The mystery of Penal’s floating volcano

Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, Carmelo Urdaneta, Carmelo Urdaneta


rad­hi­ [email protected]

Peo­ple nor­mal­ly see vol­ca­noes as ter­ri­fy­ing forces of na­ture, un­pre­dictable and ex­plo­sive which can wreak dis­as­ter on hu­mans and prop­er­ties.

Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui

But in Pe­nal, on top of the hills of Bun­see Trace, the L`Eau Michel vol­cano bub­bles qui­et­ly, of­fer­ing a cool float­ing sen­sa­tion for those who ven­ture in­to its main pool.

Carmelo Urdaneta

The vol­cano draws hun­dreds of peo­ple there on a week­ly ba­sis. On a Des­ti­na­tion T&T page, a pri­vate web­site, the L`Eau Michel ex­pe­ri­ence is be­ing ad­ver­tised for US$130 per tour. The Pe­nal/Debe Re­gion­al Cor­po­ra­tion and Min­istry of Tourism do not get a cent from this nat­ur­al won­der even though mil­lions of dol­lars were spent to build tourist fa­cil­i­ties at the site in 2013. Car­rat sheds were built near the vol­ca­noes, along with con­crete bench­es and chul­has (clay stoves)

The jour­ney to the vol­cano is not for the faint of heart. You have to tra­verse a bumpy mud­dy track lined with flow­er­ing plants, which snakes through pic­turesque teak fields to get there. If you choose to go on a rainy day, you may get more ad­ven­ture than you bar­gained for

Farmer Raithraj Sook­nanan said light ve­hi­cles of­ten skid off the mud­dy track and vil­lagers help to res­cue them

“Some­times peo­ple get a pull out with the trac­tors. When rain falls it is dif­fi­cult to get to the vol­ca­noes if you are dri­ving a car,” he said. Sook­nanan said the vol­ca­noes re­mained un­known for many years un­til it be­came a tourist at­trac­tion. Apart from the vol­ca­noes, the ge­ol­o­gy and rock for­ma­tions in the forests are di­verse. The colour and tex­ture of the soil al­so vary

On the edge of Bun­see Trace vil­lage, fields of cas­sa­va grow on soil which lo­cals call “sap­atay clay” (a sticky kind of yel­low­ish dirt).

Fur­ther down the soil is red­dish in colour and does not yield many crops. “We call this dead soil be­cause you can­not plant here. The best soil is in the forests where the vol­ca­noes are,” Sook­nanan ex­plained. On evenings bands of red howler mon­keys come to play on the trees near the vol­cano. He not­ed that the lux­u­ri­ous mud bath is an in­ter­na­tion­al at­trac­tion

“On week­ends peo­ple come from all over to see the vol­ca­noes. Many peo­ple come and take a dip in the mud. It feels good on your skin. Peo­ple say it cleans your skin,” he added

When Guardian Me­dia vis­it­ed the area, bags of lit­ter were strewn around the site. Sook­nanan, who owns a camp near the vol­cano, said it was not un­com­mon for peo­ple to trek through his fields and steal co­conuts and oth­er pro­duce

“We have no way to pro­tect our crops. Every week peo­ple come here and park their cars and vans all over the hills. It is loud mu­sic they play­ing,” he said

He said some peo­ple take a dip in the vol­cano and then come to his camp to use up his pre­cious sup­ply of wa­ter to bathe off the mud. Those who can­not get wa­ter from the camp make the 20-minute trek down­hill to get to the Lam­oshell Beach at Pa­pelon Point

Chair­man of the Pe­nal/Debe Re­gion­al Cor­po­ra­tion Dr Allen Sam­my said the vol­ca­noes are lo­cat­ed in a For­est Re­serve and are main­tained by the Forestry Di­vi­sion

Asked whether the cor­po­ra­tion planned to take charge of the fa­cil­i­ty and or­gan­ise pro­fes­sion­al paid tours, Sam­my said no

“We can­not do that be­cause it is not un­der our ju­ris­dic­tion even though we are mind­ful of the tourism po­ten­tial,” Sam­my said. He not­ed that since 2010, two pro­pos­als were giv­en to the Min­istry of Tourism ask­ing for the fa­cil­i­ty to be giv­en to the cor­po­ra­tion for man­age­ment

