Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico’s Vieques

Bombs once exploded on Isla de Vieques during naval exercises. Now that the military range has been turned into a wildlife refuge, the fireworks on this Puerto Rican island are created by glowing microorganisms in its bioluminescent bay.

A satellite burns across a big sky so spangled with stars that even I can pick out Saturn, Orion’s Belt, and the Seven Sisters. Fishing bats drop from a dark wall of mangroves and skim the bay’s still surface for prey, while night-feeding great blue herons stalk the shallows. Far less gracefully, I cinch a safety flotation belt and lean from a boat ladder to dip a toe into this wondrous Caribbean bay.

The waters off Isla de Vieques feel as warm and comforting as a fleece robe. So I take the plunge and suddenly find myself in a world made of liquid fire, where every movement sets off an eerie, glimmering reaction made by millions of bioluminescent plankton. While thousands of animals and plants, from anglerfish and sea stars to fireflies and fungi, have the ability to sparkle with their own light, the microorganisms of this obscure inlet produce nature’s most dramatic aura. With a breaststroke, the special effect makes my limbs look like neon-blue sea-turtle flippers; a slicing sidestroke mutates an arm into a Star Wars–caliber light saber. Nearby, other ebullient swimmers bob on their backs and make phosphorescent water angels. We are stardust; we are glow sticks.

For decades, however, such brilliant explosions weren’t so benign or entertaining on Vieques. They were more likely to come from bombs dropped by Navy airplanes or lobbed by warships upon this sunbaked island between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The military exercises sparked public protests, which grew particularly strident after 1999, when a local man died in an off-target bombing. Islanders lobbied before the United Nations’ decolonization committee and human-rights forums around the world; 1,500 people, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Rev. Al Sharpton, and actor Edward James Olmos, were arrested in civil-disobedience actions.

In 2003, after 60-plus years of military target practice, the U.S. Department of Defense finally shut down the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area-Vieques and, in a guns-to-plovers move, completed the transfer of nearly 18,000 acres to the Department of the Interior. The former firing ranges are now part of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, the largest, most ecologically diverse refuge in the Caribbean—and a potential ecotourism engine to drive the moribund local economy. The Navy’s occupation, which caused the relocation of thousands of Viequenses and rendered three-quarters of the 52-square-mile island off-limits to the public, had the unintended consequence of insulating Vieques from the unbridled development and mass-market tourism that has overrun much of the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. The commonwealth counted nearly 5 million tourists last year; a quarter came from the U.S. mainland, primarily to visit historic Old San Juan, soak up the sun and rum on Condado Beach, or catch a cruise ship. Less than 3 percent made it to sleepy Vieques. “Vieques still has the natural wonders that are already lost on the mainland,” says plainspoken refuge manager Oscar Diaz-Marrero. “This is the last place.’’


Shaped like a dagger, the island lies just eight miles and a $2 ferry ride off the east coast of Puerto Rico yet remains far removed from the big island’s crowds and condos. Only two of Puerto Rico’s other 77 municipalities have smaller populations than Vieques (just 9,106 inhabitants, according to the 2000 census). In north-shore Isabel Segunda, the island’s commercial hub, many local men and boys still ride into town on horseback. Esperanza, the only other settlement of note, slumbers five miles to the south along the Caribbean coastline, just a few salt shakers shy of “Margaritaville.’’ The best map of the island was produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1951—the roads haven’t changed much since. The narrow, paved sections—often just one and a half lanes wide—turn into broken dirt tracks leading to a variety of untrammeled landscapes, including mangrove-rimmed lagoons, broad white-sand beaches, and subtropical dry forest, a dwindling habitat of drought-resistant broadleaf trees that vanished from much of the Caribbean as land was cleared for settlement, farming, and grazing.

