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Hiking on the edge • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

Galápagos in Puerto Rico? Part One

A photographer’s journey back in time

If you look very carefully at the photo above, you will see a man hiking along the edge of 130-foot cliffs on the eastern side of Isla de Mona, an uninhabited island about halfway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is my friend Michael Pauley, a young naturalist who was leading a small expedition to what is often called the Galápagos of the Caribbean.

As the project’s photographer, I set up this shot before my assistant (my friend Carl Wotring, the third member of our group) and I hurried to catch up with him and hike part of the perimeter of the 4-mile by 7-mile island.

It was January of 1964 and Mike and I were soon to begin our last semester at the University of Puerto Rico. He was preparing a report for the geographical society he belonged to, and I was planning a related exhibit at the Centro, the University Student Center where I served as photographer.

Michael Pauley, Mona Island 1964 • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

For an unforgettable week more than half a century ago, Mike and his trusty machete led us along the edge of towering cliffs, through patches of dense jungle, across a vast arid tundra, through sinkholes, and into a few of Mona’s 300 caves. He had us trek through an “impenetrable” cactus forest to reach an ancient lighthouse and — more pleasantly — swim with the parrot fish in the crystalline, coral-lined Caribbean waters.

Carl on the rocks • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

I invited my Pennsylvania friend Carl to join us, mostly to help me with my gear. He quickly became an invaluable all-around member of the expedition, an active collector of shell specimens and an able amanuensis — when he wasn’t scoping out where to swim.

Testing lights • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

There are no photos of me on Mona Island — I was busy taking them — but this practice portrait, taken not long after, captures my hirsute look of the time.

Why report now on a trip taken nearly 60 years ago? For one thing, today Mona remains as much of a mystery as it was then — to both the residents of Puerto Rico and to all but a few of the most adventurous travelers. The island, now listed as a US National Natural Landmark, is managed under Puerto Rico’s Mona and Monito Islands Nature Reserve and official permission is needed to remain overnight there. There are no permanent inhabitants.

Another thing? By reviewing my notes and contact sheets (the prints and the report to the geographic society have long been lost), this old man — the sole surviving member of the expedition — gets to relive his long-lost youth and preserve a bit of it by sharing it.

But first, a note about photography during the dark ages for readers in this digital, camera-phone, all-automatic age.

U. S. Armed Forces Photo, Public Domain

My gear included two camaras, a hefty Speed Graphic (like ones you may have seen in old movies) and a twin-lens reflex — both cameras almost identical to the ones in the photo above.

Contact prints from Speed Graphic negatives, 1964 • R. C. Flores-Gunkle

The Speed Graphic used sheets of 4" x 5" film, two in each cartridge. They could only be loaded in a darkroom, so I only took along four packs preloaded with two negatives in each. Few cameras at the time had anything automatic. Focus was manual, adjusted by viewing the image upside down on a ground glass. Shutter speed and aperture were set by hand. Exposure was determined by referencing a separate light meter. Without Carl, I would have needed two more hands, four eyes and larger muscles!

Contact sheet from the Soligar Twin Lens Reflex , 1964 • R. C. Flores-Gunkle

The twin-lens reflex used 120 film. Focus was also on a ground glass, but on top of the camera and the image (right side up) was from the top (twin) lens.

In my files, I found 17 contact sheets with 12 exposures on each — more were lost, but you can see I was a pretty busy boy on that desert island!

Mike in one of the better (!) scans, unretouched • Photo: R. C. Flores-Gunkle

One last technical note. Since I no longer had prints or negatives to work from, I had to scan the contact sheets at high resolution and then crop and repair each image. I hope that explains the less-than-ideal quality of many of the images (like the one above) that accompany this series. Actually, six decades after I originally developed and printed them, they are in better shape than I am!

In case you missed any of my Galápagos in Puerto Rico stories they (and many others) 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.