This is a photographic impression of my trip to Isla Robinson Crusoe in November 1999.

If you want a copy of these pictures, email me (see end of page)

Some personal notes in Dutch may be found here.

Isla Robinson Crusoe is one of the two large islands in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. It is located about 670 km west of Valparaiso and is part of Chile. It is a lonely place with a highly interesting flora and fauna - relatively few species, but many of these are unique (endemic, occurring only there). They have slowly evolved from accidental arrivals from elsewhere (New Zealand, South America, Oceania) since the island rose out of the ocean millions of years ago. Iit is not active anymore but it used to be a volcano. This type of flora and fauna is typical for remote oceanic islands.
The climate is meditteranean, with the western half of the island arid and the eastern part, with the highest elevations catching a lot of rain, humid in places, which has allowed a native forest to develop.
Apart from pirates and a few marooned sailors (see below), nobody lived here until the Spanish turned the island into a prison for freedom fighters during the Chilean Independence war (1810s). Only during the course of the 1800s a regular civil population evolved.
View upon arriving - after flying 700 km over the Pacific in a six seater plane. Lassa flies from Tobalaba aerodrome, Santiago - you can also take TAIRC. Flights there (and back) are frequently postponed because of adverse weather conditions, both for the plane and the connecting boat to the village. Passengers and luggage are weighed and then distributed over the plane, which may seem slightly odd if you're used to international jet aircraft. Upon arriving you are directly confronted with silence and solitude. aerial view - robinson crusoe island

cru01 - vliegveld.jpg (25122 bytes)

robinson crusoe island airstrip with poppies

 

The airstrip at the arid western tip of the island. From here it's either a 4h trek on foot or a 1.5 h trip around the island by boat.

 

defilippi's petrel -  pterodroma defilippiana

 

 

 

 

defilippi's petrel -  pterodroma defilippiana

DeFilippi's petrels (Pterodroma defilippiana) come to check out what's going on - they breed on Crusoe's cliffs, especially around the western tip. They're curious and come to take a look when you walk past their nesting cliffs. This species was split off (in a scientific sense) from Cooks Petrel recently, after being regarded as a subspecies for many years. The taxonomy of these birds is a nightmare since they often only breed on a couple of remote islands and breeding populations tend to vary genetically, making the definition of a species very tricky.

robinson crusoe island coastline During the boat trip around the island's northern shores, there are great views of the precipitous cliffs that make up most of Crusoe's coastline. There seems to be a beach somewhere, but it's only accessible via a very steep path.
View of Cerro Alto, the second highest mountain on the island, and Puerto Ingles (left) where Alexander Selkirk lived during part of his stay between 1704 and 1709: to the far lower left, there's a cave where he presumably lived during the first months of his stay, although sources disagree - he apparently moved inland to get away from the howling fur seals on the coast. Selkirk, a Scotsman form Largo, was a sailor who was marooned by the Cinque Ports, a privateering ship sent out by the English government to attack Spanish gallions carrying valuables across the Pacific from or to Lima. The captain of the ship, Thomas Stradling (in the privateering expedition of William Dampier), apparently didn't like Selkirk and vice versa, so Selkirk was left in October 1704 on Crusoe. He made a living by eating goats (left behind by previous visitors) and plants native to the island. Rats, also from earlier visits by sailors/pirates, gnawed at his feet but he trained cats (also introduced) to keep them away. Every day, he walked up to a saddle point, now known as Mirador de Selkirk, to check for passing ships. He was almost captured by the Spanish and nearly died when he fell of a cliff in hot pursuit of a goat, but he survived and was finally rescued by the Duke (captain Woodes Rogers) and taken back to Scotland. Here he got married but had a bit of a hard time adapting to a regular life. He couldn't resist going on another ship later, and he died at sea near West Africa.
Selkirk was the model for Robinson Crusoe.

