mona_islandThe weather in New York has turned distinctively wintery, so Ferrebeekeeper is going to compensate by featuring a little known tropical island! Isla de la Mona (“Island of the Bow?” Mona Island?” help me out here, Spanish speakers) is a small island which lies in the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island measures 11 km by 7 km (7 miles by 4 miles) about the same size as Manhattan. But while 1.7 million people live on Manhattan, Isla de Mona has only a ranger station and no true permanent residents.

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Indeed, Isla de la Mona is something of an anomaly in the world: becoming less inhabited over time. In ancient times the Arawak Indians dwelled there. Archaeological evidence establishes their presence on the island by at least 3000 BC. However after Columbus (who officially “discovered” the island), the murky affairs of the colonial era caused the island to gradually depopulate. At one point, the island was controlled by Francisco de Barrionuevo, a Spanish grandee who fell afoul of Alonso Manso, the rapacious bishop of Puerto Rico. Bishop Manso was fond of proscribing wealthy enemies and seizing their possessions and retainers. To escape this fate, de Barrionuevo escaped to mainland South America, and he took most of the island’s remaining inhabitants with him. Thereafter, remaining natives were generally impressed (enslaved?) by French corsairs. The emptied island became a haunt of pirates including the infamous Captain Kidd. It passed to American control in the Spanish American War and remains an administrative part of Puerto Rico (although it is actually closer to the Dominican Republic).

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Abandoned lighthouse in the middle of a cactus forest on Mona Island

In the modern era, Mona Island, was mined for guano. During World War II, it was attacked by a German u-boat in what must have been a thrilling “Hellboy” or “Indiana Jones” type adventure (or maybe the submarine was trying to disrupt the Allies’ nitrogen supply). Today the island is entirely a nature preserve, and no more than 100 people can be on it at a given time.

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Because of this enforced isolation, the island has a pristine ecosystem of dry scrublands and tropical forests. There are extensive sea-caves and coral reefs around the island. As you can imagine, it is a refuge to wildlife such as sea turtles (which are displaced by beach development everywhere else). Unfortunately feral pigs, goats, and cats have invaded the island and messed up the unspoiled ecosystem, but they are kept somewhat in check by annual hunts and by the efforts of the Park Service. I think it is thrilling to imagine this empty island out there. It pleases me no end that there are still such places.

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