Current position of the SSV Corwith Cramer. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer
December 15, 2019
The Island of Ash
16º 47.9’ N, 62º 12.8’ W
At anchor in Little Bay, Montserrat
25˚C, cloud-spotted skies with occasional squalls, F3 winds from the East
1-2 ft. seas
Ahoy! My name is Brett and I am a senior at Grinnell College. Today we finally set foot on Montserrat, which was a long-awaited moment considering we’ve been staring at it for three days! After shuttling everyone over in a very bumpy, splashy ride in our small boats, we began a bus tour of the island. Lexi mentioned the history of Montserrat a little in her blog post, but I’ll provide some more info. Montserrat’s population was 13,000 before the Soufrière Hills eruption, over twice what it is today. The volcano initially exploded on July 18, 1995. The deadly-hot pyroclastic flow claimed no lives in the first eruption, but destroyed entire neighborhoods and forced people to relocate into overcrowded temporary shelters. Due to poor dissemination of information and poor conditions at the shelters, many returned to their homes after everything seemed like it was over. Unfortunately, the first eruption was just the beginning, and nineteen lives were claimed in the next eruption. Over the next half-decade, two thirds of the island would be blanketed in ash and fire, and 92 percent of the population would be relocated. Many people just left. Only 1,200 people were living on the island at the end of all this. It’s grown since then, with an estimated population of about 5,000, but the inhabitants of the island are still clustered at the northern tip of the island since the rest is an exclusion zone.
Our tour started with a drive through the populated sector of Montserrat where our guide pointed out some of the various shops, restaurants, and schools in town. We made a quick stop at Runaway Ghaut, a freshwater spring that allegedly guarantees you will come back to the island if you drink from it. We pretty much all did, so I guess we have that to look forward to. After this tour of the main city, we headed up to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory where we had a great view of the Soufrière Hills volcano and watched a documentary about the eruptions. Geologists are still actively studying the volcano and there’s even a helipad on site at the observatory! The volcano was mostly shrouded in fog while we were there, but we could still see the collapsed dome and the ruins of Plymouth. We hit up their souvenir shop, ate some snacks, and continued on into the exclusion zone.
There are actually several levels of the exclusion zone. As we headed south down the island, occupied houses gave way to sand mines, construction zones, and houses in varying levels of disrepair. In this section of the island, people are able to visit during daylight hours to work but are not allowed to stay overnight. Eventually, we hit a checkpoint and headed into the actual exclusion zone. Montserrat is the only place in the world with a ghost town, Plymouth, as its capital. Buildings there are buried several-stories deep in volcanic ash and have been taken over by plants, birds, and feral farm animals that were abandoned after the eruptions. Some buildings weren’t even visible under all of the debris. Eventually, we stopped for lunch and got out to walk a bit and take photos.
We finished our tour at about 1300, so we had a LOT of unexpected free time on the island. I beelined directly to the ice cream shop with some others and chatted with some locals. Everyone we talked with seemed really happy to see us and excited to talk about what their island had to offer. Our group split off after this to do different things. Some people went on a hike and I originally planned to join them, but, after realizing that the hike would involve lots of thorny bushes, I hit the beach with some others. Francesca showed me how to bring my sandcastle-making skills to the next level—I had no idea she was such an architect! After some quality beach time, we got dinner at a local joint right next to the pier. I had some curried snapper with beans and rice, which was fantastic.
We’ll be leaving Montserrat tomorrow after A and B Watches finish up their reef surveys, and I don’t think it’s a place I’ll ever forget. At a first glance, Montserrat can seem like a really tragic place. In many ways, it definitely is—the volcano has taken homes, lives, and business away from thousands of islanders. However, the people that remain seem to have a fierce love for their island and the population is increasing once again. We all drank from Runaway Ghaut, so if the legend is correct, we’ll all return to Montserrat at some point in our lives. I’m excited to see how the island has grown when we return!
- Brett Bohnert, Grinnell College