Islas Plazas and Plaza Sur (South Plaza)
Islas Plazas are two small islands just off the east coast of Isla Santa Cruz. They were formed by uplift and tilt to the north. Only South Plaza can be visited and it is one of the smallest visited islands in the Galapagos (it is only 13 hectares). Because there are many interesting things to see here and as it is close to Isla Santa Cruz it is not only visited by the cruise boats, but also by daytrips from Puerto Ayora, making it a busy visitor site.
I have been to South Plaza twice. The first time I visited was on the second day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote. During the night we had navigated from Puerto Ayora to Islas Plazas and had anchored in the channel between the two islands. After breakfast we took the panga to South Plaza where there is a dry landing on a small jetty. In a small puddle on the jetty we saw a Galapagos Foureye Blenny and on the rocks there were some sea lions and colourful Sally Lightfoot Crabs.
One of the highlights on South Plaza is to see the many Land Iguanas, which we saw several of during our walk around the trail. I have a video of one Land Iguana eating on a cactus pad when it gets chased away by another iguana, and it just happened right in front of us. On South Plaza there are even hybrids, the offsprings of male Marine Iguanas and female Land Iguanas. The trail leads up to a 25m high cliff on the south side of the island. Here there are nice views towards Isla Santa Cruz and the red-billed Tropicbirds and Frigatebirds were flying back and forth. We also saw Swallow-tailed gulls.
There is a large sea lion colony, and a sea lion bachelor colony, on South Plaza, but we didn’t go there. I don’t know if it was because we had already spent two hours on the island and had to go, or if the Cachalote itinerary doesn’t include that as we were going to Isla Santa Fe in the afternoon where there is another sea lion colony.
On South Plaza you will see lots of Opuntia Cactus, a large cactus that on Galapagos Islands grow tall as trees. On the ground it was full of the endemic succulent Sesuvium, also called Galapagos Carpet Weed. During the rainy season the Sesuvium is green and during the dry season it becomes red. When I visited (end of June) it had started to become red, the higher up along the trail the more red it was. It made the landscape very colourful. The second time I visited it was August and the Sesuvium was even more red than on my previous visit.
Daytrip to Plaza Sur (Islas Plazas)
I wanted to visit Plaza Sur during my last day in Galapagos Islands 2014, even though I had been there during a cruise in 2011. I went around to several agencies and they all told me it was sold out, but finally, at one agency (on Tomas de Berlanga) I found an agency selling more expensive tours. Instead of $120 it was $160 (August 2014) because the boat was bigger and more comfortable.
I was picked up outside the hotel at 7.45 and after picking up a few more passengers we drove to the canal where the boat, Yate Queen Karen, was waiting. It was a larger boat than the other daytrip boats and it was easy to walk around and chat with other passengers on it. From the canal to Plaza Sur it took around 1 hour.
Plaza Sur was beautiful with the red sesuvium and the Opuntia cacti. There is a dry landing on a small jetty and near it you will see sea Lions playing around and at the beginning of the trail there are lots of land iguanas. We even saw a hybrid iguana climbing in a cactus, something I hadn’t seen three years previous when I visited Plaza Sur while on a cruise. The trail then leads up to the cliff on the south side of the islands. You will see many different sea birds and also a few marine iguanas. We were on South Plaza for 2.5 hours, it was sunny and the colours were beautiful.
After visiting the island we had lunch on the boat while we navigated to Punta Carrión (off Isla Santa Cruz) where we were going to snorkel before returning to the canal. After the tour I was dropped off outside my hotel in Puerto Ayora some time between 16 -16.30. It had been a lovely daytrip!
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- Hiking and Walking
The Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus) is endemic to Galapagos Islands, well almost endemic, as there is a small colony on the Colombian island Malpelo too. The population of Swallow-tailed Gull in the Galapagos Islands consists of 10000 - 15000 pairs, spread in 50 breeding colonies throughout the islands (but not on Fernandina and the west side of Isla Isabela).
The breeding adults have a black head and a red ring around the eyes., whereas the non breeding adults have a white head and are dark around the eyes. The Swallow-tailed Gulls have white underparts and grey neck and upperparts. Their bill is black with a grey tip. The legs and webbed feet are red. The tail is forked and white. Sometimes you can see Swallow-tailed Gulls with white patches on their back. The white patches will help them camouflage in their environment.
The Swallow-tailed Gull is the only nocturnal gull in the world. They feed mostly at night and can then fly several miles from land to catch fish and squid from the surface of the sea, as fish and squid come to the surface to feed on plankton. Sometimes the Swallow-tailed Gulls follow boats at night-time.
The Swallow-tailed Gulls nest in small colonies and they make their nest next to the shore, usually on a small platform on a cliff above sea. They lay only one egg which is incubated for 31-34 days. They breed all year round.
The Swallow-tailed Gulls in photo 1 - 2 were seen near the landing point on South Plaza. In the first photo is a young chick. It can be seen in the second photo too, and the other two gulls are probably his parents (2011). The other photos are from 2014 and from the cliff on the southern side of the islands. There were quite a lot of Swallow-tailed gulls there.
