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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sealion puppies and leashes.
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:
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.
Ricardo Nuñez Cristiansen