Virgin Islands National Park: Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay

On Monday, March 21 [2022], we went snorkeling at Waterlemon Cay, one of the premiere snorkeling sites in Virgin Islands National Park. Skipping it on our first trip had been my biggest regret, so I was very excited to see what it had to offer.

French Grunts, Yellowtail Snapper, Sergeant Majors, Corky Sea Fingers, Sea Fans, Sea Urchins, and Mustard Hill Coral

The Pearly-Eyed Thrashers got started early that morning. They were shrieking at 2am. Happily we had mostly learned to sleep through them.

Crested Anole Lizard

It wasn’t so much that we were slow waking up, we were just slow to get moving that morning. Which was just fine, because a few little rain squalls moved across the southern end of St. John while we read, hung out, had some breakfast.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

While the rest of us were talking through the plan for the day—West Indian food in Cruz Bay for lunch followed by Waterlemon Cay—Josh poured himself a Screwdriver, stuck an unripe coconut in his shirt to be a one-sided tit, and started playing Kim Petras’ “Coconuts.”

Ram Hill, Ram Head, and Salt Pond

Josh’s unripe coconut

Later, at 10:45, when we decided to head out at 11am, Josh poured himself another screwdriver. It wasn’t until the rest of us began putting on our shoes and walking out of the eco-tent with our things that Josh finally realized we were leaving and began putting in his contact lenses, between sips.

We ran a few errands on the way into town, including dropping off postcards at the post office.

We went by Mongoose Junction to go to the great little Friends of Virgin Islands National Park store, but it wasn’t there anymore.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We swung into the Visitor Center, and the volunteer at the counter said that they’d had to close the store at Mongoose Junction. That was a shame. Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is a great “friends group.” “Friends groups” are often the official nonprofit partner of a National Park or other federally protected site like a National Wildlife Refuge or National Forest. Definitely give Friends of Virgin Islands National Park a follow on social media.

Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center

For lunch, we were craving some good West Indian food, and we found some great dishes at the Roti King food truck.

Walking to the car afterward, a bird shit on Jimmy’s head and sunglasses. He was, rightly, freaked out. But it was also pretty funny.

After Jimmy had cleaned off, we drove out to the Annaberg parking lot, where Nick, Sean, Josh, and I had been the day before. This time we were headed along the shore below the plantation ruins toward Waterlemon Cay.

Mary Creek

Leinster Bay Trail hugs the shoreline for maybe half a mile until it connects with Johnny Hill Trail off the sand beach in Waterlemon Bay.

Right at the start of the trail is wide, shallow Mary Creek, an inlet between the Annaberg area and Mary Point. Mary Creek is one of the places on St. John where the tide is actually noticeable. It was in when we arrived.

Sea Urchin (dead)

Green Iguana

Leinster Bay

Waterlemon Bay

Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay is perched on the shallow shelf of Waterlemon Bay just before the seabed plunges sharply into Sir Francis Drake Channel. Right at that transition point of depth, it generally boasts an array of species. Some are more comfortable in the shallows and others venture from the depths of the channel to the reef.

The trick that I’d heard from my new friends Pat and Helene and from the guidebooks was not to swim out from the sand beach, but to swim over from a rocky area where the distance between Waterlemon Cay and the mainland of St. John was closest. So that’s what we did.

Josh and Nick paddled across to Waterlemon Cay. I stayed near shore with Sean while he got his bearings. He was doing great, and he saw a few neat fishes, but he was nervous about making the crossing to the cay. I swam out about half way to see how deep it got…maybe twenty-five feet?

Sea Urchin (also dead)

Ultimately, Sean decided not to make the crossing over and headed off to join Jimmy on the sandy stretch of beach.

Mutton Snapper

I headed out across the water to Waterlemon Cay.

Blue Tang, Bar Jack, Brain Coral, and Porous Sea Rods

Sea Urchins

Stoplight Parrotfish (female)

Highhat(?), French Grunt, Sergeant Major, Brain Coral, Slippery Dick, and dead Sea Urchin

Ocean Surgeonfish, French Grunt Sergeant Major, and Brain Coral

Sea Urchins and Smallmouth Grunts

Southern Sting Ray and Mutton Snapper

Near the deepest point on the way across, I spotted a Sting Ray.

