St. John Snorkeling: Caribbean Spiny Lobsters

Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)

Snorkeling the waters of St. John back in the days, these lobsters could be found in just about any hole or under any ledge on the reef. Now they’re a lot more scarce.

During the day, the lobsters hide out in the dark recesses of the coral reef and may be difficult to find. However, at night the lobsters come out of their hiding places and forage the reef, and if you snorkel at night, you’re very likely to see them out in the open.

Although Caribbean Spiny Lobsters look (and taste) very much like the clawed lobsters found in the waters of the northeastern United States, they are not closely related biologically.

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St. John Snorkeling: Sponges

Once upon a time, when I first came to St. John some 40 years ago, the reefs were extremely colorful. Much has changed since then and the abundant hard corals that provided so much of the color have been severely depleted and those that remain are often unhealthy. Now it seems that most of the vibrant colors of the reef come from sponges, which can be seen in a multitude of varying colors, shapes and sizes.

Sponges, in case you weren’t aware, are animals, as are most of the creatures that make up the coral reef such as all the hard corals, the so called soft corals or gorgonians like sea fans and sea rods, and the sponge-like tunicates that often encrust rocks dead coral. As a matter of fact, the only plants on the reef that come to mind are algae and sea grasses.

Sponges are the simplest of the multicellular animals. Lacking any real organs, they survive by taking in water through small pores, filtering out the nutrients and oxygen and expelling the rest through the more visible larger openings.

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St. John Snorkeling Images: Caribbean Reef Squid

Caribbean Reef Squid
Caribbean Reef Squid

My friend, Paul, and I were snorkeling, looking for some conch over a turtle grass bed, when I noticed several schools of squid in the area. I was able to capture a fairly good photo, but I think that I approached them too aggressively and they would move away rapidly. Next time, I’ll try to be really slow and non threatening and see if I can get a good steady close up shot.

By the way, my squid research tells me that the Caribbean reef squid pictured above are the squid commonly encountered over Caribbean reefs.

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St. John Trails: Lameshur Bay to Reef Bay & Back – A Really Cool Loop

St. John Trails: White Cliffs
View of Europa Bay from the White Cliffs Trail

If you’re in decent physical shape and enjoy hiking on St. John and you’re looking for a good hike recommendation, I have one for you: the Lameshur Bay to Reef Bay loop.

This loop will not only provide you with access to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins on the Reef Bay Trail, the waterfall fed pool where Taino Indians made carvings in the rocks called the the petroglyphs and the Par Force Great House where wealthy plantation owners made their home, but it will also lead you on an adventurous journey along a dramatic cliffside trail with breathtaking views, a coastal scramble along a coral rubble beach and access to a remote salt pond and reef protected shallow water lagoon.

Note: The White Cliffs portion of the loop is not an official National Park trail and consequently no official maintenance is being done. My point is, check out this outstanding trail sooner rather than later while it is still in such good condition Experience tells me it won’t be this good forever.

Although there are several modifications and alternative options the basic hike would go something like this:

1) Lameshur Bay Trail from Lameshur Bay to the Europa Spur Trail
2) Europa Spur to the beach at Europa Bay
3) Walk along the beach towards the point (White Point)
4) Pick up the Trail that goes inland and climbs steeply up to the White Cliffs Trail that runs on top of a ridge above the White Cliffs on St. John’s the southern coast between Europa and Reef Bay.
5) Follow the White Cliffs Trail until it ends on the beach at the eastern end of Reef Bay
6) Walk west along the beach as far as you can without getting wet and then walk through the mangrove forest to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill Ruins.
7) Take the Reef Bay Trail to the Lameshur Bay Trail and then hike back to Lameshur Bay.

Bring water! A camera, snacks and bug repellent might also be good ideas.


Lameshur Bay Trail from Lameshur Bay to the Europa Spur Trail
The beginning of the Lameshur Bay Trail passes through some dry forest lowlands. It’s an easy flat and shady walk – a good beginning. Check out the large tamarind tree by the side of the trail. Looks like it was split in half by lightening once upon a time.

If you have plenty of energy, you can check out the Europa Point Trail for some outstanding overlooks and photo ops, but remember the loop is rather long so perhaps the exploration of Europa Point should be left to the end of the adventure, just to see if you really do have that extra energy.

