Warm Islands

Snorkeling at Buck Island Reef in St Croix

For visitors to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, snorkeling at Buck Island Reef National Monument is a must.  Buck Island is a small uninhabited island 1.5 miles off the northeast coast of St Croix.  It’s really not all that impressive to look at from afar.  In fact, look at a picture, and you’ll immediately wonder – that mound in the ocean covered with stubby trees is a National Monument? 

A view of Buck Island near St Croix Virgin Islands
Buck Island

Well, here’s the reason.  Most of the Monument is under water – almost 18,839 acres of underwater lands to be exact. One of the great coral reefs in the Caribbean surrounds Buck Island. Snorkeling along that reef should top any St Croix itinerary. Plus, on the island’s western edge sits Turtle Beach – consistently rated as one of the top 10 beaches in the world due to its pristine white sand and turquoise blue waters.

So, snorkeling at Buck Island Reef was a necessary activity during our recent visit to St Croix.  But…I can’t swim!  And I have only tried to snorkel once.  An ill-fated attempt off the coast of Puerto Vallarta 30 years ago that left me convinced snorkeling was not one of my gifts and something I best not try again.

But Buck Island beckoned.  I couldn’t ignore arguably St. Croix’s top attraction. So as is often required when traveling, I put aside my anxiety, and went snorkeling at Buck Island Reef. 

First,  A Quick History of Swimming Ineptness

I really am terrible in the water.  Our junior high had a swimming pool. Swimming classes were a regular part of the PE curriculum.  Every single year, I found myself in the beginning class – having mastered no skills the year before.  I made several attempts to learn in the years that followed, to no avail.  I’m just not coordinated enough in the water to put it all together in any sort of way that gets me more than 10 feet without sucking in uncomfortable amounts of water, and completely exhausting myself from flailing arms and legs.  About 10 years ago, I asked my triathlete brother to teach me in one last attempt.  That didn’t go well. I still can’t swim

So, snorkeling in water up to 12 feet deep? Assuredly not within my wheelhouse. I was going to need help in St Croix. 

Snorkeling at Buck Island Reef with Big Beard’s

The National Park Service – in an effort to preserve the endangered Reef – only allows specifically sanctioned tour operators to take visitors on guided reef tours.  I checked out each operator online, and decided that Big Beard’s Adventure Tours – the highest rated operator on TripAdvisor – was my choice for finding success snorkeling at Buck Island Reef. The FAQ section on their website promised effective snorkeling lessons on Turtle Beach. It also included an assurance that they were very successful in helping uncomfortable swimmers succeed. After reading this, I was all in.  I decided to put my snorkeling fate in their hands. 

The Big Beard’s catamaran that would take us snorkeling at Buck Island Reef in the US Virgin Islands

A Catamaran to the Island

Our afternoon with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours started on a mid May afternoon at the Pier in Christiansted, St Croix’s largest town.  Here, we boarded a 42 ft Catamaran along with about 40 other people. That number seems like a lot, but I never felt crowded on the boat. Captain Tito introduced himself and went through a long safety checklist, including COVID protocols. He then introduced us to Guillermo and Leah – the first and second mate. He reassured us that all the snorkeling masks and mouthpieces were sterilized with bleach after each trip (I saw Leah doing this when we were finished.)

Soon, we were motoring out of the Christiansted harbor and out to Buck Island – passing the 18th century Fort that guarded against pirates and other would-be invaders. 

The fort at Christiansted St Croix while passing through the harbor

The ride out to Buck Island took about 30 minutes.  While on our way, Guillermo and Leah outfitted us with our snorkeling equipment – fins, snorkel mask, and a flotation vest for those of us that wanted one (yes, please!)  The ride was a pleasant one – following the length of St Croix’s northeast shore.  Since Buck Island sits only 1.5 miles from St Croix, we could easily see the large estates that dot its eastern hills.

Motoring out to go snorkeling at Buck Island on the Big Beards catamaran

Snorkel Practice on Turtle Beach

Once we arrived at Buck Island, our first stop was Turtle Beach and it’s pristine white sand.  As I mentioned before, it is considered one of the finest beaches in the world.  Day trippers bring their own boats out to enjoy a day at the beach. These boats were spaced along the shore. 

Private Boats lined up along Turtle Beach on Buck Island USVI

Our catamaran backed up to the beach, and I descended the stairs into the turquoise water below, ready for my snorkel lessons.  

