The Galapagos of the Caribbean.
Mysterious and ruggedly beautiful Isla de la Mona lies close to the middle of the Mona Passage just 41 miles off the west coast of Puerto Rico and 38 miles off the eastern coast of Dominican Republic. As formidable as it is searingly beautiful, the island is a refuge in the middle of a restless ocean where the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet.
The Mona Passage is one of the most notorious passages in the Caribbean and even the most experienced sailors have the utmost respect for these waters. This important shipping route between the Atlantic and the Panama Canal is fraught with fast-forming storm cells as well as variable tidal currents created by the large islands on either side of it, and by sand banks that extend out for many miles from both coasts. Cruising directories in general don’t offer too much info about Mona Island, except how to get across the Mona Passage as fast as possible.
Working as Nordhavn 76 captain and chef/mate team has its plusses – the most obvious one is the privilege of visiting hard-to-get-to places such as Mona Island.
Even more challenging than the passage itself is the anchorage, truly one of the more challenging we have experienced. If you draw less than 5 feet you could attempt to get inside the reef, which would offer better sanctuary. More than five feet you have to take your chances on a lee shore with incessant rolling. Luckily Nordhavn explorer yachts are incredible robust and usually always blessed with excellent ground tackle – this Nordhavn 76 was no exception. Being only two crew on a trip of this nature is challenging. Some of the guests are out of their comfort zones, sleep is almost non-existent, cooking an extreme sport and the only respite from the rolling is when we trawled for fish around island.
Fishing is supposed to be spectacular in the area. Mona Island is close to the deepest trench of the Atlantic Ocean, also known as the Puerto Rico Trench, with depths of over 3000 feet and it is not unusual to find blue ocean fish such as blue and white marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and dorado in the waters near the shoreline. However in the week we spent there, the fishermen were empty handed – an anomaly they blamed on the full moon at the time. Trawling with bait was pretty tricky given the large colonies of entitled birds who find refuge on the island, which has not surprisingly been a gold mine for guano collectors in past times.
Isla de Mona itself is a nature reserve and sanctuary – about 7 miles long and 4 miles wide. The island is mainly flat, a raised plateau completely surrounded by dolomite sea cliffs that drop 130 feet into the sea. A dramatic sight as you sail towards it.
To try and escape the cumulative fatigue from the rocky anchorage we jumped off the back of the boat and swam across to the rocky shore and back. The water was a remarkable deep navy blue. We saw large inquisitive barracudas follow us on our mission, swimming in and out of our field of side vision – which was slightly disconcerting.
Due to the island’s unique topography, ecology and location, Mona Island, along with Desecheo and Monito, have been nicknamed “The Galapagos Islands of the Caribbean”. Scientists, ecologists and students visit Mona Island to explore its distinct ecosystem, which includes the endemic Mona Ground Iguana. The island is also home to many cave drawings that were left behind by the island’s original inhabitants, the Tainos. Previously a refuge to pirates, the island is inhabited today by rangers from the Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, who manage visitors and take part in research projects.
On our arrival at the jetty the rangers appeared on four wheelers to inspect our passports and papers. In recent years, the island has become a major drop-off point for Dominicans, Haitians and Cubans trying to reach Puerto Rico illegally. With the exception of Cubans, who are allowed to stay permanently in the United States as a result of the wet feet/dry feet policies in place (essentially you have to make it to the shore if you want to stay) all other illegal immigrants are usually deported immediately. The rangers, who spend a month at a time on the isolated island, warned us to exercise caution when exploring the interior of the island as it was riddled with sink holes and overrun with large iguanas – some of them quite aggressive as some of our guests discovered.
To visit Puerto Rico’s islands’ tourism page, click here
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