Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Archipelago. The islands land mass is made up of a dormant volcano with a land area of 986 km2 and a maximum altitude of 864 m. It is estimated that the last eruption occurred around a million and a half years ago, creating a huge lava tunnel that is over 2000 meters long in the highlands of the island.
The island possesses all of the various life zones present in the Archipelago, therefore it is not short of birding opportunities. The bright red Vermilion Flycatcher is often spotted in the highlands, and Darwin’s finches are a common sight. Almost every land bird present in the islands can be found on Santa Cruz.
The flora of Santa Cruz is rare yet extensive. Home to the Scalesia, a large and endangered tree from the daisy family, the highlands boast lush green forests and thick, high grasses, home to the iconic giant tortoise population. The arid zone covers the lower parts of the island, and is home to forests of huge Opuntia cactuses which are the primary food source for many creatures from land iguanas to mockingbirds, to the large painted locust.
Tortuga Bay of Santa Cruz is a great place to view Marine iguanas. Many marine birds and Sally light foot crabs can be seen along the stretch of white sand. A sheltered mangrove swamp nearby gives the oppurtunity to spot juvenile white tip reef sharks and juvenile rays thanks to a wooden walkway. Six dive sites are located around Santa Cruz. These include: Guy Fawkes Rocks, Punta Carrión, Gordon Rocks, South Plaza, Caamaño Islet, and Punta Estrada. Many of these sites provide viewing of sea lions, sea turtles, various species of sharks and eels, and schools of pelagic fishes. There divers can observe hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, sea turtles, schools of fishes, sea lions, and fur seals.
Santa Cruz is home to the largest town in Galapagos, Puerto Ayora. The town currently houses over 12,000 inhabitants, the largest settlement in the Islands. Due to the size of the growing population, the town is closely monitored in terms of development, pollution and construction.
Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park headquarters are both located in the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station is the operational centre of the international non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation. The visitor centre contains exhibits providing insight into the evolution of flora and fauna as well as current conservation programs.
In recent years, concerns have been raised over the issue of sustainability on Santa Cruz; the highlands of Santa Cruz are home to the iconic giant tortoise. In recent years, the small towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa were established in the humid highlands, where farmers raised cattle and planted crops such as avocados, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, and lemons. Increased population means increased farmland which directly impacts the tortoise’s movements and breeding patterns.
In order to protect the endemic and endangered flora and fauna of the island, the Darwin Station now conducts research and provides technical assistance to other researchers and governmental agencies, in particular the Galapagos National Park. The results of the research are published in scientific journals, reports, and also included in interpretive displays for visitors. The Darwin Station also provides environmental education to communities and schools in Galapagos. Conservation of nature can only be achieved when the local population is sustainable, both economically and in terms of resources.