Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico's Vieques
Bombs once exploded on Isla de Vieques during naval exercises. Now that the military range has been turned into a wildlife refuge, the fireworks on this Puerto Rican island are created by glowing microorganisms in its bioluminescent bay.
A satellite burns across a big sky so spangled with stars that even I can pick out Saturn, Orion’s Belt, and the Seven Sisters. Fishing bats drop from a dark wall of mangroves and skim the bay’s still surface for prey, while night-feeding great blue herons stalk the shallows. Far less gracefully, I cinch a safety flotation belt and lean from a boat ladder to dip a toe into this wondrous Caribbean bay.
The waters off Isla de Vieques feel as warm and comforting as a fleece robe. So I take the plunge and suddenly find myself in a world made of liquid fire, where every movement sets off an eerie, glimmering reaction made by millions of bioluminescent plankton. While thousands of animals and plants, from anglerfish and sea stars to fireflies and fungi, have the ability to sparkle with their own light, the microorganisms of this obscure inlet produce nature’s most dramatic aura. With a breaststroke, the special effect makes my limbs look like neon-blue sea-turtle flippers; a slicing sidestroke mutates an arm into a Star Wars–caliber light saber. Nearby, other ebullient swimmers bob on their backs and make phosphorescent water angels. We are stardust; we are glow sticks.
For decades, however, such brilliant explosions weren’t so benign or entertaining on Vieques. They were more likely to come from bombs dropped by Navy airplanes or lobbed by warships upon this sunbaked island between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The military exercises sparked public protests, which grew particularly strident after 1999, when a local man died in an off-target bombing. Islanders lobbied before the United Nations’ decolonization committee and human-rights forums around the world; 1,500 people, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Rev. Al Sharpton, and actor Edward James Olmos, were arrested in civil-disobedience actions.
In 2003, after 60-plus years of military target practice, the U.S. Department of Defense finally shut down the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area-Vieques and, in a guns-to-plovers move, completed the transfer of nearly 18,000 acres to the Department of the Interior. The former firing ranges are now part of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, the largest, most ecologically diverse refuge in the Caribbean—and a potential ecotourism engine to drive the moribund local economy. The Navy’s occupation, which caused the relocation of thousands of Viequenses and rendered three-quarters of the 52-square-mile island off-limits to the public, had the unintended consequence of insulating Vieques from the unbridled development and mass-market tourism that has overrun much of the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. The commonwealth counted nearly 5 million tourists last year; a quarter came from the U.S. mainland, primarily to visit historic Old San Juan, soak up the sun and rum on Condado Beach, or catch a cruise ship. Less than 3 percent made it to sleepy Vieques. “Vieques still has the natural wonders that are already lost on the mainland,” says plainspoken refuge manager Oscar Diaz-Marrero. “This is the last place.’’
Shaped like a dagger, the island lies just eight miles and a $2 ferry ride off the east coast of Puerto Rico yet remains far removed from the big island’s crowds and condos. Only two of Puerto Rico’s other 77 municipalities have smaller populations than Vieques (just 9,106 inhabitants, according to the 2000 census). In north-shore Isabel Segunda, the island’s commercial hub, many local men and boys still ride into town on horseback. Esperanza, the only other settlement of note, slumbers five miles to the south along the Caribbean coastline, just a few salt shakers shy of “Margaritaville.’’ The best map of the island was produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1951—the roads haven’t changed much since. The narrow, paved sections—often just one and a half lanes wide—turn into broken dirt tracks leading to a variety of untrammeled landscapes, including mangrove-rimmed lagoons, broad white-sand beaches, and subtropical dry forest, a dwindling habitat of drought-resistant broadleaf trees that vanished from much of the Caribbean as land was cleared for settlement, farming, and grazing.
One of Puerto Rico’s most important archaeological discoveries, which included the 2,000-year-old jadeite amulet of a male Andean condor—indicating that the original inhabitants had far-reaching trade networks—was unearthed a few miles west of Esperanza. Christopher Columbus reportedly sighted Vieques in November 1493 during his second voyage; a few decades later the Spanish sent an expedition that annihilated the local Taino people. But a corruption of the Indian name for the place—bieke, or “small land’’—has endured. Pirates, including Captain Kidd, sheltered in its bays, but Vieques wasn’t resettled until the 19th century sugar boom. The Navy appropriated many plantations in the 1940s, when Vieques became part of America’s World War II defensive perimeter.
On a detailed aerial map at the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust in Esperanza, it’s easy to see the web of west-end roads where the Navy built scores of ammunition bunkers among the lush hills. The flatter, more arid eastern side was designated for military maneuvers, amphibious landings, and weapons training. The aftermath of those operations is clearly visible, especially in the heavily cratered Live Impact Area. And because of unseen dangers—chiefly unexploded ordnance (UXO) and hazardous materials—about 8,000 acres of the wildlife refuge remain closed to the public.