Escaping Winter's Chill

Snorkeling the Virgin Islands
  |  Gorp.com

Snorkeling a coral reef will teach you more about biological diversity than any number of nature documentaries. Coral reefs abound in warm, shallow tropical waters. They're one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet, and one of the strangest to us air-breathing terrestrials. Hard coral, which forms rigid skeletons of calcium carbonate, create the reef's basic structure. The coral's color derives from algae, which lives symbiotically with the coral, supplying nutrients and oxygen in exchange for a growing surface. Octopuses, sea urchins, eels, and spiny lobsters lurk in the coral crevices, while colorful tropical fish swirl throughout this hallucinogenic panoply.

It's like landing on another planet. But you don't need a spaceship to visit, just a mask, snorkel, flippers and a lesson or two.

Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Saint John. The clear, shallow waters around St. John are a perfect environment for coral reefs. You can snorkel out to reefs from many of the sparkling white sand beaches that abound on the island. Don't miss Trunk Bay—it has an underwater trail and makes a good introductory dive. Other good spots are Hawkesnest Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Francis Bay.

Other activities: The island is made for easy ambles, that combine the environmental with the historical. Some of the highlights include the Annaberg sugar refinery, which has old slave quarters and the manufacturing relics of the refinery. If nature pure and simple is more your bag, we recommend the Ram Head Hike, a 1.8-mile moderate round-trip that has many interesting cacti along the way, a sea gorge and eventually Trunk Bay.

More on Buck Island Reef
More on Virgin Islands National Park


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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