By guest author Ellen Smith, a Galapagos Conservancy member of 20 years. I am sitting in the cabin of a small boat, the Lancha Gema, along with snugly fitted five-gallon water jugs, expedition gear, and two milk crates filled with precious cargo. Five tortoises from the Galapagos National Park’s tortoise center on Santa Cruz are in the crates and they are about to be released on Santa Fe Island. The tortoises and I are Santa Fe bound on the June 2016 Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) expedition — part of a multi-year project led by Galapagos Conservancy in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with the purpose of restoring Galapagos tortoise populations throughout the Islands. My connection to Galapagos began as a little girl. I first visited the Islands at age nine after persuading my parents that it would be a good family vacation. That first visit lived up to my expectations — that the Galapagos was the best place in the world to view reptiles. I have returned an additional four times as a tourist but always wondered what it would be like to be off the trail and see what the scientists see. Participating in this kind of activity in Galapagos, especially in the field, is a very carefully vetted process. After discussions and interviews with Dr. Linda Cayot, GC’s science advisor, and Wacho Tapia, director of the GTRI, I was able to join the GTRI Santa Fe team. I hope to return to help again in the future. The moment we hit the rocky beach on Santa Fe was as electrifying as the first time I stepped ashore there as a little girl. Our landing was dramatic compared to that of a tourist. The rocks made disembarking difficult and then we had to carry all of the gear up a cliff! However, when we made it to the top and I realized where we would be camping, it was already worth the effort. The top of the cliff had breathtaking views of the ocean. The terrain was covered with cactus trees. Our camp sat in the middle of the territory of a Santa Fe land iguana, who was ever-present during our stay. At night the endemic rice rats came to life, curious about the new guests that had come to share their home for the week. I fell asleep each night to the sound of barking sea lions from the beach below. It was paradise. This excitement carried me through the next six days of field work. What made the trip for me was the sheer number of Galapagos tortoises, land iguanas, and lava lizards at the research site. We were definitely working in an ideal habitat for Galapagos reptiles. We had six days to find as many tortoises and land iguanas as possible. I worked with Wacho Tapia for the first two days and then with James Gibbs for the rest of the trip. They were both good teachers, as they set the pace and ensured we obtained quality data. My favorite tortoise find of the week was what I call “cave tortoise.” Wacho and I were doing radio telemetry work together — searching for the thirty tortoises released last year with radio tags on their backs. The insistent signal meant a tortoise was right in front of me. I stared and stared at a wall of rocks but couldn’t see it. I then thought of the hiding places of my pet guinea pigs and hamsters. At last, I noticed a small hole in the rocks with a pair of eyes looking out at me. I had to reach my arm all the way up to my shoulder and gently prod him to come out of his hiding place. The week of spectacular wildlife, hard work, new friends, and physical challenges was an adventure. Once again, I found myself captured by the Galapagos. When it comes to reptiles, Galapagos is the most magical place on earth. Ellen Smith has been a member of Galapagos Conservancy for twenty years. She traveled with Galapagos Conservancy on their cruise to the western islands in January 2016. She is an avid traveler and has visited over seventy countries. All photos © Ellen Smith except author photo © Wacho Tapia.
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