After hopping on the ferry to leave Dry Tortugas, packing up all of our gear and spending the night in a hotel, the SRC crew and I woke up bright and early to hit the road to get me to the airport. Our trip came to a halt when we got a flat tire on the boat trailer we were pulling. After spending some time finding the right tools to change the tire, we got a spare on the trailer and continued on our journey. I did not make my original flight to the Virgin Islands, but caught a later flight that same day. When I finally arrived on St. Thomas I caught a taxi to get to the ferry to St. John. Loaded in the taxi van with seven other people, we left the airport, scaling steep slopes and making sharp hairpin turns. I whispered to the person next to me, “Is he driving on the wrong side of the road?!” My fellow taxi travelers, who had been to the Virgin Islands before, explained to me that the left side of the road here is the correct side to drive on and it took them their third trip to finally work up the courage to rent a car and drive. Even after having spent a few days there, it still made my toes curl to drive with anyone as it seemed like they were turning into the lane which to me still represented oncoming traffic.
I found my hotel for that night and woke up the next day to do a checkout dive with Southeast Regional Dive Officer and Biologist, Thomas Kelley. He gave me a short tour of the town and told me about the differences of living on St. John compared to the continental United States. Between loading up the boat and surface intervals, he taught me all about the diving program and the mooring buoy system they have there. First, I dove on a modern sunken sailboat, and then did two biological surveys around mooring buoys to see what was living down there. The water wasn’t quite as warm as in the Dry Tortugas, but I recognized several different species that I had seen the week before. There were several tarpon, corals, sea fans, and sponges that I remembered. However, this time they were the main focus instead of the setting.
The next day I dove with Christy McManus and Thomas to do fish and habitat surveys as outlined by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s protocols for “Rapid Habitat Assessments” and “Belt Transect Fish Censuses.” This involved each of them rolling out a meter tape, counting fish, and recording habitat for different intervals along the tape for a designated period of time.
The following day I snorkeled in the mangroves at Princess Bay in Hurricane Hole with biologist, Jimmy Herlan, as we observed the various substrates or bottom types that the hard corals were settling on. They included sand, mangrove prop roots, dead coral colonies, and volcanic boulders. We programmed each coral colony that we noticed into a GPS so one could use the coordinates to return and monitor them again in the future. Also, we downloaded the data from temperature loggers that had been deployed the week before. I was impressed by the amount of color of the creatures living among the mangrove roots and how they served as a nursery for young fish and other species like sponges, corals, urchins, and pelicans.
On the weekend I explored the whole island, swimming in Cinnamon Bay and then hiking down to the salt ponds after driving over to the East End. During the drive I pulled off on some overlooks to see some of the most beautiful, serene white sand beaches with the clearest turquoise water I have ever seen in my life.
On Monday, I met with the Superintendent, Mark Hardgrove, and learned more about his experience at the Virgin Islands National Park and his aspirations for the park’s diving program. Later, Thomas told me more about the procedures, standards, and regulations of the park diving program. Then, I drove down to the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) in Lameshur Bay to check out the Tektite museum. Project Tektite was an underwater habitat and research project conducted in 1969 and 1970 sponsored by the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Interior, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the General Electric Company. The project studied ocean technology and the physiological and psychological effects of the four people living at 43 feet deep in close quarters. I was amazed at the discoveries that were made and could feel the excitement that the “aquanauts” had created by reading the magazine articles posted in the museum. I was also grateful for all of those who had taken risks before me to learn about diving and to make it safer for future generations. I was also fascinated by the all female expeditions from Tektite II and was inspired by their achievements as well. After that I visited the Annenberg Plantation, which one of the 25 active sugar producing factories on St. John by 1780. Molasses and rum were also produced there.
The next day, during a biological survey dive near the Tektite site, we found an invasive lionfish and put a marker by it. The lionfish markers they created were inexpensive, and easy to make, and carry in a BC pocket. They consisted of a wine cork attached to a piece of bright construction marker tape and a washer. Since lionfish tend to stay in the same area, this marker can be left underwater where the fish was spotted to make relocation easier for the diver removing the fish. The lionfish which is indigenous to the Indo-Pacific was introduced to the southern coast of Florida in 1992 and was discovered on St. John earlier this year. Lionfish can grow up to 9 or more inches a year, mature in less than a year, reproduce year round, are capable of laying 30,000 eggs every 4 days, and have toxic spines and no natural predators in the Atlantic. Because of these factors, they are seen as a major threat to the ecosystems along the Atlantic coast. Eradication efforts such as the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program are in place to remove any lionfish that are discovered. However, if the lionfish are not controlled, losses in biodiversity and reductions in native fish populations are expected.
Earlier that day I met with Joe Kessler, the president of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park nonprofit organization, then I dove in Hurricane Hole to see the expansive chain mooring system the friends had raised funds for. It consisted of underwater chains with safety springs connected to buoys at the surface and that act as a secure place for boats to tie up during hurricanes.
Then, we did a cultural assessment dive using the Voyager Eagle Compensatory Restoration Survey Protocol to document and mitigate harm to the coral reef by human, vessel, or debris contact. This was done by swimming in a standardized pattern that is tracked using a GPS system. Any debris on the reef is measured and recorded on a data sheet to be assessed later to determine the amount of “injury” it is inflicting. During that dive we did see some debris but I also saw the biggest lobster I had ever seen in my life, a sting ray, and a few sea turtles as well.
The following day I helped Thomas and Rafe Boulon, the Resources Management Chief at the park, with two successful lionfish capture dives. First, we went back to the Tektite site we had marked the day before, and then we went to another place where an additional lionfish had been seen. The lionfish were speared with a Hawaiian Sling and then bagged in game bag until they were brought up to the boat and then stored in a specimen bag with a label.
The next day I went out with Jeff Miller, Fisheries Biologist, and Andy Davis, Biological Technician to do different biological survey dives. They rolled out meter tape and counted every juvenile fish they saw while swimming at a rate of 30 seconds for each meter for 100 meters. I swam behind them searching for lionfish but found none. The data gathered from the surveys is valuable for forming conclusions about adult fish populations and recruitment, but can also be used as a baseline for what the reefs were like before lionfish invaded, as lionfish will prey on the smallest fish first. On our way back to the harbor, we found four lobster traps that were located within the park boundaries. We recorded their GPS coordinates in order for Law Enforcement rangers to return and remove them later because trap use by recreational fishers is not permitted in the park.
Overall, I left St. John with the impression that is a unique and special place that has a group of dedicated people working to protect and manage the outstanding natural resources found there. I would like to give a sincere thank you to Thomas Kelley, Rafe Boulon, Mark Hardgrove, Joe Kessler, Christy McManus, Jimmy Herlan, Jeff Miller and Andy Davis for making sure I had a fun and educational experience at the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park!
The underwater photography is particularly impressive as to the accumulation of marine wreckage. My other fascination is the beautiful lionfish, in my eyes extraordinarily unique, who sadly ended up in the wrong part of the world. It would be interesting to know if any natural predators exist that might control their reproduction.
I was personally overwhelmed on how much work is being done to mitigate many of the problems in our oceans. It must be humbling to be part of a population of scientists and technicians who care so much about our underwater ecosytem. This is indeed a splendid life experience.