Sea Kayaking in the Virgin Islands

Story and Photos by Tom Bol
first appeared in Kayak Touring 2007

“Shark! Shark! Right below you!” my wife, Cree, shouts through her snorkel. Suddenly the Jimmy Buffet song that has been playing in my head screeches to a halt, replaced by the sound of my pounding heart. Looking below my snorkel fins,
I see it, barely five feet below me. I reach for my dive knife. Ever since watching Peter Benchley’s Jaws as a kid, I have had a latent fear of sharks.
Cree and I came to St. John in the Virgin Islands for a leisurely sea kayaking adventure. Our strategy was simple. Virgin Islands National Park, with its numerous small islands and world-class snorkeling, would be our playground for a week. With kayaks, we could land on deserted islands and rocky coastlines where larger boats couldn’t, ensuring solitude and pristine snorkeling. Up until now, my only stress has been whether I missed any spots while slathering on the sunscreen.

A local told us about a particular reef, a place with incredible snorkeling, but way offshore, deep, and where “tourists never go.” We immediately paddled out to the reef, snorkeling from our kayaks, which resulted in my current predicament.
Grabbing my dive knife, I realize how silly this must look to my wife. “Jaws” turns out to be a three-foot nurse shark catnapping beneath a large elkhorn coral. Cree is going to love retelling this story back home. She swims below me to take a close look at the shark, then gives me a smirk and continues exploring the reef below. Now I really feel foolish. So much for my Tarzan ego.
The Virgin Islands are a sprinkling of tropical green in a bathtub of Bombay Sapphire blue, a warm-water Caribbean mecca where both land and ocean temperatures hover in the 80s all year. Located 1,100 miles south of Miami, these islands number around 100, divided between the United States and the United Kingdom. Some islands, or cays, as they are called, are uninhabited and small enough to throw a baseball across. Others, like
St. Thomas, are commercialized cruise-ship destinations, places we normally avoid.

“I feel like I am floating in an aquarium”

Our destination was St. John, a lush green island with few towns and fewer ritzy hotels. Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of St. John, protecting it from development. The island is laced with white sand beaches, formed from pulverized coral. Add to that crystalline waters and vibrant coral reefs, and we knew we had to explore the area by sea kayak. Better yet, we were bringing our own kayaks with us on the plane.
“What are you guys doing?” a sunburnt beachgoer asks. “Is that a kayak?”

Details on Planning your own Virgin” adventure

We are building our red Folbot Coopers under a shady palm tree, barely able to contain our enthusiasm to start paddling. Foldable kayaks are great. You can take them anywhere, put them together in about 30 minutes, and take off. The Coopers track well and paddle fast. Sandy beaches eliminate any chance of puncturing the hulls.
“Let’s paddle over to Whistling Cay to snorkel,” I suggest as we float just off the beach near Cinnamon Cay. “I want to see if we can find that 300-year-old anchor.”

We aren’t the first ones to appreciate the
idyllic nature of these islands. They were first inhabited by Ciboney Indians, and later by Arawak Indians who arrived from Venezuela in dugout canoes. Christopher Columbus named them Las Once Mil Virgenes after he
“discovered” them in 1493.

The snorkeling at Whistling Cay is stunning. Bobbing on the surface in about four feet of water, I feel like I am floating in an aquarium. Mustard-colored elkhorn corals, arms branching out in all directions, reach toward the surface. Patches of green pillar coral are surrounded by purple and yellow sea fans waving in the current. Brain corals, some as big as compact cars, form stanchions for sponges and anemones.

Tropical fish thrive. Schools of blue tang swim in unison through the coral forest, while foureye butterflyfish hover near fire coral. Near the surface a trumpetfish glides, while a great barracuda cruises in deeper waters. We encounter a school of reef squid, resembling a squadron of fighter planes in V-formation. Trying to get closer, we get inked in the process as the squids dart off. I am living my Jacques Cousteau fantasy. Distracted by the fish and coral, we abandon our search for the old frigate anchor.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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