Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Rites of Courtship in Gorgona

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Rites of Courtship in Gorgona

Article excerpt

Each year in the tropical waters around this Colombian island, humpback whales compete for mates with a magnificent show of acrobatics and songs

It is said that Francisco Pizarro named the island Gorgona when he passed along the Colombian coast on his way to Peru in 1527. The mythological Gorgon - the sisters of the snake-filled hair whose appearance could turn a person to stone - is apparently what the otherwise fearless explorer had in mind after some of his men succumbed to bites from the island's venomous snakes.

Today, this island - its name doubly charged with mythology and history - is protected as a national park by the Colombian government, a veritable "living laboratory" of flora and fauna. Located just thirty-five miles off the Pacific coast of Colombia, near the small port of Guapi in the department of Cauca, Gorgona is a mountainous, tropical island with a total area of barely fifteen miles. It is part of a small group of volcanic islands, remnants of an ancient mountain range that extended from the northern Darien region to the west coast of present-day Ecuador. Just to the southwest of Gorgona are Gorgonilla and three more island outcroppings, of which the largest is called the Widower.

Pizarro also encountered Gorgona's first human inhabitants, the Cuna; within the century, however, other visitors to the island would find it unoccupied, and through the centuries Gorgona, perhaps living up to its name, became the refuge of buccaneers and seamen, and then in 1959, a penal colony.

Gorgona is covered with humid forest, and diverse species of tropical animals have long made their home there; yet over time the recorded species have changed, given the fragility of the island ecosystem. The first mention of the island's fauna is from the Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de Leon. Although he remarked on turkeys, pheasants, jungle cats, and birds, he didn't mention the white-faced monkey - perhaps the most characteristic mammal species found on the island today. And, although the monkeys were observed a century later by other European explorers, all other species that Cieza de Leon mentioned - except for the snakes - no longer exist there.

Today Gorgona is home to twelve species of bats, one of which is a vampire, varieties of sloth, and two species of rodent. Besides marine birds such as pelicans, which nest in the national park, and frigate birds, there are nineteen migratory species, including varieties of eagle, hummingbird, antbird, flycatcher, and tanager. There are also species of native turtle, lizard, and snake, such as the boa and coral. And, as inhospitable as Pizarro found conditions on the island, there is a surprising abundance of fresh water - twenty-five permanent streams.

But it is just offshore in the warm tropical waters of the Pacific that one of Gorgona's most fascinating and now much-researched denizens can be found - the humpback whale. Today the island is one of the foremost centers in the world for the study of humpbacks, which can be observed during the months of June to November after their northern migration from Antarctica to their breeding grounds off the Colombian coast. There, from Gorgona's white-sand beaches the humpbacks can be seen performing their amazing jumps and thundering fin and tail splashes - they truly are one of the most acrobatic and playful of all whale species.

The sole representative of the genus Megaptera - meaning "large-winged" - the humpback has the longest pectoral fins of any whale. Over fifty feet in length, and weighing forty tons, humpbacks vary in color from black to gray, with a white belly. Both passive and curious, they exchange looks with huge gentle eyes, which measure ten inches across. The species name, novaeangliae, refers to New England, where humpbacks were first described in large numbers in 1781, and today distinct groups of humpbacks can be found in each of the world's oceans.

The humpback got its name from the fleshy mound at the base of its back fin, and because of the way it arches its back before immersing itself in water. …

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