I love to visit the ‘out islands’ of the BVI: Norman, Cooper, Peter, Salt, Ginger, and the rest. There is something about crossing the water to another island that causes your worries to melt away. And with little more than a beach and a beach bar to entertain you, the day ahead is one of simple pleasures: a sandy beach, a thriving reef, cold drinks, the light pulse of reggae music, the company of your friends.
Norman Island lies at the westward end of the BVI, next to St. John and just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel from Nanny Cay, Tortola. Long associated with pirate treasure, Norman is a one-square mile island and the reputed setting of the 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Treasure Island. True or not, it is easy enough to believe that the island of Stevenson’s imagination was not unlike our Norman.
On my recent visit to the island we set up camp on beach chairs and donned masks and snorkels to look at the reef just off the beach. The sand there quickly gives way to a healthy seagrass bed and then a reef. It turned out to be a delightful place to explore.
I am always fascinated by schools of fry. I love to watch the schools of tiny silver bait fish move, always in unison and often extremely quickly, especially if you get too close. As I swim above, I think of myself as a cowgirl of the ocean, herding schools of fish. I’m not the only creature who is interested in the fry. I see schools of blue runner and yellow tail feeding, and pelicans dive from above to retrieve mouthfuls.
The reef itself looks healthy. There is brain coral, pillar coral and fans. Large black sea urchins are nestled between rocks, their narrow stiff spines looking almost elegant. I look for sea anemones, soft, translucent, tentacled creatures which anchor themselves on rocks around the reef. I have learned that if I wave a hand near the tentacles, the anemone quickly pulls itself in—amazing proof that this thing which looks like a plant is indeed an animal.
I also saw my first-ever shellfish. This is a funny-looking hard-shelled fish whose body is shaped like a triangle. As it bounced around the reef feeding on microscopic organisms it made me think of a flying car. Its flesh, if you eat it, is more akin to lobster than fish.
On Norman Island the sea life comes to see you, even if you don’t venture off the sand. The beach at the Bight is populated by a family of stingrays who cruise into the shallows by the sand every so often, to the delight of bathers.
After a morning in the water, nothing tastes as good as a burger and a cold drink. I discovered a taste for the Pirate’s Punch, a mysterious rum-based concoction named for the beach bar and restaurant that serves it.
During the afternoon I poked around the island a bit. The gift shop had been expanded since the last time I was there, and they have added a small case where archaeological treasures are displayed. Hand-forged nails, rusted buckles, old coins, and spent ammunition from cannon and muskets—all of which were found on Norman—are a message from the past, a reminder that we are not the first people to ‘discover’ this island.
Finally, later in the afternoon one of those experiences that you will only have on a place like Norman: a group of visitors from Puerto Rico boarded their helicopter, which was parked on the service dock. The engine roared, the blades hummed and soon the copter is lifting off sending spray out over the water. The pilot flies in a loop and then buzzes over the beach to say farewell. Quite a sight!
For me, it was a lowly boat that carried me home across the Channel, back to my life on Tortola but grateful for the breathing space provided by a day at Norman Island. I will be back.