Many Americans might be surprised to learn that the National Wildlife Refuge System has nine refuges in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Jamaica Passage. The Caribbean Islands NWR Complex includes Cabo Rojo, Culebra, Desecheo, Buck Island, Green Cay, Sandy Point, Laguna Cartagena, Navassa and Vieques national wildlife refuges.
In today’s New York Times, reporter Greg Breining describes a kayaking and camping trip he took to Vieques NWR in Puerto Rico, in his article titled “Rediscovering a Hidden Island”. Vieques NWR used to be a Navy bombing range before the military gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over half the island, and thanks to that transaction the Vieques NWR now encompasses 3,100 acres on the western end of the island and 14,573 acres on the eastern end. Vieques NWR is the largest national wildlife refuge in the Caribbean and also the most ecologically diverse.
Today most of the refuge is off limits to the public due to the ongoing effort to remove all unexploded warheads, but the USFWS is working on providing more access — not only to tourists but also to locals who wish to take advantage of the rich natural resources.
In Breining’s account, he describes some of the remarkable beauty that the refuge contains:
…on a rocky point called Punta Boca Quebrada, in sight of a pod of Royal terns, with topknots like Groucho Marx, we slipped on flippers and masks. Below, we muscled against currents through canyons and alleyways in some of the most spectacular shoreline coral I have seen. Among the brain, fan, and staghorn shapes were reef fish of all colors and a loafing hawksbill.
Back in the kayaks, we glided over coral reefs and shimmering grass flats. Mesquite-covered hillsides rose toward Monte Pirata, the highest point on Vieques. Dark knuckles of rock separated bright sand beaches, approachable only by boat — all protected now by the wildlife refuge.
According to the USFWS Vieques NWR Fact Sheet:
The refuge contains several ecologically distinct habitats including beaches, coastal lagoons, mangrove wetlands and upland forested areas. Some of the best examples of sub-tropical dry forest in the Caribbean can be found on refuge lands.
The marine environment surrounding the refuge contains coral reefs and sea grass beds.
The refuge and its surrounding waters are home to at least five plants and ten animals on the Federal Endangered Species list including the Antillean Manatee, the Brown Pelican and four species of sea turtles (Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and the Leatherback).
In addition to its ecological value, the refuge contains important resources of archeological and historic significance and legacies of the Taino culture and sugar cane era.
Be sure to visit the Vieques NWR website for more information on the refuge, and also visit the Caribbean Islands NWR Complex website to learn more about the other units in this beautiful, tropical complex.