The Emerald Dragon Montserrat – West Indies

“What is your final destination?. I was asked upon entering Antiguan customs.
“Montserrat”. I replied.
While searching my bags the customs agent commented, “Do you know you’re running the wrong way?”
He then added with a smirk, “Why do you want to go there?”
As I handed him my passport, I responded, “To watch the volcano erupt.”
While stamping my documents, he shook his head and directed me to the boat.

The small volcanic island of Montserrat forms part of the Leeward Island chain in the West Indies, a geologically young archipelago that began forming less than 50 million years ago. The island’s volcano has remained dormant for some four-hundred years but all that changed in July of 1995. The Emerald Dragon awoke in a very cranky mood.

The eruptions involved intense earthquake swarms. Steam exploded out of the mountain from the rapid heating of ground water by the rising magma. By mid-November of that year, the magma reached the surface and a new lava dome began to form. The lava of Caribbean volcanoes is known as Andesite and is very viscous, thick like honey. It piles up around the volcano’s vent, forming a dome that continues to rebuild and collapse. When the dome collapses it creates a pyroclastic flow which is an avalanche of millions of tons of fragmented lava and incandescent gasses that race down the mountainside destroying everything in its path. Reaching speeds over 100- mph and temperatures over 600 degrees Celsius, nothing within its reach survives.

As a result of the island’s violent outbursts, two thirds of this forty square mile landmass became unlivable. Called the Exclusion Zone, entering it without direct government permission and escort is illegal. A large-scale evacuation effort relocated over 8,000 of the 11,000 residents. Most people searched for a better life on a neighboring island or in England which is Montserrat’s “mother country”. After learning that the Montserrat volcano was considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, I flew down to the island to see how its wildlife and ecosystem reacted to this destructive environment.

As a result of the volcanic activity, Montserrat’s airport was demolished, so I rode the island’s ferry from Antigua. After climbing aboard the 150-foot boat I realized that there were only nine other people on deck. All of them were Montserrat natives returning after a day of shopping in Antigua. These are some of the resilient few who have toughed out the volcano’s wrath and refuse to leave their homes.

The boat was a high powered catamaran, unlike any ferry I have seen. It transports people to and from the island twice a day and is on stand by in case of an evacuation, that is if the sea permits it to do so; some days when the sea swells are too treacherous the boat cannot safely dock in Montserrat’s Little Bay. In order to keep the boat finely tuned, the Captain ran it at full speed.

As I departed Antigua, I realize that if this were the United States we would have had at least 15-minutes of “safety instruction”. Here I appreciated the “use your head” approach; if you did not use your head, you would find yourself swimming. The sea was so rough, even some of the seasoned passengers held on for dear life. The splashing water and chop of the boat digging into the waves was unusually peaceful. Fatigued from traveling over 2,000 miles before noon, I felt as if I was in a dream state. The bright sun made everything overly sharp and vivid. The crystal blue water rolled by and the sweet smell of the Caribbean air relaxed me like a dentist’s laughing gas.

In this part of the world fish can fly. In small squadrons, they soared over the waves like diamonds being skipped over the sea. Then their wings would cut into a wave, plunging them into the abyss like mini kamikaze pilots. I pictured little.rising sun. headbands around each of their tiny heads. Far in the distance the faint silhouette of Montserrat emerged from the horizon. The reflection of the water made the island appear to hover in mid air as its volcano hung from the sky shrouded in clouds. When the boat approached the north end of the island considered the “Safe-Zone”, lush aloe trees and palms gave a glimpse of what the entire island was like before the eruptions.

Like the islands from Jurassic Park and King Kong, Montserrat puts forth a menacing aura as its craggy cliffs jut out of the Caribbean Sea. Its thick jungle vegetation hides a force uncomprehendable to most humans, a far greater power than Hollywood could ever dream up. When the boat pulled up to the dock, a dozen or so people lined the shore waiting to depart the island on the boat’s return trip to Antigua. While being cleared through customs, I could not help but notice that everybody seemed unconcerned and happy. The tiny bar next to the custom’s pavilion was perfectly named The Last Resort. It was full of customers drinking their beer, along with lightly tap-ping one another’s fists together in a sign of respect.

