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Welcome to "Science Island"

WWF's Molly Edmonds experiences the realities of fieldwork on Gorgona Island in Colombia

Molly Edmonds on nesting beach

“Gorgona Island is a natural wonder with impressive biodiversity.”

Molly Edmonds
Senior Specialist, Program Communications

After hours of only sky and sea, the island suddenly appears on the horizon. It’s not the tropical paradise I was expecting (white sand, beach umbrellas and palm trees), but instead looks dark and ominous, a towering mountain of jungle rising more than a thousand feet above the sea.

I’ve just spent a rather rough journey aboard a tiny vessel in the Pacific, heading toward an island more than 20 miles from Colombia’s mainland. My destination: Gorgona Island National Park, a.k.a. “Science Island” because of all the research carried out here.

WWF started working here in 2006 on sea turtle and coral reef fish monitoring, and a few years later we became scientific advisors for the park. Only recently we started our turtle tagging program, which I am here to observe.

The island is named after the mythological women with snakes for hair; there are 20 snake species found here (four of them venomous). A mural of the female monster image greets me when I arrive.

A park ranger provides a more friendly welcome though, and offers some tips: don’t go off alone into the jungle and wear rubber boots to protect from snakes. I glance down at my sandals and walk quickly back to my room. I start to unpack, disturbing several lizards and dinosaur-sized cockroaches; I cringed when they disappeared into my bed.

  • mural in Gorgona

    Welcome to Gorgona

    This mural on the side of the national park building depicts the monster female creature for whom the island is named. Gorgons were mythological women with snakes for hair. Gorgona Island has 20 species of snakes, and four are venomous.

  • living quarters in gorgona

    Jungle Living

    Our quarters backed right up against the forest. Despite the tropical climate and lack of AC, the rooms were pretty comfortable at night, even if you had to share them with other wildlife.

  • researchers on gorgona

    Outdoor Office

    WWF’s turtle biologist, Diego Amorocho, (on right) and his assistant make use of the space outside our rooms to work. They prepare the equipment for satellite tags, which will be placed on sea turtles.

  • vessel for tagging turtles

    Research Vessel

    This small boat served as our water taxi from Colombia’s mainland to Gorgona Island—about a 20 mile trip. We also used it to get around the island during our turtle tagging operations and for transporting the holding pen for the turtles (pictured).

  • gorgona island colombia

    Back to Nature

    Gorgona served as a Colombian prison before becoming a national park in 1984. At that time, 70 percent of the forests had been removed and the reefs suffered from overfishing. Now, thanks to the monitoring and protection efforts of the National Park staff, Gorgona’s natural resources have been restored.

An island like no other

Before becoming a national park, Gorgona was a maximum security prison. You can still walk among the prison walls and stand in the cells, although the jungle has overtaken most of it. Watch out for the giant ants though, whose painful stings reprimand me again for not wearing boots.

Gorgona Island is a natural wonder with impressive biodiversity that attracts scientists here year-round. Humpback whales come annually to breed offshore, swirls of seabirds circle overhead and nest on its rocky outcrops, and sea turtles feed on its reefs and lay eggs on its beaches.

Tagging sea turtles

The next day WWF researchers and I are up at dawn to catch and tag sea turtles. We only find one, though, and have to go back out after dinner. Using red light headlamps (white light attracts needlefish, which will leap out of the water and spear you through the eyes) we catch several turtles, placing them in an underwater holding pen overnight.

The next morning, we discover an empty pen, as strong winds during the night had somehow liberated all of our turtles. Such is the nature of fieldwork in a place like this. So far, data from the turtles WWF has tagged show they seem to stay at Gorgona, finding abundant food and refuge here.

Learn more about WWF's work on Gorgona Island.

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