A Galápagos insider surf story
By Ricardo Nuñez Cristiansen
All rights reserved
Copyright ® 2004
In my surfing early days I dreamed of finding an island with pristine surf spots. Even though Ecuador, which is the mainland of the Galapagos islands, have some good & uncrowded waves, I always kept dreaming. Then one day I found a Sierra Club book about Galapagos and read this: “Our life in the Galapagos had a sea rhythm. We were rocked to sleep at night by the swell, and came fully awake as we pulled our boats clear of the cold surf off morning beaches. Returning home to Academy Bay (Puerto Ayora, Sta. Cruz island) we rode long swells like wheat fields, wind-kerneled. They were rolling hills, except for the delicate, gradual, scarcely perceptible concavity of their sides. Ahead would be “Nixe”, first riding above us, at the peak of the swell; then slipping down the far side, only the mast visible; now below us as our own boat reached the peak.” Excerpts from Sierra Club-Ballantine Book-“Galapagos The Flow Of Wildness” Volume 2, Prospect. (this was written by Fiddi Angermeyer parents.)
I am almost 50 years old now, but still surf a light 6-6 thruster. Like most of us (surfers), I became very much in love with the whole idea of the perfectly made boards, the smell of wax and just riding one beautiful wave to the shore or close to it (it’s incredible but this dream its still alive!) . I guess, what I loved most was well shaped waves and the perfectly lined up swells. After many years surfing the mainland with a bunch of friends discovering many spots and rediscovering others, I fell not only in love with the surfing life in general and its healthy levels of being, but also felt completely overtaken by a feeling of belonging to the sea and its environment. I wanted to be a “waterman” no matter what, salt water started to run through my veins I guess. I left my chosen agricultural career in my third year with good grades and became more and more aware of following my heart rather than my rational thoughts or deductions, or I became a follower of my heart deductions over my rationale, whatever, all this, I think, pushed by the incongruity of things in my country, where politicians play with democracy and the constitution like they play with: “you know what” so, Ecuadorian society and economics can be quite disappointing and confusing.
Early those years I had a glimpse of what could become of an agricultural producer as for example the best bananas in the world can drop in price as to just barely cover the production costs or less!. Bank interest rates were at levels of 40%-50%!. Even now with a dollar economy we still have interest rates of 15-20% for short term loans (5 to 10 years at most). You can definitely get in a suicidal debt in our sunny banana republic. On top of all these phenomena, there is the “El Niño” phenomenon!. So, I realized that succeeding agriculturally in our country I had a better chance playing the “lottery”.
In our land, rains can pour down harder than most places on the planet when the “El Niño” is present. Anything can happen then with all your hopes, money and dreams that can go down into the “Guayas” river. So, I went a little ahead of things and became a seaman rather than end up that way by accident and just followed the ways of early organisms that colonized Galapagos the same way pushed by the southern Humboldt Ocean current and the Guayas River.
After few years as a surfer-student, I got to visit the Galapagos, which was a big boost to my mind and dreams. My years in the Agricultural University also developed in me a strong appreciation for the biology sciences in which I’ve always been interested. Ecology, evolution, biology, and geology, sciences I have to study trying to become an agricultural engineer. I visited Galapagos for the first time in 1976, and actually did not surf although I took my “Daily Joy” board 7-6 surfboard with me. The only island with an airport close by was Santa Cruz and this area has few waves. I looked at potential places on a short cruise done on “Cristo Rey I”, a fishing boat turned tourist boat in the 70’s (me and other foreigners all slept on deck) and captained then by who is now the head of the fishermen movement in Galapagos with whom I became a friend, as he liked my surfing and I, his hard work sea life. So, with the article from the sierra club books, and what I saw on this 6 day cruise around the islands, I kept dreaming of coming back soon for a longer time.
Later, after taking a good look at the Galapagos reality I entertained the idea of making ends meet by becoming a charter sailboat owner and so make a decent living (by Ecuador’s standards). I thought of taking tourists to see Galapagos could mean earning a living and having my time to live by the sea for a while. So I decided to do that and invested all I had inherited (about $35.000 USD) to get a used sailboat, learn sailing and get to work in this wonderful environment. I put all my resources and luck into this enterprise like the “lottery” I thought before. Naively I went to Florida at 22 years of age (1978) after checking a “for sale” ad in a sailing magazine and with basic “sunfish” sailing and surfing skills, went for it. I started taking seamanship lessons, celestial navigation, piloting, and cruising meteorology by mail, (for 3 months or so..) while at same time did all the dealings to choose the right used boat (which luckily I did with help of a good and honest Ft. Lauderdale broker A&B associates Mr Art Apple, rest in peace) and got it ready after 5 months of paper work and lots of hard work with the good help of my Ecuadorians pals Andres Bjarner and Eddy Gonzales (surf buddies) and other good friendships like local Florida people at Marinas (Nick Mantas; “Archimedes Marina”, Ft. Lauderdale), Marine shops (“Sailorman”- Ft. Lauderdale & Miami, and “Sailing Services”-Miami), but most importantly the “serendipity” friendship of a then local Miami-Coconut Grove Captain: Mr. Richard Tappan, who taught me the rest of the sailing things on the way and hands on reality seamanship as lightning from a squall fell around the boat one night.
