The Canary Islands: A Not-So-Tropical Paradise

Day 1: Friday

6:00 a.m. An alarm goes off. Sweet lord, Kevin I swear I will kill you if you don’t fix that God-forsaken alarm. I roll over and try to ignore it. It quickly hits me that: A) Kevin is in Valencia, B) it is my alarm going off and C) I need to be at the airport in an hour an a half. I jolt out of bed, brush my teeth, throw on some shoes, double-check my luggage, and quietly slip out the front door (as to not wake Miguel). After a solid hour on the Metro, I finally reunite with the rest of the class at the airport.

Let me take a moment to introduce the “Superfamily” (as our professor, Fernando, likes to call us).

The SuperFamily!

The SuperFamily!

From left to right: Papa Bear (our Professor, Fernando Montes), Tianchen aka TC, Me, Connor, Allie, Meredith, Emmett, Adrienne, Anju, Lizzy, Nate

Of course, we can’t forget about our scuba dive-master “Tío” Carlos, who was taking this picture.

So anyways, we’re in the airport, and after dealing with tons of airport bullshit – striking cafeteria workers, and inefficient system of checking in and the very disgruntled woman who was in charge of slowing down the process further, we made our way through security. They do not ask for my passport. I am not asked to take off my shoes. They do not scrutinize my very existence. I’ll tell you, we may complain that airport security is ridiculous in the States, but it feels a bit sketchy and under-secure when it’s not there. Call it conditioning if you want, but something about it just felt off.

We boarded the plane about 45 minutes later. Our plane had quite the colorful cast of characters, including a dog who thankfully stopped barking just before takeoff, and a group of dudes for a bachelor party, who had the groom to be in a pink chicken suit:

Once we landed, it was an hour or so drive to our hotel. We had talked in class about the geography and climate of the island (Fuerteventura, one of the 7 Canary Islands), but nothing could have prepared us to witness it in person. Despite being in a subtropical latitude, we found ourselves driving through rolling, arid hills and scarce desert brush. Don’t get me wrong though, it was quite beautiful, as far as dirt and shriveled plants go. That’s not actually a joke.

On our way, we passed by two towering hotels, the sort you expect to see in beach-resort areas like this one. Fernando mentioned that they were being torn down within the year because they didn’t meet the sustainable standards of the Islands – specifically, their hight caused issues with the winds and dunes that were important to life on the island. Our hotel, we discovered, definitely did not have that problem. A series of interconnected apartments surrounding a tropical-esque paradise, we were certainly ok with sacrificing universal wi-fi to live here for a week:

Yes. I lived here for a week.

Yes. I lived here for a week.

After settling in to our rooms, and a few hours chilling by the pool, it was time for class (I know, lame right?). Of course, since we were nowhere near a classroom, class happened on a borrowed (read: totally stolen) whiteboard and Fernando’s trusty slide-projector:

Just check out Papa Bear's shirt.

Just check out Papa Bear’s shirt.

Next up, family dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, a little exploring of the town of Corralejo. It’s pretty much like any beach town in America – a boardwalk-less Ocean City, if you will, with plenty of bars and seafood restaurants.

Corralejo at night.

Corralejo at night.

We also discovered some pretty awesome sand sculptures:

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After that, it was off to bed in preparation for an 8:00 a.m. wakeup for our first open-water dive.

Day 2: Saturday

This was the moment we’ve been working toward for the past two weeks. We’ve passed our written finals. Practicals were done. We were solidly on our way to comprehending the different regions, environments, and biomes of the oceans. We were ready to do this. We piled into the SuperVan and sped off towards the harbor..

At the dive center, we’re greeted by it’s owners, Gege (who is German) and Krisoph (from Belgium). It takes a bit of time, but we are all soon fitted for our wetsuits and boots, and after changing, we pick up our tanks, BCDs, regulators, weight belts, fins, and masks, and securely fasten them into the backs of two pickup trucks. When the instructors say it’s time to go, we look around. “We are athletes!” says Gege, “We walk!”

