African Dust, Sea Lice and Seasonal Changes

St. John Virgin Islands Weather: Sahara DustSt. John lies in the path of the easterly Trade Winds, which provide a fairly constant breeze, which cools off our island and makes for great sailing.

There are nuances to this phenomenon, however. In the winter the trades tend to come from north of east and changes in the Jet Stream can result in the brisk Christmas Winds, northerly groundswells and cold fronts generated from storms over the North Atlantic. As summer approaches the trades tend to come from the south of east bringing us dust from Sahara Desert sandstorms and hurricanes spawned off the African mainland.

Just a week ago, the skies were crystal clear, blue with white puffy clouds and a horizon line that was as distinct as a child’s drawing of the border between the sea and the sky.

The change from clear skies to the present hazy conditions brought on by the Sahara dust seemed to coincide with the arrival of our nasty little planktonic visitors.

As far as I’m concerned, I would just as soon they both go away!

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Frangipani Caterpillar

St. John Creatures: Frangipani CaterpillarsOne morning, April 10, to be exact, I noticed these little caterpillars all on one branch of my native frangipani tree. Caterpillars are nothing unusual for this tree as probably for as long as this tree has been in existence, which I suspect has been more than 100 years, frangipani caterpillars periodically eat every single leaf on the tree.

Frangipani (Plumaria) TreeI say 100 years because there is a piece of barbed wire sticking out of the trunk, which could only have come from the subsistence farming days when this property was dedicated to raising livestock.

St John Virgin Islands Subsistance FarmingThere’s also a concrete trough nearby to testify to this observation.

I’ve been living here for more than a decade and because of the voracious appetite of the frangipani caterpillars for the frangipani leaf, I’ve only seen the tree flower twice. Normally frangipani trees flower after the onslaught of the caterpillars, but not this one.

Frangipani Caterpillars But the caterpillars I saw that Friday morning were different than the large black, yellow striped caterpillars that I’d been accustomed to finding all over the tree munching on the leaves. They were similar, but much smaller, not nearly as colorful and all of them were congregated on one branch. I was fairly sure that they were baby frangipani caterpillars, but I was intrigued. Why were they only on one branch and where did they come from?

St. John Fauna: CaterpillarsAs I’ve been fascinated with these creatures, I decided to do a little study. I photographed them that morning and again the next day, when they began to look more like the frangipani caterpillars I was used to, although smaller and still on that single branch.

HornwormThe frangipani caterpillar is also called frangipani hornworm because of the black hornlike feature on its posterior. This caterpillar also seems to be in the process of defecating, thus fertilizing the tree as it drops to the ground.

In a few days the caterpillars resembled those I was used to seeing on the tree. They spread out and got big and fat and colorful and within a little more than two weeks had consumed every leaf on the tree. This time I was ready for them. I wanted to see what happened to them next. Where they go?

St. John Virgin Islands Environment: Leaf LitterThis morning, with every scrap of leaf gone, the caterpillars crawled  down the tree trunk and I followed them. Some crawled one way and others went in the opposite direction. Eventually they found area where old leaves were piled up and composting. They burrowed into the leaves and disappeared from my sight.

Ifrangipani caterpillar pupa waited about 30 minutes and removed the leaves from where I last saw the caterpillar, where I found this similar-looking creature. It appeared curled up, stiff and shrunken, but moved to burrow further into the soil when exposed.

From what I’ve read about the frangipani caterpillar, this might be the beginning of the pupa stage from which eventually emerges the Tetrio or Giant Gray Sphinx moth and then again it might be a different creature altogether.

size difference
Full-sized caterpillar placed next to what I believe to be the pupa stage

On further inspection of the leaf litter, I found the frangipani caterpillar. The creature I thought might be the pupa, is, apparently a yellow-banded millepede.

I’m still looking to find the pupa that according to looks like this: frangipani caterpillar pupa



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Stinging Plankton

I took two nice long swims; one yesterday at Hawksnest and another, the day before at Trunk. I kept feeling these little stings , but didn’t see anything and the pain only lasted for a second or two, so I just kept on swimming. But now I have all these little bumps and they ITCH!!!

The probable culprit, a stinging plankton with the disgusting name “sea lice.” These tiny plankton, some so small that you can’t even see them, have a microscopic little barb called a nematocyst that activates when the plankton makes contact with something, like another plankton or small fish or you, and releases an irritating protein, that can develop into a itchy, itchy, itch later on.

