Between Two Reunions: Boiling Lake, 1988 to 2008

Arlington James, Forest Officer
Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division

There is no record of who actually first set eyes on Dominica's Boiling Lake. But the first published account of the sighting of this natural feature appeared in 1870, when two British expatriates (medical practitioner Dr. Henry A. A. Nicholls, and Magistrate for the eastern district Mr. Edmund Watt) - most likely accompanied by Dominican guides - visited the lake and wrote about their observations in the Illustrated London News. The lake is located in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, parish of St. Patrick - and not in the Roseau Valley as many Dominicans think.

Boiling Lake continues to attract and fascinate visitors and locals alike who, for over 140 years, have been facing up to this challenging 2 to 3-hour trek to get a glimpse of this cauldron of boiling, turbid water. And while many Dominicans keep shying away from visiting the lake, if you were to visit the Boiling Lake guest book on the Internet, you would observe that many of the persons who have already made the journey and posted comments said they would revisit the lake if they get the opportunity. They survived!

Local debate continues about the size of our boiling lake relative to others elsewhere. You hear arguments such as, "It is the largest boiling lake in the world!" or "No! It is the second largest in the world!" or "No, it is the largest of its type in the world!" The fact is, the world's largest "boiling" lake is Frying Pan Lake, located in Waimangu Valley, New Zealand. The surface area of that lake – formed only in 1886 – is about 9.4 acres [3.8 hectares], whereas our Boiling Lake, which is circular in shape and has a diameter of about 200 ft, is a little less than three-quarters of an acre (0.292 hectares), making Frying Pan Lake almost 13 times the size of our Boiling Lake. However, while Frying Pan Lake has been described as the world's largest hot spring, Boiling Lake has been described as the world's largest fumarole (a fissure in the earth's surface releasing gases).

Another major difference between these lakes is the water temperature. Frying Pan Lake has an average temperature of 50° C (122° F). On the other hand, the water in our Boiling Lake reaches to just over 92° C (198° F). The most recent measurement of the lake's temperature, taken in November 2007 and well away from the small cascade and the "cold" ravine that feed the lake, was about 88° C (190.4° F).

One of the more interesting – and still inexplicable – features of Boiling Lake is its ability to empty out "mysteriously", and to "go cold". During these episodes the water temperature would be as low as 18.3° C (65° F), but when in such conditions the lake can be very dangerous, and can reactivate explosively without warning, releasing poisonous gases into the atmosphere. One such explosion occurred on Sunday 10th December 1901 and claimed the lives of two persons through suffocation: Wilfrid Meysey Clive - a young Englishman serving in His Majesty's Diplomatic Service of the United Kingdom, and Edouard Wylie Jean Gilles, an 18-year old tour guide from Laudat. The third member of the group, the more experienced of the two guides, collapsed like the others from the initial explosion, but survived "to tell the story".

The lake put on another of its "cold-and-empty" episodes during Reunion 88 when, on Thursday 14th April 1988, a team of Forestry workers who were repairing the Boiling Lake Trail observed the lake to be "without any steam or water at all". But before resuming to its "normal" state in June or July that year, the lake was observed to be dark grey and vaporizing on 19th April, then it went "cold" again some time thereafter. That particular episode attracted no media attention until two months later when the writer published an article, "A Cool Boiling Lake?" in one of the local newspapers.

Since 1988, there have been a number of developments at the Boiling Lake. In June 1997, this "crown jewel" of Dominica's only World Heritage Site, was declared an Ecotourism Site, and a few weeks later the lake received some more attention when a phreatic eruption occurred in the Valley of Desolation on 8th July 1997.

One year later, and a decade after Reunion 88, a local tour guide had an unfortunate accident at the lake, but lived to tell his story. That incident also made the local newspapers.

Some may also remember the period between March and April 2003 when, for several weeks, the lake was releasing strong emissions of sulphurous gases. This was worrying to residents in the Roseau Valley, Cockrane and the City of Roseau. When Forestry personnel visited the lake on 23rd April that year, the water had assumed a very dark grey colour, and the lake was vaporizing heavily, releasing large volumes of gases.

But it was the next episode that caught the attention of all and sundry. Visitors to Boiling Lake on Christmas Eve 2004 observed that the lake was not vaporizing, and the water level had dropped some 30-40ft below the normal high water mark and lake outlet. Coming just two days before the infamous Asian Tsunami, and with the advent of the Internet, the Boiling Lake's latest "cold-and-empty" display drew much media attention locally, regionally and internationally, well into January 2005.

Over the next three and a half months the water level in the lake fluctuated dramatically; and the colour of the water changed from cream to grey, to turquoise, and even olive. And around 10th April 2005, when the lake began to refill and to vaporize again, the water was "jet black". This was first reported in The Sun Newspaper in April 2005.

From recent observations made by the Seismic Research Unit of the University of the West Indies, and the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division, it became clear that following the 2004-2005 episode of inexplicable behaviour, Boiling Lake took several months for its water temperature to "peak" again at about 92° C.

But the lake's usual cloud of vapor and churning, near boiling water, has attracted at least one daredevil / storm chaser who, on 6th July 2007, rappelled to over the boiling area of the lake for about 2 hours. And so far this year (2008), Boiling Lake has turned dark grey on at least two occasions – one may say a colour-change feature that will continue throughout the existence of the lake.

In this Reunion year and beyond, Dominicans and visitors alike will continue to journey to Boiling Lake, some for their first or only visit, others to earn a living as tour guides, and others just for fun! A special appeal is being made to all patriotic, young, able-bodied Dominicans to go visit our Boiling Lake, one of the natural features in our World Heritage Site.

For more information, contact:

Forestry Division
Former L. Rose Building
Windsor Park Road
Commonwealth of Dominica
Telephone: (767) 266 5856
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.