Arthur Jones came to St. John from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be a Caribbean kayak guide. He thought it would last a season, maybe two. Seventeen years later he’s still here and helping me explore the island’s rugged coast. “I never thought I would stay this long but … look around.” The island national park of St. John rises behind and St. Thomas – capital of the USVI — is just three miles to the west. The low hills of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands spread to the north and east, silhouetted in the morning light, appearing to go on forever. “Why would I leave?”
Pushing kayaks off Maho Beach we head out and around Whistling Cay. Winds are calm today; they can often blow 10 to 20 knots, making for challenging kayaking. Tiny, silvery baitfish jump in packs of hundreds, suggesting predators are nearby. Sure enough, just below the surface swim a dozen 30-pound tarpon and above circles a gang of pelicans.
I ask Arthur if he can explain a mystery of nature I’ve long wondered about: Why don’t pelicans break their necks when they slam beak-first onto the hard surface of the water? “Surprisingly, they do, but not for the reasons you might think. A scientist once explained that all those years of impacting eventually affect their eyes, which go bad. And then they die misjudging the water because they can’t see so well anymore. They hit a rock or hit the water too early or too late, and snap their necks. Hard to believe, but true.”
As we paddle we hear the green turtle break the surface before we see it. “There are lots of turtles out here, both in and out of the national park boundaries, but especially inside the park. Somehow I think they’ve figured out it’s a good place not to get hunted.”
On Whistling Cay the hills are steep, spiked with cactus. A solitary beach is accessible through the breaking surf, perfect for resting the kayaks and snorkeling among the coral. On the far side of the island is the shell of an old Danish custom’s house; a similar one is on Great Thatch Island, in the BVI, just a couple miles away. “Apparently the guys manning the signal fires used to get bored and just signal each other,” says Arthur.
It’s changing though. “See those houses there, on the hill?” he asks, pointing back towards the main land of St. John. “None of those was here when I came.” Fortunately the natural world here is less changed.
The next day with a rented 4×4, necessary due to the steep hills and muddy paths that take over when the roads run out, I visit all of the island that is accessible by road. From East End to Saltpond Bay and on to Great Lameshur Bay, all surrounding the big Coral Bay; this is the less populated, more rugged, wilder side of the wild island.
Where the main town of Cruz Bay’s streets are narrow and tightly packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, the road that winds through the island’s only other town of any substance — Coral Bay — is pocked with a couple small commercial developments and a handful of roadside shacks selling fish and vegetables.
My research into what makes this end of the island tick begins – and ends, much later in the day — at the bar at Skinny Legs, just past the Emmaus Moravian Church and on the road to the village of Palestina. The bar on weekday afternoon is amazingly packed. Named for the identifying mark of its two Boston-based founders, the open-air room boasts a half-dozen TV’s turned to sports and tables for 50 burger munchers and beer swillers. Jimmy Buffet is on the stereo; this is clearly the stop for both expats who’ve already made their escape to the island and visitors desirous of doing exactly the same one-day. Lots of big-sunburned guys with ponytails who long ago opted for the easier pace of island life. One weak coffee, a club soda and one very good Kamikaze later, I’m back on the road, promising to return for the baseball playoffs (available only in Spanish) later that night.
Back in the car I veer off the road at a sign announcing Concordia Estates. Concordia is the sister resort to Maho Bay Camps, boasting slightly more sophisticated tents with views out over Rams Head Point. The point, formed by tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ocean surface where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea adjoin, looking out over Flanagan’s Passage towards Tortola. To the east, Nanny Point juts into the sea, covered with soon-to-flower barrel cactus, big red buds popping out of the thick-necked cacti. Geologically this is the oldest rock on St. John. “St. John’s gets a tremor each day,” says manager Jennifer Pierce, who left Maine and an organic farming business a decade ago for the ability to swim in a warm ocean every day. “I’ve had the earth move significantly enough that my furniture has been dancing in my room.” Probably not a selling point these days, given the tremblers that seem to be rocking the world corner by corner.