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Tenerirfe – The Island of Lost Arms & Comedy Seals

Admiral Nelson lost his arm in action in Tenerife.

Tenerife ain’t the sort of place you’d generally associate with snow. Nor would you particularly expect penguins to hang out there. But much is not as it seems on this, the largest of the seven Canary Islands, pitched out in the Atlantic Ocean, 275km off the coast of Africa. In the indigenous Guanche language, Tenerife means ‘snow-capped mountain’ and sure enough there’s a great big mountain at its centre. Way back when everyone sailed in timber ships, that mountain was a beacon for all on board.

The 2034 square km island was one of the last stops for any ship bound for the New World. Everyone who was anyone called by. Columbus and Magellan. All the Aussie convict ships.  The Bounty when Admiral Bligh and Fletcher Christian were still chummy on the rum. The Pandora when it was sent to track down Christian and the other mutineers.

But when you say Tenerife today, most people don’t think of explorers or snow. They think about the golden tattoo-splattered beaches to the south. Those beaches are probably bags of fun if that’s your thing. But if you’re after something a little more rugged and Hispanic, then go north. Tenerife is a gorgeous island, palm-fringed beach, flamboyant rainforests, alpine mountains, over 17,000 indigenous species of flowers. The north is steep and rocky, often barren and weirdly Connemara like. Mount Teide is a dead ringer for the moon surface. The northern beaches are great too, even if they are all disconcertingly black from the volcanic basalt. On the plus side, such a cementy concoction makes solid foundations for sandcastles.

The island’s Loro Parque is a sprawling top class botanical park and aquatic zoo founded in 1972 by Wolfgang Kiessling, a parrot-loving German philanthropist who stood as Tenerife’s Ambassador to Thailand in his spare time. The Thai connection comes to the fore in an elaborate pavilion at the entrance, as well as a massive artificial jungle called Siam Park down south. At present the zoo’s jungle creatures includes two Bengal tigers, a clatter of refugee chimpanzees and a bachelor party of seven male gorillas. Each gorilla was apparently cast out from their own family home in the Western Lowlands  in the wake of power struggles where they’d been on the losing side. Now they sit about, happily scratching their toes, chewing branches and pontificating over Pythagoras.

Loro Parque starts with a massive mini-Antarctica, the largest and most modern penguinarium in the world, stuffed with dolphins, sea-lions and Humbold penguins. The latter are holed up in a massive mini-Antarctica, the largest and most modern penguinarium in the world. Umpteen hundred of these comical, tubby-bellied waddlers, all born here, have successfully deluded themselves into thinking that this replicated coastline of Chilean coral is what the universe is all about. Visitors gawk in from a neat, revolving platform, so you feel part David Attenborough and a lot Truman Show. I wondered did they ever crank up the blizzardometre so these little guys could feel what their cousins really deal with deep down on the South Pole. Our guide pretended not to hear and pointed instead at an 8.5 metre high cylinder full of sardines, perfect for Telefishion junkies. Do they not get bored? He explained they only had a 3 second memory. How do they know that? Do they not get bored? He explained they only had a 3 second memory. How do they know that? Do they not … and so it went on as we walked through a glass tunnel of polka-dotted killer sharks, technicolour dreamfish and dopey seahorses.

Roques de García volcanic rocks and Mount Teide in Teide National Park on Tenerife, by Dronepicr.

The big fish at Loro Parque are what its all about. It starts when two men and a girl with Disney-white smiles come surfing the pool on dolphin’s backs. I’ve seen dolphins leaping through hoops on telly plenty of times, and I’ve read “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” too but I don’t think even Douglas Adams knew just how trainable these creatures are. Orca Whales and sea-lions too for that matter. Ever seen a great big Orca bellyflopping to an Elvis soundtrack? They deliberately send arcs of water splashing onto the congregation for the crack. Anything for some free sardines, I suppose. But what really gets everyone clapping like they’re at a Jools Holland show is the sea-lions. I hadn’t realised sea-lions were comedians but these whiskery Californian snufflers excel in slapstick, the tap-you-on-the back and slip-on-a-banana style gags. I watched agog as they tiptoed about to the Pink Panther tune, juggling balls, tut-tutting their heads, pilfering each others hoops and faking the kiss-of-life like they were auditioning for a Chaplin movie. There was also a cute environmental “put your bottles in a bin” eco-bent too which worked well. If there was such a thing as driven seagull shooting, these sea-lions would make excellent gun-dogs.

It made me think. Could we do this in Ireland? Our own indigenous animals are way smarter than we give them credit for. I know of a horse that used to escort its owner, asleep in a hay cart behind him, home from the pub, a 13 mile journey that involved negotiating four rights, three lefts and six straight through crossroads on the way. Could we lure people onto our farms to watch us pull off unimagined tricks with our cattle and sheep? I bet I could cattle surf for an hour if the money was right. And it’s surely possible to get some synchronized sheep manoeuvres with the right sheepdog?

Loro Parque began as a parrot zoo and today holds the world’s largest collection of parrots, over 4000 of them. With just a little coaching, the cockatoos seem entirely prepared to shout “feck” instead of “squawk“. A pirate would have given his left arm for one macaw whose feathers seem to comprise of every colour ever invented. Speaking of which, ever wonder why Admiral Horatio Nelson only had one arm? Because t’other was shot off while he was engaged in fighting with Spanish forces here in Tenerife in 1797. Should you find it, be a sport and do let the Admiralty know.

Liberal politician José Murphy y Meade was the son of Patricio Murphy & Kelly (1735-1801) of Dublin and Juana Meade y Sall (1747-1802) from the Canary Islands. He is credited with making Santa Cruz de Tenerife the islands’ official capital.

The Tenerife composer Teobaldo Power y Lugo-Viña (1848-1884), aka Tybalt Power, descended from Irish merchants.

Tenerife is a land of tennis courts and tapas bars, banana plantations and palm-fringed coastlines, Moorish roofs and vineyards, volcanic mountains and oceanic views. You can go wild at the annual fiestas of Orotava or kick-back for a banana and cheese omelette at Casa Lecaro or sundowners on the sun-drenched balconies of Modekka. The island also makes very good wines, praised long ago by Shakespeare, and certainly vineyards seem to tumble from every available mountain slope. The authorities are hoping these vines will absolve Tenerife of its vaguely comical reputation as a banana island. Incidentally, bananas came here from Guyana in 16th century. Peter Wright of Puerto de la Cruz was the first person to import them into London.

Take a trek through the Miniature Village where the island’s history and everyday life is recounted in wonderful detail right down to shagging goats, gossiping women and topless ladies on the beach. Drive through amiable old villages with sleepy old men chewing the cud and balconies o’erflowing with clothes, or bigger towns with steep hilly streets like San Francisco and churches galore. History is all around and sometimes it has a familiar hue.

The island’s most famous composer was one Teobaldo Power and there’s a José Murphy Street in Santa Cruz.

NB. In the 1860s, Tenerife was home to a wine merchant called Diego Le Brun, a kinsmen of my wife’s Rudall forbears. In 1865, he, his wife Lousia and their four children were travelling first class on board the Royal Mail steamer, Armenian, from Liverpool to Tenerife when the ship ran up on Arklow Bank off the coast of Ireland. Eight people died in the tragedy, although the Le Bruns and their children were rescued.