Wednesday, June 29, 2011

First Few Days of Mona Island Expedition

Ok- I'm tired of trying to get these photos in order. Blogspot is not being cooperative so you'll have to live with things out of order. Jeff and I got invited by Tom, who got invited by Pat Kambesis to participate in an expedition to Mona Island to map caves. This group has been mapping and remapping caves (new ones and ones we already found maps of) for 12 years on Mona because it is an excellent representation of Flank Margin caves. This type of cave is different than that on the main island. A quick difference (and I don't claim to really understand the nuances of it all) is that the mainland caves are created by moving water and the Flank Margin caves are created by supersaturation of both fresh and salt water at the margin (or lens) where they meet.  Anyway, the result is a cave very different than what we are used to seeing. (please correct me if my explanation is wrong) First off I need to say a few things: Mona is miserable, buggy, hot, desolate, uncomfortable, hard to get to and not somewhere I will probably go again. If I ever go again it will NOT be for 8 days. The boat ride I must say was comfortable and about 3 hours in each direction. It was a large, 50' boat that Diana Hernandez arranged. We could/should have brought kayaks and dive gear and bicycles but didn't know what the trip would be like. Since we were on someone else's permit we tried to go with the flow. The weird dynamics of the group worked out well in that we ended up helping Tom locate speleotherms and collect water samples instead of doing any mapping. I put in a couple hours in a dirt hole called Cueva Cucuracha and that was more than enough! Mona is like a steak thrown on top of the ocean. Along the edges are like the fat on the steak only the island edges are riddled with swiss-cheese type caves that are more like caverns really. None of the caves were totally dark - most had really neat windows of different sizes looking out at the ocean. Actually I should say they looked down (really far down) at the ocean. The land was not what I expected. I expected all kinds of birds, insects, amphibians, mammals ...there were yellow shouldered blackbirds (endangered), mosquitoes, pigs (we saw 1), goats (we saw 2 and lots of poop), the Mona Iguana (lives only on the island) and lots of hermit crabs. Nothing else. For a place touted at the "Galapagos of the Caribbean" I can tell you (as someone who has been to the Galapagos) this was a barren landscape with only a few seagulls, crabs, very few bats and not much else.
The first day we set up camp. The next day we went to Cueva Negra and Cueva Aleman. Negra gave us a glimpse of the unique arrangement of this type of cave and Aleman had giant windows overlooking the ocean - exactly why I wanted to go along on the trip!!! The second day we set out with a reluctant expedition member who wasn't exactly sure where we were going but gave it his all. After wandering around in the inhospitable terrain we turned back and went to a cave we later found out was Gato. This had nice windows and was a maze of interesting formations. On the way back we found Esqueleto which was very nice as well. We were too tired and hot to explore Esqueleto that day so we did it the next day. It demanded a full day of exploration! Then next day the rangers loaned us a 4 wheel drive vehicle (like an open but low Jeep thing) so we could head to the Faro. This took an hour to do going on the small "road" you see in this photo. This was a highlight of magnificent 200 foot cliffs with caves right on the edge! This was the amazing part of the trip. When we were in the caves there was thunder, lightening and a lot of rain which made for an interesting return trip.

This is some rail left behind from guano mining. We never did get a clear answer about whether it was bird or bat guano - we only saw a few bats and no seabirds in the cliffs. Mining was done from 1887 to 1927 and the operations devastated the caves and were pretty extensive.The guano was packaged as fertilizer. Here's some of the swiss-cheese formations that characterize the caves.
This is looking out of a cave at the ocean, most likely the Caribbean side.
The caves had dirt floors and were pretty monotone compared to what we are used to. Everything on the island was flat flat flat until the drop off. You can see how open and cavern-like these caves are.
What was interesting about these caves was the general arrangement of columns in them. There were some damns, stalagtites, stalagmites,straws, flowstone but most were not as decorated as what we are used to. We did see "cave pearls" for the first time and they were really neat - kind of look like rounded pebbles.
Looking at the photos it is hard to tell which way is up. The interesting formations make it hard to tell.

I think this is Frank's hand collecting stalactite drips.
I think these are gypsum flowers but I'm not sure.
The Mona Iguana lives only here. On our trip back from the "other side" we had an iguana block the road. Every one was complaining that I was an animal lover and wasn't poking it enough to get it to move. I was using Diana's walking stick to try to leverage it off the road but it dug in and started biting the tires! The guys poked it harder and it really fought hard to stay put. In the end we won and continued on but it had a bloody mouth and I'm thinking maybe had killed something it was guarding. I don't know what it could be eating but I know we didn't do that to it...maybe it got cactus prickles in its mouth trying to eat some of the flowers or fruit. Eskelito (skeletal) was a nice cave with great formations and windows.

There were pools of water with calcite ice (kind of a mineral crust) on them.
It was like a fun house going in between the columns trying to find our way around. The highlight however was going to the Faro area and Lireo caves. It was here that there were huge drop offs of 200 feet or so down to the water.

This is my favorite photo and favorite place on Mona. You can barely see Diana inside the cave opening.
After all the rain and wandering around we hopped back into the little car to head back. The road was gone and there was a canal now. I expected to see things pop up out of the water like on the Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyland ride!

After that day (Saturday) we took a day off. We snorkeled a very long snorkel and saw some of the stuff we always see. The water was perfectly clear but it wasn't as teaming with life as I thought it would be. I'll show some of the beautiful beach in the next post.

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