One of Puerto Rico’s most important archaeological discoveries, which included the 2,000-year-old jadeite amulet of a male Andean condor—indicating that the original inhabitants had far-reaching trade networks—was unearthed a few miles west of Esperanza. Christopher Columbus reportedly sighted Vieques in November 1493 during his second voyage; a few decades later the Spanish sent an expedition that annihilated the local Taino people. But a corruption of the Indian name for the place—bieke, or “small land’’—has endured. Pirates, including Captain Kidd, sheltered in its bays, but Vieques wasn’t resettled until the 19th century sugar boom. The Navy appropriated many plantations in the 1940s, when Vieques became part of America’s World War II defensive perimeter.

On a detailed aerial map at the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust in Esperanza, it’s easy to see the web of west-end roads where the Navy built scores of ammunition bunkers among the lush hills. The flatter, more arid eastern side was designated for military maneuvers, amphibious landings, and weapons training. The aftermath of those operations is clearly visible, especially in the heavily cratered Live Impact Area. And because of unseen dangers—chiefly unexploded ordnance (UXO) and hazardous materials—about 8,000 acres of the wildlife refuge remain closed to the public.


From sunup to sundown, however, the remainder of the preserve, including several spectacular beaches, is now open. I startle mongoose and flush coveys of rolitas, the local name for common ground doves, as my jeep bounces for two miles along a gullied, rock-strewn trail to Bahia de la Chiva, also known as Blue Beach. But the strand, a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of gently scalloped, powdery white sand, redeems the bad road. I feel as if I’m at a secret Castaway club; I count fewer than a dozen other vehicles on this high-season afternoon. As a bonus, the shallows along the rocky eastern point conceal some of the best snorkeling on Vieques: fragile finger coral and sea fans and larger brain corals providing cover to colorful wrasse and parrotfish as well as jack and barracuda. Just offshore, a squad of brown pelicans glides east, bound for Cayo Conejo, a small islet near the old bombing range that holds the commonwealth’s largest alcatraz colony. From the low-hanging branches of a nearby sea grape tree, I spy a flash of yellow-green feathers—a male scarlet tanager in Day-Glo winter plumage.

Vieques is “a major stopover and wintering area for shorebirds and raptors,’’ says Daphne Gemmill, a retired Environmental Protection Agency policy analyst from Washington, D.C., who has birded the island for the past 20 years. “It’s also fertile ground for wintering neotropical migrants.’’ According to Gemmill, who is creating a bird database for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 148 species have been spotted on the island, including three endemics: the Puerto Rican woodpecker, the Puerto Rican flycatcher, and the Adelaide’s warbler. The refuge and its surrounding waters also support four species of sea turtle: leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, and green. On this very beach, it won’t be long before half-ton female tinglares, or leatherbacks, haul themselves out to lay clutches exceeding 100 eggs.

To protect the threatened and endangered animals from poachers and predators, Julian Garcia Martinez, a biology teacher at the Vieques middle school, began a grassroots conservation group six years ago. “My father was a fisherman,’’ the Esperanza native explains in Spanish. “He was an accomplice in the killing of sea turtles. I always had this preoccupation.’’

The volunteers with his nonprofit group, Ticatove (an acronym based on the Spanish names for the turtle species), mount all-night patrols on public beaches during the nesting season, which begins with the February arrival of egg-laden female leatherbacks and stretches until September, when the last green and hawksbill hatchlings claw their way to the sea. The work also takes the teams to restricted-zone beaches, such as Playa Matias, where they must be accompanied by UXO technicians. It’s too soon to tell if Garcia Martinez’s initiative has helped, but fishermen tell the soft-spoken teacher they’re seeing more marine turtles. Some pescadores even contact his group or the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources if they encounter an egg-laying female.

“It’s very important for the community to be involved, and to think this is important,’’ Garcia Martinez says. Two years ago, he recalls with a smile, fishermen came by his house in the middle of the night with astounding news: hawksbill turtles were hatching on a narrow stretch of sand just beneath El Malecon, Esperanza’s beachside promenade.

Diaz-Marrero hopes more Viequenses will recognize the inherent value of the island’s abundant natural resources and their potential to support a range of ecotourism activities. As a model, he mentions the J.N. “Ding’’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife-rich mangrove preserve that is the signature attraction of Sanibel Island, Florida. “The economy of Sanibel Island is basically the refuge,” he says. “Why would you not do the same here?’’

