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The correct label for our rainforest...For years we have mistakenly described Saba's topside beauty to contain an "elfin rainforest".  It's only now when trying to be more factual with this area of the website that I asked Tom van't Hof to describe  what the criteria is to be "elfin".  The label of elfin is given to those forests which have dwarfed growth.  Saba's forest is far from dwarfed.  The islands in the Caribbean which also have cloud forests but those which are considered dwarfed or elfin are islands such as Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica and St. Vincent.  The stunted growth of the forest is attributable to climatic conditions like more wind, lower temperatures (due to elevation) and more rainfall.  The correct labeling of Saba's cloud forest is a montane cloud forest, which can start at elevations as  low as 500 meters.

Why is this unique forest only found in Saba?  Local biologist Tom van t'Hof speculates its the combination of Saba's elevation (just under 1,000m or 3,000') which is high enough for the growth of mosses but not so high to be subject to gusty winds.  Saba's Mt. Scenery is more often than not, shrouded in a cloud.  Moments of intermittent sunlight provide enough light for the reproduction and maintenance of exotic fern trees, haliconias and epiphytes.   This combination of  climate factors has nurtured this forest enabling some of the mahoganies to mature to over 400 years of age.

Many hikers are focused on trekking up Mt. Scenery to enjoy views like this one.  Often when you ask "How was the hike?" the reply is "Well it was clouded over so our view wasn't great."  Wrong answer!  At Sea Saba we make sure that hikers understand the incredible beauty of Mt. Scenery is best enjoyed and photographed on cloudy days when your image and memories are enhanced by being "in the clouds".



Saba's Cloud Forest is like no other you'll find in the Caribbean.  The Mountain Mahogany tree (Freziera undulata) is a species considered to be uncommon or absent in other cloud forests. Yet on Saba's Mt. Scenery these arboreal sentinels from another age brought chills to the spine of all that saw them.   The mountain mahogany was the relative dominant tree of the landscape overpowering other plants and forming an incredible canopy and its own ecosystem.  The Mountain Mahogany was never harvested for its lumber.  The name is actually a little confusing:  it's not a mahogany but a member of the tea family.  

Is our cloud forest an elfin rainforest?
read the left sidebar for 'the correct label'.

Tom van't Hof, (see sidebar for his bio and more) reminds us "Nature is dynamic.  We now realize that Saba's cloud forest was in a climax stage in 1998.  In nature there is no such thing as a "stable state".  Instead, we need to think in terms of cycles and Hurricane Georges brought on the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one.  This is something that is only going to happen every 300-400 years!"

We have a better appreciation and understanding to value the fotune of our timing.  Some of us have witnessed this forest at its climax and now we can also experience Saba's cloud forest in its new growth stage.  To be able to document this photographically makes it all the more special.  The above photos were taken in 1998, prior to Hurricane Georges.  Read the sidebar to understand more about this 'perfect storm' which initiated a new cycle in Saba's cloud forest.


As you can see from the photos below, the cloud forest is once again beautiful, but different.  These images were taken by Lynn Costenaro in early 2004 when she and John Magor assisted the team of 3 Saban teens chaperoned by Susan Hurrell to re-survey Mt. Scenery's cloud forest in preparation for an international summit of high school students organized and funded by Sea & Learn on Saba.  Click here to read the full story of their trip.  Monitoring programs are, of course, important to track the recovery of this unique habitat.  Stay tuned for more recent photos of the forest!

James "Crocodile" Johnson w/Saba's youth and John re-measuring a 5-year old Mountain Mahogany tree

Survey team (including Seneca) collects data in early 2004

Mountain Mahogany tree in recovery stage

James explains humidity testing w/Juaquin Hassell

The roots of a Mountain Cecropria aka Trumpetwood Tree



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All images ©John Magor Photography and Sea Saba Dive Center or as otherwise noted.  No image to be used for any purpose or in any format without permission.  Quality prints on archive standard paper available $25-60, size dependent.  High resolution digital images on a contract basis only.  Contact us for permission and procedures.

This page last updated on 06/13/2006

A tribute to a key player in Saba's environmental protection...

