27th April – 2nd May 2013
Culebrita, Culebra and Vieques
Heading west from St Thomas in the USVI’s we had a good sail along with a mixed bag of weather across to Isla Culebrita in the Spanish Virgin Islands.
Made up of over 400 square miles of mostly uninhabited islands and reefs, in years gone by this island group was known as the Passage Islands. The largest and most popular islands are Culebra and Vieques. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 the whole chain is now classed as part of Puerto Rico after originally being a colony of Spain and then ceded to the USA in 1898. With heaps of good anchorages this area makes for a nice stopover when sailing either east or west between mainland Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
The small uninhabited national park island of Culebrita was our first stopover. Arriving at Bahia Tortuga just on sunset we picked up one of the free courtesy mooring balls for the night.
There was a little bit of a northerly swell rolling in but nothing that kept us from sleeping. Next morning we were up early for a hike up to the abandoned lighthouse. We’d stopped in the bay last year when we were heading north to Maine in the USA but hadn’t taken in the lighthouse, so this would be something new to do. Roughly in the middle of the beach just up from the edge of the sand we found a trail. There was no sign saying “to the lighthouse”, but given that it was heading in the right general direction we decided to follow it on a hunch. Our hunch was right and about 20 minutes later we were standing in front of what once upon a time was the lighthouse keepers’ quarters. Completed in 1886 it was the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean until its closure by the US Coast Guard in 1975. Badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and then again by Marilyn in 1995, it is now just crumbling ruins. In it’s heyday it would have been a gorgeous place to live, albeit a bit lonely. We climbed the rusty staircase leading to light and the views out over the islands and surrounding reefs we just awesome.
After our trek up to the lighthouse it was time for a cool dip in the bubbly pools on the northern tip of the island. These ones definitely had more oomph than the ones we tried back on Jost Van Dyke in the BVI’s. The hard part was clambering over the rocks to get to them, but it was worth it for sure.
After a quick snorkel stop on the other side of the island we headed off to Ensenada Honda on the island of Culebra and the main town of Dewy. With the anchor down we donned our walking shoes and high tailed to the airport to check-in with US Customs and Boarder Protection, and to purchase our USA cruising permit. The permit, which is valid for 12 months, costs $37 if your last port of call was in the US Virgin Islands or $19 if you came from the British Virgin Islands. It made no sense to us why it was more expensive when coming from the USVI’s but then ours is not to wonder why…One thing we did learn from the officers this time was that once the permit expires you must take the boat out of US waters for a minimum of 15 days and then on your return a new permit will be issued. issued .
Dewy town is a quiet little place most of the time, except for when it plays host to the multitude of weekend day trippers who make the 17 mile ferry crossing from Fajardo on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Judging by the number of rental jeeps that we saw on the way to the airport the whole population of Puerto Rico must descend on the place.
The last time we were here we didn’t see much of the island outside of the anchorage, so we decided to have a lay day, hire a car and venture further a field. After all there’s only so much you can see by foot. We drove out to the east side of the island first and with not a lot to see there we backtracked and made for the famed Playa Flamenco, a beach on the north side. Rated as #2 in the top 10 beaches of the world according to the Discovery Channel it was a lovely spot to while away a few hours.
There were heaps of food kiosks selling local delicacies, a nice park area with picnic tables under the trees and a camping ground at the far end of the beach. Until 1975 the area to the west of the beach was used for US Navy and Marine Corps military exercises.
Today there are still many military relics scattered around including a couple of tanks on the beach.
After lunch it was time for a snorkel at a beach over on the west side of the island. Friends on the cat Good Trade recommended this spot to us and Ross and I were definitely not disappointed. The coral gardens were in fairly shallow water allowing for good light to take photos. Purple fans were in abundance and small reef fish darted in and out with the smallest ones being the most territorial.They fiercely protected their turf no matter what shape or size came along, including us.
The island of Vieques lies about 10 miles south of Culebra and on the day that we decided to sail down there the sea conditions were quite choppy. With the wind coming from the ESE at 15 knots our sail configuration of one reef in the main and a full jib was a wise choice. For 60 years most of Vieques was off limits to tourism due to the US Navy using it as a bombing practice range. The bombing range on the eastern end is still apparently severely contaminated but the rest of land that was owned by the navy is now managed by the National Fish & Wildlife Service. Since the navy’s departure back in 2003 and a successful clean up program, the island has been promoted as an ecotourism destination.
Although our guide book boasts of beautiful beaches, excellent snorkeling and feral horses that roam free, the big draw card for us was to see the bioluminescence in Mosquito Bay. On the chart the anchorage looked rather tight but the only alternative was about a 2 mile dinghy ride in the dark along a rather inhospitable stretch of coast. None of us were enthusiastic about that option. So we had a good look at the bay on our way past and decided that we’d return and give it a go before sunset. But first we wanted to have lunch at one of the cafes in Esperenza, a few miles further along the south coast.
We anchored just off the town and after landing the dinghy at the old wharf we strolled down to one of the cafes. Almost right on que a lone feral horse strolled down the main street. It didn’t bat an eyelid at the cars and just stepped up on to the footpath until the road was clear and then was on his way again at a very measured pace.
By 3pm we’d seen the town’s highlights, a small museum, some unusual landscaped front gardens, a few more horses, so we headed back to Mosquito Bay.
Magical Mosquito Bay
We motored from Esperanza back to Mosquito Bay, also known as Bio Bay and anchored in a prime spot tucked in behind the reef out of the swell and waited for darkness to fall. The bioluminescence in this particular bay is supposed to be the best example of luminescence in the USA and is one of five such bays in Puerto Rico.It was also recorded in the Guinness Book Of Records in 2008 as being the brightest on the planet. The luminescence is caused by a micro organism named a dynoflagellete which glows brightly when the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of glittering neon blue. Once it got dark the three of us piled into the dinghy and slowly motored to the mouth of the bay. Using an outboard engine inside the bay is prohibited so the remaining couple of hundred metres were via oar power.
It was a moonless night, perfect conditions to view these little creatures. Once inside we could hear shrieks of delight coming from the many kayak tourists. Liam being Liam just couldn’t resist jumping in. It was a WOW moment if ever there was. The phosphorescence glittered like stars all over his skin and the trail behind him was just amazing, but he wasn’t alone. Heaps of fish darted around and they too had wonderful auras. We took lots of photos but sadly none of them showed the incredible light show we were privy to. After spending about 30 minutes rowing around and enjoying this natural phenomenon, it’s certainly not the type of thing you see everyday, we headed back to GWTW. With that ticked off our bucket list tomorrow we would head over to the south coast of mainland Puerto Rico.