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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.

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 1900s. 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 now sits as quiet testimony to those boom and bust years.

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

A Mysterious Sound Beckons

Walking across the island I was drawn toward 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—sat in the grass, quiet, almost holding my 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 backward 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.

(Photo by Neil Gelinas)
The happy couple in a quiet moment. (Photo by Neil Gelinas)

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!

See for yourself:

Join me for a live Twitter chat on Thursday, March 19th at 10 a.m. ET by following me at @Paul_Rose and tweeting your ocean conservation questions using #NatGeoLive!

Read All Pristine Seas: Seychelles Posts

Related News: Pitcairn Islands Become World’s Largest Single Marine Reserve

This expedition is led by National Geographic in collaboration with the Seychelles Island Foundation (SIF), the Island Conservation Society (ICS), the Islands Development Company (IDC) and the Waitt Foundation.

Thanks to Pristine Seas sponsors Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.

Comments

  1. Melanie
    New Zealand
    April 7, 4:19 am

    Wow these comments ! He wrote that he sat in the grass quietly barely breathing for fear of disturbing them… you lot make it sound like he was there with fireworks and loud cheering LOL great article.

  2. Felipe Meneses
    Ecuador
    May 6, 2015, 8:13 pm

    Dear Paul, these Giant tortoises you found in this island are two MALES! Your stalker is very curious and wants to smell you. The one you think is the girl is a young male, you can tell for 3 things: 1) size: to big for a female 2) notice the rings in each segment of the carpace, unlike your chaser, he still has more growing in the future, 3) when he turns around you
    can see the carpace above the tail, this is bent inwards, revealing once more he is another male. When maiting really happens is like a trance and he hardly will pay attention to you even though interruption is a possibility. Nice chase any how, but dont feel guilty for interruption,
    cheers

  3. Felipe Meneses
    Ecuador
    May 6, 2015, 8:11 pm

    Dear Paul, these Giant tortoises you found in this island are two MALES! Your stalker is very curious and wants to smell you. The one you think is the girl is a young male, you can tell for 3 things: 1) size: to big for a female 2) notice the rings in each segment of the carpace, unlike your chaser, he still has more growing in the future, 3) when he turns around you can see the carpace above the tail, this is bent inwards, revealing once more he is another male. When maiting really happens is like a trance and he hardly will pay attention to you even though interruption is a possibility. Nice chase any how, but dont feel guilty for interruption,
    cheers

  4. Steve Girardi
    USA
    March 24, 2015, 7:08 am

    Did you really have disturb this animal to the point it followed you for so long? Seems that someone like you should know better. Disappointed. You give inspiration to the idiots who find joy in taunting animals.
    This is a big fail in my opinion.

  5. pablo paolucci
    Argentina
    March 21, 2015, 10:48 am

    man you are a disgrace national geographic should fire. How this publication gets to new lows.
    I remember how this magazine filmed in various occations animals at risk, and make statements about non interference. And this clown disturbs mating turtles!
    you are a disgrace and should be fire, and individual such as you would never had to get near animals

  6. Kevin Kadish
    New York
    March 21, 2015, 10:26 am

    So…in an attempt to document how the ecosystem must survive humans imprint upon it, your presence prevented an endangered species from reproducing. How depressingly ironic.

  7. Susan Lawrence
    Detroit MI
    March 20, 2015, 3:39 pm

    What an outrageous thing for a NG representative to do and worse – to photograph. I am appalled, and disappointed!

  8. Sarajsh
    usa
    March 20, 2015, 4:39 am

    It should be against the law to harass endangered tortoises, especially while they are attempting to mate. You’d think this person would know better.

  9. Connie Martinez
    United States
    March 19, 2015, 8:25 pm

    I feel it was your red shorts or green bag you had on. The live to eat red flowers.

  10. Monica Ilene
    Tucson, AZ
    March 19, 2015, 7:39 pm

    Ten years from now, this guy is in his bedroom, having just finished making love to his wife, when he notices a 600 pound tortoise sticking its head through the doorway, commenting on how beautiful their mating ritual is. “How do you like it, buddy?” the tortoise demands, before gleefully sliding down the stairs and out into the night. That would be a real National Geographic Special.

  11. Aryama
    NYC
    March 19, 2015, 6:10 pm

    Did you apologize and give them a food offering for your disturbance?

  12. Taylor
    Windermere
    March 19, 2015, 5:27 am

    Brilliant Rosie love to see him turn the tables and disturb you and the lovely “J” lol

  13. Lori Morrison
    Walnut Cove NC
    March 17, 2015, 5:06 pm

    Thank you so much for the videos, articles and photos. I so enjoy following all of you. Is there some way I can have updates sent to me? I am absolutely enthralled. I can only dream of doing this!