If you’re in luck like I often am, you’ll see a deer or two on this section of the hike. They seem to like it around here.

Europa Bay
The Europa Bay Trail will take you to the beach at Europa Bay. Walk south towards the point to the end of the beach where you’ll find the entrance to the White Cliffs Trail.

Entrance to Europa Bay Beach from the Europa Bay Spur Trail

Europa bay Salt Pond

Me at Europa Bay - photo by Ezius Ashley

Native Orchids

White Cliffs Trail
At the end of the beach you should find a narrow but well defined trail that heads inland and then runs steeple up the hillside to the ridge above. It’s a bit tough going because of the steepness, but before you know it you’ll have reached the top. You’ll pass by some beautiful rock formations after which you should start seeing countless native orchids which seem to be everywhere along this trail and along the ridge top.

Near the top of the trail there are some great overlooks down towards Europa Bay. At the top of the steep trail, there are some more great vantage points. The White Cliffs Trail heads west from here, but you can go east for a little while and enjoy a great view towards the southeastern coastline, Kiddle, Grootpan and Salt Pond Bays.

The trail is presently in great condition and you shouldn’t have a problem following it. Once you get the section above the White Cliffs, there will be plenty of opportunities for great photographs as the trail follows the edge of a steep cliff side that descends from the ridge down to the sea.

To Reef Bay and back to Lameshur
After passing over the White Cliffs, the White Cliff Trail descends down to the beach at the eastern end of Reef Bay. A barrier reef, which forms a long semi circle around the bay comes ashore nearby. Behind the reef is a shallow lagoon, which may or may not be under water depending on the tide and time of year. This lagoon provides protection for many varieties of sea life and is an integral part of island and ocean environments.

Walk east along the beach as long as you can and then enter the mangrove forest proceeding in the same general direction until you get to the sugar mill ruins.

From there take the Reef Bay Trail to the Lameshur Bay Trail.

Note: This was not the first time that I hiked the White Cliff Trail, but this is the first time that I had my good camera with me. Read about my previous White Cliffs trail hike.

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Frangipani Caterpillars, Aposematism and Mangrove Cuckoos

Cultivated Hawaiian Frangipani
native frangipani
Native Frangipani

I have this native frangipani tree growing right below my deck. The tree has been there quite some time evidenced by a rusted piece of wire fencing that had grown into the trunk and now sticks out on both sides of the tree, indicating that this was a mature tree when Chocolate Hole was still used for grazing animals. My guess, seventy to a hundred years old.

But why not? Native frangipanis grow and flower in the most inhospitable environments on St. John. They grow slowly, recover quickly from windstorm damage and as far as I know, only have one significant enemy outside of people.

frangipani caterpillar

I’ve watched this tree since I’ve been living here waiting for it to produce bouquets of sweet-smelling, white flowers, on the top branches of the frangipani tree, which could be seen directly at eye level by someone standing on the deck. But, alas, so far this has never happened.Every so often, especially in the spring the leaves on the tree grow back lush and green and the flowers begin to bloom. That’s when the attack begins, because along comes this army of caterpillars that quickly devour every last flower and leaf on the tree. The frangipani survives anyway and the tree makes new leaves and new flowers whereupon arrive the caterpillars and the cycle begins once again, and so on.


The culprit is the frangipani caterpillar, a brightly colored fat black bug with iridescent yellow stripes and a red head and red legs. It’s called a frangipani caterpillar because it only eats the leaves and flowers of the  frangipani tree, although I have seen them also go to work on alamandas and even the highly toxic oleander.

The caterpillars have voracious appetite. They start off relatively small, but get big and fat fast. They can eat an entire leaf in a few minutes so it’s not long before there’s so many caterpillars that they look like black and yellow flowers and not long after that there’s nothing left on the tree but bare branches, the caterpillars going off to change into moths somewhere.

This year I intend to go to was against these bugs.

So far I have been winning the preliminary battles easily without even having to resort to chemical warfare. The tree is not that tall and I’m able to knock them down using that handy multipurpose St. John tool, a forked stick.

