Slow Boat to Mona Island in Puerto Rico

From James Aliberti’s first trip to Puerto Rico to work as a biologist on The Mona Island Iguana Project:

After leaving the nice Condado area of San Juan, where Carlos’ family lived, we finally got to Cabo Rojo on the far west end of Puerto Rico. Mona Island sits 40 miles from Puerto Rico and just as far from the Dominican Republic; right in the middle of the strait, the only other island nearby is an even tinier uninhabited speck called Monito.

Loading La Pulga at Cabo Rojo with Carlos’ Sister.

Finally, after more than five hours at sea, we see it. Land Ho! Mona Island resembles a fortress: steep 100-foot cliffs around its entirety, jagged limestone, and a 6-foot tall cactus forest that provides no shade but plenty of prickly thorns to greet us. Denga stands outside the cabin and steers with his foot so as not to damage the shallow reefs. (See pic.)

The sheer cliffs of Mona, with Monito in the distance.

Surprised to watch Denga steer with his foot!

Once in the cove, we beach on the sand, where two friendly officers gladly help us with our bags of equipment and water supplies: Gallons and gallons of water. We push Denga back off and watch him fade into the horizon. We bring our gear into the main rooms. They explain that we can sleep in the extra bunks or set up hammocks for the night before starting work first thing in the morning. We would search for feral pigs and goats that the Spaniards had dropped off as a food supply after they had assured us that no Taino still lived on the island. We would also be looking for signs of a critically endangered lizard, a species that, due to competition with the feral animals, could already be wiped out. . . . The Mona Island Iguana! 

The next day, one of the kind officers offered me coffee. 

“No thanks, I don’t drink coffee,” I quip politely. 

“Drink it? Ha ha, no.  . . . I do an ice-cold coffee enema every morning,” he reports.

I’m not sure if he jokes or is testing me, but the rest of our crew and I roundly turn him down. 

I hear something crunching through the brush as we head toward our first transect location. An iguana? Probably, but I can’t see anything. As we look at our map and compass, we tie a brightly colored flagging tape onto a cactus. Ta-dah — We have started our first transect! The goal? To make perfectly square, even-sized grid blocks all over the entire island. Walking a few more steps through the thick brush and cacti, we hear a new crunching from a different area. But alas, again, we cannot see anything. A few steps further, I draw my machete to cut through some think chicharron brush with gusto. Then, in a clearing, could it be? Yes! Our first glimpse of a Mona Island Iguana. Wow, prehistoric-looking, it stands in the sun, glaring up into the blue sky. It looks like it may be sunning and doesn’t seem to care about us. 

Sighing, I state, “Well, at least I can say I’ve seen a Mona Island Iguana.”

The 5-foot Mona Island Iguana is the largest land iguana on Earth!

After several more steps, another iguana stands motionless next to the edge of the sea cliff. I take a few subtle steps toward it to get a better shot when suddenly, without warning, it turns and jumps off the cliff. I run to the edge and scan the water, but I can’t find it anywhere. Not a minute later, I suddenly saw another iguana appear. Then another, and then another. I guess the demise of the iguana by the feral pigs and goats had been greatly exaggerated. We saw more iguanas than we can count but couldn’t find any sign of goats or pigs. 

As night falls, we set up hammocks in some caves’ shelters to avoid the nightly passing showers. I take out a flashlight to inspect the area. When I find my first cave paintings on Mona Island (see pic.), they strike me like a sledgehammer to the chest. Wow! A whole civilization of people, with a language, a culture, tools, and names, had been wholly erased off the face of the Earth by Columbus and those who followed. We set hammocks on stalagmites, just as the Taino had undoubtedly done, especially during hurricanes (which comes from the Taino word “hurricane,” just as the phrase canoe, hammock, and barbecue do). So tired I fall asleep immediately to the sound of crickets. I awaken in the early morning twilight to see what appears to be a fire on the water. Once I regain focus and brush the sleep from my eyes, I realize it’s the lights of a distant cruise ship full of tourists from Martha’s Vineyard, Toronto, and any other colder climate they would want to escape to the Caribbean from.

Cave paintings left by the Taino People who lived on Mona for more than 2000 years.

On the second day, after working hard trailblazing for hours, I’m startled by a tawny animal emerging from the thick cactus forest. I let out an involuntary yelp. It’s a goat. A magnificent, robust, muscular ram resembling a bighorn sheep; so viral. When the group catches up with me, the goat is long gone. They asked why I yelled. Embarrassed, I told them I was surprised. They warned me not to yell anymore. They want to get some pictures of the feral animals. Later that day, we see even more goats. However, we never find a pig. Nocturnal and down in the caves with plenty of fresh water, they prove too clever for us humans. Piggy, the grad student, takes a few of the sparse pig droppings, which we find widely scattered, as samples. It’s the best we can do. (By the way, it turns out that when Piggy gets back to her lab at UC Davis to analyze the scat, there is no sign of iguana eggs, shells, or iguana lizard. The idea that the pigs were killing the iguanas may have all been a myth made up by hunters who want an excuse for access to Mona to poach the pigs!)

The three weeks on Mona Island pass with a few mishaps and some very crooked and incomplete transect lines, and then we pack up the gear and head down to the beach to say goodbye to the police officers. At peak tide, we see a tiny boat rocking through the reefs. It’s La Pulga again. We all look forward to our return to Puerto Rico. As night falls, the magic of the Caribbean is on display. Dry lightning fills the starlit night as bioluminescent waters glitter in our wake. 

Denga arrives before dawn to wait for the tide to peak before beaching La Pulga. 

Relieved to be back, we plan to reward ourselves with a mini vacation at Carlos’ Father’s hotel on the gorgeous island of Culebra. But that is for a later story. 

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