Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

| January 10, 2011 | 9 Comments
This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Exploring the Galapagos

December 22: South Plaza/Santa Fe. Dry landing at South Plaza. Home of land iguanas, sea lions, tropical birds, split trail seagulls and marine iguanas. Afternoon to Santa Fe Island. Wet landing at Santa Fe. Also called Barrington, Santa Fe is characterized by the presence of the largest species of the giant opuntia cactus. Animal species include the Santa Fe land iguana and the hard-to-spot Galapagos rice rat.

South Plaza is a small island off the east coast of Santa Cruz. It’s tiny, with an area of 0.13 km˛ and a maximum altitude of 23 meters. To say that South Plaza is quite unlike any other island in the Galapagos underscores the amazing diversity of the islands. Just a stone’s throw from Santa Cruz, South Plaza’s Sesuvium ground vegetation gives the island its otherworldly looks as it changes its color from intense green in the rainy season to orange and purple in the dry season. Despite its small size, it is home to a large number of species and it is notable for its extraordinary flora.


south plaza island galapagos Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

South Plaza’s Sesuvium ground vegetation gives the island its otherworldly looks.

Its large colony of Galapagos land iguana contrasts against the islands’ brilliant red undergrowth and its prickly pear cactus trees dot the landscape as the island rises from the sea, sloping before falling off into the water. A sheer 20 metre cliff on the island’s north face plays host to thousands of shore birds—on the steep banks it is possible to see a great number of birds such as nesting Swallow-Tailed Gulls and Red-billed Tropicbirds.

south plaza land iguana galapagos Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Galapagos Land Iguana, South Plaza Island

Not endemic to the Galapagos, Red-billed Tropicbirds disperse widely when not breeding, and sometimes wander far—one has recently been found in eastern Nova Scotia, Canada and another sighting was confirmed on Lord Howe Island near Australia in November 2010! They feed on fish and squid, but are poor swimmers. At first, we spot an airborne adult in the distance. But before too long, Kathryn spots a couple nesting in the crags of rock—they’ve been given away by their tailfeathers that were jutting out from the sheer cliff—a thin vein of white against the deep black of the volcanic rock.


sesuvium surf south plaza Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Sesuvium and surf as seen from the cliffs of South Plaza.

On our way back to the beach (home to hundreds of sea lions), we slip across rocks stained white by sea lion excrement which has, over the years, been ground into the rocks to form a sediment that has been polished into a lustrous white. It was beautiful, considering it was just a patina of shit!


south plaza island prickly pear Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Prickly Pear Cactus on the slope of South Island.

For the rest of the morning, we spend our time whale watching as we sail from South Plaza to Santa Fe Island. At first glance, Santa Fe sports a brilliant bay whose azure waters are crystal clear. The vegetation of the island is characterized by brush, palo santo trees and stands of a large variety of the prickly pear cactus Opuntia echios. Geologically it is one of the Galapagos’ oldest islands since volcanic rocks of about 4 million years old have been found.


santa fe sea lion Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Part of the Sea Lion welcoming party at Santa Fe!

Later in the afternoon, we’d snorkel from the Millenium, but first we headed off to explore the island on foot. Among animals, Santa Fe is home to one endemic species and one endemic subspecies—the Barrington Land Iguana and the Santa Fe Rice Rat.

Santa Fe is visually arresting—the land iguanas here are shy—and we spot just a few. It is our wet landing, however, that is most incredible. The beach is populated by a ‘mob’ of sea lions—and three circling Galapagos sharks—each about nine feet or so. Galapagos sharks are active predators—and are often encountered in large groups. They feed mainly on bottom-dwelling bony fishes; however, larger individuals have a much more varied diet, consuming other sharks, marine iguanas and sea lions—but thankfully not snorkelers. Regardless the sharks are a highlight, if not a little unnerving, considering that we were planning to snorkel the same bay! Elsewhere, Pacific Green Sea Turtles are feeding in the surf. We head inland, searching for Santa Fe’s land iguana and a special variety of rice rat that feeds on fallen cactus pads. While our walk didn’t turn up any rats, we do spot half a dozen land iguanas in addition to Galapagos Doves and sharp beaked ground finches. These finches are notable in that those on the islands of Darwin and Wolf have adapted to feed on the blood of large birds, notably boobies—gaining it the common name Vampire Finch. The subspecies on Santa Fe do not exhibit this behavior, however, instead feeding mainly on insects and fallen seeds.


daniel sea lion santa fe Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Daniel with Sea Lions at Santa Fe.