Once they’re down, I’m faced with a moral dilemma, what to do with them.

Kill them?

Easy enough, they don’t run very fast.

But I do happen to be impressed by those bright beautiful colors, and the thought of squishing them underfoot with their guts just about bursting with green, gushy, chewed-up frangipani leaves seems like it may be somewhat, how should I put this, disgusting.

So far, there haven’t been that many caterpillars to deal with, so I simply bring them somewhere else, away from the tree, in hopes that they’ll get lost or and not be able to find their way back. They will, however, have all the time they want, because they have no natural enemies.

Birds and any other predators that normally would eat caterpillars stay away from the Frangipani Caterpillar, whose guts are oozing with poisonous frangipani sap, warned by the bright colors. This defense mechanism is called “Aposematism,” a warning, usually in the form of bright vibrant colors, to a potential predator that there would be some problem associated with going after that particular prey.

mangrove cuckoo

There is an exception to every rule and this particular exception takes the form of the fairly rare mangrove cuckoo.

The cuckoo gets around the poisonous guts by slapping the caterpillar against the trunk of a tree until there’s no guts left. Having accomplished that culinary preparation, the cuckoo will dine on the frangipani caterpillar, whose aposematism didn’t quite do the trick.

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Catapult New Hampshire Style
Catapult Virgin Islands Style

In response to yesterday’s blog about the traditional Virgin Islands slingshot, my good buddy, Bob, “the Trail Bandit” Garrison wrote:

I liked your catapult story. Up here in the Nawth, we are better armed. Attached are a couple of pictures of the New Hampshire catapult that I built. Come to Henniker, NH on the last Saturday in September. I put on the best, free, chicken barbecue around. Lunch is at noon, pumpkins will be hurled. And if it is a nice day, people will be doing silly things in airplanes.
I hope all is well.

By the way, Bob’s trebuchet can hurl a 13-pound pumpkin more than 1/10 mile (600 Feet) and “they hit hard”

A trebuchet or trebucket (from the French: trébuchet) is a siege engine that was employed in the  Middle Ages either to smash masonry walls or to lob projectiles over them and into the castle under siege…read more from Wikpedia

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Catapult: Virgin Islands Slingshot

catapult a Virgin Islands slingshot

Some years ago I came across a piece of Lignum vitae wood. part of which formed a “Y” just the right size for a kid’s slingshot. I saved the wood, but never got around to making it a slingshot, I confess, I’m not that handy, but I’m not so bad at delegating. Anyway the king of Virgin Islands slingshot art happened to be in town and I seized the opportunity. I also dug out this article he had written about just that, making a slingshot, or as they are called here, a catapult:

The Catapult, by Curtney “The Ghost” Chinnery
Normally we children would not go into the woods without our choice of weapon – a catapult. The making of the catapult is simple. Taking a piece of stick that has the shape of a “Y”, we make a groove at the two ends. Then we take a thin strip of tire tube from either a bike or a car and tie both ends of the tube onto the ends, creating what we would call a catapult. Each kid has a catapult.

The tongue of a shoe would be used as a pouch.

All children back then awake at 5:00 in the morning. Most children would have a long distance to go. Some, like myself, would journey into the hill above Great Harbour. My daily routine was climb or walk up the hill, a trail as long as I can remember. Even today it being used. Taking my journey about three mornings each week just before sunrise. Before I leave the yard, I would go to my box outside the house, where I keeps my marbles, catapult, and other personal antics. Taking only the catapult, after drinking a cup of our local bush tea, into the hills to fetch the cows. This was not an easy task for an eight year old. In any case, on the way into the hill to input a little playtime, we would shoot lizards. By doing so, we would get better with our aim. The main purpose of our catapult was to hunt birds, mainly the Mountain Dove. The Mountain Dove normally sings in dry weather. The elders used to tell us that the song the Mountain Dove sings is, “Father God, please send rain.” We still have that saying here on Jost Van Dyke. As my morning journey carries me to the cow pasture, taking and filling my pockets with tiny rocks to be handy for reloading my catapult. Shooting lizards and constantly listening for either the song of the Mountain Dove or the sweet whistling sound of their wings as they sweep through the trees. The reason that the Mountain Dove was our favorite prey on the hills is because of the sweet taste when fried.

