Hurricane Butterflies

by Gary Carlson

It is certainly starting out to be a robust hurricane season this year! Only September and already the named storms are up to the “M”s, and some of the eastern Caribbean islands have been knocked back to just this side of the stone age.

When living on an island in the Caribbean, one tends to keep a weather eye to the east this time of year. While typically Roatan is located to the south of the “hurricane track” and we miss most of the storms, there have been notable exceptions. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch set the bay islands in its sights, and struck the neighboring island of Guanaja as a category five storm with winds of 200 miles per hour. Mitch was a very slow moving storm with incredible rains, and left over 7000 Hondurans dead, with over 12,000 injured due mostly to flooding, and set the infrastructure of the country back 30 years.

Since moving to Roatan 10 years ago we have dodged the proverbial bullet with just a couple of close calls by minor intensity hurricanes to date (there is furious wood knocking/touching going on here right now). The second year we were here a couple of hurricanes formed in the southern latitudes near the cape Verde islands, and started tracking uncomfortably close to our direction.


These are worrisome times; hurricanes like all weather are unpredictable. No doubt witnessing the damage to the eastern Caribbean this year gives us all an idea of the danger they can bring. Being in a hurricane’s path makes you a bit nervous and you find yourself looking off to the horizon and watching the sea conditions. For some reason it seems like you get a better view of the global weather patterns if you walk 150 feet out on the dock, and you find yourself making the walk repeatedly.

In the late summer Roatan has a lot of butterflies flying about. There is this black one, which is about the size of the famous Monarch butterfly, and it has a bit of yellow on each wing which shows up flying fromright to left as you look at the ocean from the dive center (south). There can be a lot of them, and when they are in thick you can see about a hundred at one time fluttering out in the lagoon going south. I have no idea where they are going, there is only a couple of miles of island left south of here, and then it’s about 40 miles of open ocean to the mainland, however it is not the purpose of this blog to judge.

The Eastern Black Swallowtail, possibly linked to our own Hurricane Butterfly genetically.

The Eastern Black Swallowtail, possibly linked to our own Hurricane Butterfly genetically.

About eight years ago it was looking like we might catch one of those hurricanes as we were in the area of predictability (in fact, the storm swung to the north and we missed the eye-wall by 40 miles making it pretty much a non-event). The only talk in town was of the hurricane and the “what if?” scenarios were spiraling up. Many walks were taken out to the end of the dock to ascertain the state of the weather and the seas. It was during the calm before the storm when the seas are oily slick and the air stagnant and calm that I joined John on the dock for a weather observation. The water taxis were still operating and some passenger were just getting off a boat when Bugs walks up to hear John surmise; “I wonder if all the butterflies mean we are going to have a hurricane?”

Stepping aside so the tourists could get by Bugs says “I bet you got something there. After all, most species migrations and breeding habits are linked to random weather events” 

(He’s like that)

We smirk; shrug our shoulders and head back to the shop. As we are crossing the street I overhear a couple of tourists talking. “According to the locals, all these butterflies flying around means there is gonna be a hurricane!” (It gets better)

A Muse album cover that seemed appropriate. 

A Muse album cover that seemed appropriate. 

Hurricane season is also the beginning of cruise ship season. We get large groups of mostly Americans arriving in the village about mid-morning, and staying until midafternoon sightseeing, playing on the beach, swimming and generally trying to out-shop each other. They are preyed upon by a host of “vendors” selling arts and crafts, tours, massages, hair-braiding and a whole host of other things you cannot live without, like dollar beers! Many of the visitors are a bit out of their element being in a foreign country, and dealing with different cultures and customs, occasionally they will come into the shop to escape the press, and inquire about the diving and other local activities and oddities.

At this time we had a long-time island resident, and exceptional Divemaster with amazing fish identification skills working in the shop who shall remain nameless, as he has moved on to a more respectable lot in life, with no need to unnecessarily expose and relive his past inequities. For the purpose of this narrative we will call him Dickey.

Now Dickey could spin a yarn, and it was just two days after that casual one-liner on the dock that I stepped out on the deck and approached Dickey talking to a cruise-shipper.

This is not Dickey.

This is not Dickey.

“Ah yes, you noticed the butterflies” Dickey is saying, "These are actually quite remarkable, you see the species is native to the Bay Islands, and they are known as Hurricane Butterflies to the islanders. Of course there is a Latin or scientific name, but I wouldn't understand it, let alone be able pronounce it!" (Dickey has actually been schooled in Latin). "But anyway, these butterflies, evolving here in the Bay Islands in the normal hurricane track, over the course of thousands of years have timed their breeding to coincide with massive low pressure systems coming from the east" he continues "this evolutionary trait allows them to lay their eggs in protected spots away from dangerous yearly weather which comes and wipes out the current adult population".

Nature on Roatan is certainly amazing! A butterfly unique to the island has evolved over the course of a few days.

It can also get pretty deep around here.