Many of the local activists who spearheaded protests against the Navy see a similar role for their island. A sustainable-development plan produced with the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques recommended ecotourism and low-density accommodation while rejecting mass tourism. To date there has been just one resort hotel, the 144-room plantation-style Martineau Bay Resort & Spa.

“The possibilities are unlimited, and the dangers and the negative models are very close by,’’ says Robert Rabin, a spokesman for the committee. “We only have to look at St. Croix and St. Thomas, where the people of those islands have become a minority and where their natural resources and economies have been taken over by others.’’


The island’s crown jewel is a small bay with the dubious name of Puerto Mosquito. By day it’s an unremarkable place, save for wintering ospreys, merlins, and American kestrels: a basin just one-third of a square mile with a maximum depth of 14 feet, rimmed by an unbroken palisade of mangroves. But at night its bioluminescent qualities—often considered the brightest in the world—are in full bloom. The reason is a single-cell dinoflagellate, Pyrodinium bahamense (the scientific genus comes from the Greek words for “whirling” and “fire’’), and the special circumstances that allow this plankton to flourish and flash in such a humble setting.

“Mangrove bays go hand in hand with high concentrations of these dinoflagellates,’’ explains Mark Martin, the Vieques trust’s environmental educator. The hardy trees shed tons of nutrient-rich leaves that decompose in the warm waters of the shallow, unshaded bay; in this fecund, slightly saltier environment, as many as 720,000 well-fed dinoflagellates teem in a single gallon of water. Martin, who also guides “biobay” tours, notes the special shape of the bay’s entrance; there’s a reef system and a sandbar at the mouth that break up waves, followed by a narrow, S-shaped channel. Prevailing winds and currents push seawater into Puerto Mosquito, but the microorganisms are too small and weak to exit the bottleneck. And fortunately, neither freshwater streams nor sewage pipes feed into the bay, which would alter salinity or purity levels and decimate the highly sensitive plankton.

When disturbed, the dinoflagellates combine two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, to create a natural light. One theory posits that the blue-green glow is a defense mechanism that makes the protists seem far larger than their microscopic size. The mysterious effect, which occurs in oceans around the world but rarely in concentrations as great as at Puerto Mosquito, can even have lethal consequences. In World War I, a German U-boat was sunk after its gleaming wake gave away its position.

On Vieques, several local companies offer nocturnal biobay boat or kayak tours, except during the week bracketing a full moon, when the lunar phase diminishes the intensity. Luckily, my visit falls on a last-quarter moon, and Island Adventures is operating Luminoso, its battery-powered pontoon boat. We board the launch a half-hour after sundown and cruise to the shallow channel, where endangered West Indian manatees sometimes feed on the seagrass beds. As the sky fills with countless constellations, guide Ricky Marrero stomps on the boat’s metal deck and lightning flashes beneath the surface: trails left by scores of bolting fish.

“This is your chance to have the ultimate spa experience,’’ Marrero says when the boat comes to rest in the middle of the bay. He vaults into the water, conjuring radiant bubbles that seem the stuff of sorcery; my 10-year-old son, Timothy, and I quickly join in the aquatic alchemy. The outing turns into a splash party as more than a dozen other swimmers delightedly kick up blazing wakes or churn great depth-charge-like balls of fire. Timothy raises an arm and gasps in wonder; it appears as though glittering flecks of gold, not water droplets, are falling from the heavens. Every move we make is illuminated.

“I love the island,’’ Marrero says, floating nearby. He gestures toward the north side of the bay, but his glow is rivaled by the glare from the hillside barrios of Destino and Lujan. “Maybe someday this bay will be gone.’’ Development has already dimmed other bioluminescent bays around the world, including Jamaica’s Luminous Lagoon and the one at La Parguera, on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, which was once considered the best in the islands. Sewage, agricultural runoff, and pollution from gasoline-powered tour boats have drastically dulled the experience. “It’s basically a septic tank,’’ Diaz-Marrero says of the bay at La Parguera. “It’s a system that is collapsing. Now Mosquito Bay is maybe the most important one in the Caribbean, or in the world.’’

