Guides to St. John and the Virgin Islands

While charts and cruising guides helped us plan our destinations and get there safely, there were a number of other books and guides that allowed us to enjoy and understand the history and ecology of the Caribbean and Bahamas, specifically St. John and Leinster Bay, where we spent two months as volunteer bay hosts for Virgin Islands National Park.

Much of our exploration of St. John began with Gerald Singer’s St. John Off the Beaten Track, which offers a lifetime of local insight on the beautiful island. The book includes bits of folklore, history, ecology, and anecdotes that Singer intersperses with a more traditional guide to the trails, beaches, and snorkels around St. John. Even after a couple months on the island, we still have a long list of things to see and do on St. John, nearly all of which we came across in Singer’s book. And I will never forget the story Singer relates about the family of four who ate the fruit of the toxic manchineel tree, mistaking them for genips. But there are dozens more interesting anecdotes in the book.

Machineel tree and fruit.
Image copyright of Hans Hillewaert, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

While we picked up Singer’s book at the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park store, Margaret happened upon a used copy of one of our other favorite resources, Island Peak to Coral Reef, at the only bookstore on St. John, The Papaya Cafe and Bookstore at the Marketplace shops. Island Peak to Coral Reef is a lovely ecological guide to the Virgins put together by Toni Thomas, Barry Devine, and other scholars and researchers in the region. Despite the authors’ academic pedigree, the book is highly accessible, intended as an introductory guide for the layperson and student. While we learned a great deal about the plant communities and geology of the islands from the book, it was the section on the marine ecology that we found particularly fascinating. It allowed us to differentiate between types of reef and bottom structures, understand how the undersea environment came to be formed, know what we could expect to find in each community, and appreciate the disturbances that threatened and transformed these areas.

Looking down at Leinster Bay, Mary’s Point, and Great Thatch.

Beyond these two wide-ranging guides, we also used a number of field guides on a daily basis while on St. John. Spending as much time snorkeling as we did, Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach’s fish, sea creature, and coral guides were indispensable. Their Reef Fish Identification was the first one we acquired. And the guide proved to be an amazing resource. As soon as we dried off after snorkeling, one of us would have the book out locating the new fish we had spotted. Moreover, casually perusing the guide not only offered some entertainment, but also allowed us to make identifications of new fish we came across, like the flighty permit that ranged outside Waterlemon Cay.

Once we familiarized ourselves with the organization of Reef Fish, it was a no-brainer to add Humann and DeLoach’s Reef Creature Identification guide as well. This volume enabled us to figure out the different types of shrimp, crabs, sea cucumbers, and octopus we saw throughout Leinster Bay. Like with Reef Fish, just paging through Reef Creatures provides plenty of fun and also opened our eyes to tons of critters we had been overlooking, such as worms and seahares. 

The third volume in Humann and DeLoach’s series is the Reef Coral Identification book. Since the list price on the guides are 45 to 60 dollars and we had difficulty getting Amazon – where they can be had for 30 dollars or less – orders in the Caribbean, we never bought this last one. But we certainly wished we had it and perused it whenever we stopped by a dive shop. We did get their Reef Fish Behavior, which was rather scientific in some parts, but also taught us a ton about the reproduction, feeding, and interdependence of the fish we were seeing and opened up a whole new set of things to look for and enjoy underwater.

Like the undersea guides by Humann and DeLoach, field guides to birds were equally indispensable. The first, Peterson’s Birds of Eastern and Central North America has been with me for two decades now. I have always found it easy to use with color illustrations, range maps, and pertinent information for identification. But after spending time with our other bird guide, Birds of the West Indies, I always reached for the latter first instead. Not only does Birds of the West Indies include a number of species that are not in Peterson’s, but the images and descriptions in Birds of the West Indies proved more helpful too. We also picked up a list of resident, migrant, and vagrant species on St. John from the Virgin Islands National Park that helped us narrow down the possible species considerably, making identification that much easier.

All of these guides made our stay on St. John more enjoyable and rewarding. And we used them, save Singer’s island specific guide, during the rest of our travels through the Caribbean and Bahamas. Since we are always looking to learn more about the places we visit, we would love to hear in the comments below about any resources that you know of for St. John, the Virgins, and the rest of the region that you have found particularly useful. 

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