Santa Fe and South Plaza


Giant cactus forest

This morning we woke facing the small, low island of Santa Fe, another of the older islands, located in the south-east of the archipelago. The beach was littered with the inevitable sea lions, and we soon saw our first land iguanas. These live on the fruit of the local species of giant Opuntia cactus, with their bright yellow flowers. They are more solitary than their marine relatives, and are very territorial for their own cactus.  Males and females lead separate lives with each having its own solitary burrow, where they spend the night to avoid losing  body temperature.  There is evidence that there were once giant tortoises on the island, but they are now extinct here.

The presence of skeletons of birds and sea lions reminds us that despite the laid back appearance of the animals we see, there is still a cycle of life and death.  In contrast, we we were fortunate to see a land iguana “having lunch”, munching on a cactus fruit.


After wandering through the cactus forest to the cliffs where we saw Galapagos hawks, mockingbirds and gulls soaring. As always there was time to rest, observe or photograph, imprinitng the sights and the ambience in out memory. Soon it was time to return to the zodiacs for the short journey to Daphne where we struggled into our wetsuits and collected our snorkels and masks before re-embarking on the zodiacs for transport to a snorkelling site. Here we swam through shoals of colourful fish, saw rays, white- tipped sharks, and an amazing pink and turquoise fish. Identifying birds is hard enough, but, without an underwater camera, holding the image of the fish in my brain and relating it to the one fish book on board, is more effort than I was prepared to exert. so pink-and-turquoise-fish it remained.  But it was beautiful.

Later research identified it as a bluechin parrot fish.

bluechin parrotfish
Bluechin parrotfish (image from Google)

When we returned to the boat, the crew was approached by National Parks officers, reporting that sharks had been seen attacking sea lions. Jose was quite scathing of this advice, as he says this is nothing new and he is always careful. but maybe the less experienced guides needed this reminder.

After lunch we moved to the nearby island of South Plaza, which has one of the largest populations of land iguanas – these ones yellow – as well as marine iguanas and hybrids of both. It is thought that the latter pose a threat to the continued existence of land iguanas as they can climb the cactus for fruit, whereas the land iguanas must wait for fruit to drop or eat low fruit. When eating the fruit, the females remove the spines by rolling them ; the males just eat spines and all. The companion island of North Plaza is restricted to visitors, but has a research station.

There were plenty of delicate  swallow-tailed gulls, with their red-ringed eyes and feet.  These delicate birds have an equal distribution of labour, with males and females taking  turns to sit on the nest, but it is the females who fish at night.

Swallow-tailed gulls

We were walking in the heat of the afternoon, with little shade. While Jose continued his “blah, blah, blah” ( his phrase), it was easy to drift into a trance, his heavily accented English providing a perfect background for day-dreaming.

South Plaza has lost many of its cactus, possibly due to introduced mice. There is now a replanting programme, with the new cactus being protected from iguanas until they are established.

South Plaza

Another feature of South Plaza is the “bachelor colony” of sea-lions who have been superseded as alpha males. When offered a further walk to visit them, we decided unanimously that we had seen enough sea lions and returning to the cool of Daphne was a better option.

As I sipped a cocktail, I fantasised about life on the 5-star Grace, a beautiful old wooden boat, now refurbished from the time when Princess Grace and Prince Rainier had their honeymoon aboard. There would no doubt be fresh towels every day,  bread with meals (how I longed for a fresh roll instead of the slightly sweet slice bread we had for breakfast each day), good wine instead of beer or cocktails. but I doubt the company would be as electric and interesting as that of my fellow travellers on Daphne.

Gulls and hawks off the cliffs of South Plaza

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