Post Hurricanes Irma and Maria Update on Snorkeling St. John, USVI?

By John – (Little Rock, AR, USA)
We are considering a snorkeling trip to St. John, USVI in 2018 but wonder how damaged the reefs are after 2017’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Has anyone been snorkeling since?

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Nicole and Galen – Jul 19, 2018 – Not Yet…

Hi John, we have not been back to St John, USVI since Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. We have gotten reports back from numerous folks who have used our St John Snorkeling Guide to visit after the storms. The reports we have heard are not promising for the state of the reefs. Then, someone shared with us these videos put out by the Virgin Islands National Park talking about the effects of the storms. These videos lead us to the conclusion that the shallow snorkeling reefs were significantly damaged by these storms.

We have been seeing a lot of degraded reefs in recent years and frankly we find it very depressing. We do not intend to re-visit St John anytime soon to update our snorkeling guide. We have updated our St John snorkeling page to reflect this decision. We can no longer say that St John is the best snorkeling we have seen in the Caribbean.

We hope you get some responses from folks who have visited St John both before and after the storms who can compare and comment on what they have seen.

Linda – Jul 20, 2018 – St John Snorkeling

We have been snorkeling St John yearly since 2001, and we are headed back for three weeks at the end of January… I have friends who live there and they have given us updates. Yes, the shallow reefs and mangroves have been greatly impacted, but the damage has varied depending on the direction of the reefs with the storms. Some areas are relatively normal. They are seeing more turtles and fish and the water clarity is getting better.

I will have plenty of time to snorkel every bay and will report on the conditions. The island foliage has recovered and the water is still as blue, but sadly I fear the St John water world I have known and loved for 18 years has changed forever… And I am so grateful to have experienced and photographed the splendor, as I am with the tide pools of Kapoho on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Ivette – Jul 21, 2018 – St John July 2018

We were in St John back in July of 2016 and the beauty of the island and reefs was wonderful. We just returned from there again in July of 2018. The reefs are destroyed but there are plenty of fish and at Maho you can’t snorkel without seeing a few turtles. At Jumbie we saw more squids than we ever saw, like 30 or 40 of them. The Elkhorn Corals are in pieces on the sea floor, and there are only a few soft corals. Waterlemon Cay is so sad. There are some sea fans at Denis Bay but the reefs are a disaster.

We went out to Mingo Cay and it was sad too but at Lovango Cay in deeper water there was a surprising amount of sea fans.

On the left side of Honeymoon Bay there is Brain Coral among the rocks.

We are going to wait for at least three years to go back.

Susanne – Aug 6, 2018 – St John- July 2018

Yes, I experienced the same as stated above. I have been visiting St John since 1989 and lived on the island from 2012-2014. I’m so grateful for spending so much time snorkeling.

This trip in July 2018 was a bit heartbreaking for me. Yes, it seems it needs three years. Salt Pond Bay held up better than I thought it would. The Indians in the British Virgin Islands held up OK too. Whistling Cay was devastated. Leinster Bay was devastated; compared to what it was, devastated. Yes, I saw a lot of squid at Jumbie too! Lots of turtles at Maho but there seems to be some algae blooming and covering the rocks all along the left side of the bay.

I will continue to go each year to support the island I love but to be honest, I would save up and try one of the snorkel trips showcased on this website to see more fish and reef life.

I feel sadness and concern for St. John’s underwater world. It needs time.

Julie – Aug 6, 2018 – Trip in July 2018

Hi John, we just returned from St. John at the end of July, our fifth trip to the island. Our most recent trip prior to the hurricanes was in July 2017. As noted in the newsletter, the extent of damage varies across the island. Cruz Bay looks great, both buildings and the surrounding vegetation. Coral Bay had more visible damage to homes and destroyed boats in some of the bays, but most of those boats are planned for removal in the next few months.

Overall, the fish, turtles, rays and sharks were comparable to last year prior to the hurricanes in the areas that we snorkel. Visibility was also similar. Note that we have never snorkeled the mangroves.

Waterlemon Cay has suffered moderate damage per the NPS assessment but it’s still great snorkeling. Many sea fans have survived along with pillar coral and smaller brain coral. Lots of fish, rays, and nurse sharks.

We skipped Trunk and Honeymoon this year because we found the damage from the cruise ship excursions very depressing last year (i.e. prior to the hurricanes). Both beaches had lost a lot of coral and fish even prior to the hurricanes.

East End, including Hansen and Haulover South, was really fun, with sea turtles, lots of fish, garden eels, moray eels, and rays. Some of the coral was not in good shape but a lot of smaller corals looked healthy.

The snorkeling in front of Gallows Point was also excellent. Their small beach suggests that this area was hit fairly hard, but there were still interesting sponges and numerous small healthy looking brain coral along with a good variety of fish and the occasional Hawksbill Turtle, Nurse Shark, and Tarpons.

Overall, we loved coming to the island. We travel with three children and the ability to snorkel from such beautiful beaches with minimal waves and currents is priceless.

The larger corals have suffered damage but there are still a lot of smaller healthy coral to see and so much marine life.

I’ll be happy to provide information on other beaches as well.

Ken Pounders – Aug 7, 2018 – We’ll Be Back!

My family and I were on St. John when Irma hit. After what this island and the people went through, I am surprised there is anything left. Not only did homes and resorts get demolished, the loss of tourism will make it very difficult to re-build.

Snorkeling has always been the main focus for my wife and I in planning our vacations. We fell in love with St. John about 15 years ago and have been coming back nearly every year since. Although we have gone to many of the places listed on this website (using the very helpful eBooks), we still think of St. John as our home away from home.

Because of this, we plan on returning as soon as our resort is rebuilt. Yes, it will be sad to see the damage to the coral and beaches, but it will still be a huge improvement over what we saw when we were evacuated last year. St. John and all the surrounding islands looked like they were hit by an atomic bomb.

Our family and friends all feel the same in our desire to keep visiting this island and in doing so help the island and the people living there to recover from this horrible disaster. I hope others feel the same.

Anonymous – Jan 3, 2019 – Coral and Fish Coming Back

We have the great fortune to live in St. Thomas, adjacent to St. John, and my husband is the Director of the Marine Center at the University on St. Thomas. This position includes overseeing the Environmental Station on St. John’s East End. Also two of our good friends are among the foremost coral reef researchers in the world, so we have a lot of experience to draw on.

And yes, the corals here were severely impacted (I remember crying into my mask for about six months every time I would snorkel), but there is a lot of new growth everywhere. However, because St. John took the brunt of the hit from Hurricane Irma, recovery seems to be going faster on St. Thomas and the small islands and cays between St. John and St. Thomas, such as Little St. James where Christmas Cove is a popular spot.

On St. Thomas, the most remarkable recovery I have seen is at the small offshore Flat Cay, which is just a short distance from the airport runway. Flat Cay is only accessible by boat, but offers wonderful snorkeling on the east side where there is some beautiful Elkhorn Coral, some regrowth of Staghorn, and many others, as well as lots of fish, including Nurse Sharks and moray eels.

Secret Harbor, accessible by shore, has some nice snorkeling if you swim far enough out on the left side of the beach, as does Sapphire Bay, ditto on the right side; but with both you need to swim out to the point and around the point if the current isn’t too strong, to see the best corals. Boulder corals throughout the territory have remained intact due to their size and shape.

So if you’re from the U.S. and you want to go snorkeling without a passport, consider the USVI, and especially, post-hurricanes, St. Thomas.

Perry – Mar 10, 2019 – Any Recent St John Updates?

We are going back to St John for two weeks this summer for the first time since Irma. I was looking for any recent updates on the conditions of the reefs. I’m especially interested in the Coral Bay side; locations like Salt Pond, Kiddel Bay and Grootpan Bay. Those bays were some of my favorite spots in the entire Caribbean prior to the hurricane. Thanks in advance!

Linda – Mar 11, 2019 – St John February 2019

I spent three weeks in February, 2019. We were pleasantly surprised at the conditions we encountered. We have been going there every year for the last 15 years, so we were bracing for being sad. You can tell there was damage, especially in the mangrove areas, they are still dead sticks, but the island is green otherwise.

Salt Pond Bay was great snorkeling as well as Haulover South and we had three days of perfectly calm Haulover North which is rare. The coral there looked untouched. The octopus were everywhere; we watched one for 30+ minutes.

Hansen Bay was not as prolific as before. Jumbie Bay was coming back, the coral there is so shallow that it did get a beating, but there were 6-8 inch fire coral coming in. Francis Bay was pretty typical, lots of turtles, areas of beautiful fan coral along the right end. Kiddel Bay was good.

There is less shade than before so have a beach umbrella.

Be aware that Centerline Road has pot holes.

We snorkeled everyday and were not disappointed.

Perry – Mar 12, 2019 – Great Feedback

Linda – Thank you for adding your comments on your recent experience. It is great to see positive feedback from people who obviously know the island very well given a lot of the mixed information I have found. We are looking forward to getting back to the island this summer.

Linda – Mar 12, 2019 – St John

They are working on the roads. North Shore Road is good. The water and beaches are still beautiful.

I forgot to add one very interesting bit after speaking to a marine biologist. We thought the water felt colder, and sure enough he said it was a degree to two degrees cooler which is even better for the coral coming back!

So even though the hurricanes were devastating the water temperature will be a lot more beneficial for the coral all over the areas.

Have fun!

Angela – May 21, 2019 – Snorkeling St John After Hurricanes

We go several times a year and are avid snorkelers. We found in June 2018 and February 2019 that Salt Pond is still great, Haulover North is great, still lots of fish and some coral at Trunk Bay, Haulover South damaged but still interesting, Yawzi Point was awesome. Congo Key was destroyed where I snorkeled. It had been so beautiful I cried. Waterlemon still pretty though suffered a lot of damage. Indians are still pretty but damaged as well. Hawksnest was very damaged :(.

Francis Bay was one of our favorites (snorkeling to the right as you go in) but it looked like the face of the moon after Irmaria. That was heartbreaking.

Overall, still beautiful places to snorkel all over.

Anonymous – May 22, 2019 – May 2019 Update

I live on St. Thomas, but St. John is my favorite place for snorkeling, and I have an update which confirms information in the last post.

According to a boat salvage expert who spent a year post-Irmaria pulling boats out of the water around St. John, Haulover is now one of the best places; Yawzi Point (just outside Little Lameshur Bay) is also great.

Although this has little to do with snorkeling per se, people might also be interested to know that as of right now there is a newish floating taco bar just around the corner from Haulover at Hansen Bay.

I too cried when I snorkeled some of the bays post-Irmaria, but so many of the corals are making a comeback.

If you visit St. Thomas, be sure to snorkel the right hand point at Sapphire Beach. Go around the point if the current isn’t too strong. Look for the best coral in the shallow water, close to the point. Coki is still nice, too, and all of the turtles seem to have migrated to Magen’s Bay.

Nicole and Galen – July 23, 2019 – Post Hurricane Trip Report

Please read Perry’s post hurricanes trip report from his July 2019 visit to St John for a more updated view on conditions.

Chase Poodiack – Aug 13, 2021 – Update – Snorkeling St John August 2021

Hello, I was reading this forum and thought I would give an update as to the state of the reefs in August 2021.

First, I want to tell you that I was also in St. John in August of 2019. It was our first time back since the storm and to be honest we were nervous to see the the state of the island after two years. We were happily surprised in 2019 by how fast things were coming back together. Underwater was a bit of a mixed bag though. You could tell it was not what it used to be. Although at this point you could see lots of new growth of small corals that would soon be larger.

Fast forward two more years and we went back, taking a year off because of COVID. What a difference two years makes, underwater is essentially back to previous the storms. In fact I snorkeled Waterlemon Cay today. The sea fans are back as well as the Staghorn and big wavy soft corals. The hard corals have shown dramatic growth with yards of coral and huge reefs at all the previous locations.

The biggest surprise was Pelican Rock off of Hansen Bay. That reef was almost breathtaking… the best I have ever snorkeled off of St John. I have a GoPro and filmed two hours of underwater footage.

Another thing I noticed compared to 2019 is how much numbers have seemed to increased in local sea turtles and fish. I have seen close to 20 turtles this week at a variety of beaches, the most being at Salt Pond Bay.

To finish this short and sweet, the coral and animals are back and I highly recommend snorkeling St. John. Especially Pelican Rock and Waterlemon Cay for coral and fish. As well as Salt Pond Bay and Maho Bay for turtles.

Nicole and Galen – Aug 15, 2021 – Thank You Chase!

Hi Chase, thank you for taking the time to share your update for snorkeling in St John in 2021. It sounds promising.

Perry, who shared the story linked to above, just shared another update to snorkeling in St John from this year, as well. It can be found on the page linked to above.

Chase Poodiack – Aug 16, 2021 – More Info on What I Saw

I flew back home to CT last night. While on the plane I took some time to compare pictures. I carry a GoPro on me every time I snorkel so I figured using my videos and pictures as a way to compare would make a lot of sense.

First, above ground I took the same picture of the same hill next to Waterlemon Cay as I took in 2019. Putting the pictures next to each other put a big smile on my face as the difference from the two was very exciting as the hill was much more green and healthy looking than in 2019.

Now for the snorkeling these beaches are the ones I snorkeled in both 2019 and 2021, Kiddel Bay, Little Lameshur, Maho, Salt Pond Bay, Waterlemon Cay, Haulover South, and Pelican Rock off of Hansen Bay.

First, and maybe the biggest difference of all is Kiddel Bay. In 2019 we did not plan to come to Kiddel to do much snorkeling. We went out for a little while on the far left side and while there was not much reef there, the rock formations are some of the coolest I have ever seen and there are a lot of fish there.

Fast forward to 2021 we went out again on the left side because the right side has some rough water. I was kind of blown away by the growth of what used to be just big boulders with splashes of coral here and there. First I spotted a big barracuda then looked at the coral and was very happy to see stony corals had taken over big chunks of the wall.

Then out a little farther there is a huge boulder with absolutely nothing on the top but on the sides it’s like a coral bomb went off. There is a huge variety of soft and hard corals. The reef is different than others because of how deep it sits in the water, it is a solid 15-20 feet down. Anyways, Kiddel Bay is an enjoyable quiet spot.

I did not spend much time at Little Lameshur but the rock sticking up off to the right looks to have some new growth. The picture comparison shows what used to be mainly hard corals grasp some new variety of short soft corals.

Maho is about the same, but that’s what I would expect as there weren’t many reefs to be hurt there in the first place. I will note however that if you are looking for coral banded shrimps or arrow crabs the left edge in the shallow waters is loaded with them in the small caves under the rocks. Yes there are still a lot of turtles and rays at Maho, too.

At Salt Pond Bay the reefs looked generally the same on the right side where I snorkeled with new growth you would expect to see in a tow year span. 80 percent of the coral there I would say is hard coral. The biggest difference I saw at Salt Pond Bay was the large amount of turtles. In total about eight different turtles with three being babies all next to each other.

In my opinion, and how the videos look there is some drastic improvement at Waterlemon Cay with new growth everywhere and some large sized sea fans and other soft corals. If you’re looking to see different species this is where I would go. I saw two turtles, an eagle ray, a normal ray, two octopus, a barracuda, and two moray eels. There are large Elkhorn Coral colonies all around as well.

In my opinion I saw the smallest change at Haulover South with nice reefs and a very large amount of fish. Still a great snorkel spot as per usual.

At Pelican Rock off Hansen Bay I was impressed at how many foot or larger soft coral colonies there were. While comparing videos I also definitely saw improvement with reefs in general. I also found the biggest hard coral colony I have ever seen, around 10 feet in length. At Pelican Rock I think it’s all about finding that sweet spot which is on the far end from the beach. This is the best from shore snorkeling I have done on St. John. IMO the snorkeling for reefs was better at Pelican Rock than at Waterlemon Cay but they were both great.

I hope this addition provides a guide as to the state of the reefs with overall good improvement. 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Chase, thank you so much for your update. I really treasure Nicole and Galen’s guides, so I love having more post-hurricane insight. I’ve never been to USVI so for me, I don’t have a pre and post hurricane to compare it to. (I’ve been going to Curacao and Bonaire so far).


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