It’s our sea to save, in all its still living color

Gray angelfish. Gray angelfish. (Derrick Z. Jackson/ Globe staff)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff / December 6, 2009

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This is a plunge into both wonder and worry. I have snorkeled and gone scuba diving in the waters of Virgin Islands National Park off and on for nearly 30 years. I can string together my encounters with the Caribbean’s most colorful creatures like a National Geographic special. A brilliant green male stoplight parrotfish gives way to a red-bellied female. A school of jacks whizzes by in mid-water as a nurse shark slowly patrols the bottom.

Southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays flap in aquatic flight past coral ledges where schools of orange-red and pinkish-red blackbar soldierfish hang motionless, all pointed in the same direction. Pancake-thin gray angelfish and black- and yellow-spotted French angelfish swim through narrow openings while the glowing yellow-and-blue queen angelfish darts in and out of holes in the coral reef. On night dives, startled pufferfish blow up into porcupine balls while moray eels slither, lobster wave their antennae, and hawksbill turtles rest without a care about the curious humans hovering.

But no matter how thick the schools of yellowish grunts, goatfish, and snappers - and they remain thick - there is something they cannot disguise. The coral reef that is their home, their protector, their food, is far more bleached and far more broken today than three decades ago. Large green brain corals I marveled at in the early 1980s, in the middle of Cinnamon Bay on the backside of St. John, are now gouged and look as ghostly as if in a jar of formaldehyde. Stands of golden elkhorn coral that rose from the sandy bottoms of the bay are a clump of rubble now.

The combination of runoff from development, overfishing, and rising sea temperatures, on top of natural disasters like hurricanes, are pummeling the corals with unprecedented force. Last year, a research report from five sites by the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service found a “profound’’ 61 percent decline in live coral cover between 2005 and 2007 alone. In total, the average coral cover on Virgin Islands reefs has declined from 21 percent to 8 percent.

Similarly, a 2008 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “State of the Reefs’’ report rated the condition of living coral in the Virgin Islands as “poor.’’ The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council last month listed Virgin Islands National Park as one of the 25 national parks most vulnerable to climate change, citing how half the parks’ corals have been lost from higher water temperatures. Their report stated that “we could lose whole national parks for the first time,’’ and the Virgin Islands in particular “could lose all its coral reefs.’’

That won’t happen if people like Rafe Boulon, Joe Kessler, and Denise Georges have their way. Boulon is the chief of resource management at Virgin Islands National Park. Kessler is president of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, which tries to raise outside money and conducts education programs to supplement the efforts of the Park Service. Georges is an interpretive park ranger. Boulon and Kessler spend many of their days trying to work with villa developers on controlling erosion of the island’s thin, volcanic soil and with boaters to get them to not drop anchors onto the reefs or tie up to mangroves. They also work with organizations such as The Trust for Public Land to add whatever undeveloped land they can. This spring, a privately owned parcel worth $2 million that contained an endangered plant and uncommon dry cactus was donated to the park.

It also helps that awareness about coral reefs is sinking in at the highest levels in Washington. Chronic underfunding over the years had Boulon operating with 56 staff when he has 76 positions on the books. But the first signs of relief came this summer when the Obama administration announced stimulus funding to the Nature Conservancy for 57 positions in Florida and the Virgin Islands to restore reefs. Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated waters off Florida, Puerto Rico, St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix as critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn coral under the Endangered Species Act. The two corals were once the most abundant species on the reef.

“The elkhorn seems to be coming back,’’ Boulon said. “I would think that most people are concerned and will help if we can educate them on their impact on resources. The vast majority of people want to do right. But just a few people can do a lot of damage. The real challenge in development is local politics. If you know the right people, you can get your permit to build.

“One of the things we try to get across is that in theory, coral reefs can live forever if they’re not disturbed. I’ve seen some [brain corals] the size of a table that have been around 500 years, from the time of Columbus. But they can die in a matter of months. If we can get 20 to 30 percent recovery, I’d be ecstatic.’’

Kessler said the fact that St. John is two-thirds national park gives him hope of recovery, with huge swaths of coastline that will never be developed. “You look across at St. Thomas and everything along the shore is hotels. The park here has done so much to keep things as pristine as possible. . . . For the amount of visitors we get, our beaches are still beautiful.’’

