The Galapagos Islands were named when Spanish sailors visited and saw giant tortoises with shells curved upward at the neck resembling a saddle or galapago. The tortoises with the saddle shells had evolved to eat vegetation that required them to stretch their necks upward. We never saw the saddlebacks, but we did see the huge dome shelled tortoises, both in the wild at Urbina Bay and at the Puerto Villamil breeding center.
Tortoises were once ubiquitous on all the islands, but as whalers sought their bounty in the Pacific Ocean, the tortoises were irresistible as a source of protein on the long sea journeys. Over 100,000 were taken for food, mainly near the coast, before the whalers found the tortoises too hard to reach — a crippling number given the slow breeding cycle for tortoises. Breeding centers are now trying to re-establish populations on some of the islands.
The other famous reptiles here are the land and marine iguanas. One species evolved for inland life, while the other demonstrates remarkable skills on the coast. The theory goes that they evolved from a common ancestor, but today look like very distant cousins.
Sea turtles dotted the coasts as well and were fairly easy to spot on snorkeling excursions. Lava lizards seemed to be everywhere, and on one shore landing, I spotted a lizard within a few feet of the Galapagos snake. On a whim, I wondered if I could scare the lizard in the direction of the snake — and surprise(!) the snake snapped the lizard and slowly constricted it. Being born in the year of the snake, I was glad to help my own.