Rob and I spent a January week in Vieques, PR, a small island off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico. It was a much needed break from a gray, snow-less, gray, dark January in Chicago. (Did I mention the gray? We might as well live in Alaska!). Vieques, part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, is known for its bioluminescent bay, long pristine beaches and snorkeling/diving. There was a lot of opportunity for beach-access snorkeling in so many different locations. So much so, that there’s only one company on the island that takes people snorkeling by boat! The beach snorkeling was incredible! More on that later.
There are about 9000 people on the small island (approx 4mi x 20mi), 2/3 of which is a federal wildlife refuge. There are two small towns, two gas stations and no traffic lights. It’s a little USA, a little foreign land: the roads are marked in kilometers but the speed limits are in mph, the currency is USD and the gas is sold in litres, most residents are bilingual and the streets are very narrow (like I imagine they are in Europe). There’s not a lot of tourism here. I didn’t see one t-shirt/souvenir shop. The people are very friendly and welcoming. I think the cautions to leave your car unlocked and empty of valuables at the beaches is merely a crime-deterrent. I always felt safe wherever we went and we had zero problems.
There are probably as many free-roaming horses as there are people on the island. The horses are good about staying off the roads (mostly) and keep to themselves…and the garbage. Many of them are branded and well-kempt, but others are matted and looked wild. Our host said that all of the horses are definitely owned and added that if you were to hop up on one and go for a ride, the owner would promptly appear demanding payment for livery. However, if you hit a horse on the road (which is by law the responsibility of the horse owner), the owner will never be found!
Vieques is the land of pets out of control. There is a robust iguana population. As escaped pets with no predators, their numbers continue to grow. Packs of wild dogs are on the island and in the refuges, sometimes working the beaches for handouts. Free-roaming pet dogs seem to control the territories of the streets and open air restaurants, politely waiting for a taste of your meal.
The Humane Society of the United States has a big presence here and has their work cut out for them. In terms of “real” wildlife, there are a lot of mongooses in the wildlife refuges that were brought in to try to control the mice and rats that came over aboard ships. As was the case here, that kind of thing rarely works out like it was planned. However, because of the robust mongoose population, there are no snakes on the island. Interestingly, the only terrestrial mammal that is native to Vieques is the bat.
The Bioluminescent Bay is Vieques’ claim to fame. A microscopic plankton, the dinoflaggelate, emits light in response to movement/threats in the dark. Guinness declared this biobay the brightest in the world. Indeed, there are an average of 500,000 organisms in a gallon of water here. The next brightest, on mainland Puerto Rico, has just 40,000 per gallon. It is one of only 6 permanent biobays in the world, one is in Vietnam and the rest here are in the Caribbean tropics.
We took a nighttime kayak tour to experience Vieques’ Mosquito Bay (named after a ship, not a pest). The kayaks have clear bottoms. No shoes allowed! I don’t like to step on things that I cannot see. I’ve been wearing water shoes since before there were water shoes and prefer to swim vs wade in shallow murky water. So in the dark of night, I bravely waded into the mucky-bottomed biobay barefoot to get into the kayak. Right away we could see bits of light streaming under us, like a starry night full of shooting stars. Where the paddles disturbed the water, it was difficult to appreciate that there was light in the bubbles. I’d guess that without the bioluminescense we wouldn’t be able to see the bubbles at night. But, they still just looked like bubbles. Then we got into an area with greater concentrations of these dinoflaggelates. Our paddles began to glow as they cut through the water. We could see the lit shapes of fish darting away from the approach of our kayak! Their were schools of fish all over! It was really impressive. I scooped my hand through the water watching the light stream behind. As I pulled my hand out of the water the light dripped off my hand like beads of mercury. It was pretty amazing. Because its so dark and the light is so fleeting, photography is not possible with ordinary equipment. It would require an SLR, long exposures and lots of practice. Despite this, every night, skeptical people try to capture images with their Iphones and are surprised when their screen is black. Ever hopeful, I suppose. There were 10 tandem kayaks in our group plus the guide and a couple of other tours’ groups on the bay. There’s not a lot of time to linger in the areas of greater luminescence because of the numbers of people on the bay. It was cool. It’s definitely not as dramatic as pictures you may have seen. You’d enjoy it. But don’t go to Vieques to just see the biobay and leave, you’ll miss the best part. Snorkeling!