The Giant Tortoises

The happy couple in a quiet moment. (Photo by Neil Gelinas). At 183 years old, Jonathan the Aldabra tortoise is the oldest known living animal in the world, and I’ve just had an unexpected encounter with one of his younger relatives here on Assumption Island.

I’ve come as leader of the National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to the Seychelles, an archipelago north of Madagascar. We’re here to study and document the untouched ecosystem underwater, but before we get down there, the stories and animals on the islands themselves are keeping us plenty busy.

50 Feet of What?

At only 4.3 square miles, Assumption is a small, quiet, island slowly recovering from the devastating guano extraction industry in the early 1900’s. This encrusted white layer of bird droppings 50 feet thick was valuable as a source of phosphorous for farming elsewhere in the world. After clearing nearly every single tree the island became a highly productive and profitable factory producing 160,000 tons of guano by first taking the easy pickings of the deep seams and then by scraping every single rock by hand. The guano business collapsed when ammonia based fertilizer was invented, but by then it was too late for Assumption Island, the natural ecosystem had collapsed and it sits as quiet testimony to those boom and bust years.

A Mystery Sound Beckons

Walking across the island I was drawn towards a powerful rhythmic grunting coming from dense bushes and was delighted to find that it was two giant tortoises mating—a beautiful thing to witness. I did the obvious and together with Neil Gelinas, our film producer, we sat in the grass, quiet, almost holding our breath for fear of disturbing them.

Inevitably the gigantic male (which can weigh up to 660 pounds—and this one was very close to that weight), spotted or smelled us and with a look and an attitude that we can all understand came over to exert his rights to the female, his bit of the island, and some privacy.

I assumed that he would get close and then back off once he realized that he was up against two wonderful specimens at the top of the food chain. But there was absolutely no stopping him—he got close, very close, close enough that his snorting and spitting plus the look in his enraged eyes above his snapping powerful beak made us retreat in a panic.

Making Our Getaway

Panic over I walked backwards out of the bushes and he kept coming—there was no doubt that he would not stop until he had seen me off the island preferably with significant pieces missing from my legs. And so we began a ludicrous, disconcerting, low-speed chase that took us across the low grass stubble and the adjacent concrete runway, and alongside the bushes. If I hadn’t put on a good finishing sprint we would still be at it.

The presence and vitality of these tortoises serves as a reminder that given a chance, even in a once devastated ecosystem, nature will rebuild. The male’s fierce response to our presence nearby also reminds me to never, ever interrupt a mating session!