Really Test the Water!
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
By the sea By the sea By the beautiful sea...
That familiar (don’t you watch old movies?) vaudeville ditty, kind of sums up life in St Thomas for many of us here. Last week I waxed ever so eloquently about the charms of 2 of my favorite beaches. This week I’d like to delve the depths (literally!) a bit further.
The sea surrounding our gorgeous island is teeming with inhabitants, all going merrily about their business just as we land-bound creatures go about ours. We attach all sorts of importance to our many extraneous activities but the basics like reproduction and obtaining sustenance we share with all creatures – even the ones that don’t breathe the same air that we do. The commonality of being chow hounds (just think how much plankton a whale consumes) should prove to one and all just how much alike we really are – it’s just easier for us with the convenience of supermarkets – aren’t you glad that you don’t have to search for (or even worse – chase) all of your meals? Although, as a group, we’d probably be a lot fitter!
The undersea world in our warm waters is absolutely fascinating. We’re fortunate in that there are a number of ways to explore it. Snorkeling and skin diving are the choices for those who really enjoy a direct hands on experience – and nothing beats communing with sea creatures in their own element. For those who want to see what’s going on but really don’t want to get wet, there is the choice of a sightseeing submarine or the underwater observation tower at Coral World (to our knowledge there are only 2 other of these observation towers in the world – one in Israel and the other in the Bahamas). These last two choices offer a most comfortable way to see lots (and in the case of Coral World you can watch for hours – not a good idea for divers!) but they do lack the excitement of interaction. So no matter if you fancy yourself the new Esther Williams or Johnny Weissmuller (pop quiz time – who are they?) or you’re the world’s most confirmed landlubber, you too can enjoy St Thomas’s biggest natural resource.
One creature to keep your eyes peeled for is the turtle – actually we have three different types in the waters surrounding St Thomas – the hawksbill and green turtles that weigh in at around 300-400 lbs; and the endangered giant leatherback turtle – this dainty creature often tips the scales at 1/2 ton. The leatherback is one of the world’s least understood turtles since it is the only species that lives entirely in deep seas instead of coastal waters. Their only forays ashore occur approximately every two years (and this little excursion is marked “for females only”), when they come from the North Atlantic to lay their eggs on our sandy beaches (one of our beaches, Trunk Bay in St John, is named after the “trunk back” or leatherback turtle). Pity the poor males – scientists believe that they probably never come to land. The hawksbill and the green turtles, on the other hand, are a little easier to spot; check near shoals and reefs to see the hawksbill and remember last week that I told you turtles hang out at Magens? – well, those are green turtles.
Turtles are powerful, agile swimmers capable of diving to tremendous depths for long periods (they’ve been tracked for as long as 35 minutes on just one lungful of air), and very elusive to those who would desire to catch their actions on film. Their grace in the water doesn’t carry over to their shore excursions, however. On land their bulk proves to be more of a hindrance, even their aerodynamic design doesn’t help when dragging that heavy shell on 4 little flippers through unwieldy sand – not “a day at the beach” for those devoted females! It is just a dash easier for the green turtle moms-to-be, though – they lay their eggs only 2 or 3 feet from the shoreline. (I once was an unknowing witness to an egg-laying event for a hawksbill turtle and can attest to the fact that it is a looong, tedious job – it took that young lady hours to get to the spot she wanted, dig the hole for the eggs, and return to the sea. It didn’t help that my sleeping form was directly in her path!) And, unfortunately, all that work is often for naught since the mortality rate for the defenseless hatchlings (prey for crabs, dogs, birds, deep footprints, strong sun and a myriad of other pitfalls) is daunting. But with luck, and the help of stronger conversation programs, perhaps the turtle populations will increase and the awesome sightings of these sea reptiles will become more common.
Another of the more exciting spottings also takes place from land or at least above the water – the humpback whale. Every February and March, residents and tourists alike keep watch to see the cows with their new calves (papa is usually there, too, devoted dad that he is) cavorting in the waters off the island’s north side. Again, these are residents of more northern waters taking advantage of the more salubrious seas of these latitudes (just like their human counterparts!). After these new calves have gotten their “sea legs,” they and their parents head for home for another year before the spring ritual will begin again.
And no marine encounter endeavour would be complete without trying to make contact with everyone’s favorite fish, the porpoise. There are a number of places in the Caribbean who market “swimming with the porpoises” programs. Many of them proclaim that their porpoises are free to leave and perhaps they are but I doubt if they are ever as free as their ocean-ranging cousins – they’re money-makers, after all. Porpoises really do like human contact and often choose to play with boaters – they seem to have gotten the concept of racing down pat. They are usually found in groups of 2 or 3, jumping and playing among themselves and maybe, if you are extremely lucky, they will decide to include you in their games. Wouldn’t that be a memory of a lifetime?
Other encounters with the denizens of the deep will certainly seem mundane after the aforementioned but most are, in their own way, just as much of a fun experience. (Granted. we don’t know anyone who is mad keen on a close one on one with a Carcharodon Carcharias – that’s a big, mean shark for all non biology majors out there. Although, to be very truthful, people who make their living in and on the sea – divers, fishermen and the like – know that the average shark does not deserve the bad rap he’s gotten; they’re much more wary of that attack-happy charmer, the barracuda.)
Even the little fish that you find close to shore at the beach are fun. They’re usually baby blue runners or yellowtail snapper, 3 or 4 inches long – playful companions that will entertain you while swimming. Far from showing fear, individuals will swim circles around your legs, dart around your arms and even take a tentative nibble at something enticing like a mole. Schools of tiny fish (called fry) are not nearly as diverted by their human companions, but you will be diverted by the experience of being surrounded by thousands of fish purposefully looking for dinner while avoiding being someone else’s dinner. This interaction with the fish is an experience new to most visitors and one they thoroughly enjoy (after getting over their initial trepidation).
Of course there are many other living things to be found in or near the water but since coral and mollusks are not extremely rewarding for the casual watcher we’ll just consider them a living backdrop for the more interesting life around them. Lobsters (ours don’t have claws) are fairly numerous, as are squid and octopi and, on occasion, jellyfish. Obviously, this whole last group of creatures is not high on our “worth a detour” list but they do have their fans and if you’re one, make note of the fact that this is a great place to see them.
Next week, perhaps a break from beachy subjects to show you that we really do have other things/places of interest! Till then…