My week on Montserrat was busy – I had to meet the various teams of environment department workers who were responsible for the different biodiversity programmes. I was to meet an old friend of mine, Laverne, who almost single handedly had introduced and fostered use of GIS on Montserrat. And I wanted to get a grip on the species I was looking at.
The biodiversity action plan was to focus on endemic species in the Central Hills. My colleagues from Kew Gardens were getting a good handle on the plant species – had conducted transects across the hills and were finding new species almost all the time. I had a quick job to manipulate their existing data into a format that could be transferred to their master database in London. There was a guy called Steve who I started referring to as the batman; he was crazy about bats and had a complicated way of recording all his information. The island conservation team more or less let him get on with it. Bats are one of the few land mammals in the Caribbean that are endemic – given the chain reaches out in the ocean there are not many other ways to extend your species’ range unless you fly. The result is that there are several endemic species and subspecies of bats in all the islands and Montserrat is no exception. I chatted with the batman a couple of times by email but there did not seem much point in changing the way he did things for the sake of local conditions.
Then there were the birds. I worked with Geoff from RSPB to decide how we would best tackle this. I showed him the seabird databases I had developed in the South Atlantic, but we agreed this was a different case. Here they were not trying to count every bird on a rocky outcrop, but to try and sample some shy species in forest undergrowth; most notably the Montserrat Oriole whose numbers had declined sharply after the eruptions.
The Centre Hills from our village
The two other species of interest were different. The first was an enigma. It was like hunting the snark, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat …. that isn’t there. It was the Montserrat galliwasp. A galliwasp is not, as you might imagine, a kind of insect, but a lizard. For a smooth lizard it is slightly flattened, wide bodied even. My description is all from books. I didn’t see a galliwasp in the week I was there. In fact it had been several years since anyone had seen a galliwasp. The last time had been about five years ago and the poor creature in questions was in the jaws of a small dog so was not going to do anything to relieve its critically endangered species status.
So I designed a database that was to do a couple of things; one was allow anyone to log reports of people seeing a galliwasp – whether being eaten or not at the time. The second was that a series of remarkably complex study sites were being set up to see if they could attract galliwasps in to be studied. I never saw one of these sites themselves but it was described to me in great detail. They sliced up the site into segments of long grass and short grass, corrugated iron they could hide under, scrubby vegetation. I was to create a complex database that would describe all the habitats and the number of galliwasps of what sex, age, length and height. All this for something which had not been seen alive for a generation.
Matt had procured a fantastic villa for the project. Although not far as the crow flies from Brades, it was round a circuitous road that hugged the contours. Just beyond the sprawling village of St Peter’s you dropped off the main road and round a small estate of widely spaced houses and our compound was right on the waterfront. It was made up of a large house with an enormous open plan living room and kitchen area, and two bedrooms, and a separate smaller house which Matt took. In between them was a huge swimming pool and below all this a large grassy lawn spattered with shrubs and trees leading to a low stone wall. On the far side the land dropped steeply as a huge boulder scree into the gently lapping Caribbean Sea. It was, …yep… idyllic.
Postures in our garden
We shared the garden with a whole host of iguanas. The green iguana , as in many islands, is a common sight in Montserrat. Here they acted out a veritable soap opera on the lawn. In the early mornings they would start to emerge and find the best basking spots to heat up their blood. Once alert they would look around for food – insects mainly it seemed – but the prime activity for the day would be posturing. They would work on a series of intricate rituals with their cohabitants; standing in a particular position at a particular distance from a rival or potential lover and going through a sequence of stare offs, bobbing movements or tail twitching till one got bored or decided not to chance their arm. I say rival or potential lover – it was impossible for a layman like me to know what the true meaning was, and although I watched mesmerized day after day when I should have been typing up notes of designing databases, it was hard to distinguish between the sexes and even the ages. There were obviously some alpha males around; much larger with craggier head gear and muscular legs and tails, but pursuit of females looked almost the same as fighting off interlopers.
There were battles for high spots in the garden, or just for a scrappy piece of worn out sand on the lawn; there seemed little rhyme nor reason to it. And in fact the actual drama was usually short lived and the rest of the time they just sat on the grass, heads pointing skyward, like tropical garden ornaments. I never knew temperature regulation could be so complicated.