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St. John’s Disappearing Century Plant

Century plant in full bloom high up on Great Thatch hillside

Ed Gibney took this photo from the top of Great Thatch’s highest mountaintop, Judging from the century plant in full bloom, it looks like Ed and his son Matthew arrived here before the first wave of Mexican Snout Beetles, culprits responsible for the decimation of century plants on St. John, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Not so long ago, I never would have thought that a photo of  a blooming century plant would be a rare find. The plant was everywhere on St. John and although they bloomed only after twenty years, there were enough of them that come Easter time, the tall flowering stalks could be seen on just about any hillside on St. John.

I used to manage a vacation rental and I found that the century plant was one of those things that visitors would often be curious about another one being a termite nest.

I would often be asked if they were aloes and I would tell them the story about how Christopher Columbus mistook these agaves for aloes, which at the time were used extensively in Europe as medicine and were valuable. And these were really big aloes, giant aloes actually, but unfortunately for Columbus not aloes at all.

Columbus had his men cut up the century plants and haul the heavy leaves back to the boat, I imagine with the sticky oozy, itchy, sap, getting all over the poor sailors, only to find out at some time that they weren’t worth anything in terms of European money was quite disconcering. Another interesting aside is that while Columbus was busy calculating his imaginary future profits in the aloe business, he passed by some Indians smoking an herb in a pipe, something that has brought entrepreneurs untold wealth up until this day, tobacco. Ignoring the tobacco, Columbus stood by and watched the presumably sweating sailors schlepping the “giant aloe” through the bush and back to the ship.

Other New World agaves, however, did prove to be of value.

The fibers from the Agave fourcroydes, known as Henequen were used to make rope and twine and set off an economic boom in Mexican state of Yucatán until they were replaced by synthetic fibers.

The popular alcoholic beverage, tequila, is made form Agave tequilana

Agave nectar a sweetener made from several different species of agave has recently become popular with food faddists due to it’s low glycemic index compared to other sweeteners such as cane sugar

Returning to St. John and my captive audience of curious visitors, there was another little piece of performance art I orchestrated for them using the century plant, the needle and thread shtick. Taking hold of the spine at the end of the century plant leaf, and pulling on it until it separated from the leaf, out would come the spine with a strong fiber still attached….

“Look,” I would say, “ready made needle and thread!”

"Needle and thread" from a St. John century plant

St. John Christmas Tree

digeriedo made from century plant
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Baba Ram Das at Peace Hill

About fifteen years ago Baba Ram Das, who I remembered as Richard Alpert from the Timothy Leary, LSD and psychedelic mushroom days, gave a free talk at Peace Hill just before sunset. It was a clear blue-sky afternoon a light breeze out of the east, the sun low in the sky in the west

I would say about a hundred people were gathered on the hilltop, old hippies, young hippies, ex hippies, wannabe hippies, new agers of all stripes and colors, crunchy granolas, Woodies people and Peter Bay people. We were there to hear Baba Ram Das, the contemporary spiritual teacher, the guru, the icon of the sixties philosophy.

About fifteen or twenty minutes past his scheduled arrival time, he appeared, having walked up the trail to the scenic hilltop. He was accompanied by his entourage, ladies in white flowing robes, which to me looked like they may have been bed sheets in some previous incarnation. He made his way to a prepared platform bedecked with flowers as the flowing gown ladies tossed flowers onto his path. Baba Ram Das was ready to speak.

The crowd became silent. Ram Das looked up, his gaze surveying the scene. He took in that big breath, suggesting that he was about to speak, something important, something meaningful. But no words come out. He exhales. Seems he’s thinking about something else. Some moments pass. Ram Das raises his head again, gazes from one side to the other, takes in that breath again … but no words come out. He exhales.

“What’s going on,” I think.

Maybe others are starting to wonder also.

Ram Das picks up his head a third time looks from side to side, the big inhale again, no words, He exhales, looks out at the sea, turns again, inhales deeply once more, and then he blurts out something that obviously had nothing to do with his prepared or semi prepared talk.

And with a warm smile and a real sincerity in his voice he says:

Wow! It’s really beautiful here!”

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