I can attest to their presence at Hawknest and Trunk Bays and I’ve heard reports from Caneel Bay and even out on the East End, so it looks like they’ll be around for a while, until that evil tide or current that brought then this way takes them somewhere else. The sooner the better!

Treatment is a really hot shower, like as hot as you can stand it and then vinegar or a meat tenderizer paste to break down the protein. Helps a bit, but you can count on the itch coming back after a while. The itching usually lasts a few days to as much as a week.

I’ve found that this stuff you can get a Chelsea, Benadryl Itch Stopping Gel, is effective, at least for a time.

These plankton, along with other possible itchy-stingy organisms like jellyfish, for example, exist in the sea at all times, but usually in such small concentrations that that they won’t ever be a nuisance. Now apparently, there are enough of them around our bays  to virtually guarantee an encounter.

The question I have is, how will we know when its safe to take a swim without paying that itching price? I think I’ll wait for someone (besides me) brave enough to test out the situation emerges from a long swim or snorkel and lets me know that they didn’t feel any little stings.

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A Description of St. John in 1918

St. John may be reached by any of the sloops running between the islands; or from the east end of St. Thomas at Smith’s Bay by boat to Cruz Bay, which consisting of a few detached houses, is called the town.

Many years ago it rejoiced in a battery mounted with cannon and a lieutenant with a detachment of twenty soldiers.

Now only a judge and two policemen represent the majesty of the law in this peaceable and well-ordered island.

Dutch Creole was once the prevailing language, many of the planters being of Dutch descent. The present population of 900 consists almost entirely of Negroes who speak English. They are represented in the Colonial Council of St. Thomas and St. John by three members, one appointed by the government and two eleted by the people. Only on horseback and not without a certain sense of fear can one ride along the pathways of the steep cliffs and mountains. Probably on account of the difficult roads and the distance between the estates, social life is virtually nil….

The lover of natural scenery will find much to reward him in his rambles. Magnificent views are everywhere: whether horseback riding, walling or boating, the excursionist can be assured of the most delightful surroundings.

Should boating be preferable a pull (row) to St. Mary’s Point with its lofty granite cliffs studded with mica glimmering in the sunshine, or Smith’s Bay (Leinster Bay) with its fine bathing beach cannot be easily forgotten. The bottom of the bay is of beautiful white sand, spread like a carpet and covered with all sorts of brightly colored marine plants, which spring up in graceful form and owing to the peculiar transparency of the waters, seem quite near to the observer….

…Denis Bay, America Hill and Leinster Bay are popular resorts among regular visitors to St. John and at all these places good food and splendid living accommodations can be had at reasonable prices….

…The only means of transportation on the island of St. John is by horseback. Narrow and uneven roads over steep and irregular hills are far from suitable for carriages or vehicles of any kind, but horses nay be hired for $2.00 per day and the services of a good guide may be procured at a nominal price….

On St. John there are at the present only two white landowners and only one white man making his home there. The population is almost entirely rural, there being no town worthy of the name in this section, the largest settlement being at Cruz Bay.

From Luther K Zabriskie’s book, The United States Virgin Islands, published in 1918

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West Indian Locust – Stinking Toe Tree

West Indian Locust
West Indian Locust

The West Indian locust can be found throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. On St. John it thrives in moist forest regions such as Reef Bay and Bordeaux Mountain.

West Indian Locust on the Reef Bay TrailHikers on the Reef Bay Trail will pass by an excellent specimen of West Indian locust, which is identified by a National Park Service information sign.

The tree serves itself up as a sumptuous meal for a medium sized woodpecker commonly known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Every so often yellowbellied sapsuckers visit St. John. One of their favorite activities is to drill a band of small holes in the tree’s trunk. (The West Indian locust is the only tree on St. John marked in this way thus offering those who are interested an easy method of identification.)

Holes in West Indian Locust made by Yellow-Bellied-SapsuckerTo repair these wounds the tree secretes a sweet sap, which the yellowbellied sapsucker licks up with its long bushy tongue. If the yellowbellied sapsucker is lucky, the sap will attract ants and other juicy insects, which are happily consumed along with the delicious sweet goo. (The National Park information sign says that the yellowbellied sapsucker makes the holes in the locust tree only to attract insects and not to suck the sap. Many experts, however, do not agree with this theory.)

Stinking-Toe-9The large seedpod produced by the West Indian locust is locally called stinking toe or old man’s toe.

Despite the unappealing name, and an equally unappealing odor, many Virgin Islanders, especially children, have been known to enjoy its sweet taste.

The seedpods look like big fat toes and the mealy pulp around the seeds, although foul smelling, is edible and good tasting.

Curtney Chinnery, a native of Jost Van Dyke and aficionado of Virgin Island culture, gives this description of the stinking toe fruit:

“We here in the Virgin Islands call the fruit of the West Indian locust stinking toe. The fruit is brown with the shape of a large toe. The shell is hard and not easy to break. The inside substance is dry, hairy, powdery and yellow. The seed is the same shape as the fruit itself only smaller. Once the shell is open an odor is released that can be said to be just about unbearable. This is a strange thing because the locust fruit tastes so good once one engages in the eating of it. Then it’s not easy to be satisfied by eating just one. Unfortunately the odor from the locust is a lingering one and this may cause you problems. For example it is not easy to get someone to kiss you after eating a stinking toe fruit.”

St. John News

Apparently the banned pesticide that seriously sickened a family visiting St. John has been used elsewhere in the Virgin Islands and by other companies besides Terminex. Meanwhile government officials are trying to track down vacationers who stayed at villas in the Virgin Islands who may have been exposed to the deadly pesticide…. read article

St. John Live Music Schedule

Saturday 4/11

Beach Bar
The Ish

Cruz Bay Landing
Erin Hart

Skinny Legs
Chris Carsel & Friends

See Weekly Schedule

St. John Weather

Isolated showers. Mostly sunny, with a high near 76. East wind around 16 mph, with gusts as high as 23 mph. Chance of precipitation is 20%.

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St. John Flora: Genip


The tree
The genip (Meliococcus bijugatus) is characterized by its smooth bark with a mottled grey green pattern that is caused by lichen. It can grow up to 100 feet high, but most trees on St. John only reach about 60 feet.

Invasive Species
Genips are native to South America and were most likely brought to St. John by Amerindians for their fruit. On St. John, they are considered an invasive species because they are so prolific and so adaptive to the local environment that they can crowd out other vegetation. For example, they are extremely drought resistant. In times of drought, when most trees have lost their leaves, the only bright green trees left will invariably be genips. Also, because the fruit is so popular, not only with humans, but also with other animals, the seeds are spread all about the forests and beyond.

Notwithstanding their classification as invasive, one hardly hears an outcry for their elimination, which I believe is the result of the popularity of the fruit, and for the most part, the dark side of the genip tree has been ignored.

The fruit
In the summer the tree bears a green fruit that grows in bunches. The taste and texture is somewhat similar to its cousin the lychee.

How to eat
The genip fruit has a thin, ridged skin that you crack with your teeth and remove. You can then suck the tasty tart, tangy, yellow pulp that surrounds the large seed within. If you care abouth what you’re wearing, be careful not to get the juice on your clothing as it will leave a permanent brownish stain. Genip seeds can be roasted and eaten like chestnuts.

The name
Locally known as genips or canips, the tree and fruit are also called mamoncillo, mamón (be careful here, the word, mamón , is considered obscene in some Spanish-speaking countries), chenet, gnep, ginep, guinep, kinnip, quenepa, Spanish lime and limoncillo.

The smoke from burning genip leaves is said to drive away mosquitoes and sand fleas.

It is said that girls learn the art of kissing by eating this sweet, but tart fruit. Try one and you’ll understand.

St. John Weather

Brrr, it’s cold!

The temperature is forecast to drop down to a bone-chilling 68 degree F this afternoon. With wind gusts as high as 25 mph, I wonder if we have a windchill factor happening?

Forecast for St. John US Virgin Islands today:
Scattered showers, mainly before noon. Mostly sunny, with a temperature falling to around 68 by 1pm. East wind around 18 mph, with gusts as high as 25 mph. Chance of precipitation is 50%. New precipitation amounts of less than a tenth of an inch possible.

St. John and Virgin Islands News

The banned pesticide linked to poisoning at Sirenusa has been widely used in the Virgin Islands.
Read Virgin Islands Daily News Article

The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) has completed repairs to the two generators that went down over the weekend and caused island-wide power outages.

