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.