Get your rocks off: Tenerife calls time on stone towers left on beaches

Volunteers plan to remove hundreds of the man-made piles due to their negative impact on the environment, given that they threaten the island’s flora and fauna

Video: Jardín beach in Tenerife (Spanish narration).Photo: atlas | Video: O. TOLEDO / ATLAS
Santa Cruz de Tenerife -

The Canary Island of Tenerife is sick of the towers of stones that tourists are building along its Jardín and El Beril beaches. They may give the coastline an original and not unattractive twist but environmentalists are far from pleased as shifting the stones from their natural “habitat” is threatening the island’s flora and fauna. In a bid to reverse the effects, a group of volunteers was due to set about returning them to their rightful place and the beach back to its original state this past weekend.

This trend is not peculiar to the Canary Islands, but these two Tenerife beaches hold the record in Europe for these ephemeral sculptures

This trend is not peculiar to the Canary Islands, but these two Tenerife beaches hold the record in Europe for these ephemeral sculptures with a 200-meter-long stretch of towers, 15 meters-wide along the promenades.

Although there are places all along the Spanish coastline where tourists and locals alike attempt to leave their mark, lawyer Jaime Coello, director of the Telesforo Bravo Juan Coello Foundation that has just organized the removal of the stones in collaboration with the Puerto de la Cruz and Cabildo councils, maintains you have to go to Hawaii, Aruba or the Réunion island to see anything quite on the scale of Tenerife.

These mounds, which were used in the past for crowning graves, have been present in the spiritual traditions of various cultures all over the world for centuries, from Scottish cairns, indicating the location of a grave, to the Zen tradition in which a person is symbolized by the tower and their experiences in life by the stones. But in 1987, the Harmonic Convergence – a synchronized meditation event coordinated from West Coast America – triggered a trend for erecting the stone towers, and soon people everywhere were doing it, often simply to see how many stones they could get to balance on top of one another.

The effects of these towers on the environment are various. According to Matías Fonte, the dean of the Official School of Biologists in the Canary Islands, there is “the deterioration” of the landscape, with the extent of the impact dependent on the height of the tower – the higher the tower, the more shadow it produces and the more pressure it exerts on the ground.

Below each stone, there is a vertebrate and invertebrate ecosystem of bacteria, lichens and fungus

But, above all, the towers affect the habitats of animals and plants; below each stone, there is a vertebrate and invertebrate ecosystem of bacteria, lichens and fungus that are disturbed when they are lifted up. Ground snails, limpets and crabs are most at risk along with seaweed and lichen, according to Fonte.

There is also a geological impact. “Moving the stones artificially removes information about the land on which they lie because the rocks act like books in which we can read the story of the Earth,” says Ramón Casillas, professor of Geochemistry and Petrology at the University of La Laguna. “Man has to leave his footprint wherever he goes,” he complains.

Confronted with these man-made edifices at Playa Jardín is eerie – a bit like walking through hundreds of crosses in a cemetery. Tourists stop to consider the sight, among them Henrik, 19, who has his camera out. “This is a special place because of the contrast between the man-made piles of stones and the backdrop of the sea,” he says. He goes on to describe the scene as “art” and says he will probably build his own tower.

At El Beril beach in Adeje, on the other side of the island, a 34-year-old called Wilson is in full creative mode and manages to build a tower just over a meter high. “People come everyday to make towers,” he says as he shows off four others he has built along with a sand sculpture of the Teide volcano with a giant lizard at its foot, which earns him coins from passing tourists.

Dismantling the towers

The work of the volunteers this Saturday on Playa Jardín was due to consist of returning the stones to their rightful places – gently, without kicking any over, according to Coello, to avoid affecting the flora and fauna and the stones themselves. Once the work is completed along this coastline, the idea is to continue on El Beril in collaboration with the Adeje council. In order to stop people building more towers on both beaches, the foundation is asking local businesses to put up posters informing visitors that the practice is against Spanish law.

For the past 10 years, the internet and social media have acted as a promotional tool for the towers. “On Google Maps, these areas are indicated as an attraction to visit and there are Instagram accounts that encourage people to go to them to make wishes and take photos,” Coello explains.

Coello adds that the towers have nothing to do with the customs of the islands themselves. “The tourists don’t realize it – when they see the towers, they think it is a local tradition and they imitate it,” he says.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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