Islas Plazas to Isla Santa Fe
AM: South Plaza Island
Things to see:
Written by Patrick
We noticed that it was much cloudier then the day before as we walked to the dining room for breakfast. Our Cook had made up a fantastic dish of eggs, sausages and other energy rich breakfast foods. While eating, Victor gave us our morning briefing and we were in for a dry landing. The plan was to visit the South Plaza Island. It has an area of 0.13 km and a maximum altitude of only 23 meters on the west side. The South Plaza Island was formed by lava streaming up from the bottom of the ocean. Despite its small size, it is home to a large number of species and it is famous for its impressive flora.
Right at our landing spot we say a bunch of Galapagos Sea lions play in the water or bathe in the sun on land. One mother was feeding its baby and we were invited to hear the cute sound the young sea lion would make while feeding. We walked on the designated path one time around the small island. Victor made sure we all would stay on the path and not run off into the territory reserved for the wildlife. We were only guests on this island and were happy to behave that way.
Very attractive are the beautiful prickly pear cactus trees and of course the large colony of Galapagos Land Iguanas who feed upon them. We got very lucky that day as a large male Land Iguana (who can age to 60 years old) decided to cross our walking path that day, allowing us to get to "know" him up close and personal. Victor told us many interesting facts about these Land Based Iguanas. Two of them I remember well:
1.) Across from this island is North Plaza Island, less then 500 meters away. However, this island is home to a distinctively different species of land iguanas that never cross breed with the ones on the South Island, despite the incredible short distance between them. Reason being: They can't swim.
2.) Land iguanas are primarily herbivores. Because fresh water is limited on the island, Land Iguanas obtain most of its moisture from the prickly-pear cactus that makes up 75% of its diet. However, the cacti have their own defenses (mainly a very thorny trunk that Land Iguanas can't climb up since they have no sharp claws), which allows a fragile balance of Land iguanas and cacti to be established. Now neither grows to a population bigger than the island can handle. On the South Plaza Island, the territories of the the land and the marine iguana overlap. This means that sometimes a male marine iguana mates with a female land iguana. The results are very powerful hybrid iguanas. They inherit the sharp claws from their marine parent and therefore have the ability to actually climb the cacti for food, giving them a huge competitive advantage on the food resources of the island. In fact, they would have driven all "pure" land iguanas to extinction, if Mother Nature had not intervened with one of her tricks: The hybrid iguanas are sterile.
We walked the side of the low lying east shore and then returned on the west side with it's cliffs. On the steep cliffs we saw a great number of birds such as nesting Red-billed Tropicbirds and Swallow-tailed Gulls, but most of all, enjoying the beautiful view from atop. Sometimes the waves came crushing in with such a force that the water would spray over the cliff onto our group. A awesome display of natures forces.
Depending on the season, the Sesuvium ground vegetation changes its color from intense green in the rainy season to orange and purple in the dry season. Since we were visiting at the end of the dry season we saw many purple colors on the island. On our way back a few sea lions were hanging out on the stone pier, making us wait until they graciously moved allowing us to board the dinghy. Of course, the sea lions have the right of way in the Galapagos.
Back on board the crew made sure we took off our shoes and sprayed them and our feet with the water-hose to wash off any seeds or genetic material we might have picked up on the visit. It was important to hinder cross pollination, and keep each island's micro-vegetation intact. After that they washed the mats we were standing on in the sea. They were very serious about this ritual and it would become a given activity after every visit to any island. It is of the utmost importance to reducing genetic pollution on the islands.
And they had a very good reason to do so, as human influence has already caused many Galapagos species to decline rapidly or even die out completely. For example the biggest danger to the Land Iguanas is from feral animals brought to the Galapagos by humans. Feral dogs and cats attack the iguanas and destroy their nests. Since iguanas have lived in isolation for millions of years, they never developed any instincts to flee from these introduced predators.
PM: Santa Fe Island
Things to see:
Soon after returning on board, the boat left for a 4 hour trip to the Santa Fe Island. Santa Fe Island, a small island of 24 km², lies in the centre of the Galapagos archipelago to the southwest of Santa Cruz Island. From a geological perspective Santa Fe is believed to be one of the oldest islands based on volcanic rocks dated over 4 million years old have been found there. We anchored in the only bay, called Barrington Bay, this island has to offer. Our welcoming committee was a single sea turtle swimming around in the clear blue water. Lunch was served. Later we made our second visit to the island. This spot was our first wet landing onto Barrington Bay beach. Victor had to check out the situation first though because one is sometimes prevented from visiting by the sea lion colony living on the beach. If there is too much going on, we humans have to wait. However, the sea lions were having a lazy day in the sun soaking up the few sun rays that had emerged since we arrived on the island.