“Our pro­pos­al was a com­mu­ni­ty type sus­tained tourism de­vel­op­ment thrust but it has not ma­te­ri­alised in spite of the fact that let­ters went in since 2010. We are hop­ing to re­vive the ef­fort to have it in­to our ju­ris­dic­tion. It should earn an in­come so the site will be main­tained. The res­i­dents should be the ben­e­fi­cia­ries,” Sam­my added

He said the vol­cano and the beach­front should be de­vel­oped for tourism, and that the cor­po­ra­tion was keen to have the sites brought un­der its con­trol

The mys­tery

What’s the mys­tery of the vol­cano’s float­ing sen­sa­tion?

The key fac­tor that draws hun­dreds of peo­ple back in­to the vol­canic pool is the sen­sa­tion of warm mud and gas push­ing up­wards. So what ex­act­ly caus­es this cool float­ing sen­sa­tion?

Se­nior geo­sci­en­tist at Touch­stone Ex­plo­ration Xavier Moo­nan said the den­si­ty of the mud and the en­trained gas with­in the vol­cano en­ables the float­ing sen­sa­tion

The mud is gen­er­al­ly warm and some­times has a sub­tle tinge of oil. Small ex­pul­sions of gas spray mud in the main pool up­wards a foot or two every 30 sec­onds and adds a bit more ex­cite­ment,” Moo­nan said

He ex­plained that the mud is quite dense so it is dif­fi­cult to ac­tu­al­ly sub­merge com­plete­ly

“This is sim­ply be­cause your body’s den­si­ty is ac­tu­al­ly less than that of the mud. At the same time, you are cau­tioned by the cor­po­ra­tion on jump­ing in­to the mud pool as phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing in the mud from depth will prove much more dif­fi­cult,” Moo­nan said

He said try­ing to swim in the mud ag­i­tates the mud

“As you move around in the mud pool, the gas en­trained in the muds are re­leased, sim­i­lar in con­cept to shak­ing car­bon­at­ed drink, re­leas­ing the trapped gas,” Moo­nan added

The ge­ol­o­gist, who has done ex­ten­sive re­search on T&T’s ge­ol­o­gy, said the vol­cano could be mar­ket­ed as T&T’s pre­miere com­mer­cial mud spa

The Gov­ern­ment could earn valu­able for­eign ex­change from this project,” Moo­nan said. He agreed that the beach al­so had po­ten­tial as the 30-minute trek to Pa­pelon Point on the coast brings more ge­o­log­i­cal won­ders. The beach it­self is very rocky with lots of amaz­ing cliff for­ma­tions

“Stand­ing at Pa­pelon Point you can see rock units along the south coast of Trinidad which were all formed mil­lions of years by de­po­si­tion of sed­i­ment from the Orinoco Riv­er,” Moo­nan said. One of the largest rivers in South Amer­i­ca, the Orinoco emp­ties in­to the At­lantic Ocean, bring­ing with it mys­te­ri­ous seeds, nuts, plants, and even an­i­mals in­to Trinidad‘s coast an­nu­al­ly

He al­so said a fault or a crack in the Earth’s crust can be seen in the trek to­wards Pa­pelon Point

The sur­face ge­ol­o­gy of the area sug­gests that we crossed a fault known as the Cortez thrust,” Moo­nan said, adding that one may no­tice a dras­tic change in the colour of the soils in the area as you cross the fault

Moo­nan said the L’Eau Michel Mud Vol­cano, like most mud vol­ca­noes in Trinidad, oc­curs atop an an­ti-form in an area dis­sect­ed by or­thog­o­nal faults

These par­tic­u­lar faults ap­pear to serve as the pri­ma­ry con­duits for the ex­pul­sion of pres­surised salt wa­ter, mud, and as­so­ci­at­ed hy­dro­car­bons,” he said

“Along this same an­ti­cline, we al­so have the Lan­dorf Mud Vol­cano near the vil­lage of Morne Di­a­blo to the west, the Kara­mat and Rock Dome Mud Vol­ca­noes along the Pe­nal Rock Road to the east and the Marac Mud Vol­cano in La Lune, Moru­ga.”

The won­ders of these vol­ca­noes will be fea­tured by Guardian Me­dia in the com­ing weeks