St. Thomas

This island was first Ciboney land, a subgroup of the Taino people who also settled Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. They were later supplanted by the Arawaks and the Caribs. In the late 1600s, Denmark decided to claim the island as their own, bringing disease and decimating the local population. The first settlers belonged to the St. Thomas Reformed Church, which is how the island was given its name.

By 1673, the Danes had brought enslaved Africans to the island to work sugarcane plantations. For awhile, the largest slave market in the entire world was on St. Thomas. This was one of the corners of the triangle trade where sugar was sent to New England to make rum, which was sent along with other goods to Africa to buy more slaves. Slaves were emancipated here in 1848.

Fort Christian

In order to protect the land they had occupied, the Danish built a giant fort right at the bay. The tour guide told me that its placement was a joke, easily overrun with no ability to lookout for potential attacks.

pictures of Fort Christian: 1 - view from roof, 2 - view of front facade (a reddish building with arched windows and a clocktower), 3 - cannon on top of roof overlooking bay

inside, outside and a cannon on top

In 1874, the fort was turned into the local jail and used for that purpose until 1983. The most interesting part of the tour was the discussion of the bathrooms and how they had only a tiny opening for someone to squeeze into so most people had to drop their drawers in full view of the officers. The female shower was outdoors and was in a perfect line of sight from the main office.

1 - floor showing a tiny opening to a bathroom, 2 - me looking sad and holding onto a gated door, 3 - a cavernous room with only one small window shining light

remnants of walls built showing the outline of the bathrooms, me locked up in a jail cell, room for 5 female prisoners

Mangrove Lagoon

One of the most beautiful sights on St. Thomas is a well-preserved red mangrove lagoon on the south side of the island. Mangroves are important for helping to prevent the most disastrous effects of tropical storms, especially storm surge. Boats actually come into the mangroves for shelter when hurricanes are coming. Unfortunately, these aren’t always enough. In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the Virgin Islands then just a few days later Hurricane Maria came through. The first one had tons of high winds and the second brought endless rain. All of the islands are still recovering from the devastation.

Mangroves also do a great job of filtering pollution out of the water and prevent land from being lost to erosion. They also providing a protective nursery for small creatures that contributes to the larger coral reef ecosystem. d I’ve seen mangroves before, and always thought of them as swampy and full of muck. However, the mangrove lagoon I swam in was crystal clear and it turned out to be an absolutely delightful experience.

top: four-eye butterflyfish, banded coral shrimp, beaugregory damselfish
bottom: blunt spine brittle star, bristle ball brush algae, red cushion sea star

Water Island & Secret Beach

There are three main islands in the United States part of the Virgin Islands – St. Thomas, St. Croix and St John. However, there is another island, just south of St. Thomas, known as Water Island – which is the fourth largest. There are a bunch of other islands that are even smaller including the island known as Little Saint James, which Jeffrey Epstein converted into his private island of sex trafficking horror. More than one tour guide pointed it out.

While hanging out at Honeymoon Beach on Water Island, I started the snorkeling-oriented part of my vacation. It’s always fun to find organisms that I’ve never seen before. Squirrelfish were new for me and so was this cool looking fireworm, a type of segmented polychaete worm with sensory bristles. When frightened, most bristle worms can release them as a defensive maneuver and the bristles are apparently quite painful when they get lodged into human skin.

saddled blenny, common squirrelfish, orange fireworm

After finishing up on the rocky side, I swam out into the middle of the cove and came upon a couple of turtles that were just hanging out eating seagrass. Much to my surprise, they also had animals hanging out on them! These are remoras, a type of fish that have a giant sucker that can attach to the skin or shell of another organism. At first scientists thought they were cleaner fish eating algae and detritus on the surface of the host, but apparently they mostly consume the feces of their host organism. I’ve seen photos of these on sharks and whales, but never on turtles. What was really interesting for me was watching them detach when the turtle came up to breathe, which is every 5-10 minutes, and then reattach when the turtle came back to the seafloor. For this reason, turtles must be a less than ideal host.

remoras on a green turtle, green turtle, more remoras

There’s a lot of beautiful beaches in St. Thomas, but Secret Beach is pretty great. There is good snorkeling on both sides of the cove, a good restaurant, and not too many people. I found some nice corals and got to see a flounder swimming which is always fun.

top: closeup of great star coral, closeup of great star coral, boulder brain coral
bottom: critically endangered elkhorn coral, peacock flounder hidden in sand, peacock flounder swimming

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