It turns out that we’re literally walking about 3 minutes to the harbor, and they’re driving the equipment over for the sake of not wearing us out or destroying our backs. We collect our equipment from the trucks, and carry it over onto the two pontoon boats that will take us out to Isla de Lobos, just across a short stretch of ocean (and technically part of the same larger underwater “mountain” that is the island of Fuerteventura) where we’ll be diving.

Isla de Lobos

Isla de Lobos

I guess now is as good of a time as ever to talk for a moment about the Canary Islands. The Canaries are a series of 7 major (and 7 minor) volcanic islands, just 100 km off the west coast of Africa.  The islands were formed over epochs of geological time, by the eruption, cooling, and hardening of underwater volcanoes. These volcanoes (located directly over the “Canaries Hot Spot,” a weak point in the center of the benthic crustal plate where the islands are located) continuously grow and grow over time, until they break the surface of the water and become islands.

Map of the Canaries

Map of the Canaries

As Fernando always likes to remind us, “we’re on the exact same latitude as the Red Sea!” Why then, are the islands completely different? The Canaries are very much “desert” islands – dry, fairly barren, covered with dunes – as opposed to the lush tropical flora of places like the Red Sea.  Due to underwater currents and trade winds, despite their latitude, the waters of the Canary Islands tend to be a few degrees cooler than expected, which explains the lack of the expected flora and fauna – those of a tropical coral reef.

So, as our boat slows and drops anchor, Gegge begins to explain our dive site. Today’s dive is mostly a practice dive, but we’ll do a bit of exploring as well. Our site, known as El Marrajo (English: The Mako,) is more or less a giant underwater rock outcropping. We’ll circle ‘round it once or twice, and get a chance to explore and see what lives there.

This being my first dive in an actual body of water, I’ll be honest and say I was a bit nervous.  The entry to the water we’ll be using is the typical scuba entry – leaning back into the water off the side of the boat. Needless to say, it’s a bit unnatural to let yourself do that. Nevertheless, I found myself suiting up, strapping on my equipment, and flinging myself into the startlingly cold morning water.

Once getting buoyant and adjusting my mask and regulator, I realized that there was still one more crucial step: Descending to the sea floor.  That first time, as you slowly lower yourself down along the guideline of the anchor, is nerve-racking. It’s absolutely a mind-over matter kind of situation, because the moment I was fully submerged, everything felt natural. I was underwater. I was UNDERWATER. I mean, as a former competitive swimmer and current lifeguard, I’ve been underwater plenty of times in my 20 years, but this was different. I wasn’t concerned about needed to come back up for air, or trying to move around. It was natural, and most importantly, it let me observe my surroundings. Oh, and it was AWESOME.

I'm underwater!

I’m underwater!

Immediately upon our descent, I turned to my right to look at the rock, just as a group of purple clownfish darted out in front of me. We continued downward to about 6 meters, and quickly regrouped, checked in (via hand signals) and began to follow Gegge and Prof. Montes around the site.

About two or three minutes in, Fernando calls me over to a ledge just above the sea floor. He points to a corner, and though at first I didn’t see it, right in front of me was a scorpion fish, a well-camoflaouged bottom-dweller with poisonous spines. Not gonna lie, it was pretty badass.

Fernando pointed out a couple more critters as we circled the rock. The next one he pulled off the ground and brought over for a group of us to observe. What he had in his hands was a sea slug, which had defensively hidden itself inside its soft, flap-like shell. A little while later, he picked up and showed me the slug’s close cousin, a sea-snail – a conch – also, not surprisingly, hidden in its shell.

It almost looks like the rock...

It almost looks like the rock…

After circling two or so times, it was time to surface. Let me tell you something – getting back into the boat is a lot more difficult than getting out. The water was super choppy, so trying to wrestle yourself out of you BCD and fins and then climb up a ladder while both you and the boat are being flung different directions by the water was incredibly frustrating. Once on the boat though, it was just a short, bumpy ride back to shore.

