A wild boar, about to become lechón asado • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle, Mona Island, 1964

Galápagos in Puerto Rico? Part Three

First day — well, first afternoon

Note: This is one of a continuing series of photo-memoirs about a 1964 expedition to Isla de Mona, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. Photos are from contact prints as no negatives or prints remain.

January 3, 1964

As Mike Pauley, the leader of our expedition to Mona Island, made lunch after our adventurous arrival (See Part Two of this series), Carl Wotring, the third member of our party, and I unpacked our gear and prepared my two cameras, a twin-lens reflex and a Speed Graphic.

Not our cabin! Ours did not have a tree on its roof! Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

The interior of the cabin on Sardinera Beach had been left in surprisingly good condition by its recent occupants, the treasure hunters we met early that morning when we landed at Uveros Beach. Our sleeping bags would be a lot more comfortable on the cots they left behind than where we had planned to place them on the ground!

While Carl explored the immediate area, Mike and I climbed a radar tower built at their ranger post by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources when they began monitoring the island in 1960.

Flat…but with hundreds of caves beneath it! Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

The entire island lay below us — from that height it seemed relentlessly flat. There were two depressions, Bajura del Empame and Bajura de los Cerezos, and a few roads and trails according to our map, but we could see none. We clearly saw Mona Light some four or five miles to the east.

Mike — with a happy grin — pushed his binoculars into my hands and pointed to a sinkhole about 40 yards southeast of us. Sunning itself in the opening was the Mona ground iguana (Cyclure cornuta stegnegeri). I couldn’t believe my eyes — or our luck: on our first afternoon we got a clear view of one of the island’s most unique residents. I didn’t get a photo — no telephoto lens — but I hoped to get a shot later.

Mike described it and I made notes: “It’s about four feet from head to tail and weighs maybe 50 pounds. It has a sunken mouth with distinct lips, large nostrils and black eyes. There are two large lumps on its head. Its skin is green and it has a row of turquoise spikes on its back. There are five ‘fingers’ on each foot.”

A terrible photo of the reclusive iguana, the good ones were lost! Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle. 1964

Carl rejoined us at the foot of the tower. We hiked as quietly as we could toward the iguana. We got a glimpse of it, but it scurried into its cave before I could get a photo.

We continued hiking between Sardinera and Punta Arenas. Mike was in his element, pointing out and identifying flowers, plants, insects and — especially — birds. He had read some old texts, including Notes on the Bird Life of Mona and Desecheo Island, a 1927 study by Syracuse University, and was keen on finding endemic species.

Brown booby and chick. We saw many nests with one or two eggs. Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

He soon spotted one, the Mona Island ground dove, as well as a Pearly-eyed thrasher (Margarops fuscatus), an American egret (Ardea alba), a Sparrow hawk (probably the American kestrel, Falco sparverius), a spectacular Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), a Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) that was fishing off-shore, and everywhere among the rocks and cliffs, the Brown booby (Sula leucogaster), often with a chick or an egg. I am not a birder but it was exciting to try to capture on film the exotic birds that he identified.

Booby on the wing. (R.) Mike called this a ghost crab. It looked real to me. Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

We followed a rocky trail down the cliff to the beach, where we encountered a ghost crab. Carl gathered cowries, doveshells, worm shells, clamshells, cockleshells, channeled turbans and knottly keyhole limpits — all of which Mike identified through Caribbean Seashells.

Goats and swine ran wild. Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Atop the cliff again, we found a nicely preserved pair of goat horns. Both goat and swine — descendants of domestic animals brought to the island by the Spanish and early attempts at settlement — ran wild. We often saw them or heard them thrashing through the brush. We later learned firsthand that the rangers sometimes hunted them for lechón asado dinners (spit-roast pork).

Mike checking on the seashells • R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Back at the cabin we catalogued our collection, made a fire and cooked dinner, wrote notes, and celebrated the successful start of our project with a (small) flask of Puerto Rican rum. — happy that the island was starting to live up to its nickname, “The Galápagos of the Caribbean.”

In case you missed any of my Galápagos in Puerto Rico stories they can be found HERE. For my fiction, poetry and other writing, please browse HERE.

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Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

An aging humanist hanging on to the idea that there is hope for humankind — against all current indications. You can see his published work on Amazon.