Legacy of the Venture
In 1933 Carl Denham shocked the world when he unveiled King Kong to a stunned crowd at the Alhambra Theatre. The twenty-five-foot-tall ape delivered the scientific community a one-two punch that sent it reeling with the impact of this incredible discovery and subsequent tragic loss. But Kong was just the beginning.
An entire island, bursting with prehistoric wonders, existed. If Kong had shocked the scientific world, Skull Island’s emergence from the shroud of legend into reality shook it to its core. Not since Columbus’s discovery of the New World had mankind been offered such an opportunity to explore a land trapped in time. Kong’s chest-beating roar at the summit of the Empire State Building heralded the greatest discovery of the century – arguably, the millennium.
In the wake of the island’s unveiling, universities and private organizations across the planet fumbled to dispatch teams to investigate and catalogue its wonders. The race of the century was on. Rival expeditions fought for exclusivity and justification, each asserting its own legal standing to be first on the island. Only a handful of the two dozen expeditions successfully made landfall, and – of those – half were woefully unprepared for the terrors that awaited them.
Skull Island ate expeditions with all the appetite of the full-grown V. rexes that ruled the landmass in Kong’s absence. After a year of disastrous excursions and tragic loss of life, a properly prepared, jointly managed and financed effort was finally organized by the three biggest interested concerns. Lead by Carl Denham, this three-month expedition set out to systematically explore and document the island.
Project Legacy – as it was called – suffered its own share of mishaps and attrition, but it was a far cry from the earlier, ill-founded attempts. The most important realization of this 1935 trip was the understanding that Skull Island was too new, too strange and, above all, too dangerous to explore and study in so short a space of time. With countless discoveries of new species and new behaviors every day, it became painfully clear that decades of study might scrape the surface of what the island had hidden from the world for so long. Project Legacy was expanded to a long-term study, with annual expeditions; the long-term goal was of establishing a permanent base of operations on the island.
It was during the second incursion, in 1936, that the truth of Skull Island’s geological fragility became clear. A huge earthquake sank one part of the island, killing five team members. After careful exploration by a team of geologists, the expedition realized that Skull Island was a doomed oddity, a scab on the earth’s crust that was about to be scratched off.
Kong’s brief appearance and destruction in Manhattan in 1933 paralleled the discovery and loss of the island. Barely fifteen years after its discovery, Skull Island and all its wondrous secrets were lost to the waves, the island torn to pieces by the same irresistible geologic force that had preserved it for so many eons. In the intervening years between revelation and oblivion, Skull Island hosted just seven short Project Legacy expeditions. When Skull Island finally succumbed to inevitability and sank, taking with it its mysterious people, monsters, and undiscovered history into the sea, the legend-become-reality became legend again. The secrets that were learned, in that short space of time, were all that would ever be revealed.
A Broken Land
Little wonder Skull Island lay undiscovered for so long. Jutting out of the perilous sea, west of Sumatra, the island was in the heart of a region afflicted by intense magnetic anomalies and violent sea storms. The very rock of which the island was built was treacherous.
Once part of a much larger landmass, ancient Gondwanaland, Skull Island sat square on the turbulent boundary of the Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The plates rolled over one another and stresses caused violent fracturing of the Indo-Australian plate beneath the island. Significant volcanic activity resulted. Fissures and pressure spots created land and forced molten rock to the surface while, at the same time, great chunks of the island fell into the deep subduction trench that marked the plate edge. Skull Island owed its creation to the same forces that were tearing it to pieces by the mid-twentieth century.
The coastline shattered and fell away while the entire island was sinking. In the island’s heart, volcanic forces brought water and mud bubbling to the surface while other areas were gnawed hollow from beneath, leaving a crumbling land full of jagged abutments and bottomless chasms.
The Mystery of the Ruins
The first sight to greet explorers of Skull Island was the mighty wall that divided humanity’s meager settlement from the terrors of the jungle interior. Huge and imposing, this enormous structure dwarfed the puny village huddling in its protective shadow. This was not the work of that struggling populace, but the legacy of some older, far more advanced civilization long gone.
Giant stone ruins of this ancient society dotted the entire island. Vast edifices jutted from the shrouding jungle and tumbled down the coast to disappear into the sea. Beneath the tangled forest that enveloped the island in a choking green embrace, a great city had once breathed. Study of these remains and of the great wall itself – which had run in an unbroken circle around the entire center portion of the island – told of a culture three thousand years old. Architectural parallels suggested Southeast Asia as a homeland.
It was theorized that ancient colonists brought with them an established culture, as evidenced by the great carved statues and shards of magnificent pottery left behind. They were a devoted culture who revered the giant apes that abounded throughout their art. Some have speculated the apes may have arrived with the colonists, alluding to a symbiosis between the people and the ancestors of Kong.
