An Experiment in Ecotourism Thrives on St. John
Wake up in a solar-powered tent and snorkel in an aquamarine underworld while helping preserve St. John's natural appeal. The Maho Bay resort has proven that there can be responsible, and sustainable, alternatives to your typical beach resort.
Tourism's footprints are least obvious on the island's remote southeast side, where I stay for the next two nights in one of Selengut's Concordia eco-tents. Open hillsides are covered with the crimson crowns of turk's head cacti. From my porch I watch waves pound Drunk Bay Beach--wild, rugged, and empty. That night I am awakened by rain drumming down in gusts blown in on the trade winds. I lie listening until the spray on my face nudges me to the window above the bed. Just before zipping shut the fabric cover, I glimpse a cruise ship hovering on the horizon in moonlit mist. Back between the sheets, I begin calculating how much freshwater has collected from the roof and porch gutters into the cistern-- enough, surely, to offset what I am using during my week on St. John. I drift back to sleep on a wave of optimism.
In the morning the mother-of-pearl gray of first light turns pink over waters that stretch east to Africa, unbroken by any landmass. A red-billed tropicbird soars past streaming long white tail feathers. To the west, Salt Pond Bay glitters in the sun. Its reputation for fine snorkeling lures me from the comfort of my eco-tent and around a rise to the trailhead. The path winds through a thorny scrub of oval-leafed pain-killer plants, prickly pear, and spiny-stemmed pipe organ cacti. White-as-a-sheet ghost crabs scuttle along the ground while smooth-billed anis glide across the forest openings. Snorkeling out over sea rods and finger-sized branches of staghorn coral, I watch a school of blue tangs turning in unison in a ribbon of sapphire. Over a bed of seagrass, yellow goatfish glide translucent gray beneath me.
And then I spot what I have most hoped to see--an endan-gered green turtle, a species with fewer than 90,000 nesting females remaining worldwide. This one is a juvenile of per-haps 100 pounds. A looming, immobile presence, its mottled gray-green back blends into the bay floor dappled with fil-tered sunlight. The turtle begins to move, one dark limb at a time. Pushing gently against a rock, it turns, pauses, then turns again--slowly, gracefully, like a dancer just waking up from a nap. It starts upward, swimming more quickly until it is almost vertical. Surfacing five yards away from me, it pokes its nose out of the water. I push off my mask and take a breath, too. And then it is gone.
Now every jade shadow below me holds the promise of another living creature flourishing in this secret underworld. I swim slowly back to shore, buoyed by the hope that other tourists can visit these bays, beaches, and forests without disturbing the wonders they harbor. As if in confirmation, a magnificent frigate bird soars overhead on motionless arched wings.
"Camp Caribbean" was the title of this story in Audubon's November-December 2007 issue.