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Galapagos Sea Lion
The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) is an endemic subspecies. It is common, and there is a population of about 50 000 Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands. They can be seen in many places near the shores, on beaches, on the rocks or even in the towns (for example on a porch in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora). Don’t be surprised if you get surrounded by playful sea lions while snorkelling. It is absolutely fantastic!
The male Sea Lion becomes very large, up to 230cm in length, with a weigh up to 250kg. They have a dark brown fur, which almost looks black when wet and they have a thick neck.
The females are smaller and weigh up to 120kg. They have lighter brown fur, which looks dark brown when wet. There are many more females as only one tenth of the Sea Lion pups are males.
The Galapagos Sea Lions feed during the day and they mostly eat Sardines. They can be away at sea for days to hunt for fish. Sharks are natural predators of the Sea Lions.
The Galapagos Sea Lions form colonies which consist of a dominant male (bull) and up to 30 females (cows) with their pups. The bull protects its territory against other males and sometimes there are fights. As it is difficult for a male to be away feeding while protecting his territory he becomes weaker and he will then be replaced by a stronger male after a while. Males without a territory form bachelor colonies.
The females give birth to one pup each year, which they nurse for up to three years. Sometimes you can see two pups of different age suckling milk from their mother. When they are around five months the pups can start fishing for themselves though. The mother and child can recognise each other’s bark and thus find each other among the other Sea Lions in the colony.
The Sea Lions in photos 1 - 3 were all seen near the landing point on South Plaza Island (2011). The other two photos are from 2014 when I visited on a day tour. When it was time to leave the jetty was full of sea lions so the panga picked us up from the rocks instead.
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Sally Lightfoot Crab
The beautiful Sally Lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus) can be seen all over the shores of the Galapagos Islands. With its bright orange colour it stands out from the black lava rocks where you often see them. The young ones are dark in colour though, and this make them well camouflaged on the rocks. The adult crabs can be as big as 20cm. Sally Lightfoot crabs eat algae and small animals. Like other crabs they are moving fast and will run away if you come too close.
The Sally Lightfoot crabs are not only found on Galapagos Islands, but can be found along the American Pacific coast from Peru in the south to Mexico in the north.
The Sally Lightfoot crab in the first picture was walking on the black rocks near the jetty on the north side of South Plaza (2011). The second and third photos are from 2014.
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On the trail
The trail here is a loop, 2.5 km in length and rated moderate, although I found it easier going than many others. It leads gently uphill from the landing place through a very striking landscape of rocky soil and brightly coloured vegetation. This is sesuvium or Galápagos carpet weed which is turned vivid shades of red by the arid conditions at the end of the dry season (like an ankle-high New England Fall). If you visit in the rainy season however, you will find it mostly green. Have a look at MalenaN’s tip on Land Iguanas to see the difference.
We encountered a number of male Land Iguanas here, of the same species of these that we had seen on our first island visit on North Seymour. Their bright yellow colouring really added to the impression I had of a landscape that was both dramatic and at the same time rather domestic, with the almost tame iguanas resting languidly under many of the Opuntia trees.
Other wildlife that we saw on the trail included a Yellow Warbler, ground and cactus finches, several Nazca Boobies and (near the shore) Marine iguanas. We looked out for, but didn’t spot, one of the unique cross-bred iguanas known as hybrids that can sometimes be found here, with (usually) a marine iguana as father and land iguana as mother. These are always sterile, so have not led to the evolution of a totally new species. It isn’t known why this cross-breeding only happens here on South Plaza and not on the other islands where both iguana species are found.
The island is only 130 metres wide so we soon reached the southern edge and turned east towards the cliffs.
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On the cliffs
The trail climbs quite gently and on the far side of South Plaza emerges on top of a cliff, from where we had a wonderful view of the birdlife of this island. Shearwaters were wheeling in the sky, heading straight for the cliffs and veering away each time just before touching them as if they had some sort of built-in radar. Frigatebirds were riding the thermals higher up, and a couple of pelicans dived for fish. But the most exciting for me, because it was my first really good look at one, were the Red-billed Tropicbirds that sailed past our vantage point from time to time. This is a beautiful sea bird, with its bright red bill and flowing tail. It is not endemic to the Galápagos Islands, being widespread across the tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, but that didn’t make seeing them so closely any less special.
Further along the cliffs we came to a colony of young male Galápagos sea lions, known as bachelors, that is well-established here. I was amazed to learn that they are able to climb these rocky cliffs quite easily, and thus to find refuge from the bossy alpha bulls or “Beach Masters”. Here they can chill out with their mates and refresh themselves before perhaps trying to fight one of the alpha males for the right to rule a beach.
We rested here too for a while before following the loop trail back to our starting point, a little sad that our afternoon on the final island of our cruise was coming to an end.
This is my last tip on South Plaza, so please click here to return to my intro page.
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There are two species of frigatebirds in the Galapagos Islands, the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) and the Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor). There are about 1000 pairs of the Magnificent Frigatebird spread in 12 colonies, and a few thousand pairs of the Great Frigatebird, also in 12 colonies.
