Situated off the Colombian Pacific coast, the island of Gorgona once hosted a notorious prison. Today, it is a National Natural Park of Colombia, designated to preserve its endemic species, the richly varied tropical forest wildlife, and the offshore coral reefs.
The island of Gorgona is approximately 28 km (17 mi) off Colombia's Pacific coast, part of the country's Insular Region. The island is 9 km (5.6 mi) long and 2.5 km (1.6 mi) wide, with a total area of 26 sq km (10 sq mi). The only permanent population is the staff involved in the administration and preservation of the National Park.
Gorgona is separated from the South American continent by a 270 m (890 ft) deep underwater depression. The terrain of Gorgona is mountainous, with the highest peak, Cerro La Trinidad, at 338 m (1,109 ft). A humid, dense jungle covers the center of the island.
Southwest of Gorgona, there is a much smaller island called Gorgonilla, with an area of 49 ha (121 acres). In the Paso de Tasca area, a strait separates Gorgona and the islet of Gorgonilla, a distance of approximately 400 m (1,300 ft).
Several rock islets are found southwest of Gorgonilla, of which the largest is called "El Viudo" (the Widower). Other rock islets are located at the northern tip of Gorgona called Rocas del Horno (Oven Rocks). They are separated from Gorgona by Bocas de Horno (Oven mouths). These rocks rise almost vertically out of the ocean.
Gorgona is recognized throughout the world for the abundantly rich settings it offers for diving. The oceanographic characteristics of its waters (temperature, salinity and transparency) are conducive to the birth of coral and rocky reefs, shelter and food for a great diversity of species.
Established as a Colombian Natural Natural Park in 1984, Gorgona is often called "Science Island" because of all the research carried out here.
The indigenous Kuna or Cuna of Urabá (Colombia) and San Blas (Panama) have the tradition of being the island's first settlers. They left archaeological remains dating back to 1300 AD.
Spanish conquistadors first visited Gorgona in 1524 when Diego de Almagro discovered it. He named it San Felipe. In 1527, Francisco Pizarro, during his second expedition to Peru, took shelter on the island while awaiting the arrival of provisions and preparing to continue his efforts to conquer Peru.
Pizarro, who considered the island an "inferno," named it Gorgona after losing many of his men to bites from the significant number of snakes that inhabit the island. He compared them to Gorgons, female monsters from Greek mythology.
During the first half of the 20th century, Gorgona mainly remained uninhabited. In 1959, the island was turned into a penal colony. It became a state high-security prison housing Colombia's more violent criminals, generally those convicted of murder and rape.
Gorgona became known as Colombia's Alcatraz Island because it was surrounded by shark-infested waters, presumably making escape impossible. Gorgona functioned as a prison from 1959 until 1984, when scientists, environmentalists and human rights defenders led a campaign to close the prison. The former prison buildings are being reclaimed by the jungle, having now been covered by dense vegetation, but a portion can still be seen.
Map depicting Gorgona Island
Gorgona Natural National Park
The island was established as Gorgona Natural National Park in 1984 to preserve its endemic species, the richly varied wildlife of the tropical forest and the coral reefs offshore. The park covers a total maritime area of 620 sq km (240 sq mi).
Gorgona has a rich hydrographic system that includes many water currents flowing toward the ocean thanks to frequent rains and high humidity. Most of these are located on the eastern side of the island. Around 25 streams remain active all year round, and 75 during the rainy season. There are also two lakes on the island: La Cabrera and Tunapurí.
Gorgona Island has an average temperature of 26 °C (79 °F). With an average of 90% humidity, intense rainfalls and misty days are frequent, with a calculated annual rainfall of approximately 7,000 mm (275 in).
The island's dense tropical rainforest has been isolated for thousands of years from the mainland. It shelters unique species, including the endemic blue anole (Anolis gorgonae). This species is in danger of extinction because of predation from the introduced western basilisk (Basiliscus galeritus), a large species of lizard in the family Corytophanidae.
Gorgona is famous for its snakes. There are three known venomous snakes, including the much-feared Bothrops asper and two species of coral snake: Micrurus dumerili and Micrurus mipartitus.
Several non-venomous snakes are also found here, including the boa constrictor, Ecuador Sipo (Chironius grandisquamis), mussurana (Clelia clelia), blunt head tree snake (Imantodes cenchoa), banded cat-eyed snake (Leptodeira annulata), parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla), Boddaert's tropical racer (Mastigodryas boddaerti), brown vine snake (Oxybelis aeneus), Cope's vine snake (Oxybelis brevirostris), and centipede snake (Tantilla longifrontalis).
Terrestrial mammals include the introduced white-headed capuchin, brown-throated sloth, Gorgona spiny rat and the agouti rodent. Over a dozen species of bats can also be found on the island.
There are few species of terrestrial birds on the island, probably due to many reptile predators. The most common include endemic subspecies of black-crowned antshrike (Thamnophilus atrinucha gorgonae), bananaquit (Coereba flaveola gorgonae) and red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus gigas).
The most common water birds on or near the island are the blue-footed booby, brown pelican and magnificent frigatebird. The brown booby breeding population nesting here is small but is the most critical breeding territory for Sula leucogaster etesiaca worldwide.
The island is well known for the yearly passage of the humpback whale and their newborns from August to October during their southward migration. Also found in the waters surrounding the island are the hammerhead shark, whitetip reef shark, sea turtle, whale shark and moray eel.