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Senate President James Blasts St. John Condominium Poisoning

Senate President James blasts St. John condominium poisoning, cites Pesticide Control Act of 2006.

Neville James

Following recent news reports on the pesticide poisoning of a Delaware family vacationing on the island of St. John, Senate President Neville James has voiced his outrage over the blatant irresponsibility and reckless behavior of local pesticide company Terminix.

Steve Esmond, his wife Theresa Divine, and their two teenage sons have been hospitalized in critical condition since late March after being exposed to the chemical methyl bromide, found in a pesticide administered by Terminix, while staying at the Sirenusa Condominium Resort located in Cruz Bay.

James expressed deep sorrow for the Esmond family and said he is baffled that the incident occurred when there are several codified regulations to prevent disastrous events such as this from taking place.

“It is for this very reason that in the 26th Legislature, I proposed, and was successful in getting the body to support the Pesticide Control Act of 2006–a series of regulations that dealt with the registration, commercial use, purchase and custom application of all pesticides used in the Territory,” he said. “Working in conjunction with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, our premise then, as it is now, was to protect the health and safety of our territory’s residents, visitors, wildlife, and habitats.”

According to Act 6863, section 838, there are several ways in which Terminix and its Puerto Rico distributor broke the law, which includes the distribution of a banned product, and its unlawful use within the Virgin Islands.

“Terminix broke the law, plain and simple–local and federal laws. And in some cases of the federal law, its pesticide provider out of Puerto Rico may have broken interstate distribution statutes as well. Methyl bromide was banned from use within the U.S. over 30 years ago, and that fact makes their actions even more outrageous,” Senator James stated.

According to EPA, the use of methyl bromide is restricted due to its acute toxicity, and was banned from the U.S. in 1984. Health effects of acute exposure to this product are serious, and may include damage to the central nervous system or respiratory system.

“Today, DPNR along with the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have taken custody of the quarantined methyl bromide canisters on all three islands and an investigation is ongoing. Also, a Stop-Use order has been issued to Terminix,” said James. “Moving forward, we need to make sure the laws we create are enforced so visitors like the Esmonds and our local citizens can enjoy a beautiful, safe and healthy Virgin Islands.” James concluded.

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St. John USVI Flora: Anthuruims

AnthuriumsAnthuriums, like bromeliads, orchids and pinguins, are epiphytes, a non-parasitic plant that grows on another plant, but gets its nourishment from the air – thus, the name “air plant”.

Anthuriums can grow on the ground, on rocks, or up in trees. The local varieties are Anthurium cordatum (heartleaf), Anthurium crenatum (scrub brush) and a hybrid of these two.

The heartleaf is more common in moist forest areas.

It produces beautiful foliage that sometimes is home for tree snails and nests of wasps called Jack Spaniards.

The heartleaf anthurium produces a long pointy reddish-green stalk-like flower.

The scrub brush anthurium has long green leaves with seasonal red fruit. The dried dead leaves have been used in the past to scrub pots and pans. They are just as effective as the commercial pot scrubbing products used today, plus they have the advantage of being easily disposable, non-rusting and biodegradable.

The heartleaf anthurium is common in the Lesser Antilles. The scrub brush anthurium is normally found in the Greater Antilles. They seem to have met on the islands of St. John and Tortola to produce a hybrid variety (anthurium selloum), which is only found on these two islands. It is sterile and cannot reproduce. The hybrid looks just like what you would expect a mixture of the two parent varieties to look like. See if you can identify one.


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Decorative Pineapple

Ananas comosus
Decorative Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Ananas comosus is an attractive pineapple plant. It’s great for decoration, but not so great for eating. The fruit has a unpleasant bitter taste.

St. John News

Sirenusa Pesticide Poisoning Updates

Virgin Islands Daily News
Criminal probe launched in family poisoning case

Pesticide probed in resort illness of Delaware family

Medicaid Expansion
Medicaid expansion helps more Virgin Islands adults

St. John Live Music Schedule

Saturday 4/4

Beach Bar
John Sutton

Cruz Bay Landing
Erin Hart

Shipwreck Landing
Tom Mason & the Blues Buccaneers

Skinny Legs
Chris Carsel & Friends

See Weekly Schedule


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