Tom van't Hof was essential in the creation of Saba's Conservation Foundation ("SCF").  The SCF mission is to protect Saba's nature both above and below the waterline for present and future generations.  He was the organizations director for its first 10 years.  Tom began his career as a marine biologist which took him to Bonaire where he met his wife, the prolific artist, Heleen Cornet.  Choosing Saba as his home since 1986, he has remained an active environmentalist, author and consultant.  Tom is never at a loss for something to do. The Nature of Saba, Guide to the Saba Marine Park, and Guide to Saba's Nature Trails are just a few samples of his book writing. 

Among its many successes, the Saba Marine Park can boast to be the world's first self-sufficient park.  It is Tom van't Hof who worked tirelessly to bridge the stakeholders within the Saba community and Saba government to create the zoning map and eventual legislation which continue to be the foundation for Saba's marine park.  Tom utilized this same model to design and preserve other marine areas around the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world.  

In 1999, Tom and artist wife, Heleen Cornet, channeled their energy and respective talents to create Ecolodge Rendezvous.  This eco retreat is Saba's first hotel made only of recycled and earth friendly materials operating on solar power.   Located along Saba's Crispeen trail, the lodge is only accessible by foot.  A labor of love, the van t'Hof family took 3 years to construct 12 units and one of the island's best restaurants which serves only the freshest ingredients--many from its on-site organic garden.  

Hurricane Georges formed almost immediately as it left the African coast.  The National Hurricane Center placed the forecast track headed toward the islands in September of 1998.  Normally other conditions will change that forecast track over the 10-day or so period as the storm moves across the Atlantic.  But Georges never faltered and only gained strength so that he was a powerful Category 4 a few days out from Saba.  For days we prepared boats and houses while satellite images and weather forecasters continued to alert everyone of the imminent threat ahead.   

When the storm was within 48 hours of making landfall in the northeastern Caribbean (that's us), the strength dropped a bit, minimizing its winds to Category 3 strength.  The storm blew through relative quickly as storms go, about 36 hours of winds clocking at over 150 mph.  Saba has no coastal development so our concern for buildings other than at the harbor is not with storm surge but with tornados.  Saba's ravines (called "guts" by the locals) create a Venturi effect which intensifes the spinning of the wind so  that 120 mph winds can increase to more than 180+.  

Read more about Georges from the NHC..

Though Saban buildings are considered to be solidly constructed and actually over built, more than 25% of the roofs on Saba were lost in this storm including those of Saba's airport, the children's school, the hospital and severe damage to the electrical power plant.  Sea Saba's boats were unable to seek safe anchorage on another island so we ended up performing a risky maneuver of taking them out of the water on Saba--no small feat as there was/is no travel lift to do it 'the normal way'.  But they survived.  The powerful winds switched to the south taking the roofs of the island's icon hotel, Captain's Quarters, off the tourists' map.  The roofless, dilapidated structure  is rumored to be rebuilt in late 2006.    

The aftermath of Georges brought Saba's community spirit out in full force.  Villages were tidied; damaged homes were secured and the wait for supplies to rebuild began.  Focusing on the immediate surroundings, it was a few days before we looked up to the mountain and realized even more havoc occurred on Saba.  The famed Mountain Mahogany trees of Mt. Scenery weren't snapped or broken but the incredible canopy was missing.  What was different about Georges to cause such damage to a forest that withstood storms for over 300 years?  Scientists are uncertain but point to several factors that occurred:  Prior to H. Georges the island was suffering from a considerable drought condition.  The loss of foliage from high winds is common after any hurricane.  There was little rain from this storm and worse, cloudless days followed.  Normally hidden by the clouds, Saba's peak now exposed twisted skeletal remnants of our once pristine montane forest.  Its nakedness seemed to beg for protection from the tropical rays.  Within weeks after Georges, new flowers and leaves sprouted and all hope was restored.  Butt 3 months later, the majority of the mountain mahogany trees died.  There is no case history of a situation like this to make a comparison.  Biologists can only guess the trees sustained root damage from the fierce winds which coincided with the high content of salty air followed by the intense cloudless days.  Whatever the case, the forest as we knew it is history and now we have the precious opportunity to witness new growth.  Within 5 years, new mahoganies have sprouted to 5 meters in height.  More varieties of tropical plants have emerged.  Epiphytes, tree ferns and orchids are abundant, seemingly never before having the light, nutrients or space to emerge from the canopy.  

Are hurricanes part of the earth's natural cycle which functions as a cleaning process to allow only stronger species to survive?  Sea & Learn on Saba explores these questions and more in our month-long annual environmental awareness program.  


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