Isla Robinson Crusoe used to be called Mas Tierra (Closer to Land, as opposed to Mas Afuera or Further Out, the other main island in the group). The population decided the island needed a somewhat more imaginative name, so it was renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe, making it probably the only place in the world named after a fictitional character. The other island, Mas Afuera, was renamed Isla Alejandro Selkirk after the sailor, although he never set foot there. He must have seen it though, since it is visible on clear days from Mirador de Selkirk, the fabulous lookout point where Selkirk went on a daily basis to look for ships that might rescue him (see below).
See also Diana Souhami, Selkirk's Island (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2001) or any of these links:
http://www.ini.unizh.ch/~tobi/alex/alex.html
http://wy.essortment.com/alexanderselkir_rehj.htm
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml

robinson crusoe island - puerto ingles
robinson crusoe island - san juan bautista - bahia cumberland San Juan Bautista, the only village on the island (population about 550). The main source of income is lobster (crayfish) fishing. Since there's no doctor on the island, children are usually born on the mainland - I traveled back with a new citizen of IRC when I went over there. There's four churches, one is mormon who seem to be particularly active there; there was a missionary on my flight.
To the back, center, Cerro El Yunque, the highest mountain on the island (915 m).

View from Cumberland Bay.

A juvenile Black-Browed Albatross (Diomedea melanophris) taking off in Cumberland Bay. robinson crusoe island - diomedea exulans

robinson crusoe island - hosteria el pangal

After arriving in San Juan Bautista, I was picked up by a tiny Zodiac and transported to Hosteria Pangal, the only settlement outside the village - across the bay. You can also walk there (1h). This is a pretty strange place. During my four day stay I didn't see anybody except for some cursory contacts with people who appeared to work at or around the place. Delicious food was served every night but it seemed to come out of nowhere. I was ferried across the bay by a very nice chap called Arturo who appeared to be the manager, but he turned out to be a blasting expert who was widening the path to Pangal into a 4WD road. He simply operated the Zodiac whenever he felt like it. He turned out to be great company during my stay, and we'd sit and talk about Chile while chomping on some lobster.

Bahia Cumberland was the scene of the sinking of the vessel Dresden during WW1. In 1915, the Germans sent out ships to allied outposts in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, leading to several naval battles and skirmishes around very remote islands - a very interesting piece of history for nesomaniacs (island lovers). Dresden got caught in Cumberland Bay March 14, 1915 by British vessels Kent and Glasgow and was sank there shortly afterwards with most of the crew on it. A survivor, Hugo Weber, lived at Plazoleta El Yunque, a small valley below the main mountain, for many years. Many of the Dresden crew are buried in the local sailors' cemetery. A shell from the Dresden may be seen in the cliffside near the cemetery - it didn't explode and is still in the place where it hit the cliff. Another one is proudly displayed on a flight of stairs in El Pangal - but nobody could tell me if it has been defused.

Coprosma oliveri (?), an endemic plant. About 62% of vascular plants are endemic to the island which is the highest percentage anywhere in the world per square km. The island, its tiny neighbour Santa Clara and Isla Alejandro Selkirk, about 170 km to the west, are Unesco biosphere reservations. robinson crusoe island - myrceugenia fernandeziana - luma
robinson crusoe island  - native forest Native forest, moderate altitude. The western part of the island is arid steppe, whereas the eastern part (especially the fork in the Y that is the basic shape of the island) consists of relatively high mountains, up to 915 m (Cerro El Yunque). These catch a lot of rain, as may be expected for a small oceanic island of this height. This has allowed a unique forest to develop. Crusoe, with its dramatic mountains, has a somewhat meditteranean climate, being outside the tropics, characterized by mild temperatures, sudden gusts of wind and moderately large amounts of rain, especially around the peaks.

This picture was taken in the Reserva Stricta, normally not accessible but I was lucky enough to be able to join an engineer who was exploring a site for a possible tunnel to make a road from the airfield - the government wants to make sure that minimal damage is done. Daniel Paredes, a local guide, let me tag along into this unspoilt sector of the forest.

