On 02 August 1956, legislation was passed by Congress to authorize the establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park. This act limited the potential acreage of the Park to 9,485 acres on St John (an island 12,500 acres) and 15 acres on St Thomas. On 05 Oct 1962, the boundary of the Virgin Islands National Park was expanded to include 5,650 acres of offshore areas (waters and submerged lands). These acres are considered to contained some of the most significant natural features within the Park. They include coral reefs, mangrove shorelines and sea grass beds.
The Park boundary was again expanded in 1978 to include Hassel Island located in St Thomas harbor together with "...adjoining lands, submerged lands and waters" to equal the 12,908.60 acreage, with water area being 5,650 acres.
In 1976, the Virgin Islands National Park became part of the biosphere reserve network designated by the United Nations. The goals of the Biosphere Reserve Project are to "establish a network of representative ecosystems, conserve genetic diversity, monitor changes, develop techniques to restore the land, and study traditional use and conduct experimental research". The Virgin Islands National Park is the only biosphere in the Lesser Antilles.
Size and Visitation
Gross Area Acreage: 14,689
The park covers more than one half of Saint John Island and Hassel Island in Saint Thomas harbor and includes quiet coves, blue green waters, and white sandy beaches fringed by lush green hills.
Visitation: 2001 - 713,462
Virgin Islands National Park is open year round with highest visitation Dec through Apr, and lowest May through Nov.
The nearly five centuries of the Virgin Islands' cultural history is as colorful and enthralling as a carnival parade. Humans inhabited the area long before Columbus arrived. Archeological discoveries show that Indians migrating northward in canoes from South America, lived on St John as early as 710 BC. They hunted and gathered foods primarily from the sea. Like most of its Caribbean neighbors, the island later ( c. AD 100) supported a small population of Taino Indians who chose sheltered bays for villages, made pottery, and practiced agriculture.
Columbus may have named the islands, but no lasting settlements were in place until the 1720's. Attracted by the lucrative prospects of cultivating sugar cane, the Danes took formal possession in 1694 and raised Danish colors in 1718, thereby establishing the first permanent European settlement on St John at Estate Carolina in Coral Bay.
Rapid expansion followed, and by 1733 virtually all of St John was taken up by 109 cane and cotton plantations. As the plantation economy grew, so did the demand for slaves. Many who were captured in West Africa were of tribal nobility and former slave owners themselves. In 1733, they revolted and ad island-wide massacre of families occurred. Six months passed before the rebellion was quelled.
The emancipation of slaves in 1848 was one of several factors that led to the decline of St John's plantations. The population plummeted and by the early 20th century cattle and subsistence farming and bay rum production were the main industries.
"Of white people there is only a Danish official who is stationed there as a local judge and Chief of Police, and a few missionaries, who attend to the spiritual welfare of 900 Negro inhabitants of the island." Not long after this 1900 report, St John graduated from a sleepy out-of-the way map dot to a place very much in the public eye. The United States purchased the islands 31 Mar 1917, and by the 1930's the seed of a tourism industry had sprouted. Word spread quickly of this untouched Caribbean paradise. In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller purchased land and transferred it to the Federal Government to be designated a national park. In 1962, boundaries were enlarged to include 5,650 acres of submerged lands.
St John is a volcanic island, part of a sub-marine mountain range which includes the larger islands of the Greater Antilles, the Virgin Islands, and the Lesser Antilles. This chain of islands begins with Cuba and ends with Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela.
In St John, a relatively clear geologic record stretches back some 100 million years to the late Cretatious period. This places the earliest stages of island building at a time when the major continents were probably much closer together. Important clues to the history of the Caribbean basin and its evolution may yet be discovered in the record of rocks exposed in these islands.
The long process of undersea mountain building and uplift brought sub-marine ridges and peaks to the surface where periods of explosive volcanism alternating with centuries of coral reef deposits, changing sea levels, and further intrusion created the formations we recognize today.
The first stages of island development took place underwater. These first volcanic flows were later uplifted and exposed. The oldest exposed rocks of St John are still recognizable as separate flows. Known as the Water Island Formation, they include examples of pillow lava.
Four subsequent stages in the development of St John followed the Water Island Formation. The Roisenhoi Formation was a time of explosive shallow water and subaerial volcanism. The material of this formation contains extensive explosive volcanic products such as andesite and tuff (solidified ash).
The close of the fiery second phase of St John development was followed by a period of relative serenity during which sediments (from coral and the skeletons of planktonic creatures) slowly accumulated on the slopes of the older volcanics as a dark-colored limestone known as Outer Brass. This thin-bedded limestone is represented by only a limited exposure on St John.
The Outer Brass limestone is overlain by a less substantial formation of relatively impure sediments (wackes) composed of debris of the Louisenhoj and Outer Brass. The Tutu Formation was probably laid down underwater during periods of earthquakes and tremors. It appears to have resulted from sub-marine landslides and watery flows of suspended sediments.
One of the last major events in the geologic history of the island is evident along the northern coast, where a molten rock mass intruded and cooled before reaching the surface. Cooling at a relatively slow rate beneath the surface resulted in a medium, fine grained, black rock known as diorite, exposed at Threadneedle and Mary's Point.
The Virgin Islands National Park contains a variety of forest types due primarily to variations in rainfall at different locations around the island. These variations extend from an annual rainfall of 45 inches to 55 inches in the moist forest areas to 25 inches to 35 inches of rain in the drier parts of St John. The effects of salt and soil types, especially in shoreline locations, are also significant factors in determining what types of plants will grow in a particular area.
