2017-02-14 Isla San Benedicto

Laysan Albatross - Phoebastria immutabilis

Our company would meet Isla San Benedicto this morning. The object of our journey, the Archipiélago de Revillagigedo was finally at hand. On August 1, 1952 at 8:30 AM, the volcano that built this island erupted and extinguished all life present. There were several more eruptions that lasted until March of the following year. By late 1953, the volcano had gone dormant again.

Only rarely has the island been surveyed to determine what forms have returned. The biology team on this boat had but 8 hours to evaluate and explore this 1,089 foot high pile of lava and ash. Fourteen intrepid members of our party suffered the steep slopes of dust and rocks to reach the summit of the crater. Considering the lack of trails and the nearly impossible conditions of going up escalating three feet only to slide back two, it was quite an accomplishment. The climbers showed remarkable determination and resourcefulness in achieving their success. One member, Peter Schuyler, had the foresight to bring with him a climbing rope. By making a human ladder and having the lightest member, Ida Naughton climb past them to secure footing, she was able to brace herself, lower the rope and allow the rest of the party to ascend, clear the obstacle and ultimately the summit.

Brown Booby - Sula leucogasterBotanists team members discovered numerous plants hidden in crevices and scattered across the mountains of ash and pumice. The insect team found many forms not previously documented (only one ant had been described on earlier surveys), and they multiplied the known insect list for this island by a factor of 15 or more.

Amy and Jorge were in the group that climbed the crater wall. They found many nesting Laysan Albatross, a few Black-Footed Albatross. There were many Red-Billed Tropicbirds in nest burrows.

On our approach to the island we encountered our first Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor). Most of the frigatebirds we’d been meeting on this voyage had been Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), which are only slightly different in size (smaller) and appearance.

I elected to stay on the beach and look for opportunities with albatross and boobys. Though I joked I feared someone might elect to sacrifice a virgin to the volcano, the camera gear I lugged with me would have been impossible to carry on such an ascent.

Approaching Isla San Benedicto - n/aI was perfectly happy to survey the lowest elevations of this island. There I found Laysan Albatross on eggs and feeding freshly hatched chicks. I was expecting to cause a disturbance in the colony, but these birds remained remarkably calm in my presence. Even though the birds displayed little fear, out of respect I elected to keep as much distance as I could while capturing images.

Nearer the shore was a large group of boobys. The Brown and Masked Boobys I found here were of mixed ages. As with the albatross, these birds allowed me to approach and gather images without leaving en masse.

When I wasn’t capturing bird images, I tried to gather other plant and insect subjects in case the other teams might benefit.

The beach on which we landed spanned several hundred yards. I directed my first investigations to the southern end where an elevated expanse of pumice and sand flowed between a lava field and the steep furrowed slopes of ash of the volcano. Due to its open, relatively flat expanse, the area was informally called the “Golf Course”. We even found warblers at the edge of the lava flows. Several species of plants had begun colonizing here, including a bunch grass. It’s remarkable that a mere 65 years earlier this island was a sterile mass of pumice and lava, devoid of all life.

At the north end of the beach I could see Red-Billed Tropicbirds soaring past the steep cliffs that formed a barrier, capturing the sands to form the beach. The coarse texture of the pumice shards that comprised these sands made walking a challenge. At the north extreme of the beach we found a Sanderling so weak from hunger, it did little to retreat from our approach. Anyone who’s observed sanderlings knows how active they can be. They forage the beach sands between the approach and retreat of the crashing surf, looking for small crustaceans such as Mole Crabs to eat.  While we found minute white winged flies emerging from the sands well above the waterline, there were no small crustacea here and this bird was simply starving to death.

When the intrepid climbers returned to the beach for transport back to the boat, they were caked with sand and dust from the mountain, and wore the biggest of smiles on their faces. No one who landed on this island would forget this day.

The day’s images below:

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