TARIFA: At the Mercy of the Wind...
by firmm Team
Text and photos: Sonja Van Den Bossche
Al Viento de Levante
‘Pero hay que vivir con él
Forma parte de este clima
Se le va teniendo estima
Y hay que ceñirse a su ley’
(An extract from an old poem) (1)
Every time I stay in Tarifa, there’s always someone I’ll surely meet more than once. It’s a bit strange: I can’t really see him, I can only feel and hear him. During the day he’s playing non-stop with the leaves of the palm trees and when he’s really very strong, every now and then he almost makes me fall. At night whenever he passes down the street, the rattling noise coming from empty tin cans sometimes keeps me awake. No, I’m not referring to a scaring thief… but to the wind god Aeolus. Honestly, I’ve never really liked him, but after all these years I’ve learnt to live with him and accept him as he is: he’s just part of Tarifa and constantly having a major impact on my holiday and on the southernmost point of Spain!
Different types of wind
Walking from Playa Chica along the Atlantic coast, you’ll soon see the recently erected Tuna statue near Playa de los Lances. At its foot you can read the names of the winds blowing in this region: Poniente, Mistral, Tramontana, Gregal, Levante, Siroco, Mediodía and Lebeche.
Most of the times Aeolus sends Levante and Poniente through the Strait of Gibraltar, making Tarifa not only a paradise between two waters – the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean – and the meeting place of two continents – Europe (Spain) and Africa (Morocco) – but also the ground of the winds. These two ‘brothers’ are completely different ‘characters’, which is already clear from the significance of their names, linked to the position of the sun. Levante comes from Spanish ‘levantar’, meaning ‘to rise’. As the sun rises in the east, Levante is east wind. The Spanish word ‘poner’ in ‘Poniente’ can be translated by ‘set’. The sun sets in the west, so Poniente is the wind from the west. Yet there are more contrasts between them…
The Levante is a warm and dry wind blowing from the interior toward the ocean. On the other hand, Poniente wind blows from the ocean to the land. It’s cold and moist.
Almost impossible to go to the beach with Levante: the wind picks up sand, which pricks your skin and flies into your eyes, ears and mouth. However, even with Poniente you may spend a fine day on the beach.
Tarifa is situated on the Costa de la Luz (=Coast of Light). This coast owes its name to the light here that reflects on the sea like it reflects off a mirror. Consequently, the wind capital of Europe is also known for its beautiful sunsets. Levante fills the sky with dust and dirt. With Poniente, on the contrary the sun shines brightly until sunset. (2)
Being a fervent whale watcher, I’m always feeling desperate when Levante wind is announced in Tarifa, because I know in the port it may keep the firmm-boats tied to the quay for days (in the worst-case scenario even for weeks!) on end…
Let’s have a closer look at the ‘curriculum vitae’ of the Levante now: its ‘place and time of birth’, its ‘evolution’, and so on.
This wind blows in the Alboran Sea towards the Strait at any time of the year. This is because of the Azores High located along the horizontal axis passing through the Bay of Biscay and its low influence on almost the whole Peninsula and the Balearic Islands, whilst there are low pressures over Morocco.
The geographical situation of the Strait also has a lot to do with the Levante wind. On the Spanish side there are cliffs very close to the sea, such as the mountain ranges of Bermeja, Ronda, Almijara, Gádor and the Sierra Nevada, and on the Moroccan side the Rif and Atlas Mountains.
So when the Levante wind blows, it will have to pass through a funnel. To go past the narrowest part of the funnel, it will have to increase its speed due to the Venturi effect. (3) This phenomenon – named after Italian physicist, Giovanni Battista Venturi (1746-1822) – occurs in nature, when a fluid that is flowing through a pipe is forced through a narrow section. (4)
In 2016 there was so much Levante wind in Tarifa in high season that according to tourists and bar keepers it was one of the worst summers in years! (5) Unfortunately, the bad weather had disastrous effects on the tourism industry of this already economically depressed area… Kitesurfers weren’t eager to go out, as the strong wind and high waves made this watersport more difficult and dangerous. The majority of the local campsites, ‘chiringuitos’ and hotels near the beach saw their sales and profits go down. (6) And we should also not forget that owing to storms, the harbour was closed many a time; even the large ferry boats operating between Tarifa and Tangier were unable to sail then!