Beaching the dinghy, we jumped into the water and started our walk. We weren't alone. Like on any island we visited, there were guests from other boats on the island as well and the guides would arrange them selves on who would go when and in which direction onto the trails. The sea lions were very docile allowing a close look. Like every colony there were always a few tiny baby sea lions soaking up the majority of the attention.
We soon left the beach for a hike through the island. The vegetation of the island is characterized by a dense forest of very dry bush (it looks plain dead to the untrained eye) and hosts the largest species of the giant Opuntia cactus. The seemingly dead plants, according to victor, explode into green growth during the rainy season, but turn into a hibernation like dryness (making them appear dead) during the dry season to survive until the next rain comes again. The most impressive vegetation are the Opunita Cactus trees. The largest specimens can be very old (over 2000 years) and it takes very long for them to grow. Once we passed a broken dead cactus that must have been of gigantic proportions for a cactus. We all thought that is was yet again the human influence, however this time humanity was declared innocent to the charge. The inside of those cacti look like a woven - honeycomb like material. It is designed to hold massive amounts of water, stored there for the next rainy season to come. As the trees grow bigger and bigger, they hold more and more water, becoming very heavy and inflexible. If a storm with strong winds hits the trees it can happen that they break under their own load. This is what happened to the dead cactus we were looking at.
On our way back we discovered a land iguana guarding it's nest. It made some pumping movements - similar to push ups humans do, as means of warning off any predator threatening him. A short time late a Galapagos hawk was circling the skies above us.
Back at the beach the sea lions were topic number one and while we were waiting for our pick up I discovered a seal lion in a very sad state. He was a young guy and as young sea lions do must have played with a ring of plastic (looking very similar to a closed cable binder). This ring had settled around his neck and as he grew the ring must have gotten tighter and tighter. We could see that it was agitating him already because, to no avail, he tried to get it off using his feet. This ring would eventually kill him once he grew too big for it. I told the guides on the beach and they actually mounted an improvised rescue mission. With a long piece of wood they tried to separate him from the others, then use the wood to "pin" him to the sand and then, hopefully, find a way to cut the plastic ring of. Sadly, this mission was doomed to failure because the little guy would scream and defend him self rather aggressively. While they had him pinned down, they could not approach him without the danger of getting bitten. In the end they had to let him go. We hoped that some of the guides would either come back better prepared or alert the park authorities to send someone to help the guy. If that ever happened, we most likely will never know.
Being back on the boat meant getting ready for the first snorkeling excursion of our visit. As mentioned earlier, there was no way that I would be going into the water without a wet suit. And so like most (only Lori still dared to go without), we put on our suits and grabbed our gear for some time in the water. We were looking for sea turtles that seem to hang out at this bay, but had no luck with finding them. What we got instead was far more amazing.
We ran into a few young playful sea lions underwater, or should I better say they ran into us. It was clear that they came to check us out and had lots of fun weaving lighting fast in, out and between our group of comparatively clumsy humans in the water. The more they got used to us, the closer they got. At one point I discovered a sea lion with a white leather strip hanging out of its mouth. It must have picked it up somewhere deeming it to be a respectable toy. I started holding my hand out to the animal, as it swam frequently past me. At one point it dropped that 3 by 8 cm wide strip right in front of me and I darted out to pick it up. Now, it was my time to play. Swimming around I waved the strip with my hands around in the water while the sea lion was watching it closely but from a safe distance. Eventually, when I was sure the sea lion was watching I dropped the strip one meter in front of me. The sea lion reacted right way, smoothly correcting its course to come straight at me. Not 2 meters away from me, it rapidly changed direction making a 90 degree turn to my right and disappearing out of me window of vision momentarily, only to flip a 180 degree turn within fractions of a second and came gliding by swooping up that strip with its nose. After a short while of swimming around, he dropped the strip again right in front of me and our game started all over again. We played it for a while until it got too cold and we climbed back on board. My day was made.
Dinner tasted specifically good that day and we went to bed tired and happy.