Vieques Island: What lies beneath


For two Alberta landlubbers who've never snorkelled before, it's a revelation: beneath the seemingly empty waters off Puerto Rico's Vieques (vee-AY-kes) Island lives a bustling metropolis.

Vieques Island: What lies beneath

For two Alberta landlubbers who've never snorkelled before, it's a revelation: beneath the seemingly empty waters off Puerto Rico's Vieques (vee-AY-kes) Island lives a bustling metropolis.

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Neon schools of fish in tight formation dart past rippling fronds; desperate prey dodge coral ledges with predators in cold pursuit. Quite like the madly kicking feet beneath the fixed smile of a synchronized swimmer, I think. Or like the history of the people who call this island home.

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On the surface, Vieques is a rolling oasis of expansive beaches, spirited horses, picturesque villages -- and some of the world's brightest glow-in-the-dark bays. A relaxed and idyllic spot just a short hop from San Juan, it's the perfect winter getaway for northerners like us.

Share the winding roads with someone who knows these parts, however, and layers of history surface. Underwater currents that, while painful for those eking out a living here, make this 52-square-mile island even more intriguing to visit. Indeed, a 500-year procession of shifting colonial power has left ruins aplenty to explore, from crumbling Spanish mansions to camouflaged U.S. army bunkers.

Yet the most intriguing aspect remains a gift of nature: those bioluminescent bays.

High concentrations of microscopic dinoflagellates live in these sheltered waters, well-fed and plentiful thanks to nutrients shed by the area's abundant red mangroves. When disturbed, they emit a mysterious blue-green glow.

Husband Peter and I explore the largest of the glow-in-the-dark wonders, Mosquito Bay, during a six-hour excursion with Golden Heron Ecotours. Our party of a dozen launches in mid-afternoon, guided by a trio whose kerchief-topped leader greets us with a jovial "Abe is my name and kayaking is my game."

Following Abe Velasquez and friends across the bay, we enter lush tunnels of mangroves whose roots extend below the water. Putting our paddles down, we snake single file through the tunnels, grasping nearby branches to pull our kayaks ahead. Scuttling crabs and an elegant nesting pelican add to the subtropical scene.

Later we anchor together to form an offshore launch pad, don snorkeling gear and catch our first entrancing glimpse of the coral metropolis below. All too soon, Abe calls us up for the belly flop into our kayaks, accomplished by us first-timers with no points for style.

Paddling to a remote beach just outside the bay, we pull our kayaks into a circle for sitting on and gather driftwood for a fire. From the guides' insulated packs emerge pre-made, individually packaged meals of turkey and pasta, plus brownies for dessert. Pulling out a battered guitar, Abe leads a ragged chorus as the sun sets with an obliging blaze of colour.

Dark descends and we pull back out to sea, each kayak equipped with a tiny taillight. As we re-enter the bioluminescent bay, those dots of light are increasingly eclipsed by the glow of disturbed dinoflagellates. Our paddles light up as they slice through the water; fish trail tails of light as they scurry out of harm's way.

"Dip your hands in," Abe urges.

We do, then watch droplets of light cascade down our upraised arms. Anchoring again, some swim in the brink, becoming human glow sticks. We join a group paddling along the edges of the bay, spying oysters whose very respiration causes a glow as they cling to mangrove trunks.

Near 8 p.m. we pull ashore with regret, leaving the kayaks behind for others who've signed on for a shorter, late-night tour. Another evening we'll return in an electric pontoon boat, which offers a less immediate but still memorable view of dinoflagellates in panic mode.

Whatever the craft, the wonder remains -- as does the realization that this fragile ecosystem faces the compound threat of ground, water and light pollution.

Sixty years as a U.S. naval base has left its own legacy of pollution on this island, including unexploded shells and radioactive fallout. Glimpses of that tense era emerge as I explore the island with Pilar, who lives across the channel in Puerto Rico but was active in international protest that spurred the end of U.S. occupation in 2003.

The United States expropriated much of Vieques in the 1940s for a shooting range, Pilar tells me. Any who refused to leave were forced into a narrow belt of land across the island's middle. For decades, the navy launched bombs from the west that passed directly overtop the populated area and turned the eastern end into a moonscape of craters.

As we pass the entrance to the former bombing grounds, where protests raged just a few years ago, Pilar notes a stark congregation of crosses on the fence. Many carry the names of individuals struck down by the island's markedly high rate of cancer.

Exploring the island's fertile west on another day, Peter and I find hump-backed, sod-covered warehouses where fruit trees once bloomed.

Here the navy stored the armaments used for target practice--uranium artillery, Agent Orange napalm, Fiberglas and even a "test bomb with nuclear characteristics." That latter item was accidentally dropped at sea rather than on land, then recovered at great expense by a crack team of divers and dolphins.

Locals recite a litany of wrongs under naval rule: callous evictions from orchard properties, bogus soil tests that minimized the damage done by dropped bombs, severed fishing lines that further impacted a devastated economy.

Finally a misguided bomb killed a local man hired to guard the bombing grounds. Amid escalating anger, the navy pulled up stakes--a move made easier, perhaps, by the fact that Vieques is no longer considered an essential testing ground.

The island's bombed land is now under U.S. Fish and Wildlife administration. Indeed, some say the United States, which has controlled this pocket of the Caribbean since 1898, has merely traded one set of officials for another, rather than returning the land to local control. Much of the cratered area remains off-limits.

The new regime has reopened one road, allowing daytime access to stunning eastern beaches. Peter and I bump along this potholed route one fine day to Bahia de la Chiva -- or Blue Beach, in bland naval parlance. Past numerous warnings of off-road dangers, past a smattering of cars in assorted pull-outs, we park our rented 4WD at a secluded point and emerge onto a nearly deserted expanse of pearly sand.

Wandering the beach as advancing rain adds character to the sky, we revel in the bay's curving coastline and turquoise waves. After sitting out a slight sprinkle under overhanging trees, we don snorkelling gear for another underwater foray. Again we're amazed by the teeming life so close to shore, although an abundance of broken coral sets us to wondering how much bomb damage happened below the sea.

One rainy day I drive south across the four-mile (6.5-kilometre) width of the island to visit Isabel Segunda, the island's craggy centre of business and government. Using a local map in which one fish equals a mile, I follow a vertically inclined street to the very top and enter the imposing Fortin Conde De Mirasol.

Built by the Spaniards in 1850s to buttress claim over the harbour, the fort opened as a museum in 1991 after decades as a jail and decades of neglect. Directing the museum is Robert Rabin, one of numerous Boston expats involved in (and jailed for) anti-naval protest.

As one might expect, the museum bookstore recounts that struggle with such titles as Military Power and Popular Protest and Kicking off the Bootstraps. Whether in print or told over a seaside meal, there's no question those sagas enliven (and enlighten) a visitor's stay.

The island's ancient history is equally intriguing, I discover as the museum pulls me back in time. Here archeologists recently unearthed one of the world's oldest humans, Puerto Ferro man, who lived perhaps 4,000 years ago. Other displays add depth to my understanding of the more recent parade of cultures: a highly crafted bow and arrow, shards of suggestive pottery, a worn whip, a slave's identification tag.

Spanish sugar plantations kept slavery alive here long after it had lost favour further north, I read. Peering at the photos depicting life on those plantations, I recall a mansion visited earlier with Pilar, its once elegant foundation losing the battle against tropical undergrowth.

Beneath the idyllic surface, many people here are also losing a battle -- a battle for livelihood. With 50-per-cent unemployment among the island's 10,000 residents, tourists like us offer hope, but also threat.

That abandoned plantation site, for example, was purchased by a U.S. investor whose resort would have flooded the island's bioluminescent bays with light and other pollution. Fortunately, local leaders peered beneath the sheen of that proposal.

But there's a sense that it's only a matter of time before this island's key asset is masked by incremental or even massive change.

My advice? Go now, before it's too late. Peer beneath the surface off a near-deserted beach, hear the tales over Caribbean beer --and experience bioluminescence while it still shines in the dark.


- Getting there: From the main island of Puerto Rico you can reach Vieques by plane or ferry. The ferry takes an hour but leaves from Fajardo, 90 minutes by road from your incoming airport in San Juan. We flew from San Juan via Cape Air, catching an excellent overview of Vieques in the low-flying plane. Connecting airlines do not run at night, so it can be difficult to make the entire trip from Alberta in one day. On the plus side, a stopover on the main island allows time to explore the narrow streets of Old San Juan.

- Size: The subtropical island stretches about 34 km long, east to west, and eight kilometres at its greatest breadth, just the right size for a thorough exploring. Four rolling miles (6.5 km) separate the two main centres: Isabel Segunda on the north shore and Esperanza on the south.

- Lodging: You'll find diverse options on Vieques, from the upscale Martineau Bay Resort & Spa to the basic room with shared bath. We stayed at Crow's Nest Inn  (787-741-0033), a comfortable interior spot with nicely landscaped grounds and outdoor pool plus an elevated restaurant that suggests a tree house.

- Shopping and dining: The island's two coastal communities offer a smattering of shops, conservation centres and restaurants. Locals led us to favourite dining haunts, from Island Steakhouse at our own inn to Bananas in Esperanza and the more upscale Uva in Isabel Segunda.

- Bioluminiscent Bay: Several companies offer tours of the glowing bays. To avoid disappointment, book in advance. We chose Golden Heron Ecotours (787-615-1625). Our later excursion by electric pontoon boat was with Island Adventures Biobay Eco-tours (787-741-0720).

- Information: Useful websites include
Isla Vieques
Enchanted Isle


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