To make up for the lost revenue a new campaign was set up in Tarifa. It’s called ‘Tarifa is much more than its beaches’ and wants to make it really clear that during a Levante summer this hotspot for surfers has more natural and also cultural alternatives to offer to its visitors, (6) such as the Circus School at the sports centre for families with children. Or outside of Tarifa: Conil de la Frontera (Cala del Aceite, Playa Fuente del Gallo, Cala Encendida (in Roche)) and Los Caños de Meca (Playa de Castillejos). They’re all beaches without Levante in the province of Cádiz. Other things around Tarifa to do with kids are: visiting the waterfalls at Arroyo de la Miel and La Garganta del Capitán in the National Park Alcornocales in Algeciras or simply swimming at Bahía Water Park in Algeciras, in Facinas’ outdoor pool,… (7) (8)
Indeed, here in Tarifa you must be very flexible, since unkind wind conditions very often thwart plans. Especially events along the coast or at sea are vulnerable to alteration or even last-minute cancellation. It’s not the first time that on ‘La Noche de San Juan’ (every June 23rd), celebrating the start of summer, the bonfire on the beach is cancelled due to high winds. Or that during the ‘Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen’ (every July 16th) the fishing boats decorated with floral garlands don’t sail out to sea. Last year (2016) this feast of the fishermen was unfortunately hindered by a forest fire along the N-340 between Algeciras and Tarifa. Because the fire was fanned by an easterly wind, it spread rapidly and was difficult to extinguish. The road was temporarily closed to all vehicles, which made Tarifa inaccessible. (9) And firmm always puts safety first. Hence, the possible tidal effects on the boat and wind and weather forecasts are checked more than once a day. They’re not sailing, when there’s too much wind or when the sea is too choppy and it’s very difficult to spot animals!
The wind in Tarifa doesn’t only have man and his activities in its grip, but also his environment, the flora and fauna, etc. There are pros and cons to Tarifa’s numerous windmills…
The use of the wind as an energy source as a satisfactory substitute for traditional energy sources was triggered by the energy crisis of 1973 and the rising oil price in the period 1973-1986.
In the 80’s the first experimental wind turbine, known as ‘Mazinger’ was installed in El Cabrito, one of the hills above Tarifa, the windiest spot in Spain. (10) (11)
Today Spain is the second largest producer of wind energy in Europe (12). In the Tarifa area there are about 38 onshore and coastal wind parks and 540 generators (13), providing power for approximately 300,000 inhabitants (14) plus lots of jobs, big advantages of the new energy medium.
Effects on wildlife
The larger windmills in the neighbourhood of Tarifa have blades with a diameter of more than 50m! (14) This latter fact brings us to the other side of the coin, the inconveniences of wind energy…
Not only in Tarifa, but worldwide wind farms are decimating large birds of prey, especially vultures.
