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Mona Island, view toward Playa de Uveros • Contact sheet photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Galápagos in Puerto Rico? Part Two

Our eventful arrival

Note: This is one of a continuing series of photo-memoirs about a 1964 expedition to Isla de Mona, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean.

“Too be honest, very little happens on Mona.”
Sgt. Pérez, Policia de Puerto Rico.

My friends Michael Pauley, Carl Wotring, and I arrived at the Puerto Rico Police station in Porto Real, Cabo Rojo, at 10:00 p.m. on January 2, 1964. Mike, an avid naturalist, hoped to add to the Natural History Society’s information about Mona Island, the “Galápagos” of the Caribbean. I was planning an exhibition of photos of Mona at the University of Puerto Rico, where we were both seniors. (See Part One here.)

A police launch on patrol • R.C. Flores-Gunkle, Cabo Rojo, 2006

Mike had arranged for us to be passengers on a police launch during its weekly rounds between Cabo Rojo and Mona, a three-hour, 34-nautical-mile trip. Sgt. Pérez, the police officer in charge, greeted us from his bunk on the launch. Mike introduced us and described our project. Sgt. Pérez explained that police officers were stationed on the island to monitor visitors like us and assist in emergencies.

“Do you get many emergencies?” Mike asked.

“Very few,” Sgt. Pérez answered, smiling oddly. “We get treasure-hunters trying to blow things up and bow and arrow hunters with lousy aim. We fish out shipwreck victims sometimes. But, to be honest, very little happens on Mona.”

He had made arrangements for us to sleep at headquarters — there were no extra bunks on the launch. We stowed our gear and retired to the station.

January 3, 1964

We dozed during most of the early morning crossing of Mona Passage, the strait that separates the Atlantic and the Caribbean. There wasn’t too much to see but the sea.

Mona Light in 1964, now in ruins • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

Coming around the point by Mona Island lighthouse, however, northern swells 15 feet high rocked the boat. One hit us broadside and knocked out the tiller. The captain cut back the motors, checked the engine, and began using the motors to steer.

He radioed the police station in Mayagüez and received instructions to find a place to anchor until a mechanic could arrive in the afternoon.

One of two beaches on the bay at Uveros, Mona Island • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

A Coast Guardsman at the lighthouse recommended Playa Uveros— a calm-water bay and beach about five nautical miles from our position off Cabo Este. We anchored there some 400 feet from the beach.

An old dinghy was lowered. Sgt. Pérez ordered us to toss our water-proof gear in the sea — we watched as it wobbled toward shore — and to board. The little dinghy nearly sank from the weight of the three of us, our backpacks and the sergeant, who had clumsily climbed in.

A dinghy in a bit worse shape than ours! Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, Dorado, PR 2006

We pushed off. The overloaded dinghy bobbed about as Sgt. Pérez — no seaman — tried to row. We began drifting toward the open sea.

Mike asked to take over the rowing but a visibly panicked Sgt. Pérez hung on to the oars, uttered a prayer, cursed the Police Department, the dinghy, the ocean, the universe, and, especially, the captain of the launch — whom he blamed for our predicament. A few moments later, he stripped, dove into the water and began swimming toward the launch. Mike, ever calm in turbid times, took control of the oars and deftly positioned the dinghy toward shore.

The launch captain shouted to Mike to wait and to Sgt. Pérez to return to the dinghy. Sgt. Pérez climbed back in as the captain maneuvered the launch close by. Mike threw in while the sargeant scrambled onto the launch — continuing his volley of curses.

Officer Hernández boarded the dinghy, shook his head and smiled at us, and then skillfully rowed the dinghy to the beach.

Punta Sardinera “village.” CCC headquarters in the late 1930s and our headquarters in 1964 • Photos: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

The officers waiting ashore had gathered our floating gear and stowed it in a pickup truck. They drove us to our campsite at one of the surviving CCC cabins at Playa Sardinera near the police and ranger stations.

View from Cabo Barrio Nuevo toward Playa Sardinera • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Sgt. Pérez said Mona was “a place where very little happens!” Yet, even before we got there, “something” happened. We had viewed the awesome cliffs of Mona from a damaged boat that zig-zagged along its shores. We were adrift in a rickety rowboat with a panicked policeman who didn’t know how to row. Yet, we arrived safely at our cabin before noon, ready and raring to explore the mysteries of Mona.

Unexpected comfort: A roof over our head, running water in the bathroom and cots, a gift from departing treasure hunters. Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, Playa Sardinera, 1964

In case you missed any of my Galápagos in Puerto Rico stories, they can be found HERE. For my fiction, poetry and other writing, please browse HERE.

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Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

An aging humanist hanging on to the idea that there is hope for humankind — against all current indications. You can see his published work on Amazon.