The moist forest areas are generally found along the island's north shore and at higher interior island elevations. Both evergreen and deciduous trees form a canopy that may exceed 75 feet in height. Trees prominent in the moist forest include; kapok, mango, sandbox, saman, Strangler fig and genip. Shade tolerant plants such as wild coffee, teyer palm, lime, and Sweet lime form a sub- canopy in the moist forest. Ferns, mosses, and bromeliads are also common. The moist forest areas were most frequently cleared for crops. Therefore, many of the slow growing hardwood trees that were a part of the virgin forests are rare in the second and third growth forests that exist in the park today. The modern forest bears only partial resemblance to the forest of the early colonial period.
The eastern and southeastern portions of St John, as well as low lying costal areas, represent the dry forest vegetation. Cactuses such as dildo, prickly pear, and turks cap grow along side of shrubs such as maran and thorn bushes like casha and catch-and-keep the canopy in this forest is much lower than in the moist forest and the thorny character of the vegetation makes it difficult to walk through.
Mangrove forests represent adaptations to shoreline conditions including salt, tidal inundation, and anaerobic soils. Red mangroves grow in the ocean and have specialized "prop" roots that protect shorelines and serve as nurseries for many marine animals. Other mangrove species include the black, white, and buttonwood mangroves. While in shoreline areas, watch out for the poisonous manchineel. Do not touch or eat its toxic leaves and fruits. Organ pipe and turks cap cacti and century plants grow in the very driest places such as Ram Head.
The indigenous vegetation has been drastically altered by cultivation and the introduction of many exotic species. With protection, however, the forests will continue to revert to a more natural state.
The clear warm waters surrounding St John support a diverse and intriguing complex of coral reefs. The health of those reefs is closely tied to aquatic plant and animal components, to nearby sand and grass bed communities, and to the energies of passing waves and currents.
The term, coral reef, refers to an integrated community, a functioning assemblage of a large variety of organisms. Some of the units within the reef system, the so-called stony or hard corals and certain algae, are directly responsible for build-up of the reefs carbonate material. Other life forms such as worms and certain fish species act to break down, rearrange, and aid in cementing this material into a solid basement layer on which coral growth continues.
At night, coral animals such as star coral, brain coral, pillar coral, and others extend their tentacles to feed and may be seen by observers.
The coral reef is home for an extensive variety of animals. These include colorful members of the grouper family, parrot fish, tangs, grunts, snappers, butterfly fish, angles, damsels, squirrel fish, and wasses. The reef is also represented by invertebrates such as sponges, starfish, urchins, worms, crabs, lobsters and anemones.
The growth of an individual coral colony is slow. Branches of elkhorn may lengthen only three to four inches each year; those of staghorn six to eight inches annually. A specific set of environmental conditions is required to sustain healthy growth of a reef. Sunlight and clear water are important to promote photosynthesis. Dependable supplies of oxygen and planktonic food, as well as the cleaning action of water currents are important. Temperature and salinity requirements are critical. Favorable water temperature varies between 70 and 80 degrees. Optimum salinities are in the range of 30 to 36 parts per thousand.
Reefs or individual corals suffer when they are exposed to extremes of turbidity, temperature, salinity, or chemical pollution. Such conditions may occur because of extremely low tides or extensive silt-laden or polluted fresh water from runoff from the adjacent land. If exposure is prolonged, the corals eventually die. Scientific research is currently attempting to analyze the amount os such stress that reef colonies can withstand.
Reefs have been compared to underwater cities. Alleys, streets and cul-de-sacs twist between high- rise coralline structures where vacant dwellers are virtually nonexistent. Wispy cleaner shrimps dance about to attract their more-than willing finned hosts. Moray eels, spiny lobsters, deflated porcupinefish, and crimson squirrelfish spend their days holed up in reef crevices.
At night, the city is transformed into an eerie nether world where octopuses slither about and parrotfish seek protection resting in their veil-like mucus cocoons. Coral polyps emerge from stony skeletal homes, stretching their tentacles out to feast on plankton.
Throughout both day and night, lacy-looking sea fans, sea whips, sea plumes, and other soft corals undulate in the current. They create the appearance of an underwater garden, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a garden that cannot afford even the slightest damage. The fastest growing corals add only two to three inches per year, and large brain corals are hundreds of years old. Carelessly placed anchors, an errant flipper, and excessive sediments running off newly cleared slopes can devastate reel life. Virgin Islands National Park preserves what is fast becoming a disappearing natural phenomenon worldwide.
The white sand beaches of the Virgin Islands have a well-deserved reputation for being among the most beautiful beaches in the world. Picture-postcard beaches fringe Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Saltpond Bay and many of St John's other sheltered coves.
Sand, the key ingredient to any beach, is brought to the island shore by waves, tides, and currents. Primarily the sand comes from two sources within the bay, marine algae that grow just offshore and from living coral reefs. Both, when broken down into tiny fragments, make sand. Without the algae and the reefs, the ready supply of sand would disappear, as would, in time, the beaches.
The reef also acts as the first line of defense for the beaches; they reduce the full force of incoming waves that otherwise could cause serious erosion. On stretches of St John's rugged coast that lie exposed and unprotected by reefs, the shoreline is made up of cobbles and bare rocks.
Except for sunbathers and swimmers, the beaches can appear to be lifeless. Not so. Sandpipers and other shore birds visit the beaches and probe along the water's edge in the sand for small crabs, mollusks, and other burrowing creatures that live off morsels of food the waves bring in. Sea turtles, who spend much of their lives in tropical seas, visit beaches only occasionally, but when they do it is for a very important reason, to lay eggs. Beaches are essential to the survival of these rare, critically endangered species.
Activities & Calendar
Address & Phone
Boats & Sailing
Brochures, Maps, Written Info
Jobs, SCA, Volunteer Positions
Sea & Shore
Size & Visitation
Copyright © 1995 - 2007 Hillclimb Media
This site is in no way associated with the United States Government, the Department of the Interior or the National Park Service