Isla Non Grata

Sailing to a spec of guano-encrusted Caribbean that tourism forgot.

Paul Bennett

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I WAS STUCK in the Two Turtles Bar, one of three sooty, misbegotten dens arrayed along Main Street in George Town, Bahamas. A succession of cold fronts had our 38-foot ketch, Lucy, pinned down. So we went drinking. I sidled up next to Art, a retired Coast Guarder who spends his winters on a 40-foot boat in the Bahamas. Salt-withered and fang-toothed, Art looked like he’d just walked out of a Coleridge poem. I bought him a beer and started bullshitting in the way sailors do about voyages. I told him about our plans to head west toward Honduras, Guatemala, and the rest of Central America. He uttered some warnings about the Windward Passage, about the fluky weather and all the big ship traffic. I nodded. I’d heard all that before. Then I mentioned Navassa, a tiny dot at the far southern end of the Passage, where we were planning to stop for a while.

He choked on his beer. “Navassa?”
Now, Art is one of many sailors who sit in George Town bars, trying to scare the bejesus out of other sailors. I was ready to nod my way through his diatribe when he uttered the death phrase.

“You know there’s pirates all along the Haitian coast?” he said with a grimace. “The Colombians drop coke in the water, and the pirates take it to the Bahamas.” And then he went on to relate a famous episode involving a young couple on a sailboat off the Haitian coast who were waylaid by drug runners and set adrift in their life raft only to watch helplessly as their boat was burned.

“You have arms, right?” asked Art. I shook my head. We have a flare gun, I offered meekly. He took a sip of beer and looked at me in disbelief.

I stumbled upon Navassa one dreary afternoon in New York as I stood daydreaming before the DMA 400 chart of the Caribbean. I had never noticed that speck of U.S. territory lying between Haiti and Jamaica before. I made some phone calls and, in a couple of hours, found that Navassa is completely uninhabited. Naturally, I began to dream of unspoiled waters, pristine reefs, and swimming with endangered turtles. But more than anything I dreamed of undertaking a voyage of discovery at a time when nothing seemed undiscovered. A year later, I found myself aboard Lucy with my wife, Lani, heading toward Navassa.

“Navassa is a complete treasure house,” said Joseph Schwagerl over a bad connection from Puerto Rico. “We’re calling it ‘the Galapagos of the Caribbean.'” Schwagerl works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which took over management of Navassa from the Coast Guard in 1998 and sent a team of biologists to the island to survey the plants and animals. What they found was mind-blowing. “Four new species of fish, one of the largest pristine sponge forests in the Caribbean, and hundreds of spiders,” says Schwagerl with infectious wonder. “Spiders rule the island. The arachnologist catalogued 40 new species.”
But what makes Navassa important to science aren’t just the 40 new spiders; it’s the 760 other plant and animal species, at least 250 of which were unknown to science, crammed onto the island’s two square miles. In terms of evolutionary biology, this is astounding. No sea captain with a ship full of critters and seeds crashed here hundreds of years ago. Instead, life evolved in a mad rush of speciation atop a five-million-year-old pile of guano phosphates, or bird shit, accumulating on a coral reef.

Schwagerl mentioned a 30-foot ladder on the southwest cliffs. “It’s a chain ladder that’s pretty much rusted apart,” he said. “We almost killed ourselves getting on the island.” As we round the sharp tip of Navassa I spot the ladder clinging to the cliffs inside what the chart calls “Lulu Bay,” named by some cartographer who was probably dating a girl named Lulu at the time. Dear Lulu, I hate to break it to you, but the bay is a farce, unless you consider a slight depression in the sea-ravaged rock to be a bay.

We anchor Lucy in 70 feet of clear, cobalt-colored water about 50 feet from the cliffs. I decide to start my reconnaissance underwater. The bottom is devoid of reef. Instead there’s a dense mesh of sponges and elkhorn corals that ramble across the sand, like cacti in a desert. Because the bottom around Navassa slopes off so dramatically, the underwater rock terraces here are flat and deep. Away from the wall, scuba diving underneath Lucy, I find a parrot fish as long as my arm and a jewfish the size of a small car.
What blew the minds of the ichthyologists on the FWS survey were not the large fish. Instead, it was the tiny gobies and other rockfish living in the coral. Here, in three weeks, the team catalogued 242 species of fish, four of which are endemic to Navassa waters. I poke my snout among the rocks, sniffing about for the scent of biological discovery. Mostly what I find are majestic overhangs, mysterious caves, rock pinnacles, and miles of peacock-blue sea that roll off into the deep nothingness of the Cayman Trench. It’s pretty damn cool. It’s also exhausting, given that a steady two-knot ocean current rips through Lulu Bay and I have to swim like a dog just to keep from drifting off to Jamaica.