Misplaced wind turbines are like a guillotine for the birds approaching their blades. Due to their large wingspan and low manoeuvrability they’re unable to avoid those huge knives that cut through the air. They see them coming, but don’t have the capacity to brake or move out of their way. And they pay with their lives… (15)
VIDEO: A vulture flies too close to a windmill in Lendas, in the south of Crete and makes a fatal mistake. (16)
In 2012 a group of scientists – among them were members of the foundation Migres in Huerta Grande, close to Tarifa – studied griffon vulture mortality at 13 wind farms in Tarifa, before (2006-2007) and after (2008-2009) selective turbine stopping programmes were put into action, when vultures were observed near. Between 2006 and 2007 most of the mortalities were concentrated in October and November, the migratory period. During 2008–2009 the mortality rate was reduced by 50%, indicating that the use of selective stopping techniques at turbines with the highest mortality rates can help to reduce the impacts of wind farms on birds. (17)
The noise of the wind turbines can also affect nesting raptors during the breeding season, e.g. by disturbing the baby birds’ first flight. And adult animals can lose their sleeping places, change their daily flight routines and migration patterns and even end up leaving their habitat! (18)
High-tension lines from wind turbines are a cause of avian mortality too: waterfowl, shorebirds, … collide with electric wires. (19)
In recent years, the wind industry has also killed insects and species that are already endangered for different reasons, such as bats, the last-mentioned ones not by collision, but barotrauma, whereby the change in pressure between turbines causes their lungs to explode… (20)
In Spain the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes (EAPP) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are the two most efficient tools for bringing environmental factors into planning and decision-taking procedures, thus minimizing the negative environmental consequences. There are currently no guidelines for assessing the environmental impact of wind farms on birds and bats, whether onshore, offshore or coastal, which has led to the chaotic implementation of this energy source in some parts of Spain… (21) The idiom ‘fight windmills’ (from Cervantes’ Don Quixote) has literally come true for the opponents of wind power in Tarifa!
And what about the effect of the wind on the animals in the sea, particularly the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar?
Waves work in combination with tides and currents to carry nutrients to marine animals. Larger animals, such as whales and other marine mammals in search of food (and breeding grounds) follow the currents, which also carry plankton. (22) They’re found at other locations.
firmm also organizes whale watching courses for individuals and families. During these courses firmm makes boat trips with the so-called ‘Studis’ and give lectures to them. When it’s too windy to sail, firmm‘s marine biologist takes the course participants either to the rocky coast near Tarifa in search of marine life or to the sand dune of Bolonia, a natural phenomenon found on land and continually changing shape due to wind.
In fact, in the neighbourhood of Tarifa there are two large sand dune ranges: one in Bolonia and one in Punta Paloma.
The high Punta Paloma sand dune rises up by more than 100 m from the beach just to the north of Playa de Valdevaqueros. Looking down the dunes, you can see dead tree branches in the loose golden sand and you’re standing on the tops of trees! As a consequence of a military decision in 1940, the adjacent pine forest was fortified in order to stop the increase in the amount of sand. In the 1990s the local authorities tried to prevent the sand’s movements by constructing a series of wicker fences. Now all the trees, the asphalt A-2325 road and the fence spikes are partly or completely buried by sand. (23) (24) Throughout history, man has been fighting against the wind in Tarifa, but up until now nature has always won…
"Persona non grata"...
I haven’t told you yet what the Tarifeños themselves think of the ‘badly reputed’ Aeolus…
Certain winds cause physical or sensible changes in many of the inhabitants of the regions in which they’re blowing. In Andalusia they can cause irritability, insomnia, anguish, fatigue or palpitations. (25) At the baker’s shop I once heard a woman living in Tarifa say: ‘Este viento está mortal.’ (=’This wind is deadly.’). These words were so piercing that they gave me goosebumps: I was thinking of the regrettable record this place holds for its highest suicide rates! (26)
Luckily for Tarifa, the government is aware of this serious problem. On November 14th, 2016, a bill was enacted into law: from this day on, the citizens of Tarifa can claim a compensation amount of 6,000 euros, since recent medical studies have shown that the excessive speed of the Levante wind in Tarifa adversely affects their mental health! (27)
And finally, what effect does the wind in Tarifa have on my mental health? Especially in summer the sultry and constantly howling Levante wind makes me feel dreamy and slow, but stronger in my everyday life at home! A new vision of life… And there’s still more: when I’m at home, after some months I feel a strong desire to return to Tarifa and feel the wind – and of course, be on the firmm-boat and be with the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar – again, knowing that they all keep me strong. Eternal energy…
So this is Tarifa, at the mercy of the wind, or should I say ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’? Nevertheless, don’t let the wind scare you off. I hope to see you soon in this small, enchanting town in order to share and confirm my experiences…
(14) Windmills / Tarifa
(18) Inconvenientes de la energía eólica (p. 16-17)
(19) Wind Turbines and Birds (p. 28-29)