Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Malpelo: Splendor under the Sea

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Malpelo: Splendor under the Sea

Article excerpt

The rugged, forbidding terrain of this uninhabited island belies the beauty and diversity of the marine life in the waters below

Malpelo, Colombia's Pacific island pinnacle, rises like the peak of a submerged mountain. With 188 miles separating this rocky island outpost from the closest mainland, near Buenaventura, Malpelo has been well protected from the waves of progress. Spain's sixteenth-century chronicler Pedro Cieza de Leon knew of it, writing that Peru's colonial administrator, Cristobal Vaca de Castro, had passed by a rocky island that sailors called Mal Pelo in 1542.

The origin of the name isn't certain, but the island appears on a world map as early as 1550, with the name "ye mallabry," which could be related to the term malabrigo, often used by cartographers to designate inhospitable regions. Another possibility is that the name derives from the Latin root Malveolus, or inhospitable.

The vestige of an ancient major mountain range, Malpelo resembles the battlements of a lonely castle, a mere one and a quarter miles long and eighteen hundred feet wide. From the island's highest peak, some 1,170 feet above sea level, one can also see a string of a dozen shorter peaks, providing evidence of an active geological past and once-great landmass.

To reach the island, one must first travel forty hours by boat from Buenaventura. Then, because of Malpelo's rocky surface, one must climb from the boat to a hanging ladder, forty-five feet long, of knots and slats of wood attached to a metal bridge - only to reach this enormous promontory, an oasis of birds among the crashing waves. Except for four employees of the Colombian coast guard, who take month-long tours of duty, the island remains uninhabited. Receiving all rations of gas, radio equipment, and food from their base at Malaga on the Colombian coast, the coast guard makes camp at the one flat surface on the island. The only other signs of man's existence on Malpelo are the soldiers' radio antennas.

The animals of Malpelo are fearless and do not flee when they see humans. It is therefore not too surprising that one of the 100,000 resident Anolis lizards jumps on a visitor's hand to lick the salt and humid residue. With its black crest - a sign of a distant familial connection to the great dinosaurs - this lizard is endemic to the island. Its companions include the black and white spotted lizard, which lives in the rock clefts and, scientists have recently discovered, is able to gather nutrients in its tail. A third species of lizard, the gekko, guards the nights on Malpelo; during the day it remains hidden among the rocks and crevices. This trio also feeds upon the omnivorous Malpelo land crab, which is only found on the island.

These land creatures, in turn, are nourished by the banquets provided by their airborne neighbors, such as the web-footed masked booby bird. With its cousin, the red-footed booby bird, it is a tenacious underwater hunter. From high on the rocks, they launch themselves at great speeds for food, diving like winged harpoons.

But the cycle of life on Malpelo is not yet complete. Bird deposits in the form of guano, rich in nitrates and phosphates, fertilize plants and algae, or are eaten immediately by ants, other insects, or even crabs and lizards. …

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