I’m a guest on the Arabella this week, a 160 foot tri-masted schooner that carries up to 40 passengers. Our itinerary is all islands Virgin, including St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Norman and Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands and the Spanish Virgin Islands of Vieques and Culebra.
The latter seemed more like a marketing term than a proper designation, until you realize that their history is distinct from Puerto Rico, about six miles to the northwest. Settled by the Spanish in the early 19th century, Vieques became a sugar cane powerhouse, with four massive mills scattered around the 55 square mile island.
The U.S. took control of Vieques after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The sugar industry died after the U.S. military bought 2/3 of the island during World War II. The majority of the island’s 10,000 residents were forcibly relocated to St. Croix, and much of Vieques was used for various military purposes, including amphibious landing exercises, special forces parachute drops, missile shoots, submarine drills and outright bombing.
After rising protests in the latter part of the 20th century, the U.S. military turned over the land to the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in 2003. Since then, the public can visit Vieques and tourist development has been steadily growing.
The bioluminescent bay at Puerto Mosquito is the best reason to visit Vieques. This salt-water bay, one of two bioluminescent bays on Vieques, is full of tiny protozoa, which emit light through a chemical defense system when touched.
While there are other biobays around the world (my husband and I visited one in Thailand on our honeymoon), the bays on Vieques are considered the brightest and largest in the world. That’s because the decomposing roots from mangrove trees on the side of the bay provide bacteria for the protozoan to feed on.
Our group tendered to shore under a crescent moon. We boarded a rickety bus with broken seats and began a bumpy, sweaty journey to the bay. We could hear branches brushing up against the bus, which made a constant wheezing sound as our driver alternated between watching the road and reading texts on his phone.
Once there, we waited for a pontoon boat to deposit an earlier group. Clearly, word about the Bio Bay is out; three large groups a night went out from one tour operator – and that’s not counting the kayakers we saw paddling along the coast. Still, the Bay is large enough that our group had privacy as we chugged out to the center.
Our guide pointed out various constellations, including the Southern Cross, but we were much more entranced by the glowing water next to us. The boat created a snake-like track through the water until finally our group was given the go ahead to swim. We all jumped into the Bay like kids, with floaties tied around our waist.
As I swished around in the water, streaks of light seemed to emerge from my hands. I lifted my arm from the water to watch the electric drops roll down, and I splashed my husband, Don, momentarily lighting up his back with tiny specks. I felt like Hermione from Harry Potter; all I needed was the wand. “Abracadabra!” I shouted, but no one was paying attention. They were all caught up in their own magic moment.
We splashed around under the starry sky for about 40 minutes before our guides told us we had to vacate for the next group. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to get photos of the plankton’s eerie bluish light (and the ones I’ve seen on the Net seem heavily photoshopped). But we all agreed that it was a one-of-a-kind trip, and well worth the $30 we each spent.
Have you visited a bio bay other than the one in Vieques? If so, where?