The frigatebirds are large seabirds with a black plumage and long, pointed wings. The tail is deeply forked and the bill long with a hook in the end. When flying it is difficult to tell the different species apart, but the Magnificent Frigatebirds are slightly larger and the males have a purple shine on their backs, while the Great Frigatebird males have a green shine on their backs. Female Magnificent Frigatebirds have a white breast and a blue eye-ring while the female Great Frigatebirds have a white throat and breast and a red/pink eye-ring.
The males have a very characteristic red chest pouch which they inflate like a balloon to attract females. They build a nest , blow up the pouch and call out to attract a female. The males also flap the wings during the courtship. I would have loved to see that while in the Galapagos.
Even tough the frigatebirds are considered to be seabirds they can’t dive or swim. They don’t have enough oil gland to make their feathers waterproof. They can pick up food from the surface, but very often they steal food from other birds, mostly boobies.
The frigatebirds are beautiful to see either when they fly above the boat or when they are in their nest, maybe with a downy little with chick next to it. On South Plaza Island we saw frigatebirds flying back and forth by the cliff on the south side of the island. They were not easy to get a photo of.
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Land Iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus) are endemic to the Galapagos Islands and they can be seen on several of the islands. For visitors it is easiest to see them on Isla Santa Cruz (at Cerro Dragon), on South Plaza and on North Seymour. I visited Cerro Dragon and South Plaza and saw several Land Iguanas at both places. The Land Iguanas on Isla Santa Fe are a separate species.
It is not known how the Land Iguanas came to the Galapagos Islands, but probably by floating with vegetation from the South American coast. It is believed that they arrived after the Marine Iguanas though, as the Marine Iguanas had to adapt to feeding in the sea and shore line, so when the Land Iguanas arrived there should have been more vegetation that they could survive on.
Land Iguanas have a yellowish-orange colour with a dark brown or grey back. During breeding season some males get a red colour to attract females. They have got spines on the back and head and they have a more pointed nose than the Marine Iguanas. Males will grow to a length of 1m and they can weigh up to 13kg. Females are smaller and have shorter spines. They are also less brightly coloured.
It is in the arid zones that you will find Land Iguanas. There they feed mainly on Opuntia Cactus, fallen pads (including the spines) and fruits. Most of the water they get from their food.
Males are very territorial, especially during the breeding season. The females lay the eggs in a nest under ground, where they are incubated for 45-50 days. The new born iguanas are very small and therefore preyed upon by the Galapagos Hawk, but also by introduced species. Introduced species are not only a threat to the Land Iguanas because they get eaten, but also because species likes goats eat most of the vegetation. If the Land Iguanas survive they can be as old as 50 years.
On the cruise with Cachalote we visited both South Plaza and Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz where we saw many Land Iguanas. These photos are from South Plaza. When on South Plaza I used my camera to film a Land Iguana feeding on cactus pad. While I did so another iguana came and chased the first one away. That is one of the amazing things with the Galapagos Islands, that you can experience something like that just a few meters in front of you. You can see my video here.
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One of the highlights of Galapagos Islands is to see the amazing Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). They are endemic to the islands and they are also the only lizards in the word that swim in the sea. The Marine Iguanas spend most of their time on land, but they feed on algae and seaweed. There are seven subspecies of Marine Iguanas in the archipelago and they can be found on all islands, often in the shore zone, on the lava rocks.
During millions of years the Marine Iguana has evolved to be well adapted to its environment. With a flattened snout and sharp teeth they can effectively feed on the algae on the rocks. Their tail helps them swim under water and with their long claws they can stand firmly on the rocks. Sometimes you can see the Marine Iguanas snort, that is when they get rid of excess sea salt with help from salt-eliminating glands in their nostrils. Most Marine Iguanas are black or dark grey in colour but on some islands the male can have a red or green colouring, a colouring that becomes brighter during the mating season.
Males become around 1m long, but some subspecies become longer and others shorter. The females are shorter than the males, and the spines along their back are not as large as on the male.
Females and young iguanas feed along the shore when it is low tide. It is mostly the males that feed in the sea and they can stay up to an hour under water. As the water is cold the iguanas must get warm when they come up on land, and then you can often see them basking in the sun with their face to the sun and their body raised from the ground (they must get warm, but not too warm so by raising the body they will allow the air to circulate under the body).
The Marine Iguanas are funny to see in the water. Twice when I snorkelled I saw them swimming. At Sullivan Bay I saw a Marin Iguana just as it took off from the bottom and swam up to the surface. As it reached the surface a sea lion got hold of the tail and played with it. Great for me to see, but I don’t think the iguana appreciated it that much. While snorkelling near Puerto Villamil I saw a whole group of iguanas swimming at the surface and just past me. It was wonderful.
The breeding season is from November - March. The females will then lay the eggs in an underground nest where they are incubated for three months. The baby iguanas are small and are therefore vulnerable to predators. They risk getting eaten by owls, hawks herons or mocking birds.
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