The Last Resort is owned and operated by a man named Moose. Moose’s staff consists of his lovely wife plus his two extremely well behaved and hard working children. The spear fishermen are still wet when they deliver the catch of the day. On most evenings I would watch the sunset from Moose’s and enjoy a wonderful home cooked meal. While eating, a gang of the largest, thickest, and most intimidating black and yellow spiders paced like intoxicated tight rope walkers over my head. They always seemed as if they were about to fall on me but they never did. I actually became rather used to them being there and eventually developed the habit of holding them. They were rather docile, with their long legs straddling my entire hand but never biting. Moose welcomes the spiders just as much as
his customers.

After passing through customs, I met my contact from Montserrat’s Emergency Department and he drove me to my guesthouse. The island’s roads are cut out of the sides of the mountains and all the cars chirp their tires as they wind their way up the steep thin hills. My rented guesthouse sat next to the governor’s home, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, on the edge of the “Exclusion Zone”. On my return trips to the island I continued to stay in this same house. Aside from it being a luxurious house, it is logistically perfect. This beautiful location is completely surrounded by jungle except for the view of the crystal blue Caribbean Sea. It is so close to the Exclusion zone that watching the eruptions from the back deck gave me a stiff neck. It is like sitting in the front row of an IMAX movie (that can burn you to death).

Once I settled all of my gear in the house, I decided to venture into the small town of Salem. This town lies in the shadow of the volcano and was considered part of the Exclusion Zone for some time but had recently reopened. It was a 3-mile walk into the town and it was pitch dark, not a street light and, on that night, not even the moon. I have quickly learned from experience that in many areas of the world it is not wise to venture out after dark. Montserrat is the exception; it has little or no crime. When the island began its evacuation there were only eight prisoners in their jail. The police commissioner once told me of a small group of bank robbers that he incarcerated. When most people think of bank robberies, we envision people in Nixon masks wildly pointing guns and cursing. Not on Montserrat.

This is how they robbed a bank. When a pyroclastic flow covered their capital city of Plymouth, several of their banks were also covered. A small group of men learned that during the hectic evacuation of the city, one of the banks left behind one million dollars in uncirculated cash. So one night they hiked down to Plymouth, dug a tunnel through the hard ash, broke into the bank, and stole the loot. I imagine that they might have gotten away with the deed except for the fact that they tried to exchange all the money at once in a casino in Antigua. Being uncirculated bills, the robbers were quickly caught, so even most crimes in Montserrat are peaceful.

Whether poor or a millionaire, everyone leaves their homes open, their car doors unlocked, and no one bothers a thing. This was also a rule before their ongoing tragedy. I have found that most of the residents on Montserrat are very proud people and have very little class envy. As I was walking into Salem, all I heard were the digital sounds of tree frogs at a deafening volume. About a half mile from the town, I saw the single headlight of a motorcycle coming toward me at a high rate of speed. I was a bit more nervous than I normally would have been, due to the fact that there are no drinking and driving laws in Montserrat, and no speed limits.

A dark, massive creature emerged from the weeds about 50 feet in front of me, it charged the motorcycle and.BLAM!. The bike then crashed onto the road. As the bike hit the pavement the gas tank flew to the left, the seat flew off to the right, and the driver’s body was sent skidding down the middle of the road. Just as quickly as the dark creature appeared, it vanished. I ran to help the man as residents emerged from their homes to see what was going on. Being totally baffled by the event I asked,.What happened?.. One Rastafarian man next to me said,.Ya mon, de bulls, they no like de sound of de bike, so da charge..

The bulls roamed free after the eruptions began since most of the farmers had relocated off the island. The bulls hate the loud noise of the motorcycles and will occasionally go head to head with them. The bull always walks away and the rider flies away. After we dusted off the injured biker, he got a lift to a local doctor to be examined. Later, I found out he survived suffering only a broken collarbone and fractured wrist. I began speaking to some of the residents at the accident scene and they invited me to a local pub called Jimmo.s to play a few games of dominoes. Dominoes is a very intense game for them, almost a contact sport. The more confident they are of their move, the harder they slam the domino on the table. When I would play against them, I could always guess who the big winner of the day was because the rickety table leaned in his direction from being slapped so much.

