Kayak tour shows best of St. Thomas

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands— “Hike the pristine, deserted 15-acre island of Cas Cay,” announced the Virgin Islands EcoTour web site. Fifteen acres? I can’t go up three flights of stairs without feeling winded, let alone hike 15 acres.

Obviously not the outdoorsy type, a kayak-hike-snorkel ecotour was proving to be a little daunting.

However, my sense of curiosity and an itch to try something new had gotten the better of me, and I was about to embark on a three-hour tour.

Troy jumps up on his kayak and gives a “war cry” to encourage the  group to attempt to stand up (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

Virgin Islands EcoTours is the only company on St. Thomas giving tours to the inner mangrove lagoon marine preserve. Although not a part of the Virgin Islands National Park, which is mostly situated on and around the island of St. John, Case Cay serves as an important mangrove sanctuary just off of the island of St. Thomas and protects an array of wild and marine life.

Upon arriving at the Virgin Islands Eco Tour marina, I was greeted by Alex Stigliano, tour guide and photographer who oddly reminded me of Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

“Have you kayaked before?” he asked.

“No, is that going to be a problem?” I answered.

“Um, well I hope not. You never know! At least you can snorkel, right?”

“Very little.”

“Well then, good luck!”

He gave me a wink and walked off to prepare for the tour. I found myself making friends with Todd and Michaela Spencer, a retired couple from Chicago, who had also arrive early and witnessed my horrified expression.

The group huddles around the racing circle, shouting for their crabs to run faster (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

“There’s nothing to it, just paddle like you were in a canoe,” Michaela said. Her advice would have been helpful, had I ever been in one.

As we waited for the rest of the adventurers to arrive, a group off a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, I could hear the ecotour group embarking before us attempt to get into their kayaks, and from the sound of it they were not too successful. At least I knew that Alex really was joking.

Eventually the cruise guests and students from the University of the Virgin Islands found their way to the marina and Alex, along with Troy Willock, a resident of St. Thomas and the lead tour guide, started making their introductions. Troy easily switched in and out of island slang, joking with the university students.

Luckily for me, I was paired with Matt Haight, a high school student from New Jersey who is an avid kayaker. Even though anyone in our tour group had yet to fall into the lagoon, getting the kayak turned around proved a small challenge as my kayaking skills were not up to par with Matt’s.

“How about you let me turn the boat?” Matt suggested, “I do this every summer.” I was more than willing to stop pretending like I knew what I was doing.

I was very focused on some intense paddling for the first 10 minutes, and was delighted with my quick learning. It was when I took a break to rest my arms that I realized I was completely useless.

We were still going the same speed without my help. I turned around to give an embarrassed, encouraging smile, and received a laugh in return. I was glad that I was in easy-going company.

With this realization that I was going to be of no help to my partner, I took the time to take in the surroundings. As the tour paddled along Alex weaved in and out of our kayaks snapping candid photos. Troy jumped up and stood on his kayak and gave a war-like whoop to the lens.

Guide Troy Willcox makes a stop at some mangroves at a hurricane hole and gives the group a short lesson on the ecology of the preserve (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

“You know I can do that too, right?” taunted Taber Wilson, the eager ten-year old who seemed to have been born attached to a kayak. As he stood up on his kayak he gave his own war cry and proceeded to fall into the lagoon – I felt a little better about myself.

We were heading to our first stop on the tour, a hurricane hole. Sheltered by the Mangrove trees, the hurricane hole serves as a place to dock boats during strong storms and hurricanes to avoid damage.

Above the surface, the mangrove trees look like a complex web of roots knotted together. Below the surface, the knotted mess is multiplied, creating a strong hold on to each other, and a durable barrier to winds. In addition to protecting boats, the mangroves serve as protection for birds and the underwater system of roots protects tiny and baby fish from bigger ones.

After our brief lesson on the mangrove habitat, we kayaked to Cas Cay, our ultimate destination.

We left the kayaks on the shore to continue across the island on foot. To be honest, I was quite sad to see the kayak left behind; after 45 minutes, I was just starting to feel like I might be making some sort of contribution to my kayak unit.

After leaving the kayaks behind, I was relieved to find out that our “hike” turned out to be no more than a nature walk. The fact that our tour guides were in flip flop should have been my first clue as to the intensity of this hike.

Had Gilligan shipwrecked on this island, he might not have been so eager to leave it. As we “hiked” along the coral and shell-lined beach of Cas Cay, we could see the many small, distant islands that make up the Virgin Islands, including a protected, and prohibited, sea turtle nesting island. Ahead of us, we could see the volcanic cliffs that, had the ocean and St. John backdrop not been in its background, could easily be mistaken for a Wild West film set.

As we headed into the sparse vegetation away from the beach Troy shouted, “crab race!” as he drew a circle in the dirt. “Find your crab and put them in the middle of the circle – we’re going to race them.”

