Jan 22nd
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Home Travel Guide Travel Guide Topics Island Capers Buck Island Underwater Adventure

Buck Island Underwater Adventure

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Island Capers -- Buck Island

    This adventure is for the faint of heart, the novices like me who don’t go for the big thrill and normally are content lounging on a beach with a great novel and a large tropical drink.
    It all begins in St. Croix, the biggest of the American Virgin Islands, a paradise of palm trees, brightly colored bougainvillea and pink, green and yellow houses with wood jalousie windows and latticework trim. St. Croix is only 30 minutes by boat from Buck Island and Buck Island Reef National Monument, the only underwater monument in the United States and its territories. And my husband, a certified diver, tells me he thinks this would be a great family day trip. I am filled with trepidation but persuaded by my eight-year-old son and his friend who both think it would be “way cool.”
    Buck Island is a sandy white beach ringing verdant vegetation. It's primitive (the only conveniences are a couple of rusting grills and a battered outhouse) and spectacular. But the island’s real beauty lies beneath the sapphire colored waters. Several expedition boats make the passage from St. Croix to the island and the reef – including a 42-foot Trimaran, a 35-foot sailboat and a glass bottom boat.
    Each expedition offers a chance to wander the beaches and explore the reef, providing life preservers, snorkels, flippers and masks as well as instructions on how to use them.

“A yellow frogfish looks like something out of a 'Star Wars' movie."

    "Everyone who's snorkeled before can go first," says our boatman Caesar after he drops anchor and distributes the gear.
    The majority do so, dropping into the water under the guidance of a man whose hair has been converted into dreadnoughts and who doesn't bother to remove his heavy gold jewelry even in the water.
    Caesar then helps the rest of us with our gear before accompanying us into the water. Besides wearing water skiing life rings around our waists (regular preservers make it hard to keep your face in the water), Caesar also offers a life ring with a rope attached. Some, including my son, opt to hold on to this rope for a little extra security.            
    With all the courage I can muster, I let myself fall backwards off the ladder, splashing into the warm water. My husband isalready down below with a septuagenarian couple that he met on the boat. They, like him, have dived all over the world.
    The Caribbean seems to stretch endlessly, a daunting sight when you're in sixty feet of water with just your head above the surface. The small waves breaking across the surface look a lot larger at eye level. But all that is forgotten the moment you realize that you can actually breathe through that little snorkel. The world beneath the sea magically opens to you!
    An underwater marker indicates the entrance to the monument. And more markers identify the coral formations, showing the way through the coral canyons. The water is clear and visibility is such that even coral formations twenty to thirty feet away seem within arm’s length. It's like a stroll through a park, only with flippers and a mask. This is an adventure that I like.
    Bright blue fish seem so impervious to the invasion of flippered tourists that they don’t move when people swim by. A yellow frogfish, which camouflages itself as a sponge, looks like something out of a "Star Wars" movie. Spotted moray eels gracefully flap along and someone asks Caesar about a fish they think is a barracuda. "Not to worry," he says. I hope he means it.
    There's nary a boring fish down here. They are all stripped or dotted in colors that shimmer and shine – yellow, blue, red and green. The colors of the parrotfish – an eye popping green – stand out in the turquoise blue waters. These fish, nicknamed the "sand factories" of the reef, eat the living coral and then excrete it as fine granules. A woman shouts that she’s seen the endangered hawksbill turtle and the flippered masses follow her to the point where the sighting was made. My son and his friend ask if I want to see a squid and so, suddenly fearless, we swim off towards the canyons of the reef where four squid move along the bottom. Pointy sea urchins – both black and red – cling to the sides of the coral. Someone says there are sea horses, but I haven't seen them yet. And all the while, I am frantically snapping away with the disposable underwater camera I bought, trying to capture this brightly colored world.

“The colors of the parrot fish – an eye popping green--
stand out in
the turquoise blue waters.”

    In many ways, the reefs and plants are even more impressive than the fish. Huge boulders of brain coral bump up next to delicate sea fans and golden elkhorn coral with its fingerlike branches. In some places the coral almost breaks the surface, creating canyons that snorkelers can enter – a different world of colors, fish and textures. Coral reefs exist in the warm, shallow waters surrounding islands. The reefs are usually found off the east coasts of the continents because waters in the west tend to be deeper and colder. And coral, though they are just tiny layer upon layer of coral polyps ultimately become the largest masses on earth. It's the work of eons, as coral these polyps, the size of small pebbles, "bud" or divide, growing towards the sun above the surface.
    When I finally surfaced, regretfully leaving this magical underworld behind, everyone had already boarded and were motioning that it was time to go. I had quickly gone from being somewhat fearful of diving in the sea to not wanting to leave.
    Indeed, my photos, enlarged and framed, give houseguests the idea that I am quite an adventurer.
    “Did I tell you about the barracuda?” I ask.

(Side bar)

    While the tourists were snapping photos (almost everyone seemed to have an underwater disposable camera – wonder what the fish thought of all that snapping away), the boat crew had been diving for conch, a local island delicacy. On the way back to St. Croix, they opened up net bags full of conch shells. Caesar, under the direction of the crew-member with the dreadlocks and gold jewelry, began spiking a hole in each of the conch shells.
    "It relaxes the muscle and makes it easier to get the conch meat out," he explained. Another member scooped up the conch and cut out the meat. Before dropping the meat into a bucket, he cut off a shiny, almost transparent "worm" like protuberance from the white-fleshed sea life. Each person who was willing to eat this "worm" got one of the beautifully colored conch shells in return (the meat itself was going to be served at a party the crew was giving later). My son went second and though he hesitated for an instant, he told me the "worm" tasted salty and crunchy. With this kind of okay from the first people to do this taste testing, soon everybody was standing in line to get a taste and a shell. In some ways it reminded me of people who eat the worm in the tequila bottle, only no hangover.

Jane Ammeson


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Tricia and Marla climbed these steps to this magnificent temple. Where are Tricia and Marla?
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