By April 1979 with only a VHF radio (short distance), a main & hand bearing compass, a sextant(which we did not how to use) , a depth sounder, a hand bearing RDF (radio direction finder) and a well used Loran navigational system, which never worked, we were sailing the changing clear blue Caribbean seas and winds.
I thought that since I was a pretty confident and knowledgeable surfer (or I thought so then) that I would be able to handle the seas in a small sailing craft. Way far from the truth. ( As Weisbecker says: Surfers think they are supermen and can take it all…) On the first week of sailing we were caught inside the Bahamas bank by a short but strong squall with over 50 knots winds. All hell broke loose then, my speech went off because of the TERROR I felt of the possibility of loosing all I had OR JUST PLAIN FEAR! (like in an “El Niño” phenomena in Ecuador and worse): boat, good long time friends and my own self in just one sneeze of the Ocean. So, I started to rethink things and thought of just getting to the next anchorage safely to reconsider the hard truth of going back to being just another Agricultural Engineer/Farmer, while the 38 foot “offsoundings design” J. Brown trimaran “Windshadow” was doing 15 knots+ on the speedometer (THAT’S A LOT) ..Over a windy & rainy sea with zero visibility but lightning, and stinging horizontal rain in my face and eyes.
We just could not hear or see ABSOLUBTELY NOTHING .We were so unprepared for this that we did not have any foul weather gear.. We had to get it later on at Nassau about 60 miles ahead. With the few dollars we had we could only get one good foul weather jacket for the guy on “watch”. We were in our early twenties with just had beer money in our pockets and crazy dreams inside ourselves.
We made it OK to Ecuador in one piece, my “sailing mentor” Richard Tappan stayed in Panama as I could not afford more his reality classes onboard. So we became the “three amigos” on 6 hour watches as we had no autopilots and all navigation was done the old way plus a broken engine, therefore, we really practiced our recently learned sailing skills.
The whole trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to Salinas-Ecuador, took us about a month. In my “Log-book” Eddy wrote: “Log-Logramos!”, which means: “we did it!”.
After a year and a ton of bureaucratic paperwork finally I was able to take “Windshadow” to the Galapagos. Just to give an idea of how much corruption and incompetence you can find in a 3rd world country, I was almost stopped from sailing to the next port after arriving to my own country!. A so called port captain at our port of arrival from USA to Ecuador after more than 2000 miles of sail and navigation told me that my boat was not ready to sail for just another 160 miles south to our final destination!, Salinas, where my boat was the only sailboat in a Marina full of expensive sport fishing Yachts. You can imagine what it took in “paperwork” just to go another 500 miles over to the Galapagos. In Ecuador any boat, especially commercial ones, need to have about 10 different types of documents to operate.
I had to do more tons of paperwork to get my charter license and went over much opposition from Galapagos National Park authorities and “Ministerio de Agricultura” on my condition of being just another Ecuadorian “haole”(non-local: “colono”) trying to get into the tourism business in the islands, I was then legally an un-experienced and 25 years old. After 5 more years of more bureaucratic battles (because I did not have money to bribe, and did not wanted to) I won again with the help from real great people who seemed like they were sent from heaven, so then my surf story and charter business could begin at the Galapagos.
Surfing the Galapagos those years was very easy. I would just anchor at any spot I wanted or got close to on my regular charters trips. Those years there were no regulations on sea boundaries. Pretty much all fishermen, divers, sailors, and seamen in general could roam around the islands with much freedom and little control. Control that now has come too late in my perspective since Galapagos only recently became a Marine Park, yes its unbelievable!. In my early days as a naturalist guide (1981-90) in the islands, I asked a Darwin Station official and a National Park director; why the sea was not under Park jurisdiction, to which he replied: “ because it’s the Navy’s and we don’t want to deal with them”…A simple answer, and this is the reason that caused all the problems we have today in Galapagos, as I see it. Responsibility, that falls now on every Galapagos institution, authority, non profit organization and citizen who did nothing or very little to push the Park and Darwin Station to deal with this problem. Galapagos then became a “world heritage” and was named the best managed National Park in the world or close to it. Far from the truth. And that is why we see the serious problems of today. Galapagos was just a “LAND” National Park and the SEA was neglected by all the people involved in the conservation of the areas. Especially, institutions in charge of advice and assessment about foreseen potential problems. All the attention was on managing and controlling tourism that was booming, and also land problems like feral animals and introduced plants. I have always been dumbfounded at this faulty and neglectful vision to care for the sea environment from all Institutions in Galapagos.
Galapagos is very young geologically, and therefore its land and sea native and endemic species populations numbers are very short. The Galapagos penguin (900), flightless cormorant (400), for example do not reach the three digit numbers. The marine fauna especially have not been completely studied and most of it is in a evolutionary process becoming new species. Even a strong “El Niño” phenomena could wipe out many of these species. Imagine man. These species rely on very specific ecosystems areas within the Archipelago where they can survive. This is the Canal Bolivar on the west which is formed by the west and east coasts of the Isabela and Fernandina islands respectively. And this is where the pepineros divers now roam and fish as much as ever. Also here is where the big Tuna fishing fleet from the mainland wants to have access!.
As these area is the most remote of the archipelago is easy to break rules unseen. This areas or islands have been fished already to year 2003 up to this numbers: 16.7 millions of seaworms or “pepinos de mar”. From 1999 to 2003 (just 5 years recorded) fishermen have taken close to 7000 tons of pepinos from the archipelago.
As I became a licensed Charter Boat Operator, Naturalist guide, Diving guide, and Charter boat captain, I started to get a bigger picture of Galapagos and where it was heading. Also, as the only surf charter operator those days (and pretty much the only surfer in the archipelago) and having freedom in the surrounding waters, I became highly aware of other aspects of the Galapagos reality. Like the lobster fishermen who all knew me because I used to anchor in the same areas where they used to camp and dive. I would surf and they would dive. Also, the reality of the local fishermen. Who in those days were very few and we knew each other very well, for they would come to my boat to trade fish for goods like fresh bread or vegetables. Some of those guys especially the cooks would work with me onboard now and then on my regular charter sail trips. Controls were not necessary then but one could easily foresee the future. To give an idea very quickly of how it used to be when I first started sailing and surfing the islands, my mate/cook, a lobster diver, would get as many as 160 big lobsters (selected 6 inches tails) in about 1-2 hours of night diving. I would be the guy in the dinghy or helping him with flashlight at 9 to 10 pm dives in pretty cold waters with the occasional shark swimming by in the darkness. It was freaky the first times until I got use to it, which took a while, until I realized that Galapagos sharks are as tame as is the rest of wildlife. That’s for sure. And also for sure, the Galapagos lobster is now practically gone.
After that time, I never, neither saw, or wanted to get more than what I could eat. I never was a good night lobster diver either.
Today, you are a lucky lobster diver if you get 10 lobsters of the same size in one dive of 2 hours at the same areas. Lobstering started to grow in everyone’s eyes with lots of exports (middle 80´s) and the increasing number of fishermen started then. Mainland divers came to make money and settle. And still no control. They would take lobsters with eggs, small ones, etc. The Galapagos anchorages became noisy with lobster fishing boats all over and their “on deck-power plants” running all night long to keep their freezers going!. When the lobsters were gone they started on the “pepino de mar” or seacucumber. Asian capitalist started to see that Galapagos as a “no mans sea”. Their fishing grounds paradise.
After several years of exploring, chartering and becoming familiar with the navigational conditions and anchorages of the islands and documenting my search for waves, I invited friends from Ecuador and California. Few surfers started to wandered by to explore the Galapagos but not knowing where to go came to me. We put many surf trips together, they paying only expenses.
Few people like the SURFER MAGAZINE explorers (Kevin Naughton, Hunter Joslin and friends-told by John Vokes) came in 1980, but just to San Cristobal island. A short article was published, I guess trying to keep it secret.
We went a little further and started to make 15 day to one-month surf charters. Going all over the archipelago and finding quite few more surf spots. But basically I have to say this: Galapagos is no surf heaven like the South Pacific, Maldives or Indonesia archipelago. Actually, Galapagos has few surf spots. Shore bottoms are very steep and sometimes way too deep to create good surf or any surf at all. But, the good ones you can get are worthwhile. And the best part is that of course crowds are nonexistent in areas away from towns or ports.
Finding good to excellent surf in Galapagos and on mainland Ecuador takes timing and knowledge of the when and where. If you don’t have that, you may find nothing. That’s why Ecuador in general has not been in articles in surf magazines. In fact, the few times an article has been done, its been negative to our happy hearts, because that way it was kept uncrowded for us.
Basically the best and easiest area to get excellent world-class surf is San Cristobal Island and these shores have been opened officially to surfers and to all self propelled watersports. But there are other spots worth looking for and only reachable by boat. Like the west coast of Santa Cruz Island in an area called “Las Palmas”. Also, a great area for surfing is the Baltra (south Seymour) airport and North Seymour islands. Although the later has been partially closed for surfers the other is open and takes strong north swells. North Seymour being the most sensitive to any north swells with lots of consistency and excellent conditions. Isabela island south eastern shores are very good and very unexplored with potential for huge surf.
