By Arlington James

It is a fact that one can cook an egg in the Boiling Lake… that is, when it is boiling with temperatures of 92.5o C at the edges. But alas, Dominica’s hottest natural wonder, the world’s second largest Boiling Lake, occasionally fails to live up to expectation … and its name. In January 1900, in 1971, and recently in April and May 1988, the Lake was in one of its unusual states.

Located at 2,500 ft above sea level, and over some difficult terrain, the Boiling Lake has become an important natural attraction in Dominica.

But tourists and local hikers are sometimes disappointed to find the Boiling Lake with no steam, at extremely low levels, and worse yet, “bone dry”. Photographs taken of the lake in January 1900 showed the lake completely dry at the time. In 1972, student hikers from the Dominica Grammar School, as well as some villagers from Laudat, reportedly bathed in the Boiling Lake, whose levels and temperatures had dropped.

On Sunday April 17, 1988, Forest Guard Ronnie W.K., my basketball colleague Martin D. and myself trekked up to the Boiling Lake, following a report received two days earlier that the Boiling Lake had dried up.

We arrived at 11:40 a.m. in excellent shape, and we were all stunned by the sight which greeted us. The water level in the Boiling Lake was several feet below the U-shaped outlet, and there was no steam coming from the water. A yellowish ring at the same level as the bottom of the outlet and circling the Lake appeared to be light deposits of sulphur. Rocks stuck out rather precariously from the near vertical sides of the lake, and these were coloured brown, yellow and reddish brown.

The lake was bubbling timidly closer to the outlet, and the air did not even feel warm when the wind blew across our faces. A small cascade and a stream at 22o C continued to provide a regular supply of water to the lake, which had now assumed a light grey to creamish appearance.

After photographing the lake from the moss-covered ledge above, it was time to get closer. On my way down, passing through the stream, I recalled that Laudat villagers always warned that if one arrives at the Boiling Lake to find it not boiling, then one should immediately turn back. I had with me, copies of photographs of the lake taken in 1900 which Lennox Honychrch had graciously lent me. The aged annotated photos showed the Boiling Lake “empty” at 11:00 a.m., “beginning to fill” by 11:30, simmering at 11:45, and boiling at 12:15 p.m.!

On April 17, 1988, however, the lake was not “empty” or “dried up” as we had been told. But were we playing with fire by going down into this cauldron?

Martin and I took turns estimating the drop in the water level, and we finally agreed that is was between 25 and 30 feet. Ronnie was on his way down to meet us when the drone of a jet, flying several thousand feet above, cut through the otherwise still air. Martin’s expression changed as though he was being chased by some ferocious animal. He looked at the bubbling lake and then scurried up the steep pile of gravel and silt which had been pushed into the lake over the years. He “kicked dust” in the mud, then uttered, “The Boiling Lake that doing that nuh, boy?” The question evoked quite a bit of laughter from me, of course.

We were later back on the thick grey mud that coated the northern part of the lake bottom. The water from the stream and the cascade had cut through the silt to reveal several layers of coarse sand. We also noted a coating of red, yellow and green exudate on the silt near some rocks.

As we spoke, a lone butterfly fluttered past as we gazed in amazement. How ironic, I thought!

We then wrote our names and the date on the mud “for the records”, before heading up the stream. None of us had touched the water of the Boiling Lake.

I returned to the Boiling Lake two days later (April 19), this time with a primary school teacher, who was doing a school project on environmental features of Dominica.

This time, things were different. Firstly, the lake had assumed a dark grey colour, and was boiling “at full steam”. This was reassuring, as we had noticed the vapour in the distance from the summit of Morne Nichols. The scent of rotting cabbage normally associated with the lake was now quite evident.

The mud had cracked further, more sand and mud had caved into the lake, and the water level had risen slightly and dropped again due to light rains the day before. We could see steam coming from some small cracks in the mud and between the boulders as we ventured down the gravel slope.

A little later we were joined by a national park worker who had seen the lake the preceding Thursday. Based on what he remembered, it would appear that the lake had dropped about 8ft between April 14 and 17. Then using an Abney Level and a measuring tape we measured the drop from the normal lake level to the bottom of the gravel mound, and then made an estimate of the height of where we stood to the water level. 21ft plus 8ft! Yes, the Boiling Lake had dropped at least 29ft from the outlet. The park worker informed me that the lake had appeared to be quite normal on the Monday before. Another round of photos and notes were taken before we headed out.

Still curious about the conditions of the Boiling Lake, I paid yet another visit, this time with an American journalist, on Sunday May 8. We left the car at 8:01 in the morning, and arrived at the lake at 2 minutes past noon. I shook my head in disbelief. This time the lake was bubbling more timidly than on April 17. The level had risen by an estimated 12ft, and the water was now a pale grey to white…. And there was no steam again. It had rained as the stream (ravine) had flown over the mound and washed away much of the gravel and silt into the lake. The lake was now bubbling around the edges, and my curiosity was aroused even further. Was the water at least a bit warm, or had it cooled off. I cautiously jumped down to water’s edge on some of the exposed boulders and dipped an index finger into the bubbles. It felt cool, probably 27o C, but certainly not 30o C. To be doubly sure, I moved a bit to the side and put my entire right hand into another bubbling area. No change!

Some tourists from St. Lucia sat on the ledge above and were joking about the lake which should have been boiling.

The Boiling Lake needs to be monitored. In 1900, the lake went empty, and in 1902 Mount Pélé erupted in Martinique. In 1971, the lake went low and cold; five years later La Soufriere in Guadeloupe had a mild eruption.  In April and May 1988, the lake again went low and cold, then back to boiling, later returning to a cold state.  On May 21, flying over the area in a small aircraft, we could see the thick cloud of steam and other gases coming from the Boiling Lake which apparently was boiling again at full throttle.

I am not attempting to connect these activities with volcanic activities in the neighbouring islands, neither would I associate the low levels this year with the dry season (which was no where as severe as 1987). Finally, it would seem that the lake has the natural ability to fill up suddenly from water coming or rushing up from some underground source… Hence the need to take precautions when the lake is “cooling out”