“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 rutas de senderismo 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.