The exact nature of the disappearence of these people remains a mystery. At least a thousand years ago they and their civilisation vanished after an earthquake sank much of the island (hence the sunken ruins on the coast), leaving little behind but stowaway rats and stone skeletons of their city. The jungle swept in to reclaim the land, inexorably spreading its tendril-like root fingers over the eroding architecture, turning plazas and markets into glades and barnacling towers with ferns and gnarled creepers. In Disk 2 of the King Kong DVD (2005) the producers mentioned that much of the wall was destroyed in the earthquake. This possibly resulted in the dinosaurs pouring into the city and preying on the humans, resulting in their downfall. However, it was also hypothesised that they may have left the island as a result of these changes, abandoning their civilisation. The great wall crumbled as surf swallowed the land, and its few projecting stretches stood like gravestones in the green swathe, monuments to the lost civilization of Skull Island.
A Menagerie of Nightmares
Tiny Skull Island was once part of the vast and ancient continent of Gondwana in prehistoric times. What came to be Skull Island was a stretch near the coast of the great Tethys Sea, rich in life. When this landmass broke away, many prehistoric ancestors of the island’s modern inhabitants rode with it, guaranteeing their survival when catastrophe and ecological change wiped them out everywhere else in the world. Others joined later, rafting, swimming, or flying to the island sanctuary. Land bridges came and went, bringing new fauna, each adding to the diversity of the island.
Over the millennia the island eroded. As habitat was lost, life was concentrated into ever-shrinking areas. Competition became fierce. The island saw an evolutionary arms race erupt, forging a menagerie of nightmares.
The Crumbling Coast and Village
Skull Island’s coast was a savage warfront between land and sea. Heavy oceanic swells buffeted the shattered coast, eating rocks and ruins alike, leaving a jagged shoreline like a jaw of broken teeth.
On the western flank the sea crashed against sheer cliffs and shardlike escarpments. Ancient ruins wound through the cracks in the rock, soulless atriums echoing with the pounding of the waves. Seabirds made their homes here in the myriad cuts and ledges – resident gulls and seasonal migrants. Petrels, gannets, and cormorants dived for fish in the rich, cold waters of the trench that abutted the island.
By the twentieth century the few humans that lived on Skull Island scraped a living on this barren shore, their village perched on a thin sliver of rock, jutting into the sea, beyond the warding great wall.
On the far side of the island a slow sinking brought the sea gradually inland. Where once lowland forests and floodplains stretched, the high tides drowned the land. There were a few beaches in the more sheltered inlets between the rocky headlands. These were the transitory homes of fur seals and sea turtles. Patrolled by huge predators and scavengers, these inlets were every bit as forbidding as the western cliffs to the human inhabitants.
The Jutting Cliffs
Skull Island’s temperamental geology rendered its coast a crumbling maze of cliffs and promontories jutting out of and over a savage sea. The jagged projections provided protected ledges for seabirds and other wildlife to nest upon and precipitous lookouts for predators to scan for prey below. There were few beaches on the island’s coast, so competition for their use was fierce.
On the eastern shores of Skull Island, where the rivers flowed down into the sea and the land was slowly sinking, much of what had once been floodplains or low jungle was drowned in growing swamp. Where once low forests grew adjacent to the river, instead tide-flooded swamps lap, punctuated only by the stumps of choked trees.
The Shrinking Lowlands
A Habitat in Peril
On the eastern side of the mountainous spine that bisects Skull Island, a network of rivers, fed by runoff and springs, weaved through a wide land of gentle country swathed in low scrub and patchy grasslands. These lowland flats and wide grassy valleys were home to the largest of the island’s inhabitants. Towering sauropods and brawny ceratopsians chewed the grasses and mowed the jungle perimeter, keeping it at bay, while giant, predatory Vastatosaurus rexes stalked the herds at a distance. Beneath them all, legions of insects went about their secret lives, mimicking the epic struggles of the dinosaurs.
Over time, as the island shrank and the encroaching sea gobbled up much of this region, the inhabitants were forced into the jungle borders to survive. Surveys showed the overall size of the open lowland habitat had been reduced by nearly eighty percent in less than a few centuries. This concentrated species in ever tighter clusters and intensified the competition in the low forest areas.
The Winding Swamps and Waterways
Blood of the Island
Water is the lifeblood of any ecosystem, and nowhere was this more evident than on Skull Island. High rainfall for much of the year ensured that a constant flow of water worked its way across, into, and under the land. This constant flow sculpted the landforms, carved deep gullies, and leveled the grasslands. It filled holes to create pools and murky swamps and fed the ravenous jungle that swathed most of the island. It defined and sustained much of the land’s geography and fed all of its inhabitants.
These extensive aquatic systems of streams, rivers, lakes, and swamps were home to many of the island’s unique life-forms. Microscopic, but vital, algae and protozoans bobbed along, drawn by the current. Swarming silver flashes of fish shoals, numbering in the thousands, wound like underwater trains through the boughs of wet-footed forests. Long-necked birds and thin-snouted fisher-reptiles stalked through marshy sinks. In the deep black-brown water of the wide, slow rivers, leviathan killers sinuously slipped unnoticed by the prey they marked.
