Natural Wonders on the Caribbean's Island of Dominica

Photograph by Jad Davenport/Getty Images
Photographs by Alvaro Leiva/Getty Images and James Carmichael/NHPA
Photograph by DEA/L.ROMANO/Getty Images

Natural Wonders on the Caribbean's Island of Dominica

Newly discovered by adventurous travelers and the eco-minded, Dominica is a Caribbean pearl that harbors jewel-like rare parrots and a boiling lake.

By Christopher R. Cox
Published: March-April 2008

Where exactly has Dominica hidden its runway? Out the starboard windows of American Eagle Flight 5062, the jungle-clad slopes of Morne Diablotin, the highest peak in the eastern Caribbean, loom like a green, gathering wave. To port, there is only a further cloaking of canopy, swelling as our aircraft skips above the pronged ridges of the Northern Forest Reserve. Finally, a few simple huts and groves of citrus trees appear, then a sliver of tarmac shoehorned into a distant, narrow river gorge. That's Melville Hall Airport? The plane makes a sharp, 90-degree bank and drops into the steep-sided cut, a descent that feels more like a dive-bombing run than a final approach. Just beyond the wingtips, a gantlet of banana, coconut, and cacao trees line our landing path, so close I'd be tempted to pick their fruits if I didn't have a death grip on my seat's armrests.

A daunting degree of difficulty has always been the saving grace of Dominica (pronounced do-min-EEK-ah), an unspoiled place its boosters call the "Nature Island.'' For centuries its extreme topography, including four peaks topping 4,000 feet, discouraged any settlers who weren't intimidated by the truculent native Carib, whose lyrical name for the island--Waitukabuli--means "tall is her body.'' Located in the midst of the Antilles, between the French possessions of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica was the last island in the Caribbean to be colonized and has been independent only since 1978. This former British backwater has never succumbed to mass tourism. Its few beaches are mostly composed of uninviting black sand. Rainfall can exceed 300 inches a year. And pervasive, precipitous mountains coupled with the lack of an international airport have stymied the tourism industry. On Dominica, nature still dictates the terms of visitation. This is a destination for travelers who won't miss cabanas or casinos or white-sand beaches, who don't mind getting caught in the rain or tramping up a live volcano in search of rare, rainbow-hued parrots.

Puerto Rico, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia can all claim a singular parrot, but diminutive Dominica is special. Though just 290 square miles--smaller than the five boroughs of New York City--it supports two Amazon parrot species found nowhere else in the world: the endangered imperial (Amazona imperialis), known locally as the sisserou, and the red-necked (A. arausiaca), or jaco, which is considered vulnerable. Only Jamaica, an island 15 times the size of Dominica that is home to the yellow-billed and black-billed Amazons, can make a similar claim.

"We're quite lucky to have two parrots,'' says forest ranger Bertrand "Birdy" Jno Baptiste as he coaxes his jeep up the western slopes of 4,747-foot Morne Diablotin. Dominica's preeminent bird expert is a stocky, energetic man on constant alert. He takes care not to spill a mug of hot, home-roasted coffee on his oversize T-shirt or camouflage-print cargo shorts as he tackles a succession of switchbacks and scans roadside farms of coffee and oranges for wildlife. "They need tall trees,'' he continues. "They need proper rainforest. That's why they're here in the first place.''

I look through his windshield, which sports a "drbirdy2" decal in NASCAR-sized type, at the primeval landscape confronting us. Since leaving the northwest coast's dry-scrub forest, we've climbed approximately 1,600 feet in just five miles to arrive at Morne Diablotin National Park. The nearly 8,500-acre preserve was created in 2000 to safeguard the parrots' primary-forest habitat and protect this watershed, which supplies Portsmouth, a town second in size only to Roseau, the capital. Morne Diablotin is hardly the last vestige of mature rainforest on Dominica; 60 percent of the country remains wooded, including large swaths designated as parks or forest reserves that have never heard the scream of chainsaws.

The upper slopes of Morne Diablotin abound with the towering, 100-foot gommier and chataigner trees preferred by the island's parrots, which nest in their cavities. Jno Baptiste parks his vehicle, shoulders his tripod and costly Brunton scope, and leads the way onto Syndicate Trail, a nearly mile-long loop along the park's western boundary with an excellent birding reputation.

