Never, Ever Interrupt Mating Giant Tortoises!

(Photo by Neil Gelinas)
Run like shell. (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.

There’s Probably a Newly Washed Car Under Here Somewhere

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.

They’re big, and they’re not fast, but this guy was serious. (Photo by Neil Gelinas)

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 —> Read More