Galapagos: turtle and tortoise (lack of) romance

She was young and he was old, a mere toddler when President James Garfield was shot in 1881. To be specific, according to our guide, the male giant land tortoise was between 130 and 140 years old and approximately 800 pounds while the female was one-sixth his size and 30 years old at most.


To be more specific, male giant land tortoises do not lose virility or impulse with age. Nor do they care if humans surround them and take photos. Male giant land tortoises, when in the mood, have only one thing in mind. ( . . .  and they achieve this by a sex organ in their tails. Don’t ask.)



The female, however, wasn’t on with the same plan. Escape under his fore flipper was her only chance. We women silently encouraged her despite our mutual concern for land tortoises as an vulnerable species.

(They arrived 2-3 million years ago by drifting 600 miles from the South American coast on vegetation rafts or by floating and swimming. Once numbering between 100,000 and 200,000, now 20,000-25,000 tortoises live on the islands, up from a low of 3,000 in the 1970s.)

If impregnated, our female would spend 3 months walking across the island to dig a deep hole in the beach sand, lay her dozen or more eggs in it, and then spend 3 months returning to the center of the island. And then she repeats this for a hundred years.

Tortoises don’t do much else. DSCN3452DSCN3468They hang out in shallow ponds or stroll and nibble cactus pads, grass, and low-hanging fruit. They don’t have to eat or drink for up to a year.

Actually, not needing food or drink worked horribly against them when whalers, fur sealers, and buccaneers realized they could chuck live giant tortoises in the holds of their ships to kill whenever they wanted fresh meat – though the tortoises did have distinction of having the islands named after them. Galapagos means “saddle” in Spanish. The giant land tortoises come in two main groups: the smaller saddleback with a shell that curves downward in the middle, and the domed back with a shell that is domed. Our May-December couple was domed.



Sea turtles, on the other hand, have their own mating issues. An adult male, about 2/3rds the size of an adult female, climbs on top of the female at sea while his buddies or rivals push in. The female holds both herself and the mating male up, trying not to drown. Below you see the male on a free ride while another male is coming in from the side. The female? … well, she’s under water.


Turtles are reptiles, they have lungs, they need oxygen. Not much, but if they are active, they need a good intake every few minutes. Each mating season there are drowned females at the bottom of the coves.

I was, by chance, on site for each mating session. Like the other women, I identified  with the females and their plight. The men mostly went silent.

There was not a speck of pruning, preening, giving of gifts or flowers, no dances, no “aren’t I the cat’s meow?” Nothing. Turtles have existed for 200 to 300 million years. Evidently the need for spectacle and seduction evolved later, was only needed later. Maybe style entered in with species complexity, i.e. awareness of difference and self. My feathers are brighter than yours, my mane is bushier than yours, my Armani outdoes your L.L. Bean. I like seduction, I like gentleness. Yet . . .DSCN2452

All said, the sea turtles and giant tortoises were marvelous. Snorkeling with 12 sea turtles at one time was thrilling. They swan six inches under our bellies and slept below us. (At rest, they can go without breathing for a couple hours.)

Yes, tortoises by day, and a great chablis by night. Each to his own species.

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More tortoise and turtle photos: they pretty much all look alike.



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