Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico's Vieques
Bombs once exploded on Isla de Vieques during naval exercises. Now that the military range has been turned into a wildlife refuge, the fireworks on this Puerto Rican island are created by glowing microorganisms in its bioluminescent bay.
From sunup to sundown, however, the remainder of the preserve, including several spectacular beaches, is now open. I startle mongoose and flush coveys of rolitas, the local name for common ground doves, as my jeep bounces for two miles along a gullied, rock-strewn trail to Bahia de la Chiva, also known as Blue Beach. But the strand, a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of gently scalloped, powdery white sand, redeems the bad road. I feel as if I'm at a secret Castaway club; I count fewer than a dozen other vehicles on this high-season afternoon. As a bonus, the shallows along the rocky eastern point conceal some of the best snorkeling on Vieques: fragile finger coral and sea fans and larger brain corals providing cover to colorful wrasse and parrotfish as well as jack and barracuda. Just offshore, a squad of brown pelicans glides east, bound for Cayo Conejo, a small islet near the old bombing range that holds the commonwealth's largest alcatraz colony. From the low-hanging branches of a nearby sea grape tree, I spy a flash of yellow-green feathers--a male scarlet tanager in Day-Glo winter plumage.
Vieques is "a major stopover and wintering area for shorebirds and raptors,'' says Daphne Gemmill, a retired Environmental Protection Agency policy analyst from Washington, D.C., who has birded the island for the past 20 years. "It's also fertile ground for wintering neotropical migrants.'' According to Gemmill, who is creating a bird database for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 148 species have been spotted on the island, including three endemics: the Puerto Rican woodpecker, the Puerto Rican flycatcher, and the Adelaide's warbler. The refuge and its surrounding waters also support four species of sea turtle: leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, and green. On this very beach, it won't be long before half-ton female tinglares, or leatherbacks, haul themselves out to lay clutches exceeding 100 eggs.
To protect the threatened and endangered animals from poachers and predators, Julian Garcia Martinez, a biology teacher at the Vieques middle school, began a grassroots conservation group six years ago. "My father was a fisherman,'' the Esperanza native explains in Spanish. "He was an accomplice in the killing of sea turtles. I always had this preoccupation.''
The volunteers with his nonprofit group, Ticatove (an acronym based on the Spanish names for the turtle species), mount all-night patrols on public beaches during the nesting season, which begins with the February arrival of egg-laden female leatherbacks and stretches until September, when the last green and hawksbill hatchlings claw their way to the sea. The work also takes the teams to restricted-zone beaches, such as Playa Matias, where they must be accompanied by UXO technicians. It's too soon to tell if Garcia Martinez's initiative has helped, but fishermen tell the soft-spoken teacher they're seeing more marine turtles. Some pescadores even contact his group or the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources if they encounter an egg-laying female.
"It's very important for the community to be involved, and to think this is important,'' Garcia Martinez says. Two years ago, he recalls with a smile, fishermen came by his house in the middle of the night with astounding news: hawksbill turtles were hatching on a narrow stretch of sand just beneath El Malecon, Esperanza's beachside promenade.
Diaz-Marrero hopes more Viequenses will recognize the inherent value of the island's abundant natural resources and their potential to support a range of ecotourism activities. As a model, he mentions the J.N. "Ding'' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife-rich mangrove preserve that is the signature attraction of Sanibel Island, Florida. "The economy of Sanibel Island is basically the refuge," he says. "Why would you not do the same here?''
Many of the local activists who spearheaded protests against the Navy see a similar role for their island. A sustainable-development plan produced with the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques recommended ecotourism and low-density accommodation while rejecting mass tourism. To date there has been just one resort hotel, the 144-room plantation-style Martineau Bay Resort & Spa.
"The possibilities are unlimited, and the dangers and the negative models are very close by,'' says Robert Rabin, a spokesman for the committee. "We only have to look at St. Croix and St. Thomas, where the people of those islands have become a minority and where their natural resources and economies have been taken over by others.''
The island's crown jewel is a small bay with the dubious name of Puerto Mosquito. By day it's an unremarkable place, save for wintering ospreys, merlins, and American kestrels: a basin just one-third of a square mile with a maximum depth of 14 feet, rimmed by an unbroken palisade of mangroves. But at night its bioluminescent qualities--often considered the brightest in the world--are in full bloom. The reason is a single-cell dinoflagellate, Pyrodinium bahamense (the scientific genus comes from the Greek words for "whirling" and "fire''), and the special circumstances that allow this plankton to flourish and flash in such a humble setting.