Gail and I returned to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands after going there just last year. We decided to return so soon because we had such a good time last year and because the place where we stayed was going to lose its lease in mid 2011. This time we stayed a full week, from January 10 through January 17.

The purpose of this posting is to convince you to take a vacation to the Virgin Islands and to do some snorkeling.

We were lucky in our travel arrangements. Last year we flew through Atlanta. This year, when we flew through Miami, Atlanta was closed by snow.

The Virgin Islands airport is on St. Thomas. Arrivals are a little more laid back that in most airports on the mainland. Here you can sip your rum drink while waiting for your luggage to be delivered.

A bar is located adjacent to the luggage carrousel in the airport on St. Thomas.

We stayed at Maho Bay Campgrounds again. The camp is located a hillside on Little Maho Bay. Our tent-cottage was conveniently located near the restaurant and the bathroom. We were 231 steps up from the beach, but survived the exercise. The staff here is quite friendly and helpful. Other residents are also friendly. We hung out a lot with a couple from Philadelphia with whom we shared a ride on an island taxi (a pickup with benches installed in the bed) from Cruz Bay. We also socialized with the couple who had been our neighbors at the camp last year.

West end of Little Maho beach, with some cabins visible among the trees Gail in the kitchen area of our tent-cottage
West end of the beach seen from the water, 
                  with some cottages visible in the trees. You can barely
                  make out my multicolored beach towel hanging from a 
                  tree near the left edge of the photo. Gail in our kitchen area with
   a Colman stove, a box for food and a cooler behind her

Every evening there was something to do at the camp. The night we arrived there was a band playing after dinner. There are also glass blowing demonstrations, slide shows about nature and the island, movies, and even a star gazing walk. During the days you can do yoga, get a massage, and take pottery, painting or glass blowing classes.

We were there for snorkeling on the fringing reefs of the island and its cays. We snorkeled at Maho Bay, Waterlemon Bay, Hansen Bay and Hawksnest Bay. We also took a sailboat ride on the 23' island sloop Pepper to snorkel at Whistling Cay.

Our first full day on the island, we walked to the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins, which overlook Leinster and Waterlemon Bays. This mill had been prosperous in the early to mid 1800s, when Denmark owned the islands.

Ruins of the windmill at the sugar mill Leinster Bay with Waterlemon Cay, and in the background, Little Thatch Island and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands
The old windmill was built of
           stone. A wooden upper level and sails have fallen apart. The green tree-covered shore
       runs diaagonally on the right side of the photo. The blue color of the
       bay water deeps as you look away from the shore. Waterlemon
       Cay is a small green spot sticking out from the shore. Little
       Thatch Island rises from the water near the horizon. Tortola is
       partially behind Little Thatch Island, but buildings are visible
       on its hillsides.

We went snorkeling eight times during the six full days we had on the island. As I said last year, it was like swimming inside a tropical fish aquarium. This year it was windier, there was more wave action and it was cloudier than I remembered from last year. Nonetheless we had a great time.

Just before we left on vacation I purchased a Canon Power Shot D10 waterproof camera to use instead of the discardable film cameras we used last year. I used the new camera to take over 400 photos, most of them in the water.

We saw a shark, a couple of barracudas, sea stars, green turtles, a hawksbill turtle, an octopus, porcupine fishes, a spotted eagle ray, and at least 25 other types of fish that I've identified. I have photos of seven fish that are very distinctive looking, but which I cannot yet identify. And I have photos of lots of different kinds of coral, sponges, sea cucumbers, urchins, anenomes and more.

Because of the wave action, the water was murkier than I remembered. In order to make the images more clearer, I have used Photoshop Elements to stretch the contrast on many, but not all, of the photos below. For an example of what this looks like, here is an original photo of the spotted eagle ray next to the processed image.

Spotted Eagle Ray swimming at the bottom of murky water in Hawksnest Bay Spotted Eagle Ray photo after Photoshop Elements was used to improve the contrast
A spotted eagle
          ray swimming near the bottom in murky water The same photo of the ray
          after I used Photoshop Elements to increase the
          contrast and bring up some of the colors.

Here is a sample of the things we saw.

Common octopus at Maho Bay Juvenile Yellowtail Damselfish at Hansen Bay
The octopus is on a sandy bottom
       with all eight legs visible. It is moving towards a
       hiding place The body of this small fish
      is dark blue and it is covered with bright blue spots. 
      It is seen from above. The fins and tail are either
      white or transparent. The tail turns yellow when the fish

A stand of pillar coral A snorkeler climbing aboard the sloop Pepper at Whistling Cay
The Sand Driver is lying on the bottom
         and is photographed about 30 degrees from the front. It has
         a green, brown and dark brown pattern around its body. This photograph is taken from the
       water behind the stern of the yellow-colored Pepper.
       A man who has been snorkeling is climbing the ladder on the
       left - port - side of the boat. The rocky and bush covered
       shore of Whistling Cay can be seen to the left of the boat.

A Lizardfish, probably a Sand Diver, at Maho Bay Yellowtail Snapper waiting for food under the Pepper at Whistling Cay
The Sand Driver is lying on the bottom
         and is photographed about 30 degrees from the front. It has
         a green, brown and dark brown pattern around its body. This is a medium-sized silver fish with
        a yellow tail, a yellow dorsal fin, a yellow line running along
        its side and yellow spots on the side above this line.
        It is swimming to the left.