Big Beard's 42 foot Catamaran - our ride while snorkeling at Buck Island Reef in the Virgin Islands

Leah took those of us who needed a lesson up onto the beach. She showed us how to ensure a proper seal on our mask (most important and likely where I failed with snorkeling in the past), and gave us tips for using our snorkel and positioning our heads and legs in the water.  It took all of 5 minutes. I wasn’t sure it was enough lesson for me. But the those beautiful blue waters were calling me. I figured, if nothing else, I could stay close to shore.  

Turtle Beach on Buck Island near St Croix Virgin Islands

So in I went, and…..it was so easy!  I could see, and I could breath, and I could swim (albeit with flippers and a vest filled with air).  And I saw a few scattered tropical fish underneath me. I followed a stingray for a while. And then I looked up and I was 50 feet from shore.  And I was fine!  I couldn’t wait to get out to the reef! 

Out to the Reef

After 45 minutes on Turtle Beach, we all loaded back onto the Catamaran, and headed over to the other side of the island.  The Reef surrounds about two thirds of the Buck Island, but the National Park Service has created an underwater trail on its eastern side.  The trail consists of plaques placed on the ocean floor explaining some of the sights and also marking the most scenic way through the coral. Captain Tito took the boat through a natural break in the coral and into the lagoon between island and reef, ultimately tying up near the underwater trail.

The Buck Island Reef with St Croix in the background
The Reef is the line between the dark blue and turquoise water. St Croix is in the distance.

At this point, everyone on board was given flotation vests.  The NPS requires that these be worn at the reef. This is to prevent anyone who gets tired from standing on the fragile coral. The NPS also requires that visitors be guided initially through the underwater trail.  So we were divided into three groups.  Our group was led by Guillermo.  Once we had followed him through the length of the marked trail, we were then allowed to explore on our own.  We were at the reef for 1 hour.

Snorkelers getting ready to swim over to the Buck Island Reef
Captain Tito overseeing the first group heading out to the Reef

Snorkeling Success!

Having never really successfully snorkeled, this was an amazing new world for me.  Certainly something I’d seen on a TV screen before, but seeing it in person was awe-inspiring.  Walls of coral, long branches of ellkhorn coral rising from the ocean floor, mounds of coral that looked like big brains, and then all the different kinds of tropical fish. 250 species of fish live here.  I didn’t try to take a camera with me, so I didn’t capture any images to share, but here’s a picture on the NPS website.

I did get tired towards the end of the hour.  We were out on the open ocean and due to some wind, it wasn’t entirely calm.  The boat obviously can’t park right on top of the reef, so we did have to cover some distance ourselves.  But I never felt anxious, even though I sucked down ocean water three different times due to my own inattention. And a few times I thought “that boat sure seems a long way off – how did I get out this far.”  I simply just put my head down, kicked my legs, watched the fish, and slowly covered the distance. 

And kudos to Leah and Guillermo who were out in the water with us the whole time. They were extremely attentive to everyone’s skill level, very patient with those that needed extra help, and floated around with an extra life-preserver just in case anyone needed it. 

Thoughts and Tips

1. Our half day tour started at 12:30 and ended just before 4.  Big Beard’s also offers a morning tour that starts at 9.  They also offer a full day tour starting at 9, which replicates the half day tour, but also includes a BBQ lunch at a private St Croix beach.

2. You can bring your own snacks and drinks.  They do have a community cooler on the boat.  The boat has drinking water, and the staff pours copious amounts of complimentary Vodka Punch during the boat ride back to Christiansted.

3. The boat doesn’t have any sort of storage lockers for your personal belongings, but I never felt that I was in danger of losing anything.  The Captain stays on the boat the entire time. 

4.  I thought my pale Utah spring skin might get fried, spending 3 straight hours in the hot Caribbean sun.  But most of the boat’s seating area is covered, so it was easy to stay shaded. Still….sunscreen!

5.  The cost of the half day tour is a very reasonable $75

Our day snorkeling at Buck Island Reef with Big Beard’s was certainly one of the highlights of our trip to St Croix.  Don’t miss it!  Even if you swim like me.  

You can also click here to read about some of the other great things to do in St Croix. Or here to learn more about Frederiksted St Croix – our base for exploring the island.