The sky is dark when I emerge from the water. The atmosphere has that heavy, low-pressure feeling like a moldy towel. I wonder if a squall is coming.

TO CALL NAVASSA undiscovered isn’t quite accurate. It first entered consciousness in 1504 when Christopher Columbus, shipwrecked on Jamaica, dispatched a crew to Hispaniola to find help. Along the way, the sailors stumbled upon the island, climbed the cliffs, looked for water, found none, and left. For the next 350 years everyone avoided Navassa, except pirates running between Tortuga Island, Haiti, and Port Royal, Jamaica. Supposedly, the waters around the island are littered with wrecks and, theoretically, treasure.

In 1857 the United States seized Navassa from Haiti under the Guano Islands Act. This law gave Americans the right to claim uninhabited guano-splattered islands for the States, allowing its citizens to set up operations to mine the phosphate-rich fertilizer. Conditions on Navassa were horrendous: The white overseers terrorized their black workers, lashing them with ropes and tricking them into indentured servitude. In 1889 the workers rebelled in a bloody attack that resulted in the murders of five bosses. According to legend, the survivors fled and a single boy was left behind. The Haitians believe Navassa is haunted by evil duppies, among which is certainly the spirit of the lone boy. They call it Devil’s Island.

Navassa stood virtually abandoned for 100 years until 1996, when Bill Warren, a scuba diver from San Diego, filed a claim under the Guano Islands Act. Warren wanted to build a salvage operation on Navassa to search for pirate wrecks. But when he learned that guano is still fetching up to $600 per ton, he drew up plans to revive the mining operation. Warren secured title to the island from the heirs of the original mining-company owners, but then the Department of the Interior, under Bruce Babbitt, stepped in and declared Navassa a wildlife refuge. The refuge status makes all nonpermitted visits to the island illegal (including mine), and has stymied Warren’s ambitions. He hopes that a sympathetic George W. Bush will revoke Babbitt’s declaration. When I asked about the environment, Warren assured me his plans are “environment-friendly.” “We’ll make the mining operation green,” he said. “But the scorpions are one of the deadliest species on the planet. We’ll have to eradicate them entirely.”

Fittingly, Babbitt mentioned scorpion protection in interviews shortly after he declared the island a refuge.

IT’S 3 P.M. by the time I towel off, drop into our dinghy, and row over to the ladder. When I grab the inverted staircase it swings and utters a gut-wrenching moan. The dinghy bucks in the swells beneath me. I’m rising and falling with each swell, and it occurs to me that one rogue wave could run this steel right through my chest like a Haitian voodoo pin. So I jump and, luckily, latch on.

I climb to the top and wander amidst guano boulders and hardpan scrub until I find shade under a single palm grove. The place is littered with trash—remnants of old fires, rubber soles, plastic bags and bottles—left by Haitian fishermen who scramble up the cliffs and camp here. Besides garbage, there are crickets and grasshoppers and a whole assortment of creatures that fit into the buzzing, hopping, crunch-when-you-step-on-them taxon. I have in mind to reach the lighthouse, which the Coast Guard erected in 1916, on the other side of a massive ridge. The lighthouse was manned for about a decade; but after the last in a succession of keepers murdered his family, The Shining-style, the thing became automated. But from what I can tell, a steep, eroded cliff surrounds the ridge, below which is an impenetrable screen of poisonwood. I’m beginning to get a sense of why the Haitians have always believed Navassa was a land of evil spirits. The fishermen who camp up here obviously possess bad voodoo.

Since I’m already enmeshed in the evil, I gingerly step around the poisonwood and head up the ridge, a steep mass of stones that roll every time I try to get a handhold. I’m on my hands and knees crawling up the side when the sky finally lets loose. In a minute the rock and mud are coming apart in large, sopping fistfuls. OK, I’ve seen it. I’ve discovered Navassa, I say. Good enough. I turn tail and run, skinning my knee on rock-hard guano before hurling myself down the rusty ladder and into the dinghy. As I push off from the accursed island the rain, eerily, stops.

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