Bluehead Wrasse supermale at Hansen Bay A blue-headed trumpet fish at Whistling Cay
This small fish has a blue head,
        a light blue band around its body behind the gills, and a
        greenish body behind that. It is swimming to the right. The blue head of this slim fish is
          pointing upwards. Most of the fish has a smooth greenish
          color. The green fades into a brown with white spots
          in the last 20% of the body.

Green turtle in Waterlemon Bay Cushion Sea Star in Waterlemon Bay
The turtle is near the surface
          for breathing. The shell color is an orangish brown.
          The image of the turtle is reflected from the surface
          of the water. This sea star is orange
         colored but with a network of white spots covering its
         body. It is on a rocky bottom.

A Porcupine Fish and two Foureye Butterflyfish at Whistling Cay A Rock Beauty at Hansen Bay
The turtle is near the surface
          for breathing. The shell color is an orangish brown.
          The image of the turtle is reflected from the surface
          of the water. This sea star is orange
         colored but with a network of white spots covering its
         body. It is on a rocky bottom.

Al on the beach at Waterlemon Cay Sergeant Majors and French Grunts at Hansen Bay
Al is standing on the shore
          at Waterlemon Bay with the water and a catamaran in the
          background. He is wearing a black, short wet suit and
          carrying his blue swim fins and his snorkel and mask.
          The sky is mostly cloudy. Four sergeant majors with their
         black and yellow bands and several yellow-and-blue striped
         French Grunts are swimming in front of crevices in the 
         rock. A small red sponge is at the right side of the photo.

Here are three distinctive looking fish that I have not been able to identify definitively yet. The one on the left may be a red hind and the one on the right a cero, but the one in the middle is still a complete mystery.
This fish has dark bands with
      dark spots in the lighter areas. Its eyes bulge a little from
      its head. It has a long dorsal fin. 
      The bottom of its head and its pectoral fin appear to be red.
      It is sitting on the bottom. This fish is an olive green
       with a yellow tail. There are bright green zigzag lines
       on its head and dots of the same color along its body. This is a moderately large
       silvery fish wtih pink tail fins and a row of spots running
       just above the midline. There are also two much smaller, 
       dark-colored fish swimming in the opposite direction.

Last year I saw a flying gurnard, a very strange looking fish, crawling on the sandy bottom in Francis Bay, but I had run out of film by that time. This trip we saw two smaller flying gurnards lying on the bottom at the boundary between Maho Bay and Francis Bay. They were hard to see, but I got their picture.
Two Flying Gunards Flying Gunards Outlined for visibility
Two flying gunards are seen from
          above with their fins outstretched. Their color and patterns
          blend in very well with the coral debris on the bottom. Same picture as at
          the left, but with outlines drawn around the fish.

We enjoy seeing the birds as well as the fish. The Bananaquit is the official bird of the Virgin Islands. Each morning the camp staff filled a feeder next to the restaurant and a large flock gathered. This bird is very quick moving and it is hard to get a well-focused image of one. We also saw a lot of pelicans, a little blue heron, a great egret, magnificent frigatebirds and more.

Bananaquits crowding around the feeder at Maho Bay Camp Brown Boobies sitting on a rock in Hansen Bay
Seven bananaquits
      clustered around the feeder. They have bright yellow breasts,
      a long, downward curving beak, and a white stripe above
      their eyes. Two birds are perched on a jagged
      rock. They have white breasts. The photograph was taken
      from the water alongside the rocks.

You never know what you will see or where you will see it when snorkeling. On our last full day on St. John, we went to Hawksnest Bay because we had not been there before. We swam for an hour and did not see anything interesting. After lunch, we went out snorkeling again while waiting for our taxi to return, and then we saw our second sting ray, our second porcupine fish and the spotted eagle ray. We would not have seen them if we'd chosen just to sit on the beach and take the sun.

You also don't know who will find you. During that last swim, this little fish, less than an inch long, began to follow us. It stayed with us for about a half hour until we went ashore.

This little fish has white
spots on a greenish or yellowish body. Its fins are golden yellow.
The backgound is Gail's black swimsuit and a white shirt she is 
wearing for protection from the sun.

We weren't sure whether we would have trouble with the U.S. authorities during our return trip. On Saturday afternoon before we left, I read an internet posting saying that while you don't need a passport to travel to a U.S. Territory, such as the Virgin Islands, you do need one to get back home again! I called the airline and someone agreed with the posting. This was a problem because our passports were in our safe deposit box in the bank, the bank was closed, and our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:10 A.M. Monday. We explored the options for changing our flights until after the bank opened Monday morning, but eventually decided to go ahead with the original schedule. I can think of worse things than being stuck in the Virgin Islands for the rest of the winter. But it turned out that our Maryland driver's licenses were sufficient to get us through Immigration and onto our flights home.

If you decide to vacation on St. John or even move there permanently, get in touch and we'll share more of our experiences.

An antique cannon in the park
       near the ferry dock points out across the harbor at Cruz Bay.