The Galapagos tortoises are the largest tortoises in the world, and they’re an unforgettable sight for all visitors to the Galapagos Islands. In fact, these huge land tortoises might be the origin of the name Galapagos, as early visitors to the island observed tortoises with a saddle-shaped shell, with “galapago” being a word for saddle. Although these unique creatures were once plentiful, disturbance by humans means that the Galapagos tortoises have now diminished to only 10 subspecies left in the wild. The rarest of the Galapagos tortoises is the Pinta Island tortoise, of which there is only one known specimen, Lonely George, who now lives in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. If you happen to find another Pinta Island tortoise, be sure to notify the park authorities, as you will collect a reward for such a rare and valuable discovery!
A good place to see the giant Galapagos tortoises is on the island of Santa Cruz, one of the first places most visitors will stay in the Galapagos Islands. The giant tortoise reserve is within walking distance from Puerto Ayora, and you have a good chance of seeing the gigantic land tortoises. You will notice that different Galapagos tortoises throughout the islands have different characteristics. Some have a domed back shell, while others display the signature saddleback, which evolved to enable the tortoises to reach up higher for food.
There are also many excellent places to find Galapagos Islands turtles, if you would like to see the ocean-bound cousins of the land tortoises. A good place to look for them is Gardner Bay, a popular large beach on Isla Espanola, where the Galapagos Islands turtles nest and have their young. See if you can spot some of the tiny youngsters trying to make their way to the ocean, or swim with the larger adults in the water while snorkeling or scuba diving.