Plus a few more that I will keep for myself, friends and family.
It’s a shame that Galapagos Park Directors have a bias against surfing in general. One of the last Directors told me that he did not want Galapagos to turn into a surf destination because he implied that would bring drugs and bad habits to locals, this said around 1999 so far there is nothing happening close to what this biased park director thought instead all local surfers one recent new year’s celebration, made a sign in protest about the new incoming non local fishermen who were plundering the coastal environment, compared to all the positive things surfing had brought to the Galapagos like:
- Surf tourism uses only surface waters. It does not use land areas taking pressure off the traditional (land) areas, which are overused by regular land eco tours.
- 90% of Surfers will stay in towns for very long periods using hotels (at least 15 days), and other services (dinghies, trucks/taxis, restaurants) in an unprecedented way. Shifting the eco tourism tradition to a more POSITIVE LOCAL WAY of doing tourism. There is no need to oblige surfers to stay in town to use hotels. The majority will not charter boats as they are very expensive and need 3-6 months reservation in advance. The San Cristobal island town, Puerto Baquerizo, is very happy now with surfing as it was a neglected port few years ago with only fishing as income.
- Surf tourism increases the amount of jobs in Galapagos much needed now more than ever to provide alternatives to locals who relate to the ocean as an income source. That is, local fishermen can easily change their ways to become surf, dive. Kayaking, windsurfing, etc., services operators. Since the traditional licenses for week charter boats are no longer issued.
- In general, the impact of the surf eco tourism is 100 times less negative compare to the regular eco tourism way which is 95% done on boats, leaving very little to the locals since the big Ship Cruises usually don’t reinvest their capital in Galapagos and the tourists spend no time nor money in the local towns.
On top of all the bias already noted, the Galapagos National Park(GNP) Officials directors and the local groups (“Juntas Participativas”) have also been prejudiced and poorly advised. To the point of discriminating against surfers (who pay the same $100 USD entrance fee as any other so called eco-tourist) and prohibiting the use of week-charter boats so that all surfers arriving to Galapagos must only (are obliged to) use hotels (sleep) in town and use only day tour boats to go to surf spots (of which many are too far away to go and come back in one day) making the few spots reachable this way very crowded and destroying the main purpose any surfer would travel so far for, which is to find un crowded surf spots. Not even promotional film crews are allowed to charter a boat for weeks. I myself had a bad experience once with the Australian “Rip Curl” team in the late 90´s and even though new laws were not then applied. After all arrangements were made with the charter boat operator and everything paid in advance and even after talking with Park authorities and getting verbal consent for our 10 day charter with me as tour-leader, it was almost cancelled on the day we were supposed to start, by Park officials. We got to make that last charter by getting down on our knees to the guys at the Park.
Galapagos has a great potential to become a good water sports tourism destination once the prejudice of treating surfers like some kind of disease ends. Imagine: the GNP (and certain obnoxious locals) once said that surfers were a visual contamination!. Tell me if watching the arrival to a small island anchorage (like many at Galapagos) a 500 hundred + tons ship, throwing a 3 ton anchor down to the bottom of the bay killing coral and all living unlucky beings on the sea floor, with a smoking chimney and all, then land about 70 people to this small island scaring away bird nest colonies, is not visual contamination?. Where is the sense in all this?. As said before, sadly certain people in my country are very incongruous.
Especially, now when fishermen are really taking all there is to take and blaming it all to the Tourist Operators. Even the National Geographic Magazine said in an article on Galapagos and said that the islands problems were not the fishermen but the tourist!. Maybe I agree partially on this if we are talking about the big tour ships, which are a main problem. Galapagos should have only small 12-15 passengers boats and a limited amount of fishing boats.