Along the well-marked track, he notes the resin oozing from a gommier, a gum tree that Carib Indians used to hew seagoing canoes, and the stout, buttresslike roots of a chataigner, a tree with fruit similar to chestnuts. Above us a blue-headed hummingbird--found only on Dominica and Martinique--nicks a spider web for insects and nesting material. From the forest floor, Jno Baptiste picks up newly shorn green leaves of a riverwood tree; they've been cut by parrots. It could be either the sisserou or the jaco, he says. Both species relish the shoots. Just off the track, Jno Baptiste notes a large cavity in a karapit, a tropical hardwood where parrots are also known to nest. The two-foot-wide hollow could hold an imperial parrot, which requires wide roosts, since its chicks must flap their wings before fledging, but it's too close to the trail, he explains. It's better suited to a red-necked parrot, a bird less sensitive to human presence.

Sometimes heard and seldom seen, the 20-inch imperial parrot is the world's largest Amazon species, measuring about two-thirds the length of a macaw. A striking creature with a purplish head, amethyst breast, and lime-green wings, the bird is accurately a flagship species, appearing on Dominica's national banner (the Carib believed they would be reincarnated as sisserous). A census is hopeless, as the reclusive sisserou lives only in the mountainous interior's most inaccessible sections. By Jno Baptiste's reckoning, fewer than 300 imperials likely exist.

More easily seen is the red-necked Amazon, which numbers perhaps 800, according to Paul Reillo, director of the Florida-based Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, which runs a parrot-conservation program on Dominica. A smaller, more gregarious bird, the jaco has a blue face and distinctive scarlet patches on its wings and throat, and grows to 12 inches. It can nest at lower altitudes and lay larger, more frequent clutches than the sisserou, which usually produces a single chick only once every two breeding seasons--a positively puritanical rate of procreation.

Jno Baptiste, who can casually toss off the scientific name of everything we encounter, is a self-taught ornithologist. He got the bug shortly after joining the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division in 1982, when he found himself assigned to a parrot-monitoring program. "Other things were flying around,'' he says, picking out the calls of a black-whiskered vireo and a plumbeous warbler that lives only here and on neighboring Guadeloupe. All told, 176 bird species have been recorded on Dominica. After getting to know the parrots, Jno Baptiste figured, "Why not just try to learn them, too?"

He likens his pastime to "a chronic disease": ''I can't stop birding. I do it for business, I do it for pleasure. I do it all the time.''

In the aftermath of 1979's Hurricane David, however, his birding was serious work. The parrots suffered grievous losses from the Category 5 storm, which killed several dozen islanders, destroyed three-quarters of all homes in Roseau, and drastically affected the parrot populations. The imperial, which had a pre-storm population of 600 to 800 by Reillo's estimation, was wiped out across Dominica except for the northeastern slopes of Morne Diablotin, where just 50 to 60 birds survived. The number of jacos, which Reillo put at more than 2,000, dropped to 250 after David. However, the deadly tempest also brought new life. Jno Baptiste shows me the delicate lavender-colored flowers of Spathoglottis plicata,locally known as "David's orchid.'' The ground orchid, which is native to Southeast Asia, popped up on Dominica only after Hurricane David; islanders believe its spores were borne by the storm's winds all the way across the Atlantic from Africa.

As Dominica's hurricane-ravaged forests rebounded, so, too, did the sisserou and jaco. In the past decade a small number of sisserous have even returned to the southern part of their original range, taking up residence in the Morne Prosper highlands a few miles east of Roseau. Neither parrot species has yet to match its pre-David head count, primarily because of habitat lost to small banana plantations in the 1980s. Catastrophic storms also remain a threat, along with the pet trade. Dominica can level a fine of $5,000 eastern Caribbean dollars (about $1,870) or a three-year prison term on parrot poachers, but the potential windfall--Jno Baptiste estimates a pair of sisserous would fetch $50,000 on the black market--still tempts clandestine hunters.

Soon enough a pair of jacos takes wing, their cries floating across the valley. We also see a steady flyby of other species--Antillean flycatchers and scaly-breasted thrashers, brown tremblers and ruddy quail-doves. But no imperials. Not even their distinctly eerie, trumpeting call. It's been a very dry summer, Jno Baptiste says, with few fruiting trees in the forest to feed the sisserous, which are finicky eaters.

