Virgin Islands National Park: Brown Bay

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Pin Cushion Sea Star. Image: Adam Geffen

Adam and I had read in St. John Off the Beaten Track that Brown Bay (see map) was a secluded, often-empty north shore beach. It was also listed on the Park’s guide to snorkeling, which we were keen finally to do in earnest. So we decided that we would all spend Saturday morning at Brown Bay, enjoying the beach and the water. Friday afternoon, we’d reserved rental snorkels, masks, and fins from Concordia. We’d also packed our bags and lunches.

Saturday dawned clear, sunny, and warm. Soon we were underway on the 25-minute drive from Concordia to the parking area for Brown Bay Trail.

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Sean greets a giant succulent, as he does whenever he meets one.

Part of the reason Brown Bay is so lightly visited, particularly for a north shore beach, is that the beach is a 0.8-mile hike (with a vertical change of about 200 feet) from the parking area.

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Before cresting the ridge, the trail affords a view of Hurricane Hole to the south.

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Brown Bay is hemmed in by hills and boasts a narrow white sand beach. The water is shallow for quite a distance, with abundant sea grass beds. Along the rocky shores on the east and west sides of the bay, and continuing around the points on both sides, are some pretty grand coral reefs.

When we arrived, there was one snorkeler just finishing up an early-morning exploration. He gathered his things, wished us a good day, and set off on the trail. We’d have Brown Bay to ourselves for the next four hours, with only the Brown Pelicans for company.

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As soon as we waded into the water, we encountered sea life, a great harbinger for what was to come.

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Pin Cushion Sea Star

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Brown Pelican

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Conch shell

Bethany, Sean, Adam, and I decided to snorkel. We started out in the central sea grass beds being careful not to disturb them. We mostly spotted conch and small fish. Sean, who didn’t grow up swimming like the rest of us, felt uncomfortable enough to turn back.

The rest of us turned our attention to the reef on the western side of the the bay. We were floored by what we found. Adam, who had already taken the underwater case for his iPhone for a few test drives in Salt Pond Bay, was able to capture some of what we saw.

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Blue Tang. Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Blue Tang. Image: Adam Geffen

Bethany was the most experienced snorkeler in our group, and she swam out to the end of the bay to see if she could spot sea turtles, which we were all keen to see. Adam and I paired up and slowly swam east across the bay at about 3/4 of the way out toward the Sir Francis Drake Channel. The sea grass beds were thinner out in the deeper water, but we did spot an occasional sea star.

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Pin Cushion Sea Star. Image: Adam Geffen

The reef on the the eastern side of the bay was less dense and spectacular, but because the coral was more spread out, it was somewhat easier to spot fish.

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Goatfish. Image: Adam Geffen

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Bar Jack. Image: Adam Geffen

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Grunts. Image: Adam Geffen

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Grunts. Image: Adam Geffen

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Grunts. Image: Adam Geffen

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Butterflyfish. Image: Adam Geffen

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Trumpetfish. Image: Adam Geffen

The following video is a compilation of clips Adam captured in the sea grass beds and in both reefs at Brown Bay:

Video: Adam Geffen

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After more than an hour in the water, we took a break for lunch. Bethany had already returned to the beach without spotting any turtles.

It was a gorgeous morning, with a gentle breeze. We relaxed, reading, occasionally wading along the shore, generally exploring.

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Little Blue Heron.

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Short-Spined Sea Urchin

Eventually other people hiked down to the beach. Several were hikers looking in vain for the Brown Bay Estate ruins that were at the far end of the beach, according to the Off the Beaten Track book. One couple asked me if I knew where they were while I was taking photos. I didn’t.

Sometime after noon, a couple of St. Johnians, man and woman, arrived at the beach with a club and a machete. They set about hunting along the shore for conch. We weren’t quite sure what to make of them.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Oblivious to the clouds beginning to roll in from the northeast, Sean, Adam, and I decided to try snorkeling again. This time, we entered the water along the eastern side of the bay, where interesting coral and fish were in shallower water. But for a second time, the constriction of breathing through a snorkel got the better of Sean, and he had to turn back.

Adam and I continued on, investigating the reefs and fishes all the way to the tip of the eastern point.

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Image: Adam Geffen

We noticed the wind was picking up a bit, so we decided to recross the bay so that we could photograph some of the interesting formations we’d seen earlier in the day on the west side. The increase in wind made the sea somewhat more choppy than when we’d effortlessly crossed in the morning. That, coupled with our being more tired, made for somewhat rougher going this time around.

Adam captured a bit of it in a video clip:

Video: Adam Geffen

It was worth it though.

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

There was one huge formation, at least as big as any of us, that Bethany and I had spotted earlier in the day. I’d fixed in my mind an onshore shrub it was parallel with so that we could find it again. The top of it was mere inches from the surface. In particular, this was the formation I wanted Adam to see and photograph. It’s pictured below:

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

Soon, we decided it was getting a bit too choppy to stay out in the bay, and we heading to shore to join the others for a snack.

While we were hanging out, a 20-something couple arrived at the beach. Sean decided that their names were “Lindsey” and “Steven” (he does that sometimes). They were off to find the ruins.

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Another couple arrived, “Jeff” and “Rachel,” who were in their 30s. “Jeff” sported a hipster ‘stache. They began to try to snorkel, even though the bay was getting even rougher and the sky more overcast.

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Video: Brandon Hayes

Then we heard a gunshot from the western side of the beach, followed by a crying animal that sounded possibly like a goat.

Shortly after, “Lindsey” and “Steven” came back. “Steven” asked us if we’d heard the shot. It had freaked them out, and they’d decided not to continue looking for the ruins.

We stuck around for about another quarter of an hour, but then decided that since it had gotten so overcast, it was time to leave. Plus we were hungry and ready for a more substantial mid-afternoon lunch. We gathered our things and hiked back to the Jeep.

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