Virgin Islands National Park: Francis Bay and Maho Bay

Green Sea Turtle and Remora

Friday, March 18 [2022] was a classic day on St. John, filled with undersea explorations, good food, and only slight mayhem. We visited two sister Virgin Islands National Park beaches on the north shore—Francis Bay and Maho Bay—separated by a great lunch in Cruz Bay.

I “slept in” to 7:30, and Sean was already awake when I slipped down from our loft. The others woke up shortly afterward.

Josh and I did some fish IDs from the books I’d purchased at the Visitor Center the previous day. Meanwhile, Sean cooked up some breakfast of eggs and English muffins.

We dawdled and relaxed away the morning before heading out to some beaches. We arrived at Francis Bay just before noon.

Francis Bay

Just north of the more famous Maho Bay, Francis Bay was one of the beaches that Sean and I had not visited nine years earlier.

Immediately, we were in the water.

I didn’t get a good photo of it, but a Brown Booby was hanging out nearby, lazily looking for its lunch.

After we threw around a frisbee in the water for a while, I went and grabbed my snorkel, mask, and fins.

I swam directly out from shore and spotted a small Barracuda.

Sean, Josh, and Nick tried snorkeling by some rocks near the southern end of the beach, where there turned out to be lots to see. Sean and Nick stayed near shore, while Josh and I explored further out.

Sea Urchin

We noticed a lot of dead Spiny Sea Urchins. Apparently something mysterious was causing a die off in the Virgin Islands at that time. [The cause of the die off, which abated in December 2022, was discovered in April 2023 to be a microscopic parasite.]

Blue Tang

Sea Urchin and Smallmouth Grunts

French Grunts, Smallmouth Grunts, Sea Urchins, Mustard Hill Coral, and Corky Sea Fingers

The rocks here in Francis Bay were several degrees better for snorkeling than the edges of Saltpond Bay.

Mustard Hill Coral

Brown Booby

Smooth Trunkfish, Sea Urchin, and Beaugregories

Brain Coral, Sea Urchins, Smallmouth Grunts, Christmas Tree Worms, and Yellow Pencil Coral

Sergeant Majors and Mustard Hill Coral

Christmas Tree Worms and Mustard Hill Coral

Among the cooler things on the rocks were frilly Christmas Tree Worms in burgundy and yellow.

Sea Urchins

Squirrelfish, Christmas Tree Worms, and Mustard Hill Coral

Sea Cucumber, Mustard Hill Coral, Yellow Pencil Coral, and Sea Urchin

Sea Cucumber, Yellow Pencil Coral, and Mustard Hill Coral

(I only actually noticed the Sea Cucumber in the image above later on when I was selecting and editing my photos.)

Sargeant Major

French Grunts

Accidental self portrait

Sean had tried to snorkel, but with the motion of the water, the rocks, and not a lot of good places to actually stand and enter the water, he had decided to sit this snorkel out.

Even his full-face mask wasn’t enough comfort in the large-boulder-filled water.


Nick discovered a tiny Chiton in the shallows.

And Josh found a pretty shell, which he put back.

Later on, Jimmy said that all of us lying face down in the water looking for interesting creatures right by the shore made it look like someone had died.

After a couple hours at Francis Bay, we decided it was time for lunch. The parking areas at Maho Bay and Trunk Bay were too busy, so we continued on into downtown Cruz Bay.

We ended up at The Longboard, where a handsome waiter brought us ceviche, guacamole, roasted shishito peppers, and fish sliders. The boys all got Painkillers too. The food was fantastic.

Men’s room art at The Longboard. Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

We went back to Starfish Market and the guys got fixings for Painkillers. Josh and Sean perused the selections at the book and video store in the same complex as the market.

On the way back along North Shore Road, it was late enough in the afternoon (about 4:15) that we easily found parking at Maho Bay. While Nick promptly fell asleep on the bench of a picnic table, the rest of us went for a swim.

Maho Bay

Painkiller Tree

Brown Booby

Some other visitors that day had made a fun sand sculpture of a Leatherback Sea Turtle.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

I couldn’t resist snorkeling. This would be a theme throughout the trip.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Sea Grass and Split-Crown Feather Dusters

At first, there wasn’t a lot to see beyond sea grass at Maho Bay that afternoon.

Sea Urchin

But Maho Bay is famously popular with turtles.

Sea Turtle and Remora

Sure enough, I spotted a large Green Sea Turtle swimming along with a Remora hitching a ride.

Sean and Josh spotted turtle heads from the beach. By the time Josh put on his gear and swam out, though, they were gone.

White-Tailed Deer

We did spot a deer on the beach from the water, though.

On the way back to Concordia, we stopped again at Calabash Market in Coral Bay. This time we sent Sean in to see his “friend,” the handsome man who worked there. Sean had not had nutmeg for the Painkillers at Starfish, so he hoped that his handsome “friend” would have nutmeg.

While he was inside, the rest of us began debating whether the bus stop across the road was still functional.

Then Sean emerged triumphant with a whole nutmeg. He was only slightly thrown off when we asked him how he was going to grind the nutmeg with the few utensils in our eco-tent.

Undeterred, Sean attacked the nutmeg nut with a pocket knife once we were home at Concordia. It actually worked out pretty well.

That evening, Sean volunteered to make cacio e pepe, a friends group staple with these guys back home in Chicago.

Jimmy spun tunes while Sean cooked.

Eventually, one by one everyone went to bed.

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