CONAF, the Chilean forestry service, has set up a nursery on the island to propagate endemic plants and rehabilitate the native forest. Although it's not officially open for visitors, do try to arrange a visit if you're there - it has great examples of some very rare plants, some of which only grow on Cerro Alto or Cerro el Yunque. You'll have to be an experienced mountaineer or a local boy to get to their summits. In the CONAF plant nursery, you can also see why it's necessary to cultivate these plants and trees: some of the large seed beds only show one or two seedlings, the rest simply doesn't germinate. Plants have become very lazy in this place. They're no match for continental introduced species.
The nursery is also a place to see the native humingbirds (see below).

View of the native forest from Mirador de Selkirk. The moderate altitudes are covered by the typical Crusoe forest, whereas the highest (and steepest) ridges are more rocky and barren. However, they support a unique vegetation. Part of Crusoes vegetation may be traced back to parent species on the South American mainland, other elements come from such faraway places as Polynesia and New Zealand.

At lower altitudes, two invasive plants from the mainland, Zarzamora/bramble, Rubus ulmifolius and Maqui, Aristotelia chilensis, used to make lobster traps, have replaced much of the original forest. The germination and growth rate of endemic plants has decreased considerably during their evolution, sometimes to incredible levels, because grazers do not exist and competition was low until humans introduced other species. Continental plants, which are normally much more competitive, take over easily. It's depressing to see the monoculture of Aristotelia spread over large areas. Further up the ridges, these two are relatively uncompetitive, but another invader, Ugni molinae, thrives here, threatening much of the original high altitude vegetation. The dissemination of bramble seeds by birds into unspoilt areas is especially a threat to the original vegetation.
Other introduced species include the less invasive eucalyptus trees, but the endemic hummingbirds (see below) seem to like them a lot, as well as the gardens in the village so these serve some purpose.

see http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/nt/nt0401_full.html for a very good explanation of native flora.

robinson crusoe island - native forest
robinson crusoe island - view from el pangal View from my room at Pangal hosteria across Bahia Cumberland - San Juan Bautista to the left.
A fern, which name escapes me for the moment (it's either Thyrsopteris elegans or Dicksonia berteroana). These tree ferns are very decorative and are found in the higher, moist parts of the island. robinson crusoe island - thyrsopteris elegans or dicksonia berteroana
robinson crusoe island - chileense grote pijlstormvogel - pinkfooted shearwater - puffinus creatopus Pinkfooted shearwater - Puffinus creatopus, a sea bird typical for this part of the Pacific. The pink-footed shearwater breeds only on Crusoe and Mocha (a large coastal island near Chile).
Ochagavia elegans - a bromeliad from the high mountain ridges, here in a cozy concrete container in the CONAF plant nursery, dedicated to rearing local plants. The island has only two bromeliad species but they're both endemic (see below for the other). robinson crusoe island  - ochagavia elegans

robinson crusoe island - sephanoides fernandensis female

robinson crusoe island - sephanoides fernandensis male

robinson crusoe island - sephanoides fernandensis

robinson crusoe island - sephanoides fernandensis on sophora
The famous Crusoe hummingbird, the Juan Fernandez Firecrown (Sephanoides fernandensis), probably extinct on Selkirk so a true endemic to Crusoe. The males are twice as big and completely different in plumage from the females - the most extreme form of sexual dimorphism in any hummingbird. Males are brick red with a golden crown (hard to see unless the light is at the right angle), females metallic green on the back and with green spots on the lower white parts. The population is estimated at a few 100 to 600 birds making it the rarest hummingbird. They are not really shy, you can get pretty close to them. This is not really an example of tame, but rather of ecologically naive as it's called - they've forgotten how to be afraid because no predators existed on the island. When I was in the forest, a female Sephanoides came to sit about 2 m away from me and promptly fell asleep.
They thrive on imported plants such as Eucalyptus trees and gardens in the village, where half of the population hangs out during the winter months. They have a distinctive, loud call consisting of a series of very fast whistling tones, descending in tone.
Nowadays they are under threat from introduced rats and the Greenbacked Firecrown, Sephanoides sephanoides (below right) which also occurs in continental Chile. It is closely related and may actually be the parent species of the JF firecrown. It is not clear how they compete, if at all, but numbers of the JF firecrown are falling whereas the continental species is on the rise. Conservation efforts seem to reverse the trend.
robinson crusoe island - sephanoides fernandensis male

