebrity Xpedition.

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