We return to the beach, where twenty or so sea lions are swimming and barking nervously at the circling sharks. After a few minutes spent at the beach, we head back to the Millennium aboard a panga to gear up.

The bay in which we find ourselves is enclosed on three sides by a rocky coastline and a beach at the far end. After donning our gear, we slip quietly from the pangas into the middle of the bay over top a coral head that’s home to a couple of Pacific Green Sea Turtles. Elsewhere, Marble Rays cruise the floor of the bay. The first thing you notice about the Marble Ray is its great size. It can be 3 m (10 ft) in length and 1.7 m (6 ft) wide. Round in shape, it is covered with a dense pattern of black spots. It’s not aggressive but our guide Mauricio reminds us to be mindful of the spikes on it tail.


prickly pear cactus Day Four: The Sights of South Plaza and Santa Fe

Prickly Pear Cactus at Santa Fe Island.

We hang close to the rockly coastline where eels uncoil from rocky crags and schools of Surgeonfish pass by. The distinctive characteristic of the Surgeonfish is its spines, one or more on either side of the tail, which are dangerously sharp. Their small mouths have a single row of teeth for grazing on algae. Shortly after reaching the head of the bay, a 2.5 m (8 ft) Galapagos Shark passes us by in the opposite direction—showing some interest in us but stay off a good ten feet or so. When provoked or threatened, it is said, the shark will exhibit a ‘hunched back’ posture, bowing itself up as if it was hunched at the shoulders, swimming in a classic figure 8 pattern. Instead, the shark just cruises on by. While we were awed by the experience, we were more than a little relieved when it moved off. We continued onward, emboldened by our shark experience, and happened upon thousands of black striped salema. Sea lions were diving down through their numbers, disappearing as the small fish parted like curtains and the sea lions were quickly lost in the depths. A second Galapagos Shark passed us by—and although we saw it approach from far off—the advanced waring was no less reassuring. This one circled behind us and compelled us to kick a little faster so that we could snorkel alongside our guide, Mauricio. The snorkeling at Santa Fe was incredible, and the visibility allowed us to easily see thirty or feet down.

That night we went to bed thinking that our adventure in the Galapagos had reached its pinnacle. But what’s amazing about the Galapagos is that every day seems to exceed the previous one. We were, simply, mesmerized every day we spent in the islands!

Disclosure: At Two Go Round-The-World, we value the conversation that exists between us and our readers—and the trust on which that relationship is based. Here we’re committed to creating an environment informed by that trust. In the interests of full disclosure, we travelled with Gap Adventures, with whom Daniel works. That being said, his opinions should not be construed as representing those of his employer. For more information on disclosures and relationships, please check our ‘About Us‘ page.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (9)

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  1. Zablon Mukuba says:

    these are really love photos, the sea lion looks really cute. i really want to go there

  2. Love your Galapagos post series… they’re slowly changing our mind about visiting the islands. Bookmarked this for future ref!

    • Daniel says:

      Hey Jill! This is a long-delayed reply — but, man — the Galapagos are certainly worth it. If you’re considering it, though — consider a sea-based trip. The great advantage of a sea-based trip is that you’ll sleep on the boat and cover a lot of distance, waking up in a new remote spot every morning. It’s also very comfortable. The better the boat, the further it will be able to go in the short time available. You’ll probably get a better qualified guide with more languages here, too.

  3. Emily says:

    What incredible, colorful photos! It really does look other-worldly. I think I would completely freak out if I found out I was snorkeling in the same bay as sharks! But how fun to get that close to sea lions in their natural habitat. And that iguana is wild looking. I can’t wait to visit!

  4. Tijmen says:

    Sounds like a great destination to visit, not so sure about snorkeling between sharks though :)

  5. Rebecca says:

    The thing I find amazing about the Galapagos is the variety of landscapes there! In the photos if each post, the land looks totally different.

  6. Amer says:

    wow..loved your photos of Galapagos. The landscape looks pretty much unreal. I mean look at all of the animals wandering freely around. How fantastic to see that!

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Amer! By virtue of the crazy variety of wildlife there, the Galapagos can make a great photographer of anyone. Hence, the islands are going to have to take credit on that front. If it plays out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ll remember it forever — at the same time, I hope to get back someday!

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