The island was visible almost as soon as we took off and crossed the old canefields of Antigua. We approached Montserrat from the east and I was able to see out the window the great massive of the volcano, and the flows down each side, including where the flow had caused a new bulge in the coastline on the eastern side, and the remains of the old airport runway. We circled the northern side of the island and I could see the new runway, precariously perched on top of the hill, and the clusters of houses old and new that made up the main settlement. We landed and my colleagues, Matt from Durrell and Geoff from RSPB, were in the small arrivals hall. But my luggage was not. Due to the large number of passengers they had been unable to get all the bags in the plane, but no worries, I was told, they were going to pick up the remaining passengers and it would be on that one. They will be back in under an hour.
So in the mean time I was offered a beer down by the harbour at Little Bay, where the ferry now came in; it being the only point known by Geoff to have adequate wifi. We drove down the hill and pulled up by this old beach hut. We checked email and started to chat about my task. Geoff had been around for a week or so teaching staff to tag birds, and was going to overlap with my visit for a couple of days. Matt was staying for a longer period, over a month. Although he was full time on the project, he was based out of Micoud in St Lucia, and so was in an out of Montserrat from time to time.
We headed back up to the airport to collect my bag and just as we arrived the planed swept in to land. We waited patiently for a few passengers to come off and saw a pile of bags being manhandled off the plane onto a small hand trolley…. but I could not see my distinctive hard red case. I was told it would be on the next plane, which was tomorrow morning. So with the clothes I stood up in, a passport and a laptop, I got back in the car. We stopped off at a small grocers in Brades so I could at least get a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bar of soap.
Taking advantage of limited internet
Now at last I was able to visit, but I was to work for another incredible conservation organisation, the Durrell Foundation. As a teenager I had read all the Gerald Durrell books; my favourites being of the expeditions, and of his philosophy of how to build a zoo (the Stationary Ark). I had long wanted to visit Jersey Zoo as one of the places that specialised in the less well known animals. In Africa I had tired very quickly of hunting for the big five for that photo that everyone else already had – and was more keen to see the wider spread of other animals. When I started working in small islands, the rate of speciation from isolated populations had formed myriad biodiversities, fragile and unique on these plots, and it only endeared me to that pioneering attitude of the Durrells. Montserrat was a perfect example of that fragility, especially since the volcanic eruptions had begun.
Alas I was still not to get to Jersey Zoo. My first encounter with Durrell occurred in Bath on a frozen winter’s day; I met with one of the project coordinators who was resident at Bath University. We discussed the project and agreed to establish a visit in the summer, between my two trips to Mauritius. I actually prefaced my time in Montserrat with a couple of weeks touring the northern islands, visiting friends in Antigua, Culebra off Puerto Rico, and St John in the US Virgin Islands. After a further night in Antigua, it was a leisurely drive to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, a simple check in (mixing with the lobster red tourists gathering for the transatlantic services back to London) and then boarding a small prop plane for the barely twenty minute hop to Montserrat. The service is an odd one as they only had a few seats =, and if there were more passengers they did a second shuttle. Fortunately I was on the first out (I’ve never been keen to spend too much time in Antigua’s old departure lounge with the overcrowding and the interminable announcements calling out the destinations more like a bus route than a flight – “calling at St Kitts, St Maarten and Beef Island, Tortola”….. “Calling at Melville Hall, Dominica, Vigie St Lucia, Barbados with onward connections to Grenada, Tobago and Georgetown Guyana”).
Day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico
Alongside the stress on the people, the volcano obviously did untold damage to the environment. As well as being an intensively farmed area on its lower slopes, its upper reaches and several valleys were rich in fauna and flora. Before the eruptions, several studies had looked at the ecology of the southern hills around Soufriere. The significant hills of the central region had been less studied and more or less dismissed as an area of less interest.
With the eruption both turning much of the southern part of the island into at best a fresh landscape ready to start again with lower order plants, at worst an arid moonscape poisoned for centuries, the unscathed Centre Hills became more of a focus for environmentalists. And what they saw surprised them greatly. There was both more biodiversity here than expected, and it was home to some of the more bizarre plants and animals that Montserrat contained.
