I'm lying in the water as waves splash all around. I have to remember to breathe through my mouth while staring at the coral below. It looks artificial, but everything is real at Buck Island Reef National Monument, in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Elkhorn coral really looks like, well, the horns on an elk or moose.
I feel I can reach out to the brain coral, but the lagoon is more than 12 feet deep. Besides, touching anything in the water is illegal.
This is my first time snorkeling from a boat instead of close to the shore. Though I'm in the lagoon between the coral reef and the shore, land looks very far away. Yet the fish floating by mesmerize me; they aren't bothered by my presence.
My companions on the boat have long moved past me and are following the signs for the underwater trail, but I'm in no rush to be first on this trail. The island is only 176 acres on land, but the monument includes almost 19,000 acres of protected submerged coral reef system.
Buck Island was proclaimed a national monument in 1961 and expanded in 2001 "to preserve one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea." It has the distinction of being the eastern-most national park unit in the system.
The Danes owned this island along with the rest of the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1733 until they sold it to the United States in 1917. There are several theories of how the island was named. The official park publication refers to a corruption of the Danish or German, Pocken Eyland, after the green lignum vitae tree.
Though we traveled seven miles from Christiansted to the west side of the island, about 40 minutes, Buck Island lies only one-and-half miles away from the St. Croix mainland. Today, the boat people had trouble with the sailboat. Therefore, they put us on a motor boat and we arrived on the island more quickly. A sailboat might take 90 minutes for the same trip.
Although the journey was leisurely and proclaimed to be "on island time," the day was carefully choreographed. After everyone had their fill of snorkeling, the boat moved from the west side of the island to the designated anchorage area. We made sandwiches from an array of cold cuts and vegetables and ate on the boat because the crew didn't want to take a chance of leaving any garbage on the island.
There's also no camping, fishing, or shell collecting on the island. The boat anchored to a spot in the sand but still off shore. To get to land, I had to swim, though taller folks could walk out. Wes, the captain's assistant, took my camera off the boat. With a camera in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, we took the walking loop up to the observation tower.
The trail started on the beach at Diedrichs Point, named after Johann Diedrich, the town clerk for Christiansted in the 1700s, who built a house on top of the island. The trail up is lush with trees and cactus. Tan-tan, an exotic tree with prodigious pods grows everywhere. We were warned about the poisonous manchineel tree, which produces a sap that can burn the skin and cause temporary blindness, if it finds its way to your eyes. But we also steered clear of the acacia, a wattle tree with sharp pointy thorns protruding from its trunk.
Buck Island was sparsely settled over the centuries, but no one lives here now. The Danes imported the Indian mongoose, a weasel-like rodent, to the Virgin Islands in the hope it would eat rats. However, mongooses are active during the day and tree rats come out at night, so that scheme didn’t work out as planned. Rats and mongooses are pests, which feed on turtle eggs.
The Park Service was able to get rid of both exotic animals on Buck Island, and reintroduced the native St. Croix ground lizard. The view from the observation tower, about 300 feet above sea level, is magnificent. You can see outlines of the reef through the multicolored blue-green water. An automated Coast Guard signal light warns boats to stay off the reef but there's no trail to the very top of the island. The trail down was dry, lined with organ pipe cactus.
Once on the beach, we could walk on the sand, but every once in a while, the water would go right up to the rock. We saw red-tailed hawks, pelicans, and magnificent frigate birds. Park information states that brown pelicans are endangered, though they seemed plentiful, even in the Christiansted harbor.
We followed the inland trail and were glad we did. An archaeology team had started work the day that we visited. Their mission is to study the remains of the Taino Indians, who used the island as a temporary fishing camp. Without fresh water, it's unlikely that they would have lived here permanently.
The native people had left a mound of shells, a midden, as it's called. The three-person team, consisting of an archeologist, a natural resource specialist, and a student intern, had set up a research site on the side of the trail.
Before the team could dig up and study what the Indians had left, they had to ensure that they weren't harming the ground lizard in the process. So the two women were on their knees, checking out the burrows with their index finger. This was in preparation for their real study. The research questions were; was there anything worth preserving and how do we study it without endangering the lizard?
Unless you have your own boat, the only way to get to Buck Island Reef is to go with an approved concessioner. Most offer a full day or half-day trip and only take up to eight guests. On a full day trip, you have time to snorkel, eat lunch provided by the concessioner, and hike up to the observation tower. They'll lend you the snorkel, mask, and fins.
If you don't want to snorkel, you can stay on the boat and watch the waves. In addition, on the trip back, they'll offer you unlimited rum punch. After all, "It's five o'clock somewhere."