Another main problem is that just recently (in the 90`s) the Galapagos National Park and Darwin Research Station (the 2 institutions handling conservation) became aware that the real problem, as in any other part of the planet, is demographics, so the constitution of Ecuador had to be amended and now immigration to Galapagos from the mainland is supposedly controlled. That done, maybe Galapagos will have a chance in the future and not become another “used to be pristine place”. I really had to laugh at all the bad perspectives from the “know it all” guys. To illustrate more of the incongruity I was seeing in the 80´s, there were many ridiculous controls while others things went unseen or disregarded by all. Like literally cleaning the feet and shoes of tourist (which I had to do as a naturalist guide every charter) and our own as we came back in
dinghies from island walks everyday to prevent “inter-island contamination”, while the non local fishermen, lobstermen, tuna fishing boats were using “long lines” from one island to another!. Seacucumbermen, kept on plundering the islands and nobody does or says nothing. Also, all the while big cargo and tourist ships and airlines kept bringing all kinds of biological organisms unchecked by any authority and contributing to the amount of garbage, septic tanks, and bilge oils thrown into the ocean. A garbage processor donated by the Japanese government was never used! And still sits there in Puerto Ayora rusting slowly away. And as Galapagos economy was doing much better than the rest of the country, many people kept coming in from the mainland specially commercial fishermen dealers who started to hire fishermen or divers from the
mainland since they would work for less money, etc., (most of the fishermen now in Galapagos are not really local or; as they use to call real locals in my years: “colonos” which means people who had arrived and stayed in Galapagos in the colonization years; 1950´s –1970´s). And still no controls. So bad had been all this supposedly best controlled National (Land) Park that the fishermen kept coming and it practically went from aproximately 20 or less local fishermen in 1980´s(“Field Guide to Fishes in Galapagos” by Godfrey Merlen-1988) to 457 registered in 1997. Then in only 2 more years right when the Marine Jurisdiction Area was finally supposedly in action, the number of registered fishermen was 795. Then by 2002 when the Inter institutional managing authority of the Marine Reserve authorized an open season for fishing “pepinos” for 60 days, this number reached 1059 registered fishing licenses!. Great management, dudes!.
Just a few years ago in this new century all this started to be controlled and checked by National Park authorities. Finally the wise men awoke!.
Galapagos was a Marine Park by decree signed in 1986 or so. Since then it was just paper as so many other laws in my country. It really became partially implemented in the turn of the century as we can see.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution started the first researches for the Marine Park Project in the late seventies. It took nothing less than about over 20 years to be implemented. Of course, very late! And that’s also why we see the problems of today.
One other big myth I’d like to make clear is this. Everybody at GNP administration said and keep saying I think, that the N. Park is the institution controlling the amount of tourists that can enter the GNP every year; a number like 60.000 tourists a year, which keeps increasing. This is another BS, paper, rule & law. I’d ask: what would happen if say, by next October-November this number had been surpassed? What will they (Park authorities) do? Close the entrance of Galapagos? Stop all tourist activities? stop FLIGHTS…yes sure!..
So, basically all that really increases or controls entrance, is the amount of flights a year mainly, and of course the amounts of hotels, big boats, etc.
So, from my point of view part of the solution is to shift activities to different areas besides the regular limited ecotourism that uses only land areas of the National Park. This means, access to and controlled use of low impact areas like the coastline waters and give new jobs to fishermen. In a few words, create new alternative activities in harmony with the environment, like promoting all water sports like surfing, kayaking, sport fishing (catch and release), snorkelling, and scuba diving. Also, biking, ultra light and flying activities.
But most importantly, all the potential areas for surfing, windsurfing, etc., are devoid of sensitive fauna areas. Which means, all the areas where you can surf, have no real conflict with the conservational objectives. All these areas are very much without animals. Only the californian sea lion will surf with you and most all these surf spots are ways off the beaten path of the regular tourist.
There is no need to break any rules to find waves in Galapagos. And the GNP knows it.
Especially San Cristobal Island could become a great destination for the development of water sports. All this islands shores are very much devoid of fauna. And you can find many surf spots and windsurfing areas, great kayaking areas, etc. The same is true with the southwestern shores of Santa Cruz Island and SE shores of Isabela Island with probably the biggest surf in the archipelago.
Basically it is just a matter of common sense. Choosing the least harmful tourist activity possible using other areas of the Park, like the coastal waters, giving synergy to the other areas using the same tourist boats as patrolling craft which the National Park urgently needs. That way there will be a net of control in many places preventing fishermen and tour boats from overriding rules and regulations. In other words, making big boats, yachts, and small boat operators work for the GNP. In short, the GNP should look at surfing instead of as a menace, as an opportunity.
Las Palmas-Isla Santa Cruz
This spot is made up of a little islet resembling a point connected to the big Santa Cruz Island by shallow water over round black lava rocks like a low tide isthmus. A few black mangroves trees sticking out on the point make up the name for this place: “Las Palmas Grandes”. These mangroves from far away look like palm trees hence the name (Galapagos has few palms trees and only in certain ports). This is a medium to big surf area. The peak of the wave is hollow and thick. It looks to me like its breaking around the 6+ feet range. I had surfed here before many times but this time the current was quite strong. I was looking at the peak from the boat and feeling very eager to get in the water right away after anchoring. I threw my board in the water from the deck and saw my Balsaflite funboard (7-6”) rapidly pulled away by a 2-3 knot current heading to the point. I had to jump in quickly to catch up with it and start paddling. I barely had time to really check the sets and size. Once inside and close to the take off I saw that it might have been bigger than I thought. Maybe 10 feet. I went for the first good one I saw. I pearled on the drop loosing my leash & board right away. The “wipe out” felt quite like a bigger wave. I knew that when I could hear the rumble of the rounded lava rocks below on the reef. I came out quite close the shore rocks and started to swim fast to get away from them. Looking for my board I could not find it anywhere.