After cleaning and storing our gear for tomorrow, we made a quick stop at a supermarket to pick up supplies for lunch, and then we sped off to the beach. We drove for quite a while through the standard desert landscape of the island, and the drive quickly lulled me to sleep.

I woke up amidst sheer beauty.

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The ocean was crystal clear, and blue. In terms of perfection, it definitely gives the Mediterranean a run for its money. We drove our way along a rugged dirt road to a bit of a cliff that led down to the beach, but when we arrived, we decided it was way too windy, and set out for a different beach.

The second beach, about 15 minutes further away, was much more sheltered, and better positioned to avoid the trade winds, but equally as beautiful.

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Protected from the winds by a quasi-cove rock structure, this beach is where would we spend the next few hours of our day, sunbathing, swimming, and just relaxing and enjoying the incredible weather. After that, we would return to the hotel, have class, and relax before our next day of diving.

Day 3: Sunday

Back to the harbor we went.

Corralejo!

After picking up our gear from the shop, we hopped onto a boat for the first of two dives for the day. Our site, Baja de Luis, was in the same general area as our previous dive, and consisted of another, larger rock, this time at about 12 meters of depth. The ride out was pretty rough, and the vast majority of our group, including myself, couldn’t help but feel a bit seasick. Once we dove underwater, however, there wasn’t too much of a problem.

Our dive brought us face to face with a much larger quantity and variety of sea life than our previous dive. First, Fernando pulled this guy out from under a rock and started passing him around:

Spider Crab!

Spider Crab!

We also dodged a few super-dangerous Long-Needled Black Sea Urchins:

Ouch!

Ouch!

And had an awesome encounter with a stingray!

RIP Steve Irwin

RIP Steve Irwin

If I thought getting back on the boat was hard the first time, the rough seas certainly didn’t help. By the time we got back to shore, there was murmuring of not even wanting to do the second dive that day. Nevertheless, after a short trip back to the shop to pick up new air tanks, we found ourselves back on our boats, and heading out to our next dive spot, Bajon del Rio.

After a much smoother trip out and entry, we arrived at the site, 15 meters below the surface. Bajon del Rio is basically three mushroom-shaped rocks that overlap at various points. This creates some awesome pseudo-tunnels to swim through, and tons of caves where critters like to hide out:

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Additionally, there was an entire garden of black sea urchins, and tons of fish darting everywhere, including a couple barracudaa off in the distance.

Of course, no day would be complete without a trip to the beach. This one involved a mile-or so (not an exaggeration) trek through the desert, but it was well worth it.

I think I saw this in The Ten Commandments...

I think I saw this in The Ten Commandments…

That night, after dinner, we went out to town, but not after meeting an adorable new friend:

Its a hedgehog!

Its a hedgehog!

Day 4: Monday

Morro Jable

Morro Jable

I drifted in and out of sleep as the van wound its way along the coast. After about an hour drive, we finally pulled into the harbor of Morro Jable, on the south shore of the island. Our dive site was to be our deepest and most interesting yet. Veril Grande Jandia was just off of the southern coast of the island, marked by some floating pontoons. Because of the boat situation, we had to go in two groups, so, being in the second group, we got to see the reactions of those returning from the dive site. Unlike yesterday, every face was grinning ear to ear. I couldn’t wait.

Inside a school of fish.

Inside a school of fish.

Descending at the site, we immediately found ourselves inside a school of small fish. Swimming down a little further, we started to level off at around 18 meters. Immediately in front of us were some small rocks and caves, but before we had a chance to get oriented, Fernando through a hand over his head. This symbol was immediately recognized by the group (especially by Adrienne, who stopped dead in her tracks in front of me – a fairly impressive feat underwater) to mean just one thing: Shark.

SHARK!

SHARK!

Turns out it was “just” an Angel Shark, a fairly harmless type of shark that loves to bury itself in the sandy sea floor. Carlos decided to reach down and dust some of the sand off, and in moments it had dislodged itself and swam off into the distance. We continued on, over towards a rock where, out of a crevice, Fernando pulled a sea urchin. He had prepped us about this before we dove – this one didn’t have sharp spikes (just kinda prickly ones) so we could hold it in our hands. It felt exactly like he said it would – like a little hedgehog.

Next, we continued onwards towards one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. We were approaching a field – stretching out as far as the eye could see – of garden eels. These eels bury the lower halves of their bodies in the ground, and keep their upper bodies and heads up and out of the water, feeding on microscopic organisms that flow past. From afar, it just looks like a field of seaweed, but as you approach them, they duck back underground.

Next, we turned right to head towards the main attraction. We swam out over a ledge – a “drop off” in official terms – and were left basically swimming in the open water, with the nearest floor being 150 meters below us. Fernando took us on a swim along the edge of this cliff, leading us back onto the higher floor right in front of a cave they had discovered on the previous dive. He pulls me in and I find myself face to face with this:

Hey buddy.

Hey buddy.

In case you couldn’t tell, that’s an octopus. It doesn’t show up well here, but it was this awesome shade of rush orange – exactly what I have always pictured. Next, in a neighboring cave, two moray eels were hiding out. These things, let me tell you, are super creepy:

The eyes...

The eyes…

Swimming back towards the entry/exit point, we ran into some other really interesting creatures, like this one:

Trumpet Fish!

Trumpet Fish!

After encountering some more eels and two more angel sharks, plus seeing some big hunters – like barracudas – off in the distance, it was time to the surface. Once again reunited as a full Superfamily, we headed just down the beach, to have lunch at a bar at the beach (in the shadow of the lighthouse), and then relax, as always, for a few hours, before returning home to rest up for another crazy day.

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Day 5: Tuesday

This was waiting for me at breakfast:

Certified!

Certified!

We drove again to the south shore of the island. Excited, we all stared out the window while Fernando’s homemade classic rock mix tapes played through the stereo. After the hour or so of travel, we pulled into a small town to check out two things. First up was the skeleton of the common rorqual, a type of large whale:

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The skeleton was conveniently located right next to a traditional salt-producing facility, which evaporates sea water to obtain salt.

Salt Production

Salt Production

Fernando even convinced them to let us try some:

It made me thirsty.

It made me thirsty.

We then continued our drive. After stopping quickly at a supermarket to grab supplies for lunch, Fernando drove us another 30 minutes up a winding dirt road, over a mountain by the coast, and down to the most incredible beach I’ve ever seen. It was partially black sand, and save for us, entirely empty of people:

It's all ours!

It’s all ours!

We spent a few hours here swimming, eating, and sunbathing. Before we headed back to the north side of the island, we had a few stops to make. The first, which may very well be my favorite place from the entire trip, provided us this incredible view:

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Cofete

The point, known as Cofete, is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Once you’ve taken in the view, then it’s time to play around with the wind, which is so strong it can keep you upright even when you lean really far forward:

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I’m the king of the world!

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Proud to be a Phi

Standing up at the top of this mountain, everything began to overwhelm me. The view, the wind, the sound of the sea crashing on the shore, it was absolutely breathtaking. I took a moment to think – about how I got here, and where I’m going. I thought about all of my environmental work, and why THIS is why I continue to do it. Because places like this exist, and I want them to be around for my kids to see.

Getting back into the van, it was like the final montage of a movie. We drove down the mountain, through the center of the island this time, as an old Dylan tune crooned its way through the stereo. No one said a word; we all just watched out the window at the peaks and valleys we passed (especially Fernando’s favorite, La Teta, which looks exactly like its namesake). There was time for just one more stop, at another skeleton, this time of a Sperm Whale:

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That night we headed into town for one last night together as a superfamily before having to return to Madrid the following afternoon.

Day 6: Wednesday

After a morning of souvenir shopping and Spanish HW, I sat on the plane recapping the week in my mind. In just six days, I had traveled to the coast of Africa, completed four open-water scuba dives, hung out with sharks, rays, eels, octopi, sea urchins and hedgehogs, saw whale skeletons, learned how salt is “made,” got ridiculously tan, and made some incredible friends.

Fernando's favorite picture.

Fernando’s favorite picture.

Superfamily for life.