On my recent trip to the US Virgin Islands in December, I had the chance to visit Buck Island. Some of my best photographs during my trip were taken during my half day sail. Whether you are visiting St. Croix for a few days as part of a land vacation or only the day while on a cruise, you should absolutely considering taking either the half day or full day sail to Buck Island.
From the National Park Service web site:
Buck Island Reef National Monument was established to preserve “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea.” The park is one of a few fully marine protected areas in the National Park System. The 176-acre island and surrounding coral reef ecosystem support a large variety of native flora and fauna, including the hawksbill turtle and brown pelican.
Located about 1 1/2 miles north off the northeast coast of St. Croix, the U.S. government established Buck Island as a protected area in 1948. The U.S. National Monument was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and then later expanded by President Bill Clinton in 2001, despite opposition by local fishermen.
Two thirds of Buck Island is surrounded by an elkhorn coral barrier reef, providing an ecosystem for over 250 fish species and a variety of other marine life including spotted eagle rays, and a few different shark varieties including nurse, lemon, juvenile Blacktip reef sharks, and Whitetip reef sharks. I was hoping I might see a shark, but only from the comfort of my seat on the boat.
At 8 AM on 20 December 2011, I was picked up by my driver, Joseph, and taken to Big Beard‘s office at 127 Queen Cross Street at the Caravelle Hotel in Christiansted to pick up my boarding pass for my half day sail. Although I was taking the half day sail, Big Beard’s Adventure Tours offers both full day and half day trips as well as Sunset Sails. I walked over to the Christiansted Boardwalk to board the boat and waited with a few other people to board the boat. For the full day sails they will provide food and drinks, but on the half day sails they do not. They do have a water cooler on the boat where you can dispense water into plastic cups and they do allow you to bring your own beverages and snacks on board as well.
I was excited to board the 42′ “green” power Catamaran, ADVENTURE, which is powered by diesel engines that charge a bank of electric engines. When they sail into the Buck Island lagoon, the cruise is silent and pollution free as a result. Big enough to seat 49 guests, you can ride inside or up front on the rumble seat. At 9 AM we were off and headed to Buck Island to spend three glorious hours in the sun and water surrounding St. Croix. I was appropriately dressed with a bathing suit on under my clothes and I liberally applied suntan lotion to prevent any chance of a sunburn. Although it was about 82 degrees, the sun was strong that day. Knowing how I burn in any amount of sun, I was glad that I had taken this small precaution as it might have otherwise ruined the remainder of my trip.
The boat ride over to our first stop, Turtle Beach, was interesting to say the least. I have to admit that I was seriously concerned that I might get sick because it was a super bumpy ride. Apparently, the current runs toward the island so you can expect a much calmer boat ride back to shore. If you don’t do well on small boats or have severe motion sickness, you should think about this prior to booking. It is important to note, however, that no one on my tour became ill. Finally, we arrived and the view was spectacular. Buck Island‘s western beach is called Turtle Beach and has been voted one of the top ten prettiest beaches in the world as well as a favorite snorkel location in a readers poll. As we got closer to shore, I could easily imagine the pristine beach in a scene of a Hollywood movie. It was really that beautiful and although I took many pictures, they simply can’t do the beach the justice it deserves.
The anchor was dropped on shore and we were then free to get out and explore Turtle Beach. Our captain, Caitlin, advised us that just the day before people spotted baby sea turtles in the sand so I was eager to get out quickly and try to find any of them trying to make their way to the water. When you disembark the boat, the water isn’t deep in this area. However, with my camera I was not about have my most prized possession, my camera, accidentally slip into the water. I pondered walking down the steps, as you can see here in the picture, while attempting to hold the camera far above my head while walking on my tippy toes, but thankfully – I didn’t have to do that. Chris, one of the crew members, who was several inches taller than me, volunteered to take my camera ashore while I went on behind him and I was extremely grateful he did.
Once ashore, the crew then provides a complimentary lesson on how to snorkel with the equipment provided. If you don’t need the lesson, you can skip it and head right in the water or like me, walk the beach area in search of little sea turtles. There were sticks with blue ribbons stuck in the sand as indicators of where eggs had been spotted previously, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any baby sea turtles. I continued walking the beach as far as I could go and then I returned to the boat after taking a slew of photos. I was able to hand off my camera again to Chris at that point so I could get more than my toes in the water and enjoy a swim. Remember, I’m not a huge fan of fish and the like and apparently, I must be some kind of attractive fish food. I got in the water near a bunch of the people who were on my boat and once in, I kind of saw something swim right near me, but I pretended (ok, I didn’t pretend – I chose to ignore it to save my sanity) not to see it. There was a man near me who then said, “Did you see it?” Apparently, a 3′ barracuda swam right next to me and they were all abuzz with excitement. Me? “Yeah,” all the while screaming inside my head like a little girl again while trying to look really cool while I exited the water stage left.
After an hour of swimming and snorkeling, it was time to get back on the ADVENTURE and head off. We traveled only a short distance by boat from Turtle Beach to the underwater trail. The crew provides a guided tour of the reef, home to hundreds of fish and coral species. Buck Island‘s reef is 4,554 acres long, which is big enough to explore and enjoy your own personal adventure. Hurricane Hugo destroyed almost 100% of the south barrier reef as well as over 80% of the beach forest when it came through in 1989 and caused approximately $1.8 billion in damage to the USVI. I don’t think people visiting Buck Island today would even notice that a hurricane had come through and left such damage to the island.
Unlike Turtle Beach, it was mandatory that if you were going in the water, then you had to wear a life vest. These were the blow up, flexible kind of vests which allow you to deflate them to meet your individual needs once you’re in the water. We had a variety of people in our group of all ages and swimming abilities and the tour was able to accommodate everyone. The guided tour commenced with people following Chris into the water and tagging along by holding onto the life preserver. After the tour, you could still use one of the life preservers or you could go out on your own. Should you choose to do so, you can follow the underwater marked trail on the eastern tip. It is one of only three underwater trails in the United States. Along the trail are plaques denoting information about marine flora and fauna commonly found in the area.
I made a video of my trip to Buck Island that I have included here. It will give you an idea of the bumpy ride out as well as the reef area where everyone was snorkeling.
After about an hour of snorkeling fun, it was time to pull the flippers off and get back on the boat. Everyone looked like they enjoyed themselves, but exhaustion had started to set in as well. The ride back to Christiansted was a quiet one with people enjoying their drinks and snacks that they had brought with them onboard. As we rode back, I happened to look to the left and I could see the resort where I was staying, The Buccaneer. Having looked out to the water from the main building at the resort, it was nice to have the reverse perspective. You can see the road to the right, but it definitely doesn’t give you any idea of the incline from the beach area up to the main building, the pink one at the center. That in itself can be your daily workout!
I would like to thank Big Beard’s Adventure Tours for a wonderful day on my half day sail to Buck Island and of course, Captain Caitlin and her crew, Chris and Glen. It was an incredible day being out on the water and the crew provided a safe and memorable excursion for all of us. They were always willing to answer the many questions that we had for them and they worked hard to accommodate everyone’s needs throughout the trip. I am glad that I went out with Big Beard‘s because the National Park Service says that it is illegal to hire a vessel other than one of the authorized concessionaires to take you out. “If you rent a boat, you must be the captain knowing the park rules and regulations, and practice safe boating.” I wouldn’t want to try to do this on my own so if you plan to visit Buck Island, I highly recommend making a reservation before you arrive. With around 50,000 visitors a year, Buck Island is definitely a popular place to visit while in the US Virgin Islands so why not visit next time you’re there?