The low growl of diesel engine snapped me back to attention. The captain, who did not have a Big Beard, pulled the catamaran out from the dock in Christiansted and pushed the bow into the wind. If you have 12 hours in St. Croix, what would you do? For us, the decision of Buck Island Reef National Monument was a natural one.
We came to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a Celebrity cruise. We had a little help planning our time in the Virgin Islands. We asked our friend from Katy who is originally from the island: “If you had one day in your hometown, what would you do?” Her reply was immediate: “Go to Buck Island St Croix,” she said. We figured you can’t argue with a local, so off we went on our Buck Island Reef National Monument shore excursion.
This island off the coast of St. Croix came under government protection in 1948 and the U.S. National Monument – Buck Island Reef National Monument – was created in 1961. The island itself is just over a mile long, a half-mile wide and has a maximum elevation of 328 feet. It’s tiny and uninhabited.
But the island is the nesting home for green sea turtles and endangered Leatherback turtles. But the real treasure here is the 4,500 acre underwater reef lying just off shore. It is one of only two underwater national monuments in the United States.
The only way to get here is by private boat or one of the six official National Park Service permitted commercial vendors. We did our usual research and found that all the vendors were pretty much the same. We selected Big Beards St Croix for the simple fact that they were the most responsive of the companies.
As we arrived at the island, we encountered some rough seas, which made our snorkeling more challenging than we were expecting. Once in the cool water, I immediately saw a large section of completely dead reef. The coral was broken into large chunks and laying on the sandy sea floor. This was not the act of inconsiderate snorkelers, but was part of the damage sustained to the reef from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
But as we followed the Buck Island underwater trail (an underwater snorkel train with small markers on the sandy bottom), we encountered large sections of healthy reef. At one point, I was completely surrounded by a school of Atlantic blue tang (a kind of surgeonfish that was the Dory character in Finding Nemo) and was able to swim with them for a few minutes. In all of my years of snorkeling or scuba diving, I’ve never had an encounter like that before. I was able to pick up the underwater trail again and follow it back to the boat.
After snorkeling, the captain hoisted the sail and we let the wind take us to a secluded St. Croix beach for a BBQ. The crew from Big Beards cooked up burgers, hot dogs, fish and veggie burgers for us while we consumed adult beverages. After snorkeling in the rough seas, it felt good to just sit on the sand and enjoy the calmness.
As much as we love scuba diving, we also love snorkeling too. There’s just something about floating on the water with an overhead view on the action below that is relaxing. Whenever we take a cruise (which is pretty much every winter), we always try to squeeze in at least one snorkeling shore excursion. Our friend Katy was dead on in her assessment: St. Croix’s Buck Island Reef is a national treasure and a great way to spend a day in the Virgin Islands.
A few more photos: