The Virgin Islands are small specks of green in the Caribbean Sea, 1,075 miles from Miami and 40 miles from Puerto Rico. Steep and forested, their hillsides plunge to the shoreline. Their coasts, lined by powder-white sand and fringed by protective coral reefs, are pleasantly scalloped. Some bays are especially wide, flat, and sheltered.
The Virgin Islands are at the northernmost tip of the Lesser Antilles, the string of islands that form an arc stretching from Puerto Rico in the north to Trinidad in the south.
The islands are at latitude 18°25′ north and longitude 64°40′ west, roughly the same latitude as Mumbai, Honolulu, and Mexico City. They lie at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The Atlantic Ocean is north and east of the islands, while the Caribbean is to the south and west.
The Virgin Islands comprise more than 90 individual islands, many of them nothing more than uninhabited rocks surrounded by sea. They have a combined coastline of 167 miles and a combined land area of 193 square miles, about twice the size of the Vatican City.
With the exception of Anegada, which is a coral island, the Virgins are volcanic. They emerged from the Caribbean Sea some 65 million years ago as a result of alternating periods of undersea mountain-building, followed by periods of uplift and periods of explosive volcanism. The highest point in the islands is Sage Mountain (1,709 feet above sea level) on Tortola.
Up until the Pleistocene era, about 100,000 years ago, the British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, and St. John, plus their related satellite cays, were joined with Puerto Rico to form a single landmass. When the sea level rose, all but the uppermost mountains and highest valleys were submerged by water, and the islands we know today were formed.
St. Croix, divided from St. Thomas by a two-mile-deep trench, was always separate from the rest of the Virgin Islands, however. As a result, unique plant and animal species can be found there.
While the Virgin Islands form a single geographical unit, they are divided into two political territories. The U.S. Virgin Islands, the more westward of the Virgins, comprise St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. The British Virgin Islands comprise Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada, and dozens of smaller islands and cays. The primary cities are Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, Christiansted on St. Croix, and Road Town on Tortola.
The boundary between the U.S. and British islands winds between St. John and Tortola and between Hans Lollick (U.S.) and the Tobagos (UK). The territories are separated by as little as one mile of water in places.
The climate of the Virgin Islands is subtropical and humid, moderated by easterly trade winds. Seasonal changes in weather are subtle. The hottest month of the year is July, when high temperatures can reach 90°F. During the coolest winter months, December and January, high temperatures are in the low 80s. Humidity generally ranges from 70 to 80 percent, peaking in July.
Historically, the Virgin Islands receive about 40 inches of rain per year. The wettest months are September, October, and November, when it seems to rain just about every day. January, February, and March are the driest months. Rain arrives quickly, falls heavily, and moves off just as suddenly as it came. If you visit during a rainy month, you will quickly realize that the best prescription against getting wet is to seek shelter and wait out the rain.
In the last two decades, serious rain events—in addition to hurricanes—have become a significant weather hazard in the Virgin Islands. For example, in August 2017, 17 inches of rain fell in parts of the Virgin Islands over less than a day. The impact was significant: Large parts of Road Town flooded, retaining walls collapsed, roads were undermined, and landslides damaged property. Scientists warn of a growing risk of rain events like this one as a result of climate change.
The windiest months are December and January, when the so-called Christmas Winds pass through. These delightful air currents of 25-30 knots bring cool air from northern climes, making these months ideal for sailing and generally cooler. From November to June you can count on northeast winds of 15-20 knots consistently. In May, June, and July the summer doldrums hit and winds taper off; southeast winds of 10-15 knots are common. These are the worst months for sailing, and some of the hottest. In September and October the weather tends to be unsettled.
Days are longer in the summer, with sunrise coming close to 5am and sunset around 7pm. At the peak of winter, sunrise is much closer to 6am and the sun sets at 6pm. Tides are minimal this close to the equator, with a range of about 12 inches; you probably won’t even notice tidal fluctuations.
The Virgin Islands regularly experience two types of natural hazards: earthquakes and hurricanes.
The Virgin Islands lie within an active earthquake zone registering some 900 measurable quakes each year. Most are minor—so weak you don’t feel them—but occasionally there are more significant events, usually marked by a loud rumbling noise and shaking.
The possibility exists for the islands to experience a major earthquake. The most significant earthquake in modern history took place in 1867, causing tsunamis that inundated the cities of Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted, Christiansted, and Road Town. Massive seagoing ships at anchor were deposited well inland.
In the event of a strong earthquake, residents and visitors are advised to “drop, cover and hold on”. If you are inside, stay there and move away from windows, doors and exterior walls, if possible. If you are outside, get away from buildings or power lines then drop, cover and hold on. If you are by the shore, walk inland to higher ground as soon as the shaking stops. For more information, contact the U.S. Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency or the BVI’s Department of Disaster Management.
The islands’ seismicity comes from the fact that they lie just south of the boundary of the North American and Caribbean plates, where there is gradual subduction and displacement. The Puerto Rico Seismic Network at the University of Puerto Rico and the Seismic Research Unit at the University of the West Indies monitor and research the islands’ seismic activity.
The Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1 and ends November 30, peaking in September. An old rhyme puts it fairly accurately: “June, too soon. July, stand by. August, it must. September, remember. October, all over.”
The word “hurricane” comes from the Taino deity Jurakan, the god of malevolence and destruction. For ancient seafarers, the destructive capacity of hurricanes was compounded by the fact that they arrived virtually unannounced. In more modern times, the only warning one had of a storm was a sudden drop in barometric pressure just beforehand. Older residents of Road Town, in the British Virgin Islands, can still remember the days when a government agent would monitor the barometer and ride through town on horseback warning people when the pressure took a sudden downward turn.
Today, the National Hurricane Center in Florida tracks and predicts hurricanes, and islanders have several days’ notice before a storm strikes. St. Croix is home base for the hurricane hunter aircraft that fly reconnaissance into storms to gather important data for the NHC’s forecast predictions.
Evacuation has generally not been practiced in the Virgin Islands, though the experience of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 may change that. Limited flights, the cost of airfare, and the uncertainty of hurricane track predictions lead most residents to ride out storms by boarding up windows and hunkering down with canned food, lots of extra water, flashlights, and battery-operated radios. Many homes have back-up generators.
Hurricane Irma struck the northern Virgin Islands on 6 September 2017 with 185 mile hour sustained winds and gusts over 200 mph: a “Category 7” storm, if such a thing existed. The eye passed over St. John, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda. Eight people died as a result of the storm, and damage was widespread and catastrophic: it will take years for the islands to rebuild. Governments of the two territories estimated combined damage of $6 billion. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria passed over St. Croix before ploughing into Puerto Rico, causing millions of further damages and killing five.
Other notable storms in recent history include Hurricane Hugo in 1989 which razed the Virgin Islands, St. Croix in particular. Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 dealt an especially devastating blow to St. Thomas. In 2010 the eye of Hurricane Earl passed just north of the Virgin Islands as a Category 3 hurricane. Damage from Earl was worst for the marine industry: Many docks were damaged or destroyed and boats sunk or damaged.
In addition to damage to buildings, roads, and boats, hurricanes can exact a cost on the natural environment. Waves from a hurricane can damage coral reefs, and the terrestrial destruction affects habitat for a number of creatures. Trees are stripped of leaves and branches. Some species, however, benefit from the disturbance of a hurricane.
Travelers who book trips to the Virgin Islands during hurricane season, and especially during the peak month of September, would be wise to also buy trip insurance in case their plans are disrupted by a storm. It is also a good idea to check with your hotel about cancellation and refund policies in the event a tropical storm or hurricane interrupts or delays your trip.
The environment of the Virgin Islands is under stress, due to development, inadequate planning, and climate change. There are some common-sense steps visitors can take to minimise the environmental impact you have on the islands.
Climate scientists predict that by the 2080s the Caribbean will be between 2 and 9 degrees hotter, on average; drier, receiving up to 25 percent less rainfall; and vulnerable to stronger and more frequent hurricanes. Sea levels are also expected to rise by up to two feet.
While the world debates climate change and the best response to it, residents of the Caribbean are being urged to adapt by building so as to withstand stronger storms; improving drainage and runoff around their properties; protecting mangroves and reefs; and installing low-use water fixtures. The impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 brought the future reality into focus like never before. Communities have a lot of work to do to improve the resilience of infrastructure, slow or stop development in especially vulnerable areas, and develop an agricultural sector that can withstand higher temperatures and less water.
Coral reefs are especially vulnerable to climate change. Coral is extremely sensitive to sea temperatures, and bleaching episodes in 2005 and 2010 caused by high water temperatures affected more than half the coral around the Virgin Islands. Global climate change is also expected to make oceans more acidic, which could cause corals to dissolve.
Coral reefs around the world are dying, and those in the Virgin Islands are no exception. Coral disease, pollution, and careless humans take a high toll on these delicate ecosystems. Global warming and the ensuing rise of sea temperatures is also a major threat, as reefs are highly sensitive to even a minor change in temperature.
Discharge of raw sewage into the sea causes algae growth, which smothers the coral reef. Dirt and other sediment washed out to sea following rains also cause the reefs to be smothered. Marine pollution, such as oil spills or industrial wastewater discharge (such as at the rum factory on St. Croix), can have a direct, deadly impact on reefs. Careless boaters, snorkelers, and divers can kill coral just by stepping, anchoring, or otherwise touching it.
Recently, disease has been the greatest killer of reefs in the Virgin Islands. Scientists at the Virgin Islands National Park reported that between 2005 and 2006 some 60 percent of reefs in the Virgin Islands were killed, mostly because of a devastating disease they call white plague. The disease attacked reefs that had already been bleached—but not killed—by high temperatures experienced in 2005. Since the massive die-offs in the mid-2000s, reef death has slowed but not stopped, making protection of the reefs that remain all that more important.
Some steps have been taken to address these threats, although more needs to be done if the islands are going to avoid even more destruction of their greatest resource. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, fairly stringent local and federal environmental regulations are applied to control pollution and check coastal development. However, there continue to be problems with marine pollution and development that occur despite loud and reasoned environmental-based argument. In both territories, moorings have been placed in some popular anchorages to prevent anchor damage. Little can be done about coral disease, except to provide support and training to the scientists who are studying it.
Other problems still exist. The British Virgin Islands still don’t have a public sewage treatment system, and raw sewage is pumped directly into the ocean. Likewise, in the sailing capital of the world, there is no rule requiring holding tanks, so yachts are free to discharge sewage directly into the sea. In both territories, no one seems able, or willing, to put a check on coastal or hillside development.
Visitors can avoid doing additional damage to coral reefs by using reef-friendly sunblock. You should also be careful not to touch or kick pieces of reef while snorkelling and only drop anchor on a sandy or seagrass bottom.
Virgin Islanders have fished for centuries to feed their families and bring in income. Many fishers use seine or gill nets to capture schooling mackerel, yellowtail snapper, and jacks. Others use fish traps, locally known as fish pots. These traps are made of wire mesh built on a wooden or metal rectangular frame. Depending on local conditions, they are set singly or strung together. Some fishers use buoys to identify where they left their pots—others rely on memory or GPS coordinates. Fish caught in these traps are sometimes called pot fish. You will also see children and adults standing near the water’s edge with a line—they are hoping to bring home supper.
There is evidence that the Virgin Islands fishery is under stress due to overfishing and environmental factors. The Caribbean Fishery Management Council, based in Puerto Rico, sets rules for the U.S. Virgin Islands fishery aimed at protecting the long-term health of the fishery. Both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands have closed seasons for many of the most popular, and most vulnerable, species of fish, as well as other creatures like lobster and conch. There are also size limits. Both territories also have no-take areas, and these protected areas are being expanded.
A group called Reef Responsible (www.reefresilience.org) has published a guide to U.S. Virgin Islands seafood species to help restaurants and diners select what to serve and eat.
Tuna, wahoo, dolphinfish (mahi-mahi), tilapia and lionfish (a non-native invasive species) are all good choices for being plentiful species which mature and reproduce quickly.
“Go-slow” species such as lobster, conch, certain species of snapper and grouper are subject to size and seasonal limits. Species which are under extreme stress and should never be consumed are parrotfish, Nassau grouper and goliath grouper.
Consumers should not be afraid to buy or eat fish because of overfishing concerns, but do familiarize yourself with closed season rules. If someone tries to sell or serve you something that should be off-limits, it has either been frozen or caught illegally. Ask.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have landfills on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. In the British Virgin Islands, waste is incinerated at Pockwood Pond, Tortola. Neither territory has large-scale recycling due to the high cost of shipping recyclables off-island and failure, as yet, for local recyclers to achieve long-term financial sustainability. Governments have also lacked the political will to invest in waste management for innovative, earth-friendly solutions.
The problem of trash came to a head in the British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma in 2017, when dumps of hurricane refuse caught fire, emitting toxic smoke. A year later after the storm, the largest pile on Tortola was still smoldering.
There is hope, however. Both territories have restricted the use of plastic shopping bags in recent years as a small but high-visibility step towards a more sustainable future. Grassroots organizations and small businesses in both territories have established small-scale waste reduction and recycling operations, some of which are gaining a foothold. Individual hotels and restaurants have established their own on-site composting, waste reduction and recycling initiatives.
Visitors can help cut down on trash is to use refillable water bottles instead of buying individual, disposable plastic bottles of drinking water.
You will notice discreet signs in many bathrooms and kitchens asking you to preserve water. Water is a precious resource on these islands with no lakes or rivers and few springs. Most homes, and a good many businesses, have cisterns—large concrete storage tanks—below their floor slabs, where rainwater collected on the roof is stored. In times of rain, cisterns can sometimes overflow. In times of drought, every last drop is rationed. Cistern water is generally used for showers, washing, cleaning, and flushing. It should be boiled or carefully filtered for drinking.
The other main source of freshwater is seawater desalination plants, which use reverse osmosis technology to make freshwater out of saltwater. Desalinated water is safe to drink and does not taste salty, although it does not necessarily taste good, either.
Desalination is an energy-intensive process and therefore expensive. Water authorities are unable to keep up with growing demand, and water outages are not unknown. Whether water comes from cisterns or a desalination plant, it is precious.
Guests should do their part to conserve water by avoiding long showers and reporting leaky faucets and toilets right away.
Some homes or businesses have on-site purification systems making cistern water safe to drink. Others buy their drinking water, usually from vending machines where you can refill water jugs of various sizes.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have wastewater treatment systems in towns and densely populated areas. The facilities sometimes break down, at which point notices are issued warning against swimming at certain beaches, owing to the outflow of untreated waste water nearby. In the British Virgin Islands, there are a sewage treatment systems in Road Town, East End and Cane Garden Bay, while all other areas rely on septic tanks.
Energy is a huge driver to the high cost of living in the Virgin Islands. Electricity rates average between 35 and 40 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to an average rate of 12 cents on the U.S. mainland. For the most part, power is generated through the burning of diesel fuel at the islands’ power generating plants. There is some movement towards alternative energy, however. The USVI Water and Power Authority has announced a goal to cut consumption of fossil fuels by 60 percent by 2025. In the BVI, policymakers recently introduced a legal framework for net-metering which it is hoped will encourage the use of alternative energy at homes and businesses. The experience of Hurricane Irma, when some parts of the islands were without power for six months or longer, has led more residents to demand alternatives to fossil fuels.
Air-conditioning is the largest consumer of power at most homes and hotels. Visitors can help minimize their energy footprint by turning a/c units off when not in use, and deploying fans and windows instead, when you can.