Ronald Flores Jr. Underground and overwhelmed, 1998 Photo: Supplied

Isla de Mona Redux, Part 3

A Cavernous Conclusion

Only experienced scuba divers can explore Moma’s underwater caves, but anyone can wander into the entrace to the caves that tunnel through the cliffs and under the porous surface of the calcitic, tropical Mona Island.

Wander and wonder! Serious spelunkers have hundreds of caves and sinkholes to explore there. Legend has it that you can transverse the entire island underground. I’ll pass!

Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle, dazzled, Lirio Cave, 1964 • Photo: supplied

But as you can see in the expression on the face of my son Ronald Jr. in the banner photo and on mine in the photo above, there is somethimg about caves that astound! The caves on Mona astound even without an idea of their history. For one example: between 1874 and 1877, some 32 ships carted off 7,830 metric tons of guano from Mona’s caves to the outside world! (Source: Puerto Rico Natural Resources Department.)

Leading the way to a cave • Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Not all the caves on Mona island are accessible (although some you can walk into from the beach). Many are a challenge even for the fit and experienced. I was fit and had experience (I once worked as a guide in a cave and had been an amateur speleologist) but there were moments I asked myself what I was doing crawling around underground! Then an amazing stalagmite, a chandelier or wall of flowstone would stun me and I knew.

Checking out a two-story cave • Photo: Ronald Flores Jr., 1998

The caves I explored as a teen in Pennsylvania did not open to a vast vista of the Caribbean or Atlantic! Such views are common in Mona (although our cameras in 1964 and 1998 failed to capture them.) In the photo below I can easily use my imagination to fill in the blank! And none but those of Mona had so many shadows of history. (No caves I know of are sites where 40 tons of guano were extracted every day, such as those above Pájaros Beach in 1883).

View toward the sea. • Photo: Ronald Flores Jr., 1998
Deep moments, 1998 • Photo: supplied

Stalagmites and columns, stalactites and flowstone, fanciful formations everywhere, no two caves the same. The hand of Mother Nature creates her paintings and sculptures as her mood (or the weather) changes. Drip by drip, eon by eon. Visiting a living cave is entering the earth’s cathedral, the walls iconographs. (In 1890, 200 miners worked here; by 1898 six remained. Dept. of Natural Resources.)

Calcified bucket stalagmite • Photo: Ronald C. Flores 1964

By 1927 all mining of guano (the ancient accumulations of drippings from bats and seabirds once used to make fertiliser and gunpowder) had ceased.

We found a few remnant's of the industry in the larger caves: pathways, rails, cart fragments, ladders (one made from an old sailing ship mast)— and boxes, like the one in my photo above and my son’s photo of an undersea barnacled box below.

A barnacled box in the sea, probably at least a century old. Photo: Ronald Flores Jr., 1998
“Fried eggs” stalagmites growing next to a future stalagnate (column)• Photo: Ronald Flores Jr. 1998
Fried egg stalagmites up close • Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

More than 300 variations of cave mineral deposits (called speleothems) have been identified. With some 300 caves, Mona may have most of them! Fried egg stalagmites have plenty of company! As John Ruskin beautifuly wrote:

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty. “

Photo: Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

These caves served as home for pre-Columbian natives, as a home for a small family of farmers, as a failed colony, as a hiding place for pirates and fortune hunters. A place where thousands of dollars worth of contraband liquor, perfume and drugs have been found (in 1923). A place a German submarine blasted away (in vain) during WW2. In modern times Haitian, Cubans and Dominicans fleeing persecution and poverty in their homelands have sought refuge in these caves, hoping in vain to find a route to freedom.

My son and I both set off — a generation apart — to experience the beauty of the earth on the same remote desert island and found a place where history has silently happened. On Mona Island, La Isla de Mona, we found a place where it is possible to hike the paths above, below and inside the rocks of time.

To read the first two of this three-part series, please visit the links below:

Here is a link to the first of an eight-part series on my 1964 expedition to Mona Island. The rest of the series can be accessed from this one.



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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.