There is some debate about which direction to circumnavigate Waterlemon Cay. I opted for counter-clockwise so that I was not fighting the strong current on the northern side of the cay, closest to the deep channel between St. John and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Blue Tang and Grey Angelfish

Mustard Hill Coral and Branching Tube Sponges

Blue Tang, Blue-Headed Wrasse(?), Redfin Parrotfish, and Branching Tube Sponge

Four-Eye Butterflyfish and Mustard Hill Coral

Sea Rod, French Grunt, and Smallmouth Grunts

Brain Coral

Hybrid Black Hamlet

Blue Tang and Yellowtail Parrotfish

Ocean Surgeonfish and Mustard Hill Coral

Sea Fan, Mustard Hill Coral, and French Grunt

Branching Tube Sponge, Ocean Surgeonfish, Mustard Hill Coral, and Christmas Tree Worms

Sergeant Majors, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

As I approached Waterlemon Cay, I reached the outskirts of the reef surrounding it.

Sea Urchins, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Blade Fire Coral, Branching Fire Coral, Mustard Hill Coral, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Sergeant Majors

Now I was beginning to traverse the north side of the cay. The water was deepening, particularly off to my right as it sloped toward the channel.

Pillar Coral, Sea Urchins, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Mustard Hill Coral, Branching Fire Coral, Branching Tube Sponges, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Sea Urchins, Branching Fire Coral, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Sea Urchins, Branching Tube Sponges, Sea Rods, Sea Whips, and Sea Fans

Yellowtail Snapper and Sheepshead Porgy

Image: Sean M. Santos

Meanwhile, Sean was watching Nick and Josh paddle about on the south side of the cay.

Sea Urchin, Sea Fan, Sea Whip

French Grunt, Bar Jacks, and Sea Urchins

Sergeant Majors

There were lots of striped Sergeant Majors on this side of the little island. And also some dark bluish-purple fish. I learned later that they were also Sergeant Majors. They turn that dark color when they are guarding eggs.

Sergeant Majors and Sergeant Major eggs

Sure enough, although I didn’t know it while I was swimming past, but the image above has a couple smears of purple Sergeant Major eggs on the rock in the center. And there are dark colored Sergeant Majors guarding them.

Waterlemon Cay

By this time I had made it around to the south side of Waterlemon Cay. Here it was shallower and there was no current to speak of.

Bowl Sponge

But there was a lot of interesting sea life.

Blade Fire Coral and Sea Urchins

Boulder Star Coral and Christmas Tree Worms

Three-Rowed Sea Cucumber

Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber and Sea Urchin

Spiny Sea Rods

Three-Spot Damselfish, Beaugregory, and Mustard Hill Coral

Sea Urchin and Corky Sea Fingers

Brain Coral, Redfin Parrotfish, and Bluehead Wrasse

Waterlemon Cay

Sea Fan, Sea Urchin, and Mustard Hill Coral

Branching Tube Sponges and Christmas Tree Worms

Branching Tube Sponges

Ocean Surgeonfish

Branching Hydroids and some sort of coral

Branching Hydroids and Mustard Hill Coral

Southern Sting Ray

Crossing back to shore, I spotted the Sting Ray again.

In all I was in the water around Waterlemon Cay for over an hour.

I went and joined the guys who were hanging out on the sand beach. They had seen a Flounder in the shallows near the shore. Wildlife sighting envy number three for me. Nick and Josh had also seen a turtle.

Waterlemon Cay

Satisfied with our snorkel, we headed out back along the shore toward the parking area.

Mary Point

As we got back to the parking area, the tide had gone out at Mary Creek.

Mary Creek

Our goal was to head over to Trunk Bay after 4:30pm when they no longer charged admission and when it would hopefully be less busy. We were excited to finally visit one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet after missing it on our first trip.

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