El Gamalote…The Floating Island


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Very little surprises us anymore. We’ve gotten used to the weird and bizarre sights in the “land of the not quite right.” However, yesterday morning there was a view so unique that a crowd of local people followed it from Moyogalpa to our beach in La Paloma. They camped out on our beach for the day with picnic baskets full of food, a gigantic camcorder from the 1990’s, and a dozen broken plastic chairs holding sleeping babies.

We woke up to El Gamalote, a floating island, slowly bobbing south from Moyogalpa on top of the gentle waves of Lake Cocibolca.  According to the locals, occasionally during the rainy season, a small island of debris breaks away from the river banks that feed Lake Cocibolca. These floating islands are usually smaller than a basketball court. This morning’s Gamalote appeared, to me, about the size of Rhode Island…Ron says, ” Don’t exaggerate Debbie, it is about the size of two football fields.”  Still, it is mighty big. Big enough to draw a crowd of onlookers.

I wondered from where this floating island originated. Jose, my friendly gardener, told me that grasses and rushes grow along the edges of the rivers.  These rushes and grasses gradually push their way out into deeper waters, leaving a shelf and a mass of decaying vegetable matter on which other mosses and plants gain a foothold. When well established, other water-loving plants, such as water lilies and shrubs grow along with the moss and grasses. Still attached to the banks of the river, a layer of peat forms a foundation, usually less than three feet thick. The mat becomes firm and eventually small trees will grow on the Gamalote, weaving their roots into the peat and strengthening the foundation.

Then, when the rains come, the water level rises, and the mini-ecosystem breaks off forming a floating island. The local islanders are afraid of these floating islands because the mini-ecosystem lodges itself on Ometepe Island, like a shipwreck. New animals and serpents exit the floating island like stranded survivors seeking refuge on dry land. I often wondered how plants and animals are introduced to an island. Now, one of the mysteries is solved.

They warned Ron not to paddle out to the floating island because it contained many snakes. But, not heeding their advice, he paddled out anyway. He didn’t see any snakes, but he reported a variety of sea birds, turtles, water lilies, and shrubs. I think that secretly he was wishing it would stay afloat in front of our beach because it could be a great new fishing spot.

By evening, the floating island was within 20 feet of our beach. Like at a horse race, the crowd cheered when the Gamalote floated further out in the lake, and booed when it floated closer to the shore. All I could imagine was that by morning, we would have a nest of snakes slithering around our house. I shivered with dread!

This morning, the first thing we did was to run down to the beach to see where the Gamalote landed. It is slowly headed farther south toward Punta Jesus Maria. Sighing in relief, I hope it journeys around Ometepe Island to the Rio San Juan. Maybe they like nests of snakes more than I do….at least I’m keeping my fingers crossed!