 

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robinson crusoe island - sephanoides sephanoides

The other hummingbird on the island, the Greenbacked Firecrown (Sephanoides sephanoides)

Dendroseris pruinata. Taken in the CONAF nursery. It is very rare, most of the other plants survive on a rock off Crusoe called Morro Spartan.

There are some interesting genera of Compositae (family Asteraceae) which have diversified into a number of unusual and sometimes giant endemics - notably Dendroseris and Robinsonia. Many of them are large, cabbage-like plants with unusual wooden stems. They're often the size of small trees.

To the back a flowering Sophora fernandeziana bush.

The island also features an endemic family with one species : Lactoris fernandeziana. This plant is known from fossils from the Tertiary period when it was widespread on earth. It only survives on Crusoe, making it a living fossil. It is a primitive plant, one of the earliest angiosperms (flowering plants) and as such of considerable interest to biologists.

Someone explained to me where to see one, but I unfortunately never found the bloody thing.

robinson crusoe island - dendroseris pruinata
robinson crusoe island - tree on a tree A tree growing on a tree, along the path to the Mirador de Selkirk.

robinson crusoe island - Falco sparverius fernandensis - cernicalo

robinson crusoe island - anairetes fernandezianus - Juan Fernandez tit-tyrant - Cachudito de Juan Fernandez
The two other endemic land birds: left, the endemic subspecies of the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius fernandensis) locally known as Cernicalo, and right the Cachudito de Juan Fernandez aka Juan Fernandez tit-tyrant, Anairetes fernandezianus
robinson crusoe island - new ferns from cerro agudo

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to CONAF, these ferns, new to science, had been collected on Cerro Alto by a French expedition (Philippe Danton et al. probably) and were awaiting naming (1998)

robinson crusoe island - greigia berteroi

Greigia berteroi, the other endemic bromeliad. Apparently only a few plants have ever been found, on El Yunque. This one was shot in the CONAF nursery.

robinson crusoe island - sophora fernandeziana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flowering Sophora fernandeziana, the only endemic legume on the island. It forms large bushes with stunning yellow flowers. The plant is pollinated by both species of hummingbirds. The large Sophora in the CONAF nursery is an excellent spot to see them.

robinson crusoe island - yunquea tenzii

Yunquea tenzii, apparently related to tobacco. It is only found on the top of Cerro El Yunque. And this one in a pot in the CONAF plot.

robinson crusoe island - gunnera bracteata - giant rhubarb

Juan Fernandez Gunnera or Giant rhubarb, Gunnera peltata. The leaves can be over 2 m in diameter. There's another, smaller species on the island called Gunnera bracteata. They are closely related to the continental species in Chile (Gunnera chilensis).

Canelo (Drimys confertifolia) 

robinson crusoe island - fagara mayu - naranjillo
robinson crusoe island - forest Climbing ferns in the forest - Arthropteris altescandens
Another view of the native forest. robinson crusoe island - the forest

NEXT PAGE

 

CONAF, the Chilean forestry service, has put up an excellent website about the Juan Fernandez islands and their flora (use buttons towards the top). In Spanish, with lots of pictures. If the navigation on this site fails, please use this one which contains the same links, but now working

See also http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/nt/nt0401_full.html for a good explanation about the biology of this unique island.

See http://www.tela-botanica.org/actu/article.php3?id_article=171 for a very good report of a recent expedition (in French)

all images copyright Willem Schipper - email me if you want a high-resolution copy

 

 

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