Krakatau Journal: An island paradise that can kill you (part 2)

In the past few years, Anak has been back in the spotlight-quite literally. German and Indonesian volcanologists rigged the island in 2005 with three remote monitoring stations, each capturing a dizzying array of data-meteorological, chemical, seismic-that are recorded 24/7. The raw numbers have been broadcasted online in real-time, including a video feed.

And in 2003, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, a trade book on the 1883 eruption, with a chapter devoted to Anak Krakatau, became a New York Times bestseller. Such attention is a testament of the singular importance of Anak to the scientific community, given that “new islands”, while rare, appear (and disappear) with some regularity. Anak Krakatau itself only became a permanent island after three previous forays during 1927-1930.

Back at Anak, the sun is about to set. Tukirin eyes the summit wistfully. “Why not,” he exclaims. “Let’s go.” (A longstanding government directive warns tourists not to go anywhere near the active cone.)

As he climbs nimbly towards the top, his feet floating above the crumbly soil, he recounts one particularly close call here on Anak, back in the 1990s, when he got caught during an eruption. “Big stones were falling all around me, whoosh! Whoosh!” he says. At this point in the story, he pauses and points to an old monitoring station nearby crushed by lava bombs the size of basketballs. “I thought I was going to die.”

At dusk, he almost reaches the crater ridge (which he claims has grown 100 metres since his visit last October), only turning back because he didn’t have a gas mask. Never mind the scorching ground. Even in this desolate landscape, which resembles the surface of the Moon, he notices a rousing sight on the way down: a single pioneering shrub clinging bravely to life, its purple flowers in full bloom.


Anak Krakatau can be reached in a full day of travel. From Jakarta airport, it’s a 3-hour taxi ride ($60) to Carita, a sleepy village right on the Sundra Strait. Be warned, this an Indonesian sea resort for Indonesians, with no Internet cafes or Western bars or much of anything going on. Then it’s a 1-hour speedboat ride ($200 roundtrip), or you can go with one of the dozens of travel agencies that can arrange all the logistics.

For even more out-of-the-way “new” islands, see some travel options below. They range from extremely difficult to damn-near-impossible to get to.

Warming Island, Greenland

  • Discovered in 2005 by US explorer Dennis Schmitt
  • Formerly believed to be a peninsula, retreating ice revealed an island 644 kilometers north of the Arctic circle
  • Focus of a 2007 documentary by Utah film-maker Eric Ristau, and of arguments by a climate sceptic who points to a map in a 1957 book as evidence that this isn’t a “new” island created by global warming.

Surtsey Island, Iceland

  • Formed by volcanic eruption from 1963 to 1967
  • Contains 60 species of vascular plants, 24 fungi, 89 birds, and 335 invertebrates
  • Unlike at Anak Krakatau, no tourism has ever been allowed here
  • Became a World Heritage site in July 2008

Fukotoku Okanaba Island, Japan

  • Formed by a volcanic eruption in 1986
  • Grew to roughly 20 hectares near Iwo Jima, but sank beneath the surface of the ocean after 3 months

Tuluman Island, Papua New Guinea

  • Formed by eruptions starting in 1953
  • 45% of Tuluman’s flora is shared by Anak Krakatau; fruit bats, crocodiles and monitor lizards have also been seen here
  • Tuluman is often cited by creationists as an example of land that hasn’t taken as long as evolutionists would propse to “look old”

Metis Shoal, Tonga

  • Formed by a volcanic eruption in 1995
  • Grew to 50 meters in one month of eruptions
  • Like Anak Krakatau and others, the island seems to have formed in place of earlier ephemeral islands that stood on the same spot, going back to 1851

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.