To read about another times I put anxiety aside for a great travel experience, check out my posts about taking an air tour over Kauai Hawaii, fearfully standing on the glass bottom observation deck while visiting the Space Needle, or canyoneering through a Utah slot canyon.

19 Comments

  • Stefan (BerkeleySqB)

    Wow, Steven!! That took some guts.

    Kudos to you. People regularly make fun of me when I pull out of activities because of my fear of heights. People without fear miss out completely on those wins when we overcome those obstacles… life for them must be dull, bland, and boring… I pity them. 😀

    Would love to do some snorkelling around this archipelago.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Like you, I will never experience the thrill of overcoming my fear of parachuting or bungee jumping. But most other obstacles I try to overcome 🙂

  • Alecia

    Your willingness to overcome your fears and enjoy this experience is very inspirational! I consider myself an okay swimmer, and always felt that snorkeling was off limits for me. The way you described learning how to snorkel first and then going out into deeper waters makes me want to try this when I visit St. Croix again. Big Beard’s sounds like a great company!

    • thethoroughtripper

      Sounds like you are definitely a better swimmer than me Alecia, so it won’t be a big deal. Hope you get the chance soon!

  • Jane

    I am absolutely hooked, Steven! I must visit Buck Island and take this tour. I am in awe of you for attempting this as a non-swimmer. I am an okay swimmer but I can relate to you when I think of the one and only time I attempted scuba. Never again! I could feel the panic and claustrophobia within seconds. This tour looks wonderful though. An underwater National Monument! How cool! I love that they are so mindful of conservation too.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Oh, I can’t even imagine trying to scuba dive. I pretty sure that’s not in my future, though Mrs TT is trying to convince me that it’s the next step in my water evolution 🙂

  • Smalltownplussize Tom

    Wow, way to overcome your fear! I don’t know a lot about the US Virgin Islands but I think we’d enjoy it. I know we can trust your recommendations too so I’m anxious to check it out. I’ve been snorkeling 2x in my teenage years at Pennecamp State Park off of the Florida Keys and it was amazing. I can just imagine how wonderful this must have been.

    • Melody

      Buck Island Tour yo Turtle Beach was indeed an awesome excursion! You will love it! The Captain and his Mate were VERY awesome guys to hang out with!..Turtle Beach is well known for the Mommy Turtles that come out and lay their eggs in the DEEP plush sand!..The water itself was so beautiful!…

      .I couldn’t swim, so when we went snorkeling,the Mate pulled me along by only a Dingy that was tied to his leg!..Fear struck me like a bolt of lightning because I was so afraid I was going to drown!…I was so afraid of me drowning that I lost my focus on the beauty of nature below me,.lol…In the end I made it out alive,so I was very Thankful for that!…lol…

  • Ben

    Congratulations on visiting St. Croix and Buck Island. I’m glad you had a great time. I’m actually from St. Croix, so it’s nice seeing people come over and enjoying my island home. I actually live in New York City now, but visited my mother on STX on 5/13/21. While there, I took the full day Big Beard Buck Island tour on 5/19/21 and like the other times before, I enjoyed Buck Island and its trail.

    I recommend everyone to visit St. Croix and Buck Island. Also check out the easternmost part of the United States, which happens to be on St. Croix and called, Point Udall. There’s so much to see down there, so enjoy yourself.

    • thethoroughtripper

      We had a great time on your home island Ben! And we did visit Point Udall. Couldn’t help but take the opportunity to stand on the easternmost part of the US! Had we decided to take the full day tour with Big Beard’s, we would have met you. Our half day tour was on the same day 🙂

  • Becky Exploring

    I’m so impressed you went snorkeling without being able to swim. Even with flotation devices, that seems like it would be nerve-racking. But it sounds like a great experience! I love snorkeling/diving and this sounds like some of the trips we’ve done in the Philippines and Malaysia. Except we usually end up with cheap lagers instead of vodka punch. 😉 I’d love to visit St. Croix for some snorkeling one day.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Well then now that I know I can do it, it seems like I need to go snorkeling in Malaysia and the Philippines, too!

  • Lannie

    What a great snorkeling experience! I had no idea you weren’t a swimmer 🤣 but good on you for perseverance. It sounded like you had a great time snorkeling. For me, it’s hit and miss. Sometimes the current is so strong I regret going in. But with all the species of fish, I guess I’d have to 😉

    • thethoroughtripper

      The wind that day made it a little tougher, but definitely not enough to stop me from spending as much time out there as I could!

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