The day after Hurricane Earl hit Cayo Santiago, 7:00 a.m.
On the way to the island, a co-worker said that today will be extra hot and humid. She explained that the hurricane’s vortex will bring the clouds over Puerto Rico to other places in its northerly march, leaving the skies a naked blue. “The sun will be punishing and the moisture will be left hanging in the air, which makes fieldwork today quite suffocating,” she said in a matter of fact tone. Trying to see the situation as half-full instead of half-empty, I whispered to myself: “So, I guess this will be a great steam bath for me. Not a single cent spent for a sauna.”
The lancha touched ground and we hurriedly disembarked to check on the monkeys. On our way, following the gravel path that lined the island, I noticed that not much evidence was there of a category 4 hurricane passing by. The most noticeable of Hurricane Earl‘s aftermath were the green leaves carpeting the ground and a few branches ripped off from the trees. Pools of water also formed where juvenile monkeys swam (i.e, they climb to the branches, about 3 meters high, then jump, feet first, to the water). One of the makeshift stations too had an upturned zinc roof. But more importantly, the group of monkeys I am with were all accounted for and safe.
I did imagine worse things happening to the monkeys. The hurricane sent us into a tedious preparation of storing water, canned goods, matches, and candles. In my place at least, I heard the wind turn our building into a giant reed pipe–a grating howl and screech followed by a momentary silence, then a second, third, blast of wind. It sounded like a crazy conductor was experimenting somewhere on an orchestra of the best of nature’s noise. The raindrops too were like bullets on the fiberglass window. The wind must have been strong because I was seeing the rain going sideways instead of downward. The 24-hour blackout added to the suspense–somehow a combination of wind, rain, and a lightning bolt smashed a nearby utility post. In spite of this however, a few hours after Earl’s tail left, surfers started to troop to the beaches and rode on 8-foot waves.
Instead of death and destruction on the island, what we saw however was very encouraging: two infants, about a day or two old, awkwardly grasping on to their mother’s belly. They were the first batch of infants of the 2010 birth season. The female macaques gave birth in the middle of the hurricane, an event which long-time workers on the island had predicted (i.e., they said that monkeys usually give birth after a heavy downpour). One infant wore an olive coat that turns saffron when the sun’s rays illuminate its individual hairs. The other infant was still a bit wet, probably from the amniotic fluid. Its coat is a sticky matte with a shine that could rival Elvis Presley‘s pomaded hair.
That the monkeys survived Hurricane Earl impressed me. It got me thinking whether the monkeys were able to acquire a behavioral adaptation to hurricanes. Considering that the colony had been in existence for more than 70 years and hurricanes (and tropical storms) are a constant in Puerto Rico for certain months, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the Cayo monkeys have learned to “deal” with the inconveniences of 70-110 miles per hour winds.