South Plaza Island and Santa Fe Island are two small, unpopulated islands off the coast of Santa Cruz that can be explored on the same day, allowing for an incredibly diverse array of epic experiences in a short amount of time. What these islands lack in size, they more than make up for in scenery and wildlife.
While South Plaza Island (or Isla Plaza Sur) may be one of the smaller islands in the Galápagos, it is also one of the most colorful and picturesque islands.
Showcasing unique vegetation and wildlife that cannot be seen elsewhere, a trip to the Galápagos Islands would not be complete without a visit to this island.
A short boat trip away, Santa Fe Island is an incredibly different but equally fascinating place. As one of the oldest islands, several endemic species can be found only on Santa Fe Island.
Yet, one thing stands out to me most about this island—the massive number of sea lions that can be found here year-round.
But, before I dive into the exhilaration of our experience playing with a colony of sea lions off of Santa Fe Island, we were in for a few treats of a different variety at South Plaza Island.
South Plaza Island
We started the third day of our cruise early with an easy hike on South Plaza Island. The terrain on the island is eye capturing, to say the least.
Lava rocks, cactus trees, and arid, red brush are sprawled across the island, with cliffs overlooking the vast blue ocean surrounding it.
Prickly pear cactus trees sprouted up around the island in abundance, some growing taller than me. The stark contrast between this island and the other islands we had visited was undeniable.
Sea lions were basking in the sun, sprawled out in different areas on the island. A few lone sea lions claimed massive rocks for themselves and found refuge from the cold water.
Land iguanas enjoyed the warmth of the sun alongside the sea lions, with the bright, golden hue of some iguanas adding to the palette of this colorful paradise.
As we continued to hike around the island, we stumbled upon an iguana trying to eat a berry from a cactus.
He rolled the cactus berry around for about five minutes with his claws, trying to brush off all of the prickly parts so that he could proceed to eat the fruit. This clever technique is apparently the standard approach used by iguanas to eat this spiky but delicious treat.
After all of his hard work, his efforts were rewarded when he could gnaw down on that yummy berry without fear of getting pricked. It was quite entertaining and surprisingly human-like.
We started our journey to Santa Fe Island after the hike. After the rough night we experienced the prior evening, almost all of us went straight to our cabins to nap.
When we awoke, we would be at our next stop. I had no idea what to expect and assumed it would be similar to the previous day. Well, I was in for a delightful surprise.
Santa Fe Island
As soon as we got to the area where we would be snorkeling, we could sense that this excursion would be something special. We saw a sea lion in the water before we could even jump off of our panga.
Holding our noses and falling backward into the water from the side of the boat, we were anxious to start swimming with this sea lion.
I laid eyes on it immediately upon entering the water, but the moment passed quickly as I watched the sea lion swim away. I was so excited to watch it swim up close but so disappointed the encounter was so short-lived.
I was shocked and amazed by what came next. We swam barely five minutes further before we saw an entire group of sea lions. A sea lion colony filled the banks of the area that we snorkeled across.
I immediately started putting my new underwater snorkel swimming “skills” to the test. And it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
The sea lions were SO playful. This was a constant theme for the rest of the hour that we snorkeled.
All you had to do was swim underwater with them and they would immediately come right up to you and start swimming circles around you. They wanted to interact so much. I could hardly believe my eyes, but I was thrilled!
These sea lions were so graceful in the way they moved their bodies beneath the water. And to call them fast would be an understatement.
I must have looked so pathetic and awkward to them with my terrible swimming skills. But it didn’t matter to them. They still wanted to play.
In fact, they seemed to want to play with me just as much as I wanted to play with them. I felt like a little kid on a playground for the first time.
It was like clockwork. I swim down under the water in their near vicinity, and they dart towards me, barely dodging me within less than a foot right before they get to me. IT WAS AMAZING!
We also saw a Moray Eel, a starfish, two sea turtles, and heaps of beautiful fish, but the truth is I barely cared because all I could think about was playing with the sea lions.
We were playing and swimming for nearly an hour, and it felt like it was over before I knew it.
The water was cold, and I was exhausted from all of the swimming. But I honestly did not care one bit.
I would have continued swimming until I passed out or until my feet froze off if I had the chance. I was having the time of my life interacting with these sea lions.
I hope I can remember this feeling of happiness for a long time. I cannot put into words the amount of sheer joy I felt having this encounter with the sea lions. What an incredible experience!
As if we had not already had a spectacular enough day, we made a final stop in the afternoon at a picturesque beach.
The beach itself was absolutely breathtaking, but that wasn’t even the best part. A colony of sea lions spread across the shoreline, basking in the warmth of the sunlight.
Sea lion pups playfully chased one another, waddling goofily across the sandy beach. Mother sea lions laid out comfortably as they nursed their pups.
As we stepped away for a short, easy hike, we came face to face with a hawk. I was amazed yet again by the sheer lack of fear in this hawk.
Snakes, iguanas, and lava lizards crossed our path as we hiked further. There was so much to see on this one, small island that it was almost unbelievable.
We returned to the sea lion-filled beach to finish the hike and the day. And I cannot imagine a better way to end the day than being surrounded by my new favorite animal—the lovable pups of the sea.
Continue following our cruise around the Galápagos Islands and read about our encounters with hammerheads and tortoises at San Cristóbal Island.
If you missed the second day of our cruise, go back and read about our visit to Genovesa Island: A Birdwatcher's Paradise.