Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 2

Morning at the mooring in Ensenada Honda at CulebraAfter dodging a few small islands, we set our course for the southern tip of Culebra, the easternmost of the major Spanish Virgin Islands, a little over twenty miles away. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Ensenada Honda, the southeast-facing bay that is Culebra's most prominent feature. We picked up a mooring behind the reef that forms a natural breakwater at the entrance to the bay and then took a moment to marvel at the incredible turquoise blue of the water.

Goose strolling Flamenco Beach with Dallas and Genie in the water in the backgroundThe water was at least fifteen feet deep but the bottom was clearly visible and it appeared to be populated by dark, oval-shaped lumps. Dallas, Genie, Nan and I pulled out our snorkel gear and jumped in to investigate. The lumps turned out to be sea cucumbers, a type of marine animal that resembles a cucumber-sized leech. None of us had ever seen so many in one place before, but we had to admit that they weren't very interesting so we snorkeled closer to the reef to see what there was to see over there. Except for a scattering of small, colorful coral and some tiny fish, the reef was largely dead, a faded, sand-scoured shadow of what it once must have been.

Nan posing with a rusted military tank on Flamenco BeachWhen we were back on board, Dallas, who is an amateur oceanographer, remarked about how little life there was to be seen underwater these days. When he was a boy growing up in Florida, the waters were brimming with color and life. Somebody mentioned global warming and Dallas agreed, but he said that in addition to raising the ocean's temperature through the greenhouse effect, all that excessive carbon dioxide is mixing with water in the atmosphere to form carbonic acid, which is raining down on the ocean and changing its pH. The combination of these factors is wreaking havoc on marine life, he said. As we solemnly contemplated a future without marine life, a giant fish swam under the boat. It was at least six feet long and looked at first like a barracuda, but it was missing the snaggle-toothed smile so we weren't sure what it was.

Dallas and Genie relaxing on the beach with the geese snoozing behind themWe celebrated Captain's Hour and ate dinner on the boat while watching the sun set and then retired early knowing the next day would be action-packed. We planned to tour Culebra and then sail on to Vieques, the second major Spanish Virgin Island we would visit.

Mamacita's, the canal and the drawbridge in Dewey on CulebraAfter breakfast and a brief discussion, it was agreed that the distance from our mooring to the harbor town of Dewey, over a mile, was too far for the dinghy, so we motored Quetzal in as close as we dared and anchored her. We dinghied the short distance over to a restaurant appropriately named The Dinghy Dock and tied up. John told the waitress in broken Spanish that we would be back for lunch, and we set off to explore. Our first stop was a brief reality check at an Internet cafe, where we also lined up a ride to famed Flamenco Beach, on the north side of the island. John stayed on to answer his email while the rest of us piled into a shuttle van for the quick trip to the beach. We agreed to meet later for lunch at Mamacita's, a restaurant we passed that is highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. Sorry, Dinghy Dock.

Nan getting into the dinghy with John at the Dinghy Dock while the giant tarpon look onFlamenco Beach is deserving of its fame. It is a spectacular, crescent-shaped stretch of white sand with bright blue waves breaking on its shore. We walked to the far west end of the beach, where there was a reef to check out. Dallas, Genie and I snorkeled while Nan guarded our stuff--the Lonely Planet guide warned that theft was a problem--and took snapshots of a pair of geese frolicking in the sand. Like the reef near our mooring, this one was a disappointment, but we did spot a good-sized school of tang and I did get to swim through an underwater arch about ten feet down. Further down the beach, there were a couple of rusting military tanks, left over from when this area was used for US military exercises, so Nan and I took a stroll to take pictures of them while Dallas and Genie dried out and kept the geese company.

Lunch at Mamacita's was delicious. The restaurant is located on the canal that cuts through Dewey, close to the drawbridge that is the highest structure on the island. Dewey has a reputation as a hang-out for American expatriates, so we were not surprised that the waitresses and bartender were all Americans. The spicy barbecue and fresh seafood were served with fried plantain crisps, like potato pancakes, and a chutney dipping sauce. Yum!

After stocking up on ice and other provisions, we walked back to The Dinghy Dock, where there was a school of giant fish, just like the one from the day before, swimming around the dinghy. Since the water was only two feet deep, it was easy to see that they were tarpon, not barracuda, and that they were huge. We loaded up the dinghy, rode low in the water and got "douched" on the way back to Quetzal, pulled up the anchor and motored out of Ensenada Honda on our way to Vieques.