I was picked up by a dinghy and kept looking for the board. Nowhere to be found. I went back to the boat to look with binoculars from the top deck. Nothing. Later, it occurred to me that it may be a good idea to go over to the other bay next to the point. I took the dinghy over and found it floating nicely and not in bad shape. The board had floated over the rocks and over the isthmus on quite a good sized foam. So, it seemed like the wave was probably bigger than 10 feet, after all...
In the 80´s most people did not believe that Galapagos could have good surf, even less, excellent conditions. So, myself with my then new family, did surfing trips. My wife, kids and good friends from California would get the boat ready and go. Friends of friends like Mark Renneker came to check, and legendary Indonesian surf pioneers like Bill Heick and Nelson Swartley became my new surf buddies who would come and visit now and then in the middle 80´s.
A surf in Seymour Norte(now forbidden to surfers)-Feb-1987.
This wave is one of the world class waves Galapagos has. Very strong and with the Hawaiian punch we all love. Me and my new California surf buddies came here with Ecuadorian surf champ and pal, Toño Posada. The day showed a medium sized swell. The conditions as always here in North Seymour, great. In-the-tube-light offshore, and we were just 3 in the line up and sometimes just the 2 of us. Bill the photographer was doing his job and Nelson sometimes would kneeboard, sometimes would dive. He is an excellent free diver and loves Galapagos waters.
After a few hours we all got surfed out and went onboard except Toño. He could surf for hours. We began to fool around on the boat with cleaning the catch of the day we had on the morning cruise on our way here. Vicente, my mate and cook was throwing the guts of this big snapper into the water. As this was being done suddenly one big shark came around the boat. Then another. And so we started to throw some more of the guts. It all looked really cool and spooky as the sharks (minutes later there were 3 or so) started to eat it all splashing their tails close to the boat, flashing their serrated mouths full of sharp teeth as they gulped down everything. As we were looking at this frenzy I looked up thinking about Toño. He was all alone out there and I started to worry. Although, Galapagos has never had any shark attacks I said: Ok stop it!, Toño is still out there dudes!. At the same time we saw him take off on a great wave bigger than all the rest we have seen. He dropped down the face late and pulled in the barrel. As he darted out and came to the open face close to the end of the ride we saw this big dark thing jump on his board!. I went pale and thought of all the sharks being fed. We all froze at the sight and thought that the worst scenario was happening right in front of our eyes!. Then suddenly as we could focus more properly we could see the shape of a big sea lion riding on the front of Toño´s board for few seconds and then jumped back in the water!. We could not believe our eyes!. And neither of course could Toño himself, who came big eyed, amazed and with a happy shocked face onboard to tell us his story. You can imagine how scared he got while this happened to him!. A big male sea lion (which in fact can be more dangerous than a shark in Galapagos) just seemed like he wanted to ride on a surfboard with him. All sea lions as you know body surf a lot specially at Seymour. But this one felt kind of jealous and wanted to try a board for a little while.
Later at sunset we told him the complete story of the shark feeding thing and he got really pissed. What a day!. What a surf trip.
What a place!
I can tell you dude, surfing the Galapagos is very hard to beat.
But I am so sad that the obnoxious have ruined all our fun in Seymour and all the surf cruising.
This wave gets so heavy,(up to 15+ feet and maintaining excellent shape) I just don’t want to remember. Cause now it is off limits and all that those memories brings to me is just a big frustration and indignation with Galapagos as it is “managed” now. What a shame. What a waste!. What non-sense.
So later in 1997, back on the mainland one day my good old buddy Pepe Salcedo (may he rest in peace), who also was a Charter boat captain/operator and also from Guayaquil, called. He said something about a surf charter and that some Surfer magazine people were coming. As he was always teasing and joking me; he used to called me: “ El capitan surfista” as a joke since there was nobody crazy enough in the islands who surf, I did not take it seriously. I was already back on the mainland in my regular job, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to surf & cruise again in the islands so I went as Tour leader and Yacht captain, that way helping my buddy take a few days rest from the highly strenuous job of being a captain/naturalist guide/owner deal which I knew very well and for me at this time was like a vacation taking time off the 9-5 job of the city. On my boat which was much smaller it was just me: captain/Naturalist Guide/Owner and the Cook: deck hand/mate plus sometimes I was also the dive master and my mate had to fill tanks while cooking or washing dishes. With at least 12 hours of work every day of the charter. Most all sailing or cruising is done at night for an average of 4-8 hours. Then guiding all day in strong equatorial sun. You bet you get burned out after 15-20 days of charter work. Sometimes we went for a solid month or more. After that I would loose about 5-6 pounds and not be able to sleep regularly for days and had to use sleeping pills to recuperate fast enough for next charter.
