Krakatau Journal: An island paradise that can kill you

In 1883, a volcano off the coast of Indonesia erupted, setting off a mega-tsunami that killed some 36,000 nearby villagers almost instantly. But halfway around the world, in places like western Africa and the UK, subtle changes were noticed. The skies turned an ominous red (see the famous Scream portrait, supposedly inspired by this eruption). The tides became erratic. People thought it was the end of the world.

What actually transpired was the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. Krakatau (popularized in the West as “Krakatoa” by the British colonialists) had left its mark in the history books.

I’ve come to the epicenter of the disaster zone 125 years later. The original Krakatau had blown itself to pieces in 1883, leaving behind three crescent-shaped island remnants. But in the middle of the underwater caldera that has formed is a curious new sight: an island that appeared out of the sea before our very eyes.

Anak Krakatau–literally “Son of Krakatau” in Indonesian–is a reincarnation of the original Krakatau volcano. Since the son’s fitful birth in 1930, this faraway piece of rock, sandwiched in the strait between Java and Sumatra, has earned a reputation among academics as an ideal laboratory for observing how life begins, endures, and sometimes perishes in an island ecosystem.

During its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, research conducted here on the 400 plant, 50 butterfly, 30 bird, 17 bat, and 9 reptile species, among other animals, came to define much of what we know about island biogeography and ecological dynamics.

Eruptions throughout November-the most violent in over a decade-recaptured the world’s attention, with news of 3-kilometer-high ash fumes, showers of lava bombs, and blasts that rattled the windows of houses on the shores of western Java, some 40 kilometers away. Anak has remained active ever since, with eruptions this January, April, June, and July.

On this bright day, my tour guide is Tukirin Partomihardjo, a wiry botanist sporting at once a collared shirt and a machete. We wade onto the black-sand beach of Anak. The 56-year-old “King of Krakatau” has arrived.

It’s hard to take a step here, even on the beach, without crushing some sort of life. Just moments after arrival, Tukirin, who works for the Indonesian Academy of Sciences at Bogor Herbarium, points out blue-ish ghost crabs, armies of tiny ants, fast-multiplying casuarinas seedlings, and even one coconut that has sprouted an impressive-looking stem. These are some of the early colonizers of Anak, and each day they continue to launch amphibious attacks on the island.

“There is a constant struggle here,” says Tukirin, referring to the battle between these pioneering species and the elements. One of his on-going projects seeks to explain the degree of success in colonization by examining the diversity of the beach seedbank. This afternoon alone, he finds some 30 different seed species of varying descriptions: green cactus-like, flat and pea-shaped, walnut-shaped (he easily rattles off their obscure scientific names).

But it’s not just about quantity. He holds up a dark, oblong mangrove seed and shakes his head. “This can’t survive here.”

Later this afternoon, he heads into the modest jungle, a panopoly of dominant casuarinas, waist-high grasses, ferns, and emergent fig trees that reach 30 metres. Parts of the rainforest sport bald spots where lava has completely wiped out the vegetation.

Today, for instance, Tukirin is surveying the damage of the November blasts. “Many trees have died,” he says, blaming the ash that has buried much of the understory. “But this place will recover.”

Tukirin, as it happens, is the world’s leading expert on Anak Krakatau (hence the nickname), first hearing about and visiting the place in 1981 during a training seminar. Since then, he’s been back to the island some 30 plus times, leading almost all foreign expeditions there.

It’s quite remarkable how far he has come. He grew up on a rural farm to parents who didn’t make it through elementary school and became the first in a family of 9 siblings to earn a Ph.D. His dissertation was, of course, on Krakatau. “Even with very difficult conditions, my parents felt I needed education,” he says. “They encouraged me to study hard.”
In part 2 tomorrow, we try to climb the active summit, and stumble.