Galapagos Islands: Santa CruzCerro Dragon (Dragon Hill)
Here Be Dragons!
As we round the shores of Santa Cruz, a lone gentle-sloping peak rises from the deep blue waters toward the sky. Our Frigatebird escorts soar effortlessly above our heads, playfully nipping at each other’s tails or hovering at eye-level, watching us as we watched them.
Both birds and humans seemed eager to venture towards Cerro Dragon, or Dragon Hill. There, nesting deep within the sun-burnt sand and roaming among the hearty vegetation, be golden Galapagos dragons (also more humbly known as land iguanas).
A Tricky Landing
It was risky business disembarking the panga on an outcrop of sharp, black lava rock. The swells were quite high, and our raft kept crashing into – and being carried away – from the edge. Once on land, we carefully timed a run through sinking sand before the next rushing swell swallowed our narrow pass.
Of course, a little water wouldn’t hurt. I was more worried about losing my balance and dropping my cameras into the drink. Unlike a prior vacation, they did all make it safely to the other side.
Marine iguanas, whom we’ve already met, were napping among pink and green succulents on the orange sandy shores. But these weren’t the dragons we were in search of.
Based on genetic evidence, land and marine iguanas diverged about 8–10 million years ago. And we didn’t find them hanging out together here, either. Although, they have been known to occasionally breed together, producing sterile young.
You can see the land iguana’s 2 foot wide nesting hole in the slideshow below, where they can lay anywhere from 2-22 eggs. Marine iguanas also nest like this, but with entries of just a few inches.
Our quest continued inland, around one of the longer hikes in the Galapagos Island. Along the path, we passed through several different vegetation zones with very interesting plants. Cacti, succulents, berried bushes. Each were often standing among more of their own, living in unique little ecosystems within the same general area.
Among these plants were the animals who depend upon them, such as the yellow warbler and mocking bird. Still, no dragons to be seen until …
Dragons Gone Wild!
As we rounded the corner, there they were.
A DRAGON DUO!
At roughly 3 feet long, males weighing up to 30 pounds, these two fellas were embroiled in some sort of land or love dispute. Their stand-off skills were a nod-fest in slow motion. Having no voices, they bob their heads and pace to communicate dissatisfaction. Our guide did say that they can get quite gruesome, wrestling, drawing blood and doing physical damage to faces and limbs (theirs, not ours), but these two were pretty sedate. See the video at the end of this post for the full effect.
Moving on… or not.
Instructed not to pass until the iguanas cleared the path, we stood for the better part of 15 minutes. Finally, concerned for making it off the island by park curfew, our guides had us walk slowly and carefully around them.
The iguanas didn’t mind us one bit. They just kept going on about their business. I never did find out who won. With a 50-60 year lifespan, this could still be going on.
If calm, cool and collected on the inside, their exteriors sure are adorned with fiery yellows and rust colors. I can only imagine if we had visited sooner. Our guide said that the colors you see here aren’t the brightest anymore. After breeding season, their scales flake and fade.
Fresh water is scarce on the island, so the Galapagos land iguana obtains the most of its moisture from plants. The prickly-pear cactus makes up 80% of its diet, including the flowers, fruit, pads, and even spines. (If hungry enough, they’ll also eat insects and carrion.) This yellow iguana was munching on red berries. (Again, see the video for that slow motion-action.)
High on Love on High
Tim and I took a little break up top of one of the higher Island plateaus to give each other a squeeze and say “Happy Tenth!” Our guide Billy snapped a shot to freeze the moment. Time in paradise was a most spectacular way to spend our anniversary.
It was rare for us to be on an Island for the golden hour. Curfew is 6pm – National Park rules. But, because the Iguana Battle forced us to run a little late, the light on our way past a still, sweet lagoon was magical.
We even spotted a Black-necked Stilt and a White-cheeked Pintail Duck! I love the duck’s bill. It looks like it’s caked with mud, but that’s the natural coloring.
Back from the Brink
We were very fortunate to see the land iguana’s of Dragon Hill, thanks to conservation efforts.
In 1975, feral dog packs introduced my human inhabitants nearly decimated the Cerro Dragon iguana population in less than 6 months. A breeding and rearing center was developed, but it was too small for the roughly 80 remaining adults.
Implementing a technique not used since the 1930s, thirty-eight iguanas were released on the small, nearby islets of Venecia. With no large areas suitable for nesting, roughly 100 m3 of soil was moved to Venecia from Santa Cruz to build an artificial nesting area. And they thrived.
The iguanas on Venecia continue to breed today and many of the resulting juveniles are repatriated to Santa Cruz. To keep the population healthy, the National Park does periodic cat control in critical land iguana habitat. The breeding and rearing program was considered a complete success and ended in 2008.
With that happy ending, I leave you with a few departing shots of Cerro Dragon and a short film of our time on Santa Cruz Island.
Time of Travel: June 19-26
Duration: 7 Nights
Islands Visited: San Cristobal, Genovesa, Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Isabela & Santiago
My Galapagos images featured on this blog, unfortunately, aren't for sale. This is due to restrictions by the governemnt of Ecuador.
Be aware. If you travel to the Galapagos Islands and would like to make images to be sold, you must apply and pay for a permit before you arrive in the county.