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In the wake of the Beagle

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Island hopping in the Galapagos

Lonesome George looks much older than 77, although it’s hard to tell with tortoises. A trim 200 pounds and in the prime of life he should be out cavorting with the bony belles who share his luxury pad at the Darwin Research Centre. But alas, George spends his days seeking out patches of shade – wasting the best century of his life in a dissolute state of reptilian torpor.

Like most visitors to the Galapagos Islands Betty and I made the Darwin Centre our first stop and resident naturalist Heimi is showing us around. George, he tells us, was found wandering around Pinta Island in 1972 – the last surviving member of a once thriving population on that island. Isolated from one another for thousands of years on separate Islands the Galapagos tortoises evolved into 14 different sub-species, three of which are already extinct. To we humans the differences may seem subtle and unimportant but George remains steadfastly celibate – waiting in vane for Ms. Right from his home island of Pinta. If she doesn't show up in the next hundred years or so Lonesome George will leave no offspring and his death will add another extinction to the ever growing list.

Back in the days of wooden ships and iron men, before the advent of refrigeration, tortoises like George were prized as conveniently packaged rations. Able to stay alive for up to a year without food or water, thousands of them were packed, upside down, into the holds of sailing ships as a source of fresh meat for the crew. Today the tortoises are protected and, with the aid of a captive breeding program at the Darwin Centre, some populations are being successfully re-introduced to their native haunts. But feral pigs, which eat their eggs, and goats, which compete with the tortoises for their diet of prickly pear, are still a problem.

Although their name is taken from the Spanish word for tortoise the Galapagos Islands are home to a bewildering assortment of other odd-ball creatures. When he arrived on the research vessel Beagle in 1835, Charles Darwin summed up his first impression with a diary entry: "The natural history of these islands is eminently curious." Indeed an understatement, as we discovered during our week of island hopping.

We boarded the 51-foot motor vessel Moby Dick in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz – six passengers, a crew of four, and guide Efrin. Since Ecuador made the area into a national park in 1959 all tourists who go ashore in the Galapagos must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Darwin himself could not have done a better job than Efrin. A native Ecuadorian with an intimate knowledge of the Galapagos, he made sure we were always the first boat to arrive at each site.

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