Unraveling the Mysteries of the Darwin Volcano Tortoises, Part II

December 9, 2019

By Diego Andino Robalino, Biologist and Naturalist Guide with the Galapagos National Park Directorate. Leer en español.

Darwin Volcano tortoise

When you are born in Galapagos, you feel that you not only belong to an ecosystem unique in the world but that you also have a duty to protect it. In my case, while I like everything about Galapagos, I particularly love giant tortoises. So from my perspective, to document their natural history and share what we learn is the best way to raise awareness about the conservation of these magnificent reptiles. Enlisted as a volunteer for the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the giant tortoise census on Darwin Volcano this year, which allowed me to traverse some of the most hostile and challenging terrain on Isabela Island — but also to be one of the few human beings to ever have had the privilege of visiting this place.

The expedition lasted ten days, but prior to the trip weeks of preparation were necessary. Once the time came, the expedition launched aboard the R / V Sierra Negra, the Galapagos National Park’s ship. The trip from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz took 11 hours of navigation to arrive at the base of the volcano, anchoring on the coast in Beagle Crater. From there, teams were distributed into ten different research quadrants assigned by GTRI Director Wacho Tapia, the Expedition Leader, with the help of a helicopter.

Sierra Negra ship

The Park’s ship, the “Sierra Negra”

Prior to the trip, we were warned that the difficulty level of working in the terrain would be high. But only when the helicopter left us in our search zone did my team and I understand how difficult this work would be. Although the landscape was beautiful, it had almost no vegetation in which to build a camp, so we were forced to look for a place that would give us at least some shade and also be located in such a way that made the daily search for tortoises a little easier. We were on the southern flank of the volcano 600 meters above sea level. About a kilometer away, we sighted some Palo Santo trees to protect us from the scorching sun. Then we started the long march from our drop-off point with all our equipment and provisions on our backs. The area that became our home was also home to a male land iguana who kept us company during our stay, which was a great privilege.

During the expedition days, we had encounters with many species such as vermillion flycatchers, finches and mockingbirds. We even heard the singing of several cuckoos. But the most impressive was the great abundance of land iguanas. Never in my life had I seen so many together! At this time of the year (garúa season), the tortoises migrate to the highest and wettest areas. Although our group found few tortoises, we managed to cover our search zone and help unravel the mysteries of the Darwin Volcano’s endemic species of tortoises, about which little was known before this expedition.

Land iguana on Darwin volcano

A land iguana kept the author’s search team company at camp

Although we were in a pristine place, not everything was just flora, fauna and spectacular landscapes. As my companions Wilson Villafuerte and Novarino Castillo were searching for tortoises among some very rough lava-fields, we found remains from a former military team (backpacks, cans, toothpaste, stakes for tents and old bullets).

Among the many old and not very well documented stories, there is one that in the 1970’s as part of military training, it was common to put difficult tasks on soldiers in training such as surviving long crossings of complex terrain. This was the case of 11 soldiers who were left in Punta Albermarle, on a volcano above on the northern tip of Isabela Island, and had to reach Caleta Tagus on the West side of our volcano to be picked up. This turned out to be physically impossible, the mission failed, two men died and the rest returned to Punta Albermarle, where they were rescued by a tourist boat. I’m not sure if the things found belonged to this group or another, but what is clear is that the remains found belonged to the military. 

Military gear found on Darwin

Military gear from nearly 50 years ago found on Darwin by the author and his team

Without a doubt, this was one of the best experiences of my life. The trip left us unforgettable memories, with the taste of adventure and much intrigue from walking in unexplored places; from lava fields without a single plant to extremely dense forests composed of just the spiny branches of the shrub cat’s claw. I hope to have the opportunity again to contribute to the conservation of Galapagos tortoises and to be part of another expedition. In the meantime, I enjoy the satisfaction of duty fulfilled and the recollections of a unique expedition and that I and none of the participants will forget.


Diego RobalinoDiego Andino Robalino is a holds a Biology degree from the Central University of Ecuador and is a Naturalist Guide with the Galapagos National Park Directorate. He is also a photographer and is passionate about wildlife.

All photos © GTRI

Read more about the expedition team’s findings on Darwin Volcano.



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  1. Thank you for the hard work you are doing. The article is nicely written, interesting and informative. I love the photos. Keep doing the work you obviously love, and know that you are making positive changes in an important area of the world. Even small steps over time make large differences that can have a lasting effect.

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