During the games, the men traded stories back and forth about growing up on the island, what it was like in the past, and their hopes for the future. They spoke of when their ancestors were alive and the volcano was as active as it is today. One could see the fiery glow of the magma emitted from the cone of the volcano. They would tell the children that is where Jack O’Lantern lives and if you are bad, he will run down and take you away. Much like many societies, the children behave due to the fear of a higher power or “boogieman”. Perhaps there could be more to the story. Years ago, around Halloween, four parts of the volcano’s dome collapsed, creating what looked like two eyes, a nose and a mouth which glowed over the island like a carved pumpkin.

I spoke to a man who, before the heavy eruptions, decided to climb into the volcano. He said that when he reached the cone it was like entering a separate reality. Red, blue and orange fireballs would hover in the air, then shoot across the cavern only to hover again and dart back like angry ghosts. It was the incandescent gasses burning away within the cone. At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, I was awakened by what I thought was thunder. Still half asleep, I assumed that a fierce thunderstorm was passing by. Then Richard, the owner of the house yelled, “Wake up! We’ve got an eruption!”

As continuous loud explosions rang out, I took a second and scrambled for my camera. After I ran out to the back porch, I stared at a 20,000 foot high ash cloud hanging over my head. As the hot ash and gas shot towards the sky, it slowly blocked out the sun. For the next half-hour I photographed the plume and watched the wind blow the ash west where it splashed down into the sea in front of the house. Good Morning! When the volcano settled, I traveled with the chief of the Emergency Department to see what path the pyroclastic flow had taken. We discovered that the flow burned its way down the Tar River straight out to sea, barely missing the already ravaged airport. The Tar River area is one of the two most common paths for the pyroclastic flows.

We wandered near the airport and saw smoke rising from the barren ground where the flow had traveled. The airport is built on an ancient Caribbean Indian burial ground. Many natives feel that the eruptions are the gods’ punishment for disturbing such sacred grounds. That afternoon the government of Montserrat invited me into the Exclusion Zone. It was a last minute decision by the police commissioner because of the heavy volcanic activity that morning. Since the island’s radio station issues volcano warnings regularly, he required us to listen to the radio while in the dangerous areas.

I remember the emotions I had going into the Exclusion Zone. Entering a place that has defeated man, and is continuing to do so, was a feeling few people ever get to experience. No matter how much power, money or connections one has, he is still a proverbial ant to the volcano and can be eliminated in seconds. It is human nature to thrive on the sense of control, but here, control is not an option. The Chief of Defense opened the gate and we drove into an environment beyond imagination. The only visible life were a few nervous lost dogs whose owners were forced to abandon them during the evacuation. Otherwise, it was deathly quiet, a ghost town, even our car silently coasted over the morning’s freshly fallen ash like snow.

The dead forests resembled giant toothpicks thrown in the ash. A suffocating sensation overcame me as I saw the slumping ash encased vegetation, wilting and choking, unable to produce oxygen. Resembling the outer edges of a nuclear blast, everything was intact, yet there was nothing. The roofs of once beautiful million dollar homes were caving in from the weight of the rain soaked ash. Their T.V. satellite dishes were reduced to merely giant bowls of ash. The playgrounds were empty. Only the ocean breeze squeaked the children’s swings back and forth. The soul of this town had left along with its people.

When we stopped on the side of the road, I realized that my official driver had switched the car’s radio station to a cricket game instead of monitoring the local volcanic warnings. If we received an eruption warning, we would have never known about it. But where we were heading next, we would have no problem knowing if another eruption was set in motion. For a short distance we walked through a dry dead forest until we arrived at a cliffside, and there stood Soufriere Hills volcano. I smelled the volcano as it leaked clouds of sulfuric gas from its vents. In its presence, I felt like we should whisper or say nothing. Words had no place here.

Boulders the size of school buses lay where they had poured out from its side. Nineteen farmers died here when she first began to erupt. I could barely see the tiers where the farmers grew their crops up her side. I had no problem picturing these gentle people tending to their fields moments before the volcano consumed them. Off to the left lay the remains of entire villages covered with five to fifteen feet of ash that had hardened like concrete after it rained. A local journalist stood next to me trying to find where her house once stood. She failed to find it. All of the landmarks she once used to locate her property in the past were all now gone, either buried or burnt away.