We shift to another stakeout, and then another, pausing only to fill our water bottles from a clear-running jungle brook. Still no sisserous. Jno Baptiste finally packs his scope, and then disappears into the forest. I watch a broad-winged hawk swooping in tight circles above me, a lizard locked in its talons. When my guide reemerges, he's cradling a half-dozen plump grapefruits, collected from a forgotten tree of an old, overgrown plantation. "Where else in the world can you do that?'' he says with a grin.

 

Beyond the picturesque parrots and the feral fruit, the scope and scale of Dominica's natural bounty is astounding: hundreds of species of fern, 700-year-old trees, and, it is said, a river for every day of the year. So, too, is its volatility. The fact may never be touted in a travel brochure, but Dominica has more than seven live volcanic centers. The island simmers uneasily atop a ring of fire that also fueled recent, devastating eruptions on Montserrat as well as the cataclysmic 1902 explosion of Mont Pelee, just 22 miles southeast on Martinique, which killed 29,000 people. "The church loves when there are tremors,'' says William "Billy" Lawrence, 39, a wry, powerfully built Dominican who owns ALDive, a scuba shop. "Everybody goes back to church and the collection box is spilling over.''

Hot, subterranean gases scald the sands of Soufriere Bay on Dominica's southern tip and bubble from the seafloor at nearby Champagne, one of the island's more popular dive sites. But south-central Morne Trois Pitons National Park is, quite literally, the hotbed of geothermal activity: five volcanoes, 50 fumaroles, innumerable hot springs and sulfurous vents, and the second-largest thermally active lake in the world. The park is also largely forested, nurturing the greatest biodiversity in the Lesser Antilles. Because of this rare combination of natural features, in concert with its spectacular waterfalls, the 17,000-acre wilderness was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997--the first ecosystem so recognized in the eastern Caribbean.

Several easily accessible attractions lie near the park's perimeter, including Emerald Pool, a 40-foot plunge off a fern-lined grotto, and Trafalgar Falls, a pair of cascades--the "Father'' is 125 feet while the "Mother" is 75 feet--tumbling from the escarpment. The park's centerpiece is the unusual Boiling Lake, a cauldron of superheated water bubbling and steaming away on the slopes of 4,016-foot Morne Watt, Dominica's most active volcano. The challenging five-mile lake hike is best undertaken with an experienced guide. I find my pathfinder, Kelvin "Kello" Noel, in the rural village of Laudat, where he also owns a 17-acre vegetable farm. "This is my backyard,'' says Noel, 30, who's dressed for this arduous bushwalk in baggy blue-jean shorts, a LeBron James replica NBA jersey, and black high-top sneakers. "I've hiked to Boiling Lake over a thousand times.''

His urban attire belies Noel's woodsman's expertise. We spend the first 45 minutes gradually ascending from 1,600 to 2,100 feet while Noel notes wildflowers, detects the minor-key serenade of a rufous-throated solitaire, and points out an agouti, a large, guinea pig-like rodent running through ferns along the forest floor. After a brief, steep descent, we bound on boulders across Trois Pitons River, pausing to top off our bottles with the pure water of this surging Trafalgar Falls tributary, then begin a taxing climb up ski-jump-grade slopes. Rainforest gives way to montane forest as we trudge the difficult, though well-maintained trail. Harsh cries float across the valley . . . sisserous? Noel shakes his head. No. We stop anyway to watch several jacos feasting in the canopy.

An hour later, 1,000 feet of elevation gain puts us atop a narrow ridge of elfin woodland that offers little shelter against the chilling winds buffeting the summit. To the east, clouds envelop the peak of massive Morne Watt. To the west, a clear view extends to coastal Roseau. To the north, steam rises from Boiling Lake, still a mile away and obscured by a small ridge. To reach the lake we'll first have to clamber 500 feet down a path better fit for goats and cross the hellish Valley of Desolation.

