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Snorkeling in Little Harbour


In October 1989, just two weeks after Hugo laid waste to the Virgin Islands on its way to flail Florida, I was aboard old HELEN R with a five-guest charter party. It was the first charter I had after Hugo and expected the reefs and other underwater fauna to reflect the mess ashore, as buildings were destroyed and carcasses of small yachts blown out of West End were still strewn on the rocky shores of Little Thatch.

school of fish

We awoke from an overnight at Little Harbour and prepared to enjoy a day of snorkeling and the tranquility of one of my favorite anchorages. The day was particularly clear with lines of small, vertical tropical clouds, trade-wind soldiers, marching across the horizon. Absolutely calm weather, be it the wind or the sea, is an unusual occurrence in the Virgin Islands, but that day on Peter Island it was dead still. Between the anchored HELEN R and shore, to the right of the old customs dock, some large fish were breaking the surface, their dorsal fins and backs looked like depictions of the legendary Loch Ness monster, whose long body shows above water at several places along its length. The fish were tarpon that were feeding on mullet fry that had schooled in the shallows at the shore.

We donned masks and snorkels and paddled toward the old dock. The tarpon herded the fry into the most concentrated mass of fish I had ever seen. It was a flashing silver “wall o’ mullet.” I approached the wall and inserted my hand. The fish parted to let my fist in then closed in around so densely that my hand disappeared. The wall extended from the surface to about five feet down and ran 200 feet along the shore. The six or seven mullet-wrangling tarpon continued circling the herd. They repeatedly emerged from the wall on my left and simply opened their mouths wide as they reentered the wall on my right, a tarpon fast-food joint.

These fry could not have been very old and the fact that they survived in such numbers after the violence of Hugo is amazing. But that entire charter was eerie. The incessant trade winds were gone, the water was clearer and the sea life more visibly abundant than I had ever seen. As destructive as Hugo was, it was also a renovator, a restorative and an alarm clock; it awoke a natural world that normally hides in the wings.

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