Matt Haight’s mother, Glenda, and his younger sister, Chelsea, have fun in the ocean spray at Cas Cay (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

On the ground, hundreds of hermit crabs scuttled to escape our grasping hands. As everyone ran to the racing circle with their crabs, I struggled to keep a firm grip on my own.

“You have to keep tapping on their shell to make sure they stay inside and don’t pinch you,” Troy said as he continued to laugh at my demise.

With the amount of tapping my crab endured I was surprised it didn’t have a seizure. It goes without saying that I suffered a few pinches in getting my competitor to the ring, only to come in dead last.

After a few more losing rounds on my part, the group continued up the shoreline to the climax of the hike.

We had reached the Red Point Blowhole. A blowhole is a geologic formation in which a wave enters the mouth of a sea cave and is pushed upwards towards a cavity existing above and located at the end of a cave, and results in a powerful blast of water, above our heads. We are told that if we were to be on top of the blowhole when it erupts, we’d be blown sky high.  As the group photographer, everyone clamored for Alex’s attention to get their picture with the blowhole in action.

The perfect Kodak moment: a family posing next to the red-stoned cliffs, made a more golden color by the afternoon sun hitting the rocks, sprays of water from the blowhole adds life to the picture, and a picture perfect background of St. Johns completes the portrait.

Even though everyone was perfectly content with enjoying the scenery and snapping away on their cameras, Troy and Alex urged us onwards back to the beach to continue on the next leg of the tour.

Back on the beach we suited up in our snorkeling gear and headed into the shallow waters. Alex let it be known that there have been sharks spotted on some of these tours, but never a shark attack. I waited for him to say “just kidding,” but it did not come.

Despite my agonizing fear of sharks, I found myself drifting to the front of the group and feeling completely at ease. As we swam away from shore Alex and other members of the group excitedly pointed out Squirrel Fish, Yellowtail Snapper, Grouper, Banded Butterfly Fish and Angel Fish.

An example of the “perfect” Kodak picture. St. Johns sits in the far background and Tina Green and David Chou, two friends from the military, pose beneath the overhanging cliffs of Cas Cay (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

Alex dived to the bottom to retrieve Conch shells for us to pass around and look at. Seeing as how I am a sucker for conch fritters, I was very curious to see what a live one looked like, and I must say that my craving for them has subsided a little. The slimy snail looked like a suction cup waiting to spring out onto my face; I quickly passed it on to the next person. That was the scariest creature I saw that day, and thank goodness for that.

Even though the colorful coral that I had expected to see was more or less nonexistent, the real gem of the trip was the mangroves. We had already seen them from above the water, but while snorkeling we were able to see the world beneath them. Small schools of silvery, metallic fish twirl in and out of the maze of roots, stirring up mini sand storms in their wake. Other lone fish dart in and out of the murky mangrove forest. One of these lone fish is the Barracuda, a menacing looking fish with a long, slender body, and an intimidating looking mouth.

After an hour in the water, we were all looking forward to the “light snack” that was promised to us at the beginning of the trip. We each received two Snickers bars. Not nearly enough. With the little nutrients I had in me, I was not looking forward to the paddle back and neither were a few of my travel companions.

“If I had known the light snack was a fun-sized candy bar, I would have brought my own food,” said Susan Wecker, a cruise passenger from New York.

Most of us grudgingly got back into our kayaks, except for Taber who was ever the chipper little 10- year-old. He had already flung himself into his vessel and was half a mile ahead of everyone before Troy yelled across the water for him to “just cruise for a bit.” Ironically his parents ended up a mile behind us.

Chelsea Haight holds up the conch shell for her mother to see (Photo courtesy of Virgin Islands EcoTours and Alex Stigliano).

The trip back to the marina was short, as we didn’t make any mangrove pit stop or take side “alleys.” The trip home was actually more of a race, and I was shocked and delighted that Matt and I had come in first! I had made progress after all.

We were thanked for coming and given the opportunity to buy photos and merchandise and, of course, encouraged to leave a tip. Prior to the tour, I had really not known anything about mangroves except that they were a tangled mess.

I had taken my first steps to being an “outdoorswoman,” and I was quite pleased with how far I had come in the last three hours. I had managed to not fall out of my kayak, seen a rare geological blowhole, and swam with barracudas among the mangroves. Not bad in a day’s progress.


If You Go

Telephone: 877-845-2925

Kayak & Snorkel the Marine Sanctuary & Mangrove Lagoon, St. Thomas
Tour Length: 2½ hours
Departure Times: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily
Rate: $69 (adults), $39 (children under 12)

Kayak, Hike & Snorkel Adventure of Cas Cay, St. Thomas
Tour Length: 3 hours
Departure Times: 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily
Rate: $79 (adults), $49 (children under 12)

Our Kayak, Hike & Snorkel of Caneel Bay, St. John
Tour Length: 3 hours
Departure Times: Sunday, Monday, Thursday 2 p.m.
Rates: $79 (adults), $49 (children under 12)

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