 

An 1880 eruption here spewed volcanic ash as far as Roseau; where once thick forest flourished there is only a sulfurous, smoldering canyon with scattered mosses, lichens, and a few hardy bromeliads. A smaller geothermal burp took place in July 1997, and scalding-hot water still gurgles from beneath rocks stained red, white, yellow, and black with mineral deposits, while noxious gasses sputter from cracks in the bare mountain slopes. We carefully cross a percolating stream, which mixes with a cold-water spring to form a tepid brook, then traverse a pair of ravines to arrive at the lip of Boiling Lake.

Through the thick, roiling steam, I can make out slate-gray water furiously bubbling away and the far shore, some 200 feet off. The phenomenal lake is a natural, stream-fed basin that collects water, which then seeps through porous rock until it encounters hot lava and is heated to teakettle temperatures. Our timing couldn't be better: Foul-weather adventurer George Kourounis, who hosts the cable-TV showAngry Planet, is gearing up for the first-ever attempt to cross Boiling Lake on a zip line, a pulley suspended on a cable. Since this is television, he's also carrying a bag of eggs, which he'll lower into the water and hard-boil for his crew. We have the death-defying stunt all to ourselves; it ends successfully.

There are just a few other hikers; in almost three hours we've encountered only one small group. It's a far cry from the crowds clogging Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool, especially on cruise-ship days. In 2006 the big ships delivered 379,503 passengers to the island; the same year just 79,971 foreign visitors spent a night on Dominica. During the high season, extending from winter into spring, as many as three liners sometimes tie up for a day in Roseau, their gleaming superstructures dwarfing the tin-roofed, two-story wooden buildings of downtown. The island's entire taxi and bus fleet seems to turn out to ferry hordes of sunburned day-trippers along narrow roads to the same handful of attractions.

The cruise ship footprint is still fairly light, and largely restricted to two areas on the island where passengers can get in and out quickly and easily. "Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool have to be considered sacrificial sites,'' says Reillo. "The impact is significant, but it is very well contained. The system is geared to give tourists a captive experience and return them to their ship.''

Anne Jno Baptiste (no relation to Bertrand), who co-owns Papillote Wilderness Retreat, a seven-room eco-lodge a half-mile downstream from Trafalgar Falls, is less sanguine: "It's an anachronism to see these big transporters going through our dinky little roads. [Cruise ships] are not a healthy market. They don't leave enough money behind to make it worthwhile.''

But this is Dominica, where nature will ultimately have the final say in how many big ships or eco-tourists come calling. Anne, who moved here from the States in 1961, witnessed the winds of Hurricane David strip the river valley bare and destroy her business. Undaunted, she rebuilt her bungalows and replanted her garden, where Lesser Antillean bullfinches, bananaquits, and purple-throated Carib hummingbirds now make their rounds among a profusion of exotic and native plants, including breadfruit and banana trees, heliconias and begonias, torch ginger and cacao. Now in her late 70s, she takes a long view of things. "Dominica always fixes itself up,'' she says, flashing a fatalistic smile. "There's an inevitable volcanic eruption, like on Montserrat, due within 100 years.''

Dominica: Making the Trip

Visitors are required to have a valid passport for entry into Dominica (for more information, click here). No nonstop flights originate from the United States. American Eagle (800-433-7300) flies to Melville Hall Airport (DOM) daily from Puerto Rico, while LIAT (767-448-3980) connects from Barbados and Antigua. The high-speed catamaran L'Express des Iles makes the crossing from Guadeloupe and Martinique to Roseau five times a week and from St. Lucia twice a week.

For general visitor information about Dominica, contact the Dominica Tourist Office (767-448-2045) or visit the official website, here. Car-rental companies such as Budget have agencies on the island. A visitor driver's permit ($EC30; $US12) is required. (In this former British colony, driving is on the left side of the road.)

A certified guide is advised for those making the hike to Boiling Lake. Kelvin "Kello" Noel (767-225-6276) grew up in Laudat, the nearest village, and knows every inch of the trail. The Tourist Information Office in Roseau (767-448-2045) can recommend other trained guides as well.

Rangers with Dominica's Forestry Division (767-448-2401) include bird expert Bertrand Jno Baptiste (767-245-4768), who can be hired for either private or group tours. The Syndicate Trail in Morne Diablotin National Park (admission $US2) is both an easy, rewarding walk for birders and the most accessible place for a legitimate chance to spot Dominica's rare Imperial parrot.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2008 issue as "Off the Map."

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