Four years ago, fear erupted in the east coast village of Ortoire after residents learned of an offshore mud volcano that was close to breaking the surface. It never happened and the fear factor subsided after the eruption died down and the waters of the Altantic Ocean eroded the mound.
One hundred years ago, there was a similar, but more spectacular geological phenomenon in the waters off Chatham, Cedros. Villagers reported a mysterious disturbance on October 31, 1911. Fishermen in the area had reported to the police at Erin that an unusual amount of bubbles were seen in the sea and they were afraid to continue fishing in the area. With no explanation as to the cause of the sudden change in sea conditions they dragged their boats onto the nearby Erin beach and waited until conditions at Chatham improved.
Later on the bubbles became larger and rumblings from the sea became so loud that fishermen feared they were in danger. After three days of suspense an island suddenly appeared out of the water. It was the first of its kind, and as the news spread through the village hundreds of curious spectators, newspaper reporters, seismologists, geologists and police and fire officers were on hand to witness the unfolding event.
Among the visitors on site was George A Macready, a geologist from Stanford University, USA, who had arrived in Trinidad a few days before to take up an appointment with General Asphalt Ltd to carry out surveys at Chatham to determine the possibility of finding crude oil. Also on site was police sergeant AFG Wilkey of the Erin Police Station.
Wilkey said at the time a report was made at the police station by fisherman Freddy James of Chatham.
As the drama continued Wilkey got into a fishing boat and headed towards the island to carry out investigations. Taking a flag with him he landed on the island and planted it in the soil, naming it Wilkey Island as he was the first person to land on the mysterious island. Wilkey had barely returned to shore after inspecting the island when a loud explosion was heard. Pandemonium reigned and people were asked to pray. Many knelt on the bare earth with chaplets in hand and prayed to the Virgin Mary to have the eruption subsided. A priest was called to join the prayers but by the time he arrived the smoke had become a raging fire.
Historians record that flames from the volcano lit up the sky, reaching a height of between 500 and 1000 feet. Chatham and its environs were illuminated, and the flare was visible for miles. With no further explosions the island gradually increased in size from one acre to approximately 8.5 acres.
Visitors from Erin arrived in large numbers on board the coastal steamer SS Kennet which was tied up at Erin Bay during the drama. The visitors were not allowed to land on the island but were allowed to circle around for short durations. Meanwhile the fire services stood guard on shore to assist visitors who might be affected by the smoke. This went on for two weeks as more and more people flocked to Chatham hoping to collect samples of anything related to the island.
After three weeks it quietly melted into the bosom of the ocean. In a report submitted by Macready he stated "The gas coming from the formation was definitely petroleum gas."
But there was more to come as some people had predicted. Fifty years later in 1961, what remained of Wilkey Island caused a near accident which could have been disastrous. A 600 tonne boat called the Sea Search was conducting seismic surveys in the same area where the island had emerged. The officer in charge had miscalculated the depth of the water in which the boat was travelling. When the captain realised the boat was in danger he ordered an immediate halt, the boat shuddered to a stop. It had struck the island. One officer fell backwards down the gangway, broke his arm and had to be taken to Moruga and then to the hospital in Pointe-a-Pierre. The captain used his skill and extricated the boat from the island. Little damage was reported.
Wilkey Island again appeared in 1928, 1964 and 2001. In 1964 it had moved from the last location and was located one and half miles from the Chatham coastline where it rose to a height of 25 feet above sea level. Two days later it disappeared again. But before its disappearance spectators had already collected samples from the crater that looked like silver. Some of it was sold to unsuspecting collectors of mineral and rocks.
Curtis Archie, President of the Geological Society of Trinidad and Tobago said there is no fixed time for mud volcanoes to appear.
There are many factors governing the behaviour of these events. He said these underwater mud volcanoes have several means of formation. Usually they are due to pressure building up underground due to rising natural gas, water and mud.
Eventually it will be expelled to form a cone if on land and an island if in the sea. He said fisherfolk in the certain parts of Trinidad should always exercise caution when fishing in areas previously affected by underwater volcanoes. The shiny minerals usually collected after these eruptions has no real value, commonly it is called "fool's gold" or pyrite.