Save Coral Bay, USVI: The Little Bohemian Village in the Caribbean Fighting a Mega Yacht Marina Proposal
by Owen James Burke
This little corner of volcanic rock on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with under 1,000 year-round residents is a self-contained commune of certifiable nuts.
This was the view from my verandah at sunset each night. The wooden three-master in the center of the image was one of the largest of the few boats ever built on the island.
Think of Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, or the television show “Northern Exposure,” only set in the Caribbean.
(Photographer Unknown. Picture taken c. 2012)
A few miles’ drive south of Coral Bay, and it’s even more remote. Fresh off the boat with porgies, grouper, yellowtail, and octopus. Someone was always sure to spot us on our way in and, knowing we’d have fish, grace us with rum.
I lived in Coral Bay for a year, and it was one of the quirkiest bohemian Shangri-Las I’ve ever seen, filled with all manner of ruffians, criminals and societal outcasts, and the kind of grit for which the Caribbean was once notorious and the kind of place Key West used to be. It’s a bacchanalian playground in the best sense, and I think it needs to stay that way. There are other places like it, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer in the Virgin Islands – and everywhere else.
(Photo: Jason Shockley)
Angels Rest, a glass-bottomed houseboat in Hurricane Hole moors just east of Coral Bay, where the boats go when big storms hit. Any time of day, you’ll find a handful of local yokels hanging about drinking painkillers, the unofficial official cocktail of the Virgin Islands. It’s a good midday stop off for a backflip from the top deck, and a beer to cool off before going back to fishing.
But now there are plans in the works to build a mega yacht marina and push this Jimmy Buffett-loving trailer park-esque harbor under. It’s really a stretch to call it a harbor though. It’s more like a bunch of refugees from old Margaritaville living on delinquent boats — mastless, engineless barnacle-crusted junkers. Somehow though, it’s indescribably charming.
Wandering the East side of Coral Bay, looking north, c. 2012
For the past decade, proposals for Coral Bay have been presented and declined, but the first of the marina proposals has finally been approved by Coastal Zone Management (CZM). But Coral Bay is not doomed yet, as plans for the 1,333-piling, 145-slip marina still have to go through the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval, and a relatively small marina on a remote island in the Caribbean is not high on the list of priorities to address. Environmentally, a marina of such size could spell disaster in the tiny bay for marine life and the folks who call this one particular harbor home.
(Photo: Steve Simonsen)
Coral Bay is home to several species considered to be endangered or rare, including the green sea turtle and some corals which are found in few other places on earth. The marina itself would be placed right on top of crucial grazing grounds for the turtles, and, whether intentional or not, marina waste would likely exact severe harm or reap extermination upon the corals.
When contacted to comment, two editors from local news sources, both staunchly opposed the project, but expressed uncertainty as to whether or not they believed the Army Corps of Engineers would approve of the plans. Both stated that in either case, it will be years before any decisions are made.
One Coral Bay resident wrote:
“This will happen in time and there is nothing the wee folks of Coral Bay can do about it. It will destroy this place. It will ruin the simple peaceful and lovely way we live and force many to leave. Ya can’t stop ‘progress’.”
(Image: Coral Bay St. John)
Does Coral Bay need a marina? Absolutely. It could stand to have a few sunken vessels hauled out, though they make pretty great bug holes (lobster diving sites), and a more strictly enforced clean water policy. Because so few boats actually sail or motor – acting more like anchor-bound double-wides, a lot of waste is pumped directly into the harbor. Truthfully, it’d be a stretch to consider or Coral Bay as the pristine body it once was when, as it is believed, Christopher Columbus pulled in over 500 years ago (almost everyone in the Caribbean claims he made a stop on their island).
So, be it $5,000, $500, $5, or even just a few quick posts to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, help preserve this weird shangri la of people who “are all here because [they’re] not all there,” as reads the bumper sticker above Coral Bay’s most popular bar, Skinny Legs, which, without a doubt, serves the best burger on the island.