From there we drove on to Plymouth, the former capital. From a distance Plymouth looks like the ancient ruins of a society that had deserted the area hundreds of years ago, except here, future archeologists will excavate microwaves and cars instead of pottery and hand tools. Plymouth was the hub of activity for the entire island until 1995 when a pyroclastic flow descended from the volcano, forever destroying it in a matter of seconds. Their church is now just a shell of stone. Amidst all the rubble stands the altar with a brass chalice melted to the top of it.

Most three-story buildings looked like single floor structures since the two lower stories were engulfed in ash and rock. I thought back to the people who had lived there and wondered if they had any clue that the mountain directly over them would soon awake, altering or destroying their lives in seconds. Within the ash were small rivers leading to the sea, etched by rain running off the volcano, with each new storm, the landscape changes. In one area of Plymouth, a new “river” ran through a cemetery, washing the dead into the sea. In some areas small patches of grass struggled to exist despite the harsh environment. Only grasses with shallow roots have any chance of survival. Long after a pyroclastic flow, one can probe a few meters into the ash and find it can still be up to 600 degrees. After silently standing over this lost city, we felt we had pushed our luck far enough and decided to head back into the Safe Zone. With one more eyeful of the volcano etched in my mind, we left.

Even with all the destruction the volcano caused, I did not feel ill towards it – just respect. There I was in a place that was unsuitable, unstable and uncaring for all life, yet I did not want to leave. Standing next to something of such brutal force and energy gave me an adrenaline rush that could not be matched. I now see why many cultures worship volcanoes, deeming them gods or god-like. They have the power over life or death, demanding respect and breeding fear. We ventured back through the Safe Zone, firmly locking the gate behind us. While leaving the Safe Zone, we arrived at a bridge that had been washed out by a mudslide. Originally, that bridge spanned across a ravine over 40 feet deep. When heavy rains mixed with the volcanic ash, it created a mudslide that filled the entire riverbed. It went over the bridge and demolished the adjacent golf course covering it with ash and boulders, leaving it to resemble the surface of the moon. A utility truck lay submerged up to its windows in dried mud and rocks.

The next morning I hiked up a small mountain near the volcano to search for the endangered Montserrat Oriole. This bird lives exclusively on Montserrat and its population has been decimated from habitat loss due to agriculture, hurricane Hugo, and strike three is the volcanic activity. Some estimates state that over 76% of their habitat has been destroyed. Most of the losses are concentrated in the ghauts, (French for gullies), prime habitat for the oriole and essential for their survival. It is a realistic scenario that with the continuation of the eruptions, it is not likely that a viable population will survive over 50 years. There is a 50:50 chance of total extinction within 10 to 15 years. The day was dark and drizzly. A thick layer of cottony clouds covered the mountaintops and hung in front of the volcano like a theater curtain. Thick jungle foliage held the rain of the night’s passing storm, and it showered down on me as I weaved through the rainforest.

Beyond a tiny knoll of green ferns and moss, I heard rushing water and birds chirping. I slowly sneaked over the knoll and peered between two ferns that I separated with my hands. A crystal clear mountain stream poured over the jagged rocks into a small pool surrounded by a thick carpet of moss. The coal black hue of the rich soil contrasted a dark outline around the moss while the shallow roots of various plants gripped the earth like long fingers. Pinkish flowers hung over the pool and their leaves reached out like arms, catching the mist of the tiny water fall. A black and yellow Heliconius butterfly fluttered among the flowers. It landed on each of the flowers, weighing them down enough to cause the blossoms to jiggle like empty bells. Minuscule bugs gently skimmed the surface of the water. It was hard to distinguish whether they were flying, and occasionally touched the water, or were swimming and occasionally lifted from the water. Tiny “unknowns” scrambled within the ferns causing the leaves to shake as if the whole plant was silently chuckling. I continued to lie on my stomach hidden in the ferns, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Montserrat Oriole drinking or bathing. I watched and listened.

The next time you are around a rushing stream, listen to it. You will be able to hear the sound of every musical note being played together. And unlike any instrument, playing every note at once is always soothing to those around it. Within a few minutes several birds that looked as if they were dressed for a Mardi Gras parade, slipped down from the trees to bath. As they preened their feathers at the outer edge of the pool, a buzzing sound filled the air. Then out from the forest’s morning fog, a hummingbird sped over to one of the flowers, and quickly inserted its beak into it with a surgeon’s precision.

Its local name is the Doctor Bird, but it is generally called a Purple-throated Carib. This brilliant looking bird is largely black with purplish red patches, a bluish green tail, and metallic green wings. To keep his “clothes” glowing he must conserve energy. With a brain the size of a grain of rice, this 5-inch long “Liberace” must remember to never return to the same blossom twice. Wasting vital energy on empty flowers could mean certain death for a hummingbird.

When done drinking from all the flowers, he faced me and hovered in mid air. Like a disco ball he rotated, reflecting tiny beads of waterfall mist that gathered on him. After the short hover break he turned his back to me and streaked though the rainforest like a psychedelic tracer bullet. As soon as the hummingbird flew out of sight, BOOM!!! The volcano erupted! Explosions rang out one after another as if an air raid of bombs were being dropped upon a single target.

I jumped out from under the ferns and sprinted down the mountain. Fighting to stay on the thin path, I began tripping over the pointy rocks and slipping on the moss. Within five minutes (probably a new world record) I was out of the forest and in a tiny field next to a small dirt road. I looked to the sky and saw a 20,000-foot tall ash cloud. Identical to the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb, it grew towards the sky as its glowing molten “root” churned and roared within the earth. As if a temper tantrum from a mythical god, lightening shot out from the cone and thunder vibrated the ground.

At a temperature over 6,000 degrees, the explosion was so immense that it immediately created its own weather system. Before the eruption, it was drizzling. During the initial eruption, the volcano produced thunder and lightening. Minutes later it became clear, sunny perfect beach weather. The sun shone and the only visible cloud in the sky was rooted to the earth and stood over 30,000 feet tall. Although it seemed like perfect weather, the wildlife knew otherwise. Not a bird chirped, nor a frog croaked. I began to jog up to Salem as the ash plume thickened and began to block out the sun. As it billowed above my head, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and the town darkened. Then it began to rain, not water, but rocks and ash.

At first the fine ash falls. It is so fine one does not even realize its falling, except it makes your eyes itch as if you have hay fever. Then the gravely ash falls like black snow that never melts. I placed my respirator over my face and continued to jog. One learns to take this little filtered mask with you everywhere in Montserrat. Breathing the ash from this volcano can cause Silicosis, also known as Black lung. The gravely ash started mixing with rain, but it was not an ordinary rain it was sulfuric acid. The volcano vents sulfuric gasses into the atmosphere. Then, while in the atmosphere, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide mix and undergo a set of chemical reactions, eventually combining with water to produce sulfuric acid, major acid rain.

Montserrat’s acid rain is so concentrated and intense, that it is a prime location to study the effects of acid rain. Acid rain greatly affects Montserrat’s diverse terrestrial habitats, such as the coastal mangroves, semi-desert vegetation, and the cloud forest. Acid rain affects plants by breaking down the lipids and protective membranes of their foliage, which leads to their death. Soon the ash totally blocked out the sun’s rays and the town went black as night. The only sounds were honking of car horns and the “spine-chilling” squeal of car windshield wipers scratching the fallen ash over their windows. I made it to a small store in Salem where I waited out the falling ash and talked with some of the natives. One gentleman said “Ahh, tis mon, tis nuttin.”: translation “Ahh, It is alright man, this is nothing”. It has become such a common occurrence for them, that they seem rather more annoyed with the volcano, than scared of it. When the falling ash began to thin, I tightened my respirator to my face and jogged back to my house.

Later that evening I discovered the volcano’s acid rain had rotted the metal clips off my boots. Then after my wristwatch corroded off my arm, I noticed the acid rain also fused the watch’s dive gauge. The volcano is a very domineering force, and overshadows Montserrat’s inner beauty, but adds to the island’s mystique. It is a microcosm of how people can work together in a time of immense destruction and desperation, and yet still remain happy, helpful, respectful, and caring.

On the bright side the volcano has kept the island free of annoying, disrespectful tourists. There is only one white sand beach on the whole island, and one can only arrive there by a mile hike over a mountain or by boat. I made it my own paradise, spending entire days diving among its coral reef watching thousands of schooling fish and the occasional passing shark, then napping on the white sand without ever seeing another human soul. It became my hideaway, and I return there as much as life allows me. If you ever get the urge to see the way life should be lived, visit the.Emerald Dragon., then ask around for me if I am not at the beach, check Moose’s.

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