Mona Island Light, 1998 • Photo: Ronald C. Flores Jr.

Isla de Mona Redux, Part 1

Like father, like son

When I was beginning my last semester at the University of Puerto Rico in January of 1964 (yes, 58 years ago), I explored Puerto Rico’s Isla de Mona (Mona Island), the “Galápagos of the Caribbean.” The seven by four mile uninhabited island lies about 40 miles west of Puerto Rico and about 40 miles east of the Dominican Republic.

My fellow student Michael Pauley, a budding naturalist, led the adventure. Mike planned a presentation for the Natural History Society he was active in, I proposed an exhibition at the university student center where I was photographer, and my visiting continental friend Carl Wotring joined us as notetaker, shell collector and general assistant.

Mona Island Light, 1964 • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

For more than a week, the three of us trekked above and below (in caves) the desert island collecting specimens and photographing exotic flora and fauna. While temporarily marooned on the island, we were guests of the Coast Guard at the Mona Lighthouse. You can learn about it in my Galápagos in Puerto Rico series starting here:

Flash forward to 1998. My son, Ronald Flores Jr., soon after being certified as a Scuba Diver, joined fellow NCOs and friends at Fort Buchanan on an expedition to Mona, where they spent four days diving in the waters around the island — and exploring the area along the southeast shore.

He recently shared photos of his trip that took place 24 years ago. In them the island seems not to have changed much: many of his photos seem to mirror my own. He and his friends camped on Pájaros beach, explored some of the same caves, hiked along the same rustic roads — and visited the ruins of Mona Light. But he had a unique view: the island underwater.

Camino del infierno, • Photo: Ronald Flores Jr., 1998

His group did not stray far from the Pájaros area in the southeast, but traveled far enough on Camino del Infierno (Hell Road) to capture this view southwest toward Punta Caigo o No Caigo. He said the road was well-named because it was hot as hell!

Camino del Faro • Photo: Ronald Flores Jr., 1998

He told his friends that his father once stayed at the lighthouse and played pool with the Coast Guard crew. They were eager to see it. They headed east on the road that once carried provisions to the lighthouse keepers.

Mona Island Light, 1964 • Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

Mona Island Light, the only lighthouse build of iron and steel in Puerto Rico, was in service from 1900 to 1976. An interesting historical account with photos can be found on the Lighthouse Friends site. My son described it as very deteriorated in 1998 — 22 years after it was abandoned. The pool table was still there, rotting and splayed on the floor in the rusting keepers’ house.

Climbing the ruins of the rusting spiral staircase to the canopy was risky, but the view — the same one I saw more than three decades previously — was worth it. “We went up one at a time: it was scary,” he recalled. There was no trace of the octagonal wall of glass nor of the fresnel lens (it had been moved offsite). Today Mona Light is considered among the most endangered in the U.S. by Lighthouse Digest magazine.

(L.) Mona Light in better days, 1964 • Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle • (R) Ronald Jr. (center) and friends, Mona Light tower, 1998 • Photo: supplied

Other than the lighthouse, the 1998 photos of the east of the island show it as almost unchanged. Many of his photos are quite similar to mine in 1964.

(L) Cactus Jungle 1998, Photo: Ronald Flores Jr. • (R) Cactus Jungle 1964, Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964
Turks Head, 1964, Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle • Turks Head’s Grandson? 1998, Photo: Ronald Flores Jr.

We encountered countless goats and swine during our treks across and around Mona, but Ronald Jr.s’ party saw none. However, the Mona Iguana apparently lost some of its fear of visitors: we rarely glimpsed one; they saw many. I had such a problem approaching one that I ended up using a photo I took of the rare species at the Mayagüez Zoo for my Mona Island photo exhibition!

Mona Iguana 1998, Photo: Ronald Flores Jr.• Mona Iguana 1964, Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

“Like father, like son:” We agree that Mona Island is an extraordinary place and that our separate brief visits there so long ago will endure in our memories as an adventure shared!

Part Two:

Part Three:

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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.