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Crew Blog | Heidi Guth: Mahalo St. John National Park

Heidi GuthWritten by Heidi Guth

While Hōkūleʻa strives to be a model of island sustainability and the importance of all types of knowledge and learning, in many ways so do the island and coastal places that Hōkūleʻa visits.  For example, St. John, V.I., holds 3,000 years of human history, much of which is just being recognized in this new century; its isolated location, small size and lack of fresh water force its residents to be innovative, live sustainably and care for each other; and a government entity currently protects approximately 2/3 of its lands and surrounding oceans.

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As Hōkūleʻa celebrates her 41st birthday, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th.  The first National Park visited by Hōkūleʻa during the 2016 NPS Centennial was the Virgin Islands National Park, which was established 60 years ago.  The Park protects the majority of the dry and submerged lands on St. John, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (an internationally recognized example of biodiversity conservation that balances sustainable resource use), and in 2001 incorporated almost 13,000 acres of additional surrounding waters in the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. 

Educating locals and visitors alike on how to protect our coral reefs.

The Caribbean holds lacy purple and gold sea fans waving in currents, multiple species of brightly colored sponges, and corals not seen in Hawaiʻi, such as elkhorn, staghorn and brain coral – looking remarkably like their names.  St. John’s varied, technicolor marine life was ravaged in past decades by coral bleaching from the earth’s rising temperatures.  Smaller scale bleaching events continue to impact the once pristine reefs, but they have shown remarkable resilience and recovery in part through their protection, and are being studied to assist in future reef recoveries around the world.  The diverse reef fish are stunning to snorkel among, but even if the Park allowed for more than bait fishing and limited conch, spiny lobster and whelk (turban shell) hunting, the reef fish are mainly inedible because of ciguatera, so they are numerous, curious and friendly.  Native mangroves create protected nurseries for many sea creatures and ideal hunting grounds for myriad migratory and permanent bird populations, ranging from pelicans on the outer edges to wading herons, paddling ducks and swooping hawks.

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In an unprecedented effort to improve and maintain the interconnected ecosystems of the reefs and sea grass beds that have been impacted by decades of heavy anchor use, including anchor chains sweeping across the seabeds and scouring them as anchored vessels swung with the wind, the NPS began installing moorings in the early 2000s.  This year, just before Hōkūleʻa arrived in St. John from Natal, Brazil, the park became “anchorless.”  Three small areas are allotted for vessels longer than 125 feet to anchor in deep waters with completely sandy bottoms.  Even dinghies, for which the Park provides tethers, cannot anchor, and the more than 200 moorings available within the Park require only a nominal overnight fee to cover the cost of maintaining the moorings.  This is an example being set for other significant marine protected sites around the world.

Moorings are first come first serve here. Not to worry because there are more than enough in this protected bay.

Meanwhile, the cultural history of the submerged and dry lands lands of St. John extends back more than 3,000 years, with much of that history being uncovered archaeologically within the past 30 years and in the Park.  When I was growing up on St. John in the 1980s, we were taught that peaceful Arawaks paddled up the Caribbean island chain from South America and were ultimately killed by the more aggressive Caribs (for which Caribbean and cannibalism were named).  The Caribs were then killed by warfare and European diseases soon after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492, when he named the Virgin Islands for St. Ursula’s 11,000 virgins (because of all the fertile, mainly unpopulated islands and islets).

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Now, in major part because of archeological digs at Cinnamon Bay, in the Park, we know that the first indigenous peoples were the Taíno (meaning, “good people”), who are canoe people who were sometimes aggressive toward the Spanish, carved petroglyphs near the only semi-permanent pool of collectible rainwater in St. John, created functional and artistic pottery, survived mainly on seafood, and gave us such words as barbeque, canoe, hurricane, maize and papaya.  Carib people did come later with some violence and were largely decimated by Spanish steel and germs.  However, some Taíno and Carib peoples continue to live in parts of the Caribbean, and many Virgin Islanders are coming to be recognized as indigenous to their islands now that genetic testing is being done and oral histories are finally being recognized.  A bill heard in the V.I. legislature just this week seeks to provide the first formal recognition of the indigenous peoples, their heritage and their homelands.

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Not until 1718 did the Danes begin settling and farming St. John, using slaves from western Africa.  The treatment of these slaves, who terraced the small, very hilly islands and cultivated sugar cane and cotton, was ferocious, with quick capital punishment and constant replacements brought in from Africa by overloaded and disease-ridden ships.  A proud part of St. John’s heritage was the successful 1733 overthrow by the slaves – with the call to arms raised by the sound of the Tutu, or queen conch horn (pu).  Descendants of those original slaves, who we grew up knowing as the native population of the V.I., continue to be proud that theirs was the first successful slave rebellion in the New World and that they remained free from oppression for more than 6 months, until French troops from Martinique violently re-subjugated them.  Full emancipation did not come until 1848, and in 1917, the U.S. purchased the V.I. from Denmark to create a naval submarine base in St. Thomas for WWI access to Europe and Africa.

Austin Kino sharing some ʻike on navigation with our gracious hosts from the National Park Service.

Mahalo nui loa to the National Park Service for their hospitality to Hōkūleʻa and our crews, and for the education they provided to us.  A Park boat helped bring us into the NPS headquarters dock in Cruz Bay Creek, St. John.  The Park let us stay there for our entire stay, which enabled us to safely re-provision and prepare the canoe and next crew for the current leg of the Mālama Honua voyage, as well as allowed for easy access to Hōkūleʻa for school children, St. John community members and Park visitors from around the world.  Mahalo to Julius E. Sprauve School, Gifft Hill School and the St. John Christian Academy for their interest in our voyage, message and culture, and for enabling their students access to the waʻa during school hours.  We hosted hundreds of enthusiastic and curious people, and the Park maintenance, interpretive, enforcement and administrative staff hosted us with grace and kindness.

The very goregous Trunk Bay. Home of Leg 17 crew member Heidi Guth.

The Audubon Society of St. John also sponsored an island tour for the crew, replete with NPS interpreter.  We saw about a third of the land portion of the Park, visited the archaeological site and museum in Cinnamon Bay and walked through the remains of the Annaburg sugar plantation, helping to bring the history of this small, isolated and sustainable island to life.  The Friends of St. John National Park, which helps raise and provide private funding to the Park also provided the crew with hospitality, information and many courtesies.

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As Hōkūleʻa again enters U.S. waters in coming weeks, she and her crews will continue to visit a series of National Parks during their centennial.  We will learn how these parks and their staff work to preserve and provide access to invaluable cultural and natural history and resources.  Mahalo nui for the introduction, St. John!


Happy Birthday, Hōkūleʻa!

Help us celebrate Hōkūleʻa’s 41st birthday by becoming a member, or gifting membership to another!

On March 8, the iconic deep-sea voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa celebrates her 41st birthday! Our master navigators use the stars, waves, wind, and birds to find their way, following in the wake of their ancestors. Hōkūleʻa has journeyed more than 150,000 miles over the past 41 years, and a new generation of navigators is sailing around the world to explore how people and communities are working to Mālama Honua – care for our Island Earth.  We need your support to keep us voyaging – please visit www.hokulea.com/donate/ to help.

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