James O'Neill's Blog

June 25, 2012

Lonesome George

Filed under: Uncategorized — jamesone111 @ 3:15 pm

At Easter I was in the Galapagos Islands; work had taken me to Ecuador diving in the Galapagos was too good an opportunity to miss. Mainland Ecuador was a country I knew little about and two weeks working in the capital (Quito, just South of the Equator, and 10,000 feet up in the Andes) doesn’t qualify me as an expert. The client there was a good one to work with, and what I saw of the city (a bunch of Taxi rides and a bus tour on the one day we weren’t working) mean I’d go back if asked. Travel wasn’t good and the return flights so bad that I’ve vowed never to fly with Iberia again. Flying to the islands the plane had a problem which meant if it landed it couldn’t take off again so having got within sight of the islands we had to go all the way back to Quito and get another plane. Down at sea level the heat was ferocious, the transportation scary and the insect bites the worst I’ve had. But the diving… different kinds of Sharks (including a close encounter with a group of Hammerheads), Seal Lions, Turtles, Rays (including a Manta encounter on the very first dive which set the tone) – I’d put up with a lot for that. And if some search engine has steered you here, I dived with Scuba Iguana, and if I manage to go back I’ll dive with them again.

The Scuba place was pretty much next door to the Darwin station: home of giant tortoises and a tortoise breading programme. Galapagos comes from the Spanish word for saddle because the shape of the giant tortoise’s shell looked like a traditional saddle. I also learnt that some languages – including Spanish – don’t have distinct words for Tortoise and (Marine) Turtles.  The sex of tortoises is determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate and the breeding programme gathers eggs, incubates them to get extra females, and looks after the baby tortoises keeping them safe human introduced species (like rats) which feed on eggs and baby tortoises. Each island’s tortoises are different so the eggs and hatchlings are marked up so they go back to right island. But there is no breeding programme for Pinta island (also named Abingdon island by the Royal Navy. According to a story told by Stephen Fry on QI, sailors ate giant tortoises and found them very good.)  A giant Tortoise was found on Pinta; but a search over several years failed to find a second. So he – Lonesome George, was brought to the Darwin station in the 1970s. No one knows for sure how he was then. All efforts to find a mate for him failed: so George lived out his final decades as the only known example of  Geochelone nigra abingdoni  the Pinta Galapagos tortoise.
On Easter Sunday I walked up see George and the giants from other islands who live at the station. George was keeping out of the sun; he shared an enclosure and I wondered what he made of the other species – if somewhere in that ancient reptile brain lurked a memory of others just like him, a template into which the other tortoises didn’t quite fi.

Later in trip I was asked to help with some work on survey being prepared about Hammerhead sharks. I was told they estimated as having a 20% chance of becoming extinct in the next 100 years. This statistic is quite hard to digest: my chances of being extinct in 100 years are close to 100%: so my contribution to the survey was suggest that telling people if things continue as they are the chances of seeing Hammerheads on a dive in 5 years will be X amount less than today. It’s not fair, but we care more about some species than others and I hope there will still be Hammerheads for my children to see in a few years. Sadly they won’t get the chance to see the Pinta Tortoise.

1 Comment

  1. Unfortunately Lonesome George is no more so you were one of the last people to see him alive: http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CF4QFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fworld-18574279&ei=8uvqT4-NKIO1hAeR9NzQBQ&usg=AFQjCNFjNaDgQVCREq4csDp8mtDzhDCRXw&sig2=bmh7BOdt4_Ea9OiyeeYuXQ

    Seeing iconic animals like this, the black rhino and the Yangtze river dolphins going extinct in our lifetime (in a space of only a few years too) makes me fear for our planet. What are we doing?

    Comment by Joe Hayhurst — June 27, 2012 @ 11:20 am

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