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Snorkel into a Real-life Aquarium Off the White-sand Beaches of St. John

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may9homespunweb.jpgBy Bob Downing

RISMEDIA, May 9, 2008-(MCT)-St. John is one of the best places in the world to go snorkeling, but snorkeling gets little respect. Hollywood and television have glamorized scuba diving. Jacques-Yves Cousteau developed scuba diving and was an A-list celebrity. Lloyd Bridges starred as Mike Nelson in television’s “Sea Hunt.” Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset starred in “The Deep.” But no one makes television shows or movies about snorkeling. Less sizzle.

Yet snorkeling is a very cool way to get wet and wild and see underwater worlds of corals, sea fans and technicolored fish. It is a little unnerving to go eyeball to eyeball with a toothy 3-foot barracuda and it’s impressive to see colorful corals, sea turtles and sponges up close. It’s a chance to peek inside a bigger-than-life aquarium.

Snorkeling requires little equipment and minimal training. If you can swim, you can snorkel. You get fins, a mask, a breathing tube and a swim vest.

If you snorkel in the Virgin Islands, the Caymans, the Bahamas, other Caribbean islands or the Florida Keys, you will find great visibility and lots to see underwater.

Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the Earth’s surface but are home to 25% of all marine fish species. They rival rain forests for species diversity and biological productivity.

But it is a sensitive marine environment. Coral reefs grow only one to two inches per year and reefs take several hundred years to form.

St. John is famed for its snorkeling because of its 39 white- sand beaches, warm water and rich marine life. The reefs are also close to shore and that makes them easily accessible.

Trunk Bay on the north shore of St. John in the 12,708-acre Virgin Islands National Park is widely acknowledged as one of the prettiest beaches anywhere in the world. The quarter-mile-long beach is fringed by palms and sea grapes.

It also is home to a secret underwater world, complete with a 225-yard, self-guided snorkeling trail. It features underwater signs in 10 to 15 feet of water identifying coral reef life.

The triangular Trunk Bay underwater trail starts near the lifeguard stand on Trunk Bay and will take you about 30 minutes to explore.

It’s a great snorkeling spot for beginners. The water tends to be calm and clear. The coral is in good shape, despite the number of visitors it gets, and fish are numerous. Its reefs are home to the island’s largest number of pudding fish. You will probably see yellowtail snappers and blue chromi.

You may see basketball-size brain, lettuce leaf, elkhorn, knobby mustard hill, finger, star and pillar corals.

Queen angelfish, striped sergeant majors, parrotfish and spiny lobsters live along the coral reefs.

Snappers and grunts migrate from the reefs to the seagrass beds at night.

You may even find yourself in the center of a school of small wriggling fish, an eye-opening experience.

But Trunk Bay can be crowded, especially on days when ocean liners dock at nearby St. Thomas. If you want solitude, arrive early or late at Trunk Bay.

There is a $4 a day fee for visitors 17 and older at Trunk Bay.

The National Park Service offers guided snorkeling trips on Tuesday mornings at Trunk Bay. Bring your own gear.

Nearly half of the national park is underwater. It features fringing and patch coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds.

The 11 snorkeling spots on St. John’s north shore include Cinnamon, Jumbie, Salt Pond, Caneel, Hawksnest, Maho and Francis bays.

Maho is known for the sea turtles that are attracted to its seagrass beds.

Francis Bay is known for its jacks and tarpon, predator fish, along with squid, jewfish, octopus and sea cucumbers.

Three lesser-publicized but stellar snorkeling spots are Waterlemon Cay near the historic Annaberg Plantation on the island’s northeast coast; Haulover Bay on the island’s east end; and Flanagan’s Cay on the east end. All three are more secluded-with lots of underwater critters.

To get to Waterlemon Cay, you will have to hike about a mile along Leinster Bay on loose rock. The cay sits about 300 yards offshore, with a reef ringing its base.

Between the beach and the reef, you will probably find starfish, sea cucumbers, green turtles and stingrays in up to 20 feet of water.

It is shallower at the reef, which is filled with blue tang and parrotfish. What you will find at Waterlemon Cay is an underwater world that is larger and more colorful than what you found at Trunk Bay.

St. John’s reefs have thrived, in part because there is little runoff from the park-protected island.

As a general rule, snorkelers do not want to touch any objects or animals underwater. Touching coral can kill it.

Sea urchins, fire coral and bristle worms can be painful.

Feeding animals in the park is illegal.

All sea turtles are endangered or threatened and are protected.

Always snorkel with a buddy.

You want to float and stay horizontal, not vertical. Practice kicking so that you don’t splash. The key is to be comfortable with the equipment and with breathing.

All St. John beaches are public to the vegetation line.

Other St. John activities include hiking, sea kayaking, windsurfing and enjoying the island’s night life and eco-tourist camps.

The mountainous island has heavy vegetation. Civilization is nestled around Cruz Bay on the west end. It is an island where you can be pampered or you can be adventurous.

The only way to get to St. John is by boat or via ferry from nearby St. Thomas, a more ritzy and urbane island.

A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must for the curvy mountain roads.

For information about the park, contact Virgin Islands National Park, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00831; 340- 776-6201. You can also check out http://www.nps.gov/viis. For tourist information, contact the Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, P.O. Box 200, St. John, VI 00831; 340-776-6450; http://www.usvitourism.vi/en/stjohn/sjHome.html.

The No. 1 snorkeling spot in the continental United States is the Dry Tortugas, a cluster of seven islands that lie 70 miles west of Key West, Fla.

The park is accessible only by boat or seaplanes out of Key West or Naples.

The park, with 64,700 underwater acres, features spectacular coral reefs, a sunken ship and an old fort. Depths are up to 20 feet.

For information, contact Dry Tortugas National Park at P.O. Box 6208. Key West, FL 33041; 305-242-7700 or http://www.nps.gov/drto.

You can contact Biscayne National Park at 9700 S.W. 328th St., Homestead, FL 33033; 305- 230-7275 or 305-230-1144; http://www.nps.gov/bisc.

You can also get Florida Keys information at 800-352-5397 (800-FLA-KEYS); or http://www.fla-keys.com.

© 2008, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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