The “Sulidae” is an 80 feet LOA old fashioned wood boat almost 100 years old. A pioneer charter Yacht in Galapagos waters with several successive owners and this years owned by my friend Pepe Salcedo who actually invited me to participated in this charter as he knew I was the only guy/surfer in the islands. We took it surfing the islands for the first time. My great surprise was when meeting the SURFER Magazine people I could see Brad Gerlach, who was the only one I recognized as a serious pro-surfer. Later of course, I came to realize I was with some of the top surfers in the world like Joel Tudor and Keith Malloy. Also top surf photographer Ted Grambeau & surf writer Dan Duane, great guys who perfectly fitted the Galapagos environment. They made the article and video and then the whole thing exploded and Surfing was a big topic in the tourism and ecological dealings of the people and Galapagos National Park offices.
All of a sudden everybody became a surf guide and surfer in the Galapagos. Even a few hotel owners wanted to become surf operators when first they would not even dream about surfing and even one of them in Puerto Ayora was so obnoxious about the whole surfing “thing” that he used to call pro surfers “hippies”, a phase I am sure he was also called when he was young and saner. Anyway, Galapagos now has maybe only 30 local real surfers, mainly on San Cristobal island.
Being out of the Galapagos reality after a few years back in the city I was born in (Guayaquil), I started to have a glimpse of what Surfing and all water sports could do for the islands. The problems with the fishermen became more and more intense and ways to solve them seemed scarce. I also started my website called the Galapagosurf.com a surf site with free information for all independent surf and non surfers travellers of Galapagos and the mainland ( 1998) which later (2003) by some mysterious dealings and wrong doings from my local domain provider I lost it to a web pirate and now my old domain (.com) was turned into redirected 3x porno site!. So now (2004), I changed it to www.galapagosurf.net.
Anyway, I started to have a clearer and clearer perspective the need of creating new jobs for the fishermen. I started to envision the possibility that many fishermen can become a water sports operators. To begin with, all local fishermen already know the coasts, points, coves and anchorages, where potential good surf, windsurfing, sport fishing, kayaking is or could be found. Why don’t they use these coastal areas, which theoretically belong to them (the local fishermen), to pursue an alternative new way of life and income?. I am sure we could all be surfing, sport fishing, windsurfing, kayaking and helping the environment in Galapagos without the present unnecessary discrimination.
Sealion puppies and leashes.
We got to the spot sometime around sunset. The foam was all over the anchorage. Big monstrous foams floating all around us. I knew that when this happened the surf was going to be big. Paddling through this size foam we would disappear from sight and come out to the other side like coming from dwarfed icebergs.
The big point wave was impossible to surf. The current was so strong, it was like a river, probably 4-5 knots at every big set. So, I decided to just stop paddling and let myself be taken back by the current to the inside reef where it tooked me. Once there I found myself at this 3-5 feet wave which was breaking perfectly offshore, top to bottom and fast, so I started to surf it. At the same time I noticed that there were a lot of sea lion puppies swimming around. I dropped late into one wave and was caught by the fast barrel and transparent tube as I shot out parallel to the wave. I began to see shades of fish on the fast wall going by. I realized that the puppies were with me all the time inside the wave face. Then all of a sudden the pups were surfing together with me inside the tube and outside of it. It was outrageous to ride eye ball to eye ball with the puppies inside the perfectly rounded, clean and dry tube. In my peripherial vision, which you must master to surf good tubes, I could see them watching me as I was watch them!
I went back to the line up again and again. My surf pal Andres and Australian Billy, stayed in the big wave area and I just forgot about them as my new surf friends became sea lion puppies. They would finish the wave with me jumping and playing after each ride as if saying: “Hey! Lets do another! This is so much fun, we are so stoked!”. As we paddled back, they all kept on biting and pulling on my leash which was something extra for them to play with on our way to the take off. We rode I don’t know how many waves once and again with all of them together inside and outside of the tube. The wave was perfectly made for this.
This was one of my best Galapagos experiences. And one of my best in life so far.
In the early Nineties I felt my dream was dreamed and done. I left the islands after more than 10 years. I feel I lived a productive happy life in my years spend in Galapagos. I just went back to the mainland for several reasons but being the main one was the impossibility of getting proper schooling, by then my kids were 9 and 4. Even today, something very difficult or impossible to find in such a small town like Puerto Ayora. As proof of this now I see that many of my fellow Charter Boat owners, who are still living in Puerto Ayora, have had terrible times with their family lives. Galapagos is not a real good place to raise teenage kids. There is very little to do and recreation is limited. This was another good thing surfing brought to Galapagos.
