Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico's Vieques

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.

By Christopher R. Cox/Photography by Francesco Lagnese
Published: November-December 2006

"Mangrove bays go hand in hand with high concentrations of these dinoflagellates,'' explains Mark Martin, the Vieques trust's environmental educator. The hardy trees shed tons of nutrient-rich leaves that decompose in the warm waters of the shallow, unshaded bay; in this fecund, slightly saltier environment, as many as 720,000 well-fed dinoflagellates teem in a single gallon of water. Martin, who also guides "biobay" tours, notes the special shape of the bay's entrance; there's a reef system and a sandbar at the mouth that break up waves, followed by a narrow, S-shaped channel. Prevailing winds and currents push seawater into Puerto Mosquito, but the microorganisms are too small and weak to exit the bottleneck. And fortunately, neither freshwater streams nor sewage pipes feed into the bay, which would alter salinity or purity levels and decimate the highly sensitive plankton.

When disturbed, the dinoflagellates combine two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, to create a natural light. One theory posits that the blue-green glow is a defense mechanism that makes the protists seem far larger than their microscopic size. The mysterious effect, which occurs in oceans around the world but rarely in concentrations as great as at Puerto Mosquito, can even have lethal consequences. In World War I, a German U-boat was sunk after its gleaming wake gave away its position.

On Vieques, several local companies offer nocturnal biobay boat or kayak tours, except during the week bracketing a full moon, when the lunar phase diminishes the intensity. Luckily, my visit falls on a last-quarter moon, and Island Adventures is operating Luminoso, its battery-powered pontoon boat. We board the launch a half-hour after sundown and cruise to the shallow channel, where endangered West Indian manatees sometimes feed on the seagrass beds. As the sky fills with countless constellations, guide Ricky Marrero stomps on the boat's metal deck and lightning flashes beneath the surface: trails left by scores of bolting fish.

"This is your chance to have the ultimate spa experience,'' Marrero says when the boat comes to rest in the middle of the bay. He vaults into the water, conjuring radiant bubbles that seem the stuff of sorcery; my 10-year-old son, Timothy, and I quickly join in the aquatic alchemy. The outing turns into a splash party as more than a dozen other swimmers delightedly kick up blazing wakes or churn great depth-charge-like balls of fire. Timothy raises an arm and gasps in wonder; it appears as though glittering flecks of gold, not water droplets, are falling from the heavens. Every move we make is illuminated.

"I love the island,'' Marrero says, floating nearby. He gestures toward the north side of the bay, but his glow is rivaled by the glare from the hillside barrios of Destino and Lujan. "Maybe someday this bay will be gone.'' Development has already dimmed other bioluminescent bays around the world, including Jamaica's Luminous Lagoon and the one at La Parguera, on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, which was once considered the best in the islands. Sewage, agricultural runoff, and pollution from gasoline-powered tour boats have drastically dulled the experience. "It's basically a septic tank,'' Diaz-Marrero says of the bay at La Parguera. "It's a system that is collapsing. Now Mosquito Bay is maybe the most important one in the Caribbean, or in the world.''

So far Puerto Mosquito's greatest environmental problem is light pollution. The Vieques trust is developing a municipal lighting ordinance, Martin says, and has helped homeowners convert fixtures, add shields, or switch to lower-wattage bulbs. Several tour companies have agreed to take residents from the lit-up neighborhoods onto the biobay so they can see the effects firsthand.

 

Although still modest, tourism has already grown rapidly on Vieques. The refuge counted more than 130,000 visitors in 2005, up 60 percent since 2003. Just as quickly, snowbirds and speculators have driven up real-estate prices beyond the means of many residents on this impoverished island, where more than 11 percent are unemployed. "The issues we're going through right now are, Tourism for whom?'' says Rabin. "Development for what and for whom? Combined with environmental issues as well.''

In February the municipality came under criticism after thousands of cubic yards of earth were carved from a wooded hillside to build a racetrack for a poorly attended moto-cross race--hardly the eco-friendly development local activists envisioned. Although longtime island advocate Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz, a retired teacher, says that city hall "promotes corrupted tourism,'' with most enterprises controlled by non-islanders, the brunt of Viequense vitriol is reserved for the federal government and the decontamination of former Navy property. A central demand is that the entire area be restored to pristine condition and, through "devolution,'' taken from the Fish and Wildlife Service and returned to local control.

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VIEQUES

I was born in Puerto Rico but was raised in the states.I have never been to vieques,but after reading this article i feel that i must visit this wonderful place.

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