El Hierro – Evolution in Real Time

A research trip on sustainability led me to El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands. My investigation quickly revealed that El Hierro’s much-hyped efforts to become a “green island” powered 100% by renewable energy and relying predominantly on e-mobility had quietly failed. Yet, I discovered a secluded sanctuary. There was no trace of the hordes of tourists who flock to the neighboring island of Tenerife, nor were there any of the gray concrete blocks that mar Tenerife’s scenery. It was very rural here, almost desolate. The slight sense of desolation probably had much to do with the fact that I’d come here in winter when a trade wind cloaks the island’s higher altitudes in constant fog. The explorer in me was intrigued. 

Road through the mountains and pine forests
The elevated coastal road winds through the pine forests

I found accommodation in La Restinga, a tiny fishing village on the island’s southernmost tip. Largely sheltered from the rain, the landscape here is desert-like. The only vegetation on the barren volcanic rock is a few succulents and some parched bushes. Even the architecture is more reminiscent of the Middle East than Europe. There are a few diving schools and a little marina with a huge harbor wall intended to offer protection from the wild Atlantic. Until the late nineteenth century, the prime meridian used as a reference on countless maps ran through Restinga. This was a classic outpost of civilization, the last place Christopher Columbus saw land before reaching America. And yet, at the time, Restinga was just a sleepy little village with a population of 300.

I quickly got to know people, meeting a motley bunch of colorful characters in one of the village’s two popular bars. Among them was Rosi, a 71-year-old woman from Sweden who realized during the COVID-19 pandemic just how fleeting life can be, had decided it was finally time to learn how to dive. I also ran into Europeans who had dropped out of the rat race, as well as digital nomads seeking refuge from Brexit. And then there were the types of adventurers who tend to be drawn to places like this. One of them was Jean-Marc, a former French elite soldier who was preparing to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat. Before he departed, we became friends. I spent almost every evening in lively conversation with the international community, which felt more like a close-knit family. Everyone was made to feel welcome.

I spent the days exploring El Hierro’s multifaceted landscape. While the uplands are home to fruit orchards and green pastures, the valley – formerly a crater – of La Frontera is filled with enclosed banana plantations, vegetable beds, and vegetable fields. The volcanic soil is fertile, that’s for sure. In other parts of the island, you would think you are in the Scottish Highlands were it not for the cacti. Endless walls made of volcanic rock piles traverse the hazy green landscape, which drops off abruptly when it meets the Atlantic.

FOURWINDS JACKET KIDS

FOURWINDS JACKET KIDS

But I was drawn back to the mountain woods again and again. One day I had made my way deep into the vast fragrant pine forest when a thick fog began to gather. The trade wind was back. And at altitudes of up to 5000 feet, it can arrive much quicker than you expect. I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I nonetheless attempted to follow one of the winding paths. When the clouds cleared a little, I found myself in a mystical fog forest, surrounded no longer by pines, but by twisting trees and bushes covered in lichen and moss. When the sun briefly broke through the thick white blanket, everything gleamed in various shades of green, and fat drops of water on the lichen reflected the sunlight. But there was no view down to La Frontera from where I stood by the edge of a crater. The valley was blanketed in clouds. So I just marveled at this unique damp biotope until I eventually found my way back to the road. 

the foggy forests of El Hierro
The foggy forests of El Hierro

Back in La Restinga, I got ready for my afternoon diving session. A little while later, we were rattling past the rugged volcanic cliffs in a dinghy. Rosi had joined us again too. Beneath us, evolution was happening in real-time. Just ten years ago, an underwater volcano had erupted near La Restinga, turning the diver’s paradise into a dead wasteland. A research vessel measuring seismic activity in the distance reminded us that the danger was still present. The local fishing industry came to a complete standstill. Yet shortly afterward, the first plant pioneers settled on the fertile volcanic ash. At the initiative of local fishers, the fishing industry started up again, but it was now restricted to traditional methods with strict fishing quotas. Besides, a marine protected area was created. This area may be small, but it has nonetheless allowed nature to recover. Gradually, new species have emerged, such as the goat-sized grouper, one of whom stared at me curiously when I dived into his territory. 

In the evening, I drank a beer by the sea and reflected on the research that had brought me here. Is it too much to claim, I wondered, that a place where time seems to have stood still might just show us the way forward? Or can the answer be found simply in the slower pace of life?

new underwater vegetation
New underwater vegetation

Manolo Ty is an author, a photographer, and a documentarian.