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Underwater at Buck Island | SBPR
Buck Island, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

On-Site St. Croix: Searching for Signs of a Coral Reef Comeback at Buck Island

On-Site St. Croix: Searching for Signs of a Coral Reef Comeback at Buck Island

If you grew up in, or visited St. Croix in the 80′s, or anytime prior, it’s likely you have warm and fuzzy memories of snorkeling the underwater trail at Buck Island. Known as “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea” since its ascension to U.S. National Monument status in 1948, the reefs off Buck Island’s eastern shore presented as vibrant a kaleidoscope of colors and teeming undersea life as could be found anywhere.

From the moment you poked your head beneath the waves you could hear them all around you; scores of striking parrotfish pecking away at algae amid the coral, keeping the reef clean and lively. Angelfish, blue and yellow tangs, bar jacks, barracuda; even moray eels and seahorses were all common sights, the burgeoning reef providing a nice, healthy marine environment to explore.

These days, though, the underwater scene at Buck Island is much different than back then…

Buck Island Underwater Trail, March 2, 2013 | SBPR
Buck Island Underwater Trail, March 2, 2013 | SBPR

Most of the reef along the trail now looks like this…

Call it a comeback? | SBPR
Call it a comeback? | SBPR

So, what happened? The primary culprit was a nasty dose of coral bleaching brought on by unusually high water temperatures throughout the Caribbean in 2005. Unfortunately, corals don’t like warm sea temps as much as we do, rendering reefs a virtual wasteland.

Bleaching is bad | SBPR
Bleaching is bad | SBPR

What’s interesting about these images, though, is that they actually show an improvement in the overall health of the Buck Island reef system in recent years. Look closely and you’ll see some scant new growth coming along. Get underwater here yourself and you just might see more good signs, like these guys…

Blue tang at Buck Island | SBPR
Blue tang at Buck Island | SBPR

I’m not sure that you could’ve found such a nice school of blue tang here a few years ago. And what about this pretty sight…

Coral making a comeback at Buck Island | SBPR
Coral making a comeback at Buck Island | SBPR

Bleaching can prove fatal to coral, but I got the sense that the reef along the underwater trail at Buck Island was making a comeback. To verify my suspicions, I checked in with an old high school friend, Roy A. Pemberton, Jr., who now serves as the Director of Fish and Wildlife in the U.S.V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

His take is that the comeback is at somewhat of a standstill.

we have had no major die offs but there is a pocket of warm water still hanging in the area.

Roy further noted that the reef along the trail is but a small portion of the total reef system at Buck Island.

There are a lot of other areas that are doing better at Buck.

A bit of a mixed bag, to be sure, but I remain encouraged that better days lie ahead for Buck Island’s reefs.

Have you snorkeled here recently? If so, what do you think?

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  • http://www.reeftraveler.com/ Meredith

    I share your hope for recovery for Buck Island, although there are many factors affecting the health of the coral in the area (traffic is another major issue).

    I snorkel and dive frequently around STJ and the keys between STJ and STT (Congo, Lovango, Mingo), and there is still some beautiful and healthy coral to be found in the USVI. Although it is certainly not as abundant as it was in decades past.

    Regarding the issue of traffic, I see this as another major problem for coral health on some of the Caribbean islands. I’m referring to cruise ships in particular. Anytime you have people descending onto a reef en masse, many with no prior snorkeling experience and no education as to proper reef behavior, problems arise. I’ve witnessed scenes where entire families are standing on coral heads, feeding bread to the fish and picking up sea creatures in their hands. It isn’t their fault – they are rightfully excited and haven’t been taught to behave any differently. But I see reefs in STT and STJ (and even worse, Roatan) that have greatly suffered from this issue.

    In order to snorkel or dive on Bonaire’s truly healthy reefs, one must pay a small annual fee and attend a short, mandatory briefing. Maybe this would be a good solution for the USVI, although enforcement could be tough.