After a night of patrolling for turtles on the beach (1 successful lay, 1 false crawl, and 1 turtle who didn’t seem to quite know what she was doing), I dragged myself out of bed at 7:00 AM. We were headed off early to Buck Island National Reef National Monument to meet with Zandy, the biologist from the National Park Service who would be showing us around. It’s a quick boat ride over from Christiansted, but we first had to drive over. When everything was finally organized – swimsuits on, sandwiches made, everyone packed into the van – off we headed.
After meeting up with Zandy and boating over, we disembarked onto one of the most beautiful islands I think I’ve ever seen. Zandy explained to us that Buck Island was established as one of the first “marine gardens” in 1948, with the goal of preserving the beautiful barrier reef that is found all around it. I saw what she meant later, when we snorkeled around the island, but at that time I just admired what I could see of the island itself. It’s small, but filled with both biological and cultural significance. The biology is hardly surprising – a wide variety of organisms make their homes on the island, including those that are found in very low numbers elsewhere – but I was struck by the cultural importance of the island as well. We passed many large conch shells on the beach. These were individuals that had originally been harvested by native peoples living on nearby islands that came over to Buck Island to fish and conch, and dated back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There were also several tamarind trees on the island that Zandy pointed out to us as having possibly originated from ships in the 1600s, and for that reason hadn’t been removed, despite being an invasive species.
As we hiked around the island, we also learned about the turtle project. They get greens, hawksbills, and the occasional leatherbacks that come to nest on the island, and have been tagging and monitoring them for over twenty years. Right now there’s a big project going on with acoustic monitoring, where a wide variety of organisms (not only turtles, e.g., conch and rays) are tagged, and their locations monitored around the waters whenever they pass the receivers that have been planted. It’s really fascinating to be able to talk to people who have worked on projects for long periods of time, not only because they’re experienced but also because they have actually seen the development and transformation of the project over time. In Zandy’s case, she’s been present while the eradication of three major invasive plants and various invasive mammals has been carried out. She’s also seen the expansion of the protected waters from just outside the reef to a three-mile radius around the island, as well as the reintroduction of the endangered St. Croix ground lizard (Ameiva polops). That type of accumulation of knowledge is so valuable in so many ways, and I hope that one day I’ll have garnered as much experience about an ecological project as Zandy has.
We also got a chance to snorkel around the southern side of the island to see the reef for ourselves. It was a spectacular sight, the reef every bit living up to its original designation as a “garden.” The diversity was astonishingly high, and the algal cover was extremely low. Instead of the algal-covered reefs that are so common nowadays, we saw a rich array of corals (including many huge individuals of the critically endangered elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata), surrounded by a wide variety of sponges, fish, and other organisms. Between the entire group, we only spotted one hawksbill turtle, but having the opportunity to swim through a spot with so much biodiversity was wonderful enough.