Our second stop was small islet called Santa Fe off of the larger island of Santa Cruz. This one was similar in geography to yesterday’s stop, but it had the largest variety of prickly pear cactus I’ve ever seen. Normally they grow on the ground like shrubs, but these had evolved into tree like plants. Their only predator on this island are the land iguanas that populate the island, but can’t climb up to reach the high succulent leaves. Our guide said that the only islands where the cactus grow so tall are the ones that have tortoises and iguanas, both herbivores who treat their leaves as a favorite snack. This has developed into an evolutionary arms race, where the tortoises evolved longer necks, and the cactus keep getting taller. Unfortunately all the tortoises on this island were hunted into extinction by the 1800s era sailors, so it appears that the cactus have won this battle…at least until there are sufficient tortoises raised in captivity to repopulate the island!
After lunch we went for our first snorkel of the trip..the water was cool, but with a rented wetsuit pretty tolerable. It didn’t take long at all before some of the local sea lions came over to investigate the new people who were hanging out. They’re pretty curious creatures, but easily distracted…they see so many people on a daily basis that they don’t hang out very long. I guess chasing crabs or relaxing on the beach is a lot more interesting to them than swimming with some pasty white tourists! A highlight of the diving was our first shark encounter of the trip. I’ve been fortunate enough to do more than my share of diving in a lot of different oceans, but these were the sharkiest waters I’ve ever been in. I don’t think there was a day that we didn’t see a shark of one kind or another.
The final activity of the evening was going for a panga ride in a mangrove swamp. It was pretty close to dusk, and we were on the lookout for sea turtles. I figured we’d see a couple of individuals…never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that we’d stumble upon a turtle orgy of bacchanalian proportions! We’d apparently come during the height of mating season, and the turtles were going at it everywhere we looked. It was crazy…one on one, three on one, we even saw one poor female trying to get away from five very determined males who were chasing her like she was this year’s Sports Illustrated cover girl!