Georges, also a volunteer for the Virgin Islands Humanities Council, does a lot to get people to care about the whole island. It seems as if she knows every possible edible and medicinal plant. She helps organize folklore festivals and is a fount of history, to the point where when she’s talking about the island you can almost hear the drums of slave revolts and smell the sweetness of the sugar mills and marvel a bit more closely at the corals embedded in the mill walls. “How could there be so much beauty with so much cruelty?’’ Georges says, as if the pain is still going up her spine. “I think of the sons of the slave owners and wonder, how could you be so good to me one day and beat me the next day?’’

One thing that I have always appreciated about this national park is the fact that it does not shield its visitors from history. On my last trip here in January, one of the park’s programs was a one-woman play about Tituba, a slave who was a central accused figure in the Salem witch hunts. In the park’s artifacts building, archeologist Ken Wild and college-student interns Jennifer Roberts of Iowa, Katie Lamzik of Missouri State, and Lauren Riser of the College of Charleston all talked about how the plates, bottles, arrowheads, and smoking pipes they are still finding in their digs connect them to Indian life, shipwrecks, colonialism, pirates, and slavery. Roberts said, “When I touch the objects, even when I go through the photos of what we find, I feel like I’m touching life and the walls of history. Somebody on the plantation or a slave touched that object long ago. It’s overpowering.’’

If only we had that same overpowering feeling about the coral reef before it, too, becomes an artifact. A few feet from the archeologists, the water lapped at the shores of Cinnamon Bay. Later that day, I would go in, as I did almost every day, for a snorkel before sunset. Nearly 30 years ago, it was a teeming underwater forest with a riot of colors rivaling fall in New England. Today, even in its diminished state, with swaths deadened as if by acid rain, it is still beautiful enough to beckon one to float in awe of the butterfly fish fluttering around the remaining sea fans and the hawksbill turtle soaring over the underwater boulders. It is still beautiful enough that the reefs of St. John beckon to be saved for our children and grandchildren, another 30 years from now.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at


If You Go

It’s paradise just getting there

Many airlines fly to St. Thomas, where you then take a van to either the Red Hook ferry or the Charlotte Amalie downtown ferry. The ride to St. John, with the mountains of the US and British Virgin Islands all around, and frigate birds soaring overhead, instantly banishes any troubles you brought from home.

A tent over your head?

St. John is special for offering probably the most inexpensive way to stay on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. At Cinnamon Bay campground, about 20 minutes out of the main town of Cruz Bay, you can pitch a tent on a bare site for as little as $30 a night. You can also stay in large canvas tents with cots starting at $60 and simple cinder cottages with cots beginning at $77.

Get with the program

The benefits of eschewing a hotel room are fluttering butterflies wherever you walk and the opportunity to meet new friends at the evening history and music programs. The campground is also a sign-up base for the myriad programs the Virgin Islands National Park offers, ranging from guided snorkels to hiking. One program not to miss is the Reef Bay hike. It starts from a high point on the island and descends through lush growth past petroglyphs and sugar mill ruins to an isolated beach.

Another program is a tour of the Annaburg Plantation ruins. If you time your visit right, you may get some freshly baked coal-pot bread from Olivia Christian, 43, who will tell you “the written truth, the hand-me-down truth, or the true truth’’ about plantation life. When you go to the ruins, pack your snorkel mask and fins. Perhaps the best remaining snorkeling where you can still get a taxi van back to town is across the road in Watermelon Bay and around Watermelon Cay and Leinster Point.

Not the colonel’s fried chicken

Can fried chicken be worth renting a car? Yes! In St. John’s East End is Violet Mahabir, who runs Vie’s Snack Shack. From my first visit when she was in her early 30s, to today when she is 60, she has been a local legend for garlic fried chicken you can smell 100 feet away. Not far behind in taste are her conch fritters, johnnycakes, and pineapple or coconut tarts. You can eat under her tamarind tree with swarms of yellow bananaquit birds coming to her feeder or take your meal across the road to a small beach where an eagle ray patrols the shallows.

“I started in 1979 by selling cold drinks out of an ice cooler under the tamarind tree,’’ Mahabir said. These days, she is assisted by her daughter Jasmine, 34. “Then I saw people wanted lunch. The garlic chicken has brought people from all four corners of the world. Everyone tells me that someone else asked them, ‘Did you stop at Vie’s?’ Some people say I’d be like McDonald’s if I marketed my chicken. I’d rather keep things simple.’’

Low Key reef madness

At Low Key Divers, Bob Shinners and Ann Marie Estes run a dive shop true to its name. Bob pilots the boat to diving and snorkeling spots, where, despite the undeniable challenges facing coral reefs in the region, fish still abound and an occasional hawksbill turtle drifts by. They add a complimentary pickup for the morning dive if you are staying out at Cinnamon Bay.