Buck Island tenders two sides of the same great coin: one of the world’s best beaches on one, and a prime snorkeling site on the other.
Just 20 minutes by boat from the dock in Christiansted, St. Croix, the island represents just one percent of Buck Island Reef National Monument, a pie-shaped, (mostly) underwater park designed to protect the fragile coral reef and marine environment that lies off the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Dive charters, many located at the foot of Queen Street in Christiansted, operate under special license from the U.S. National Park Service.
Buck Island: A Pristine Coral Reef Just 20 Minutes From Christiansted, St. Croix
The sail out to the island is pleasant, skirting the shoreline of St. Croix with your distinctive destination — the only island on the horizon — looming ever larger as you go. On the Big Beards Adventure Tours catamaran Adventure, the small front deck was the place to be for the sun, breezes, and best views. Big Beards ran a relatively no-frills trip: for your fee, you get the boat ride, use of snorkel and fins, and a cooler for any food or drink you choose to bring onboard. There’s no beer or booze service: a party boat, this is not.
Tour Boats Meet on Buck Island's West Beach
On a busy Saturday, our boat joined a crowd of charter boats and personal watercraft loosely arrayed along sandy West Beach, minimally developed with a few picnic tables, BBQ grills, and a restroom. A somewhat steep dropoff allowed our boat to get within a few feet of shore, anchoring on the beach itself. From there, it was a few steps of wading to the sand — a favorite beaching site for four species of sea turtles as well as tourists.
Enjoy Buck Island, but Leave No Trace That You Were There
The rule on Buck Island is to carry in, carry out. The Park Service’s goal is the create an as little lasting impact on the local environment as possible, so the long list of don’ts include bans on shell collecting and beach umbrellas as well as the more obvious things like no fishing.
Once ashore we had about 45 minutes to lounge on the sand or wade into the calm waters: snorkeling is permitted on this side of the island, it’s just that there’s not much to see. The clear, shallow water lack of distractions make this a great location for the beginner snorkel lessons offered by the Big Beard crew, however.
If you come over to Buck Island on your own and have more time, there are a couple of trails that climb to the top of the cactus-dotted island, offering lovely views back at the harbor. But the trails are rocky, poorly maintained, and lined with poisonous manchineel trees and thorn bushes, so you’ll need hiking shoes — not the flip-flops you probably wore for a snorkel trip — and about 45 minutes to follow the trail from West Beach to Diedrich’s Point.
Anyway, the beach is beautiful (it was named one of the best in the world), so why leave?
A Five Minute Sail From Buck Island's Beach to the Reef
Next, it was back on the boat for the 5-minute sail int the lagoon on the southeast side of the island, where the reef comes close to the shore to create a narrow channel. Here, we took one of the few permitted anchorages and sat for a short, National Park Service mandated orientation. The most important points being: don’t stand on or touch any of the corals and mind the current, which can quickly pull you away from the boat if you’re not paying attention. Donning our yellow life vests per government regulation, we plopped into the water.
The Buck Reef Is Full of Healthy Coral and Marine Life
Despite the big crowd of boats on the beach side, we had the reef to ourselves for nearly an hour of excellent snorkeling. The Buck Island reef is reasonably healthy: there are sections of dead coral, but no apparent bleaching and numerous sections of thriving brain, Elkhorn, (check others) coral, patrolled by fleets of colorful reef fish. Not sure what just floated by you? The Park Service has thoughtfully sunk interpretive plaques to the sea floor to help you out, although some markers along the underwater trail are heavily weathered and hard to read. We saw stoplight parrotfish, a barracuda, big schools of blue tang, …. and happily none of the invasive lionfish that have become a scourge of the Caribbean reef system.
Snorkeling Above Buck Island's Beautiful Coral Gardens
Several natural breaks exist in the Buck Island reef, allowing you to swim into coral gardens where the most fish tend to congregate (beware that elkhorn coral grows nearly to the surface of the water: trying to swim over it will give you some nasty cuts and an unsympathetic scolding from the tour operators who previously warned you). The lagoon is typically less than 12 feet deep, so experienced snorkelers can dive down to the bottom to get a closer look at fish and corals. Both onshore and in the water, the Big Beard crew keeps a close eye on their customers to make sure nobody gets in trouble, and a blow on a conch shell (surprisingly loud, even from a distance and with your head underwater) signals it’s time to return to the boat.
A Beautiful Sampling of a Protecting Marine Environment
Snorkelers will have the Buck Island Reef National Monument underwater trail to themselves: scuba diving is prohibited here, although there are a couple of designated anchorages for scuba divers nearby. The entire park is just over 19,000 acres, only 176 of which is dry land (the tropical dry forest of Buck Island). You’ll only see a tiny fraction of all this on a dive charter trip, but what you will see promises to be one of the highlights of your St. Croix vacation.