There is a book recently published called “Plundering Paradise”. Of course, people who just write about other people and have never raised a family or even less lived many years in a small isolated place like a town in the Galapagos will never ever get ahold of that reality. Therefore, they can do nothing but to invent things and lie to make a buck. I feel sorry for people who writes books about plundering the Galapagos it just shows that they have not really found true happiness ever in their life, and dare to write such obnoxious nonsense. OK, enough of that.
I am very happy I was able to live there while Galapagos was really pristine in every sense:
Clean offshore combed cobalt blue waves all by myself and a few selected friends. Hundreds of amber jacks and red snappers schooling around me, only few feet away, and looking at me with their big eyes making me dizzy while scuba diving. Watching shark feeding frenzies close to my anchored boat as the water turned white from a school of sardines being eaten. Living in harmony with fishermen and lobster men. Having enough room and quiet to anchor at any place I wanted to and no fixed itineraries to cruise by. Diving with 300-400 giant hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks (one of the first turned out “use to be pristine” diving place). Diving in waters of 150 foot visibility at Beagle Rocks at 160 feet deep, as my regulator valve whistle from the depth pressure, and looking up from the ocean floor to dive partner “world free diver” Jim Baldwin taking photos way up there on the rock wall. Night dives with a full moon, without flashlights. Steering my sailboat, in sparkle clear nights, with only my toes, looking at the wonderful Galapagos sky. Looking at hundreds of falling stars, and other night sky phenomena, in awe to the universe on top of me. Doing solo sailing with only my new autopilot as crewmember from island to island and watching dolphins follow my boat on the bow as they look at me and as they kicked my boat bows gently in a friendly manner.
For all this I am very grateful and pleased to think that I was able to contribute with more positives than negatives to the Galapagos islands and its people. Even though in the beginning some of them actually hated me, my boat and the surfboards, thinking I was just another rich kid from Guayaquil (by Ecuadorean standards having a sail boat means being very rich!). Until, some of them actually found out who I really was. All I say to them is: keep it soul bros.
The sail has been quite long, the winds are weak and we are heading for “Las Palmas” at Santa Cruz Island, from Floreana Island. We are under sail only, as we have no inboard engine and only an 25hp outboard motor that we use only for anchoring or to get the anchor out. Sometimes not even then, we try to do everything by sail. Anyway, we are getting close to our spot but soon it will be dusk. The swell seems small out at sea. I go below to do some cooking until we could see the shore more clearly. So, I lefts us on a course toward shore on a broad reach just in case we get too close to problems. We can quickly get on a beam reach so the trimaran will pick up speed fast. Suddenly my wife tells me that it seems like they are looking at something straight ahead. I go on deck and first don’t see much because of the change in lighting from below deck to outside where there was nothing but darkness. I looked carefully and walk to the fore deck and suddenly I see the weak sparkle of foam right ahead of the bow of the boat, meaning we were way in too close!. And the area is a big wave area that’s for sure!..I run back to the wheel and turn, at same time trimmed the sails to a beam reach really, really, hard. With my heart in my mouth I just waited for the next wave. Please do not to be big, I ask all the gods! We came to first wave putting speed quite rapidly and made it over as the “Windshadow” went up and down splashing and losing speed in the rocking and shaking the wind out of her sails. I again pray for the gods to not destroy my home-boat and business as well as my friends and wife with it.. The next wave is luckily also small and the trimaran started to get good speed and finally I “feel” we have made it, cause still I can’t really see much as the night had become really dark, a quality typical of the Galapagos. One can get either very clear nights or very, very dark ones.
My heart kept beating at a pace way over the normal levels for the longest time in my life so far, I even went forward and held on to the mast to try keep it from bursting out of my chest, and to try to forget the event and how close we were to loosing it all. I have seen the remains of boats which have wreck in this area and it was so scary. Only very little pieces of wood, plywood, sticks and debris from different parts of the vessels are left. Imagine getting caught inside in a 38 foot plywood and fibreglass boat with only an outboard motor that cavitates to try plunge through a 10-15 feet strong breaking wave!. No way.
I thought: this is the last time I look for waves on my boat!. Goddam!
This story was written with the only purpose of letting people know what is happening and happened in Galapagos throughout these years from my point of view as a Galapagos naturalist, charter boat captain, diver, but primarily as a surfer.
I dedicate this to my wife, kids and mom, and to my surf pals I mentioned in this story. Also to my friends who still live at the islands, especially, Pepe Salcedo, whom was not a surfer but had the soul of one. I thank them for all those hard working great times.
Ricardo Nuñez Cristiansen
All rights reserved copyright 2013 ®
Finished “last draft” July 18-04
Grammar-editing correction help from Andres Kosminsky.