Inter-island commercial boats at a wharf on St. Thomas. (Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office)
With its beautiful coral reefs, bays, beaches, and lush landscapes, the U.S. Virgin Islands are often called a tropical paradise. The U.S. Virgin Islands include the three main islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, plus Water Island off of St. Thomas, and some 50 islets and cays. The islands are in the Leeward Islands group of the Lesser Antilles. Charlotte Amalie Harbor in St. Thomas is one of the best natural deepwater harbors in the Caribbean. The coastline of the U.S. Virgin Islands is 117 miles long, and 604 square miles of the Territory (an astonishing 81%) is covered by water.
What is the maritime heritage of the U.S. Virgin Islands?
The maritime heritage of the U.S. Virgin Islands begins when the islands were first settled by waves of indigenous Amerindians from the Yucatan and South America. The Archaic Period Ciboney were the earliest people in the islands, arriving about 4,000 years ago. The Arawak-speaking Taino settled the Antilles about 2,000 years later. By the time Christopher Columbus landed in 1493, the Caribs had begun moving up the Windward Islands from South America, and had made it as far as St. Croix.
A United States Navy vessel at anchor in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office)
Over the next 240 years, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, the Knights of Malta (under the protection of the King of France), and Denmark struggled for domination over the islands. By the end of the 18th century, the Danish West Indian Company owned the three main islands and numerous estate owners operated sugar cane and cotton plantations. Many estate houses, abandoned mills and factory buildings, including former slave quarters, continue to dot the current landscape, especially on St. Croix and St. John.
St. Thomas was a maritime trading and mercantile exchange, one of the first “free ports” and, along with St. Croix, the Danish center for the slave trade from 1685 until the importation of slaves was abolished in the early 1800s. In the early 1700s, St. Thomas, then known as “Taphus” (i.e., Tap-house), was a well-known haven for pirates. Later it became a coaling station for international steamships running between Europe and South and North America until about 1935, when the United States Navy and Marines began administering the islands.
The United States purchased the three main islands in 1917 as a deterrent to German naval incursions in the Caribbean. Today, the U.S. Virgin Islands is an unincorporated Territory of the United States and one of the Caribbean’s top air and sea tourist destinations.
What sites are underwater?
Based on archival research, several hundred shipwrecks are thought to be in the waters surrounding the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many ships wrecked on reefs and rocks. Many others were lost during hurricanes, the great tsunami of 1867, and other natural disasters. Other ships were attacked during times of war or inter-European rivalries to keep colonies from prospering.
One site that has been identified and studied is HMS Santa Monica that sank in 1782 in Coral Bay off St. John’s East End. The frigate hit a previously unrecorded rock reef while attempting to intercept American vessels involved in the American Revolution that had raided British Tortola. The captain deliberately ran the ship aground to keep it from sinking. In 1978, the HMS Santa Monica shipwreck site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some popular recreational dive sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands include ships and motor vehicles sunk during the 1970s and 1980s as artificial reefs. Examples include the tugboat Northwind and two dozen Hess Oil trucks off St. Croix; and the freighter Cartanser Senior, the Coast Guard cutter Major General Rogers, and a Coast Guard barge off St. Thomas.
Who takes care of underwater archeological sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources has overall responsibility for administering and enforcing preservation and conservation laws relating to cultural resources under the jurisdiction of the Territory. The Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office carries out these responsibilities through a variety of activities like surveying and inventorying archeological sites on land and underwater, and prosecuting illicit activities. The Division of Environmental Enforcement assists in enforcing protection, preservation, and conservation laws relating to antiquities and cultural resources.
What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?
You need a permit from the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office to carry out research, disturb or remove submerged antiquities or other historic or cultural properties within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of the Territory. Applicants must submit an archeological research design demonstrating professional qualifications and indicating the methods and techniques planned for recovery, analysis and dissemination of data, and proper conservation, permanent storage, and documentation of specimens and records. Permits are issued to scientific, research, and land-use planning institutions, organizations or corporations for the purpose of furthering scientific and cultural knowledge in the public interest.
Are there any underwater parks in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
In 2003, the U.S. Virgin Islands established the St. Croix East End Marine Park to protect and manage the natural and cultural resources within that park’s boundaries. The law authorizing this park also provides for the establishment of other marine parks as part of a Territorial system of marine parks.
The U.S. National Park System has four areas in the U.S. Virgin Islands that protect and manage some of the finest underwater natural and cultural resources in the Caribbean. These federal areas include Buck Island Reef National Monument, Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (which is co-managed by the National Park Service and the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands), Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, and Virgin Islands National Park.
What laws concern underwater archeology in U.S. Virgin Islands?
In 1998, the U.S. Virgin Islands enacted Law No. 6234 known as the Antiquities and Cultural Properties Act. This law sets forth the policies and responsibilities of the Territory to protect and manage its terrestrial and marine historical, cultural, and archeological resources for the benefit of its citizens. The statute is codified in