With the national level of resources in government at an all time low, and focused on rehousing, rehabilitating and rebuilding the infrastructure and life on the island, there were few resources to look at this biodiversity. As with other islands I had worked with, especially the Overseas Territories, some big names from the UK were trying to assist. In 2008 I was asked to assist with a particular project that the UK Government’s “DARWIN” initiative had funded, that was to write action plans for all the key species in this region. My role was to look at the monitoring of these creatures and plants and see how it integrated with the government’s GIS.
I’d wanted to go to Montserrat for many years but so far had only seen it smouldering in the distance the many times I came into land in Antigua Airport. Montserrat had come and seen me once. When I was living on Tortola, I had gone to California for a conference and when I returned to my apartment high above the sea, I found a thin layer of red dust covering the whole terrace, including the tables and chairs. Montserrat had had another eruption and the particles had been blown on the wind over 200km to the Virgin Islands. I’d also met a few people from there and had tried a couple of times to formulate projects.
The north end of Montserrat and the Centre Hills in the distance
Life of the island was turned upside down, even geographically. The southern third was left as an uninhabitable exclusion zone, a further third declared an intermediate zone where no-one can live but some activity, the odd farmer’s field, can continue. The rest of the island’s activities are squeezed into the remaining third, previously the less developed end of the island. The government was located on a steep hillside at Brades near a small sheltered bay on the north western side of the island. With no functioning airport everything had to come in by sea to this bay. The population reduced to only 3000. The social and economic problems associated with this upheaval caused great tensions, exacerbated by an insensitive reaction from the UK Government, culminating in the response from Clare Short when the Montserratians asked for more help that “they will be asking for golden elephants next.”
The activity at the volcano eventually calmed, but with occasional large events and frequent clouds of sulphur, ash and material flows, Soufriere is still a dominant neighbour of the nervous Montserratians trying to re-establish their lives at the other end of the island. New estates have now been built on the hillsides and some returnees have swollen the population up to nearly 6000. The smaller villages down the west side have remained too, and a new capital at Little Bay below Brades is being formalised moving from emergency portacabins into proper buildings, for government, market, infrastructure. A new airport was built straddling the central ridge of the island in the north. It has been a slow process.
New housing to replace what was buried at the other end of the island
One of the biggest environmental problems of the world is that of erosion. The seas bite at our coastlines, the wind blows away our soil, floods scour away our houses. Land is talked of being lost. Rarely do we hear stories about new land appearing. Three big processes make this happen. It is believed at some stage Bangladesh might get a lot larger. Even with sea level rise and storm surges, the amount of deposition coming down the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers from the Himalayas is building huge sand banks in the Bay of Bengal. A second way is when massive earthquakes occur offshore the plates can throw up a new chunk of sea bed that breaks. The largest expansion comes when a volcano spews out over the sea and creates land. In one dramatic case in the 1960s the whole new island of Surtsey was created over four years. In the Caribbean, the most active volcano of recent years is the Soufriere Hills on Montserrat. Like many volcanic island in the eastern Caribbean, there had been some evidence of volcanic activity for several hundred years, but it had been limited to gas release, hot springs bubbling up from time to time, vegetation dying off or a bit of steam here or there. Montserrat’s volcano had not truly erupted for over a hundred years and was classified as dormant.
Then in 1995 it started to show signs of movement again; earthquakes were felt around the island, ash started to plume into the sky. As a precaution people from the southern third of the island were evacuated north. The capital, Plymouth, just so happened to be on the south west side of the volcano, and some of the more populated villages were scattered around its fertile slopes. The population of the island, a UK overseas territory, was around 11,000 at the time.
The size of the eruptions continued to grow, and there seemed no chance of an immediate return to people’s homes. Many moved away from the island altogether, some heading for the UK or USA, others to neighbouring islands such as Antigua. The north was more sparsely populated and not particularly well suited to the influx of people. The small airport was on the north western side of the volcano, the main port and ferry terminal was in Plymouth.
Evidence of how the island expanded is obvious
The ferocity of the activity continued to grow and in 1997 the worst happened. A series of pyroclastic flows demolished first the airport then Plymouth itself. Despite the evacuation, some people travelled into the region to look after crops, a few decided they would not leave their homes. Twenty seven people died in 1997 from the volcanic eruptions, and not just the inundation of the villages by ash and rocks spewed from the crater, but floods scooped up countless tonnes of loose material and filled valleys downstream. The island literally grew in size, especially on the eastern side.