So far Puerto Mosquito’s greatest environmental problem is light pollution. The Vieques trust is developing a municipal lighting ordinance, Martin says, and has helped homeowners convert fixtures, add shields, or switch to lower-wattage bulbs. Several tour companies have agreed to take residents from the lit-up neighborhoods onto the biobay so they can see the effects firsthand.


Although still modest, tourism has already grown rapidly on Vieques. The refuge counted more than 130,000 visitors in 2005, up 60 percent since 2003. Just as quickly, snowbirds and speculators have driven up real-estate prices beyond the means of many residents on this impoverished island, where more than 11 percent are unemployed. “The issues we’re going through right now are, Tourism for whom?’’ says Rabin. “Development for what and for whom? Combined with environmental issues as well.’’

In February the municipality came under criticism after thousands of cubic yards of earth were carved from a wooded hillside to build a racetrack for a poorly attended moto-cross race—hardly the eco-friendly development local activists envisioned. Although longtime island advocate Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz, a retired teacher, says that city hall “promotes corrupted tourism,’’ with most enterprises controlled by non-islanders, the brunt of Viequense vitriol is reserved for the federal government and the decontamination of former Navy property. A central demand is that the entire area be restored to pristine condition and, through “devolution,’’ taken from the Fish and Wildlife Service and returned to local control.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency added the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area at Vieques to its list of Superfund sites; the agency’s report states the range and surrounding waters contain “extensive amounts of unexploded ordnance’’ and may also hold mercury, perchlorate, depleted uranium, and other hazardous substances. The Navy has budgeted $76 million for the removal of ordnance and toxins over the next three years. Diaz-Marrero says the land will be cleaned to EPA standards for its current use as a wildlife refuge. However, he says, the Navy swept beaches to a depth of four feet—far more than the one-foot standard—because leatherback turtles can dig nests three feet deep. Still, he allows that places like the live impact area may never be entirely clean. Suffice to say the rehabilitation will be lengthy and expensive. The ongoing restoration of Kaho’olawe, a Hawaiian island also used as a U.S. military range, has already cost more than $400 million since 1997. “Sure, there’s a lot of damage from the Navy,’’ says Martin, “but there are areas that are still some of the nicest in the world: the bioluminescent bay, the coral reefs, the dry forest, the ancient forest on top of Mount Pirata.’’


My last full day on Vieques, I ride to the west side with ranger Gisella Burgos, who has agreed to take me to the top of Monte Pirata, the island’s tallest peak, which is currently off-limits to the public. The Department of Homeland Security operates a radar facility at the 987-foot summit, but Fish and Wildlife is negotiating to open most of the restricted site. Along Highway 200 we pass a boarded-up Navy checkpoint; small herds of free-range horses; and telephone poles being worked over by carpinteros, Puerto Rican woodpeckers. We then drive inland through a complex of overgrown ammunition bunkers. “Right now they’re great habitat for bats,’’ says Burgos, ticking off a belfry’s worth of species: red fruit bat, cave bat, velvet free-tailed bat.

Beyond a pair of padlocked gates, the blacktop narrows and climbs through lush forest that was never cleared for cane. One more locked gate and the road spills onto a helipad with a stunning view: the purplish mountains of Puerto Rico to the west, Culebra to the north, and St. Thomas to the east. Nearby, a half dozen red-tailed hawks ride the updrafts, while the hidden song of an Adelaide’s warbler floats forth from the old growth. In the shadow of the radar tower stands a small, tempting papaya tree; I weigh the national-security ramifications, then pick a trio of low, ripe, forbidden fruit. Their fate will remain classified.

On the descent we encounter a pair of exhausted hikers huffing up the road. Burgos stops the truck and gently informs them they’re trespassing on government property. She pauses for a moment, as if to reconsider, then tells them to go ahead and have a look around the mountain: “It’s too beautiful of a place to get locked up.’’