The Steaming Jungle
A Garden of Titans
The tangled jungles of Skull Island were, without doubt, the most impressive forest complexes on the planet. Gnarled trees the size of skyscrapers erupted in knotted root jumbles from the broken, volcanic earth. Entire ecosystems existed within the great arms of single trees, with unique species coddled among their leaves and vines. Undergrowth, taller and denser than full-sized trees elsewhere in the world, choked the sodden ground hundreds of feet below the light-gobbling canopy. Snakelike vines and strangling creepers crisscrossed, struggling with one another in a slow fight for light and water. Fungi the size of armchairs jutted from sponge-damp wood to vomit clouds of toxic spores into the sodden air, and thick seas of rotting leaves pooled between buttress roots, several feet deep in places and writhing with arm-thick centipedes and luminous slugs.
Understanding where one species stopped and another began was a task in the green melee. All kinds of organisms – plant, animal, or something in between – twisted around and through each other in a savage dance for survival. This was an extreme environment that rewarded extreme adaptations in its inhabitants. The fight to survive fashioned many bizarre life-forms, some, prehistoric holdovers, and others, skewed versions of recognizable modern species.
The jungle sweated in an everlasting twilight. Leafy branches, high above, stole light before it could filter to the floor, rendering a world in muted green during the day. At night cool moonlight was echoed in luminous pools by light-emitting creatures calling insects to their doom. The creatures of the jungle learned to use this darkness to their advantage, concealing themselves in its protective embrace or developing means to pierce the unrelenting gloom.
In the battle for water, light, and food, each had its own card to play. Plants defended themselves with toxins, only to be eaten by creatures with immunity. Prey hid beneath camouflage, only to be detected by a hunter’s heat-sensitive organs. Scaly armor met bladed claws. Sharpened teeth crashed on hardened horn. Lapping tongues recoiled from poison. Nature was at war with itself and reveled in its own innovations.
The humid jungle of the island recalled the ancient Cretaceous, and perhaps this was why so many of its denizens descended from that age of ruling reptiles. In the hot, wet dark of the jungle, dinosaurs and their prehistoric kin were protected from the passage of time and forces of change that destroyed them elsewhere. Here they flourished, evolving to new extremes in their green bower.
The Jungle Canopy
An ecosystem of its own, distinct from the lightless depths of the broken jungle floor, the lofty canopy was a green maze of dizzy spans and shifting leaf walls. Wind, either gently caressing or violently shaking, rendered the canopy a world in perpetual motion. This was a transitory environment, a place that water, light, and life passed through on their way to the earth. The creatures of the canopy clung in this no-man’s-land by whatever claws, fingers, or prehensile limbs they had, swatted by elements in service to the inexorable pull of gravity. By whatever adaptations they might possess, the inhabitants of the jungle’s ceiling struggled to interrupt and steal what water, light, and life they could as it passed, fragile things clinging to a tenuous existence.
The Abyssal Chasms
Life in the Gloom
Latticing the southern half of Skull Island were deep fissures and chasms, the result of violent quakes and water erosion. Exposed by the splitting rock, underground rivers and vast grottoes were opened to colonization by creatures of the jungle. Deep springs disgorged tepid water that mixed with the dripping fluid and rot from the surface, creating a steamy soup rich in minerals and thick with organic slop. Flooded by rains and nourished by geothermal upwellings, these abyssal rents and blisters in the crust of the island were world unto themselves. Normal rules of nature seemed not to apply.
Down here, even the strangest of the jungle’s prehistoric creatures seemed out of place and normal by comparison, for this was domain of monsters. In the dark, rancid hollows, far from the light, huge invertebrates ruled, defying the apparent order of things above. Served a reliable, if irregular, diet of falling vegetation and meat from the surface, a raft of nightmarish scavengers and opportunists had evolved to seize whatever landed in their midst. Skittering, scuttling, and squirming things held court in the soup and clinging to the wet walls.
The Barren Uplands
The Roof of the World
Rising above the green shag of the jungle, like the spires of some eroding castle, the great spine of Skull Island was the mountainous ridge that ran its crooked length. Flanked by ruin-studded lesser peaks and black crags that broke the choking tree line, the central rise was a row of jagged, bald summits. Harsh elemental forces of wind and rain pruned back the jungle’s insistent efforts to colonize these rocky heights.
Ancient eruptions and lurches of the earth had created these heights long ago. Now, as the island slowly fell away, they jutted above the jungle skeletal and grim – the bones of a dying beast, pale and gaunt.
This harsh land, which was as much sky as rock, was the domain of only the toughest plants. Low, wind-bludgeoned scrub, cushion-leafed sprigs, and rock-hugging lichen, they were hardy survivors capable of squeezing life out of the stone they clung to.
In turn, the stumpy plants were grazed by thick-skinned herbivores, quitters of the steamy competition of the jungle seeking to scrape a living in the windblown uplands. Some were agile rock runners, fleet of foot. Others were lumbering brutes but held to the stone with iron grip. Following them all were the flesh-lusting predators, slaves to the scent of life-sustaining meat.
Into this landscape of grand vistas and buffeting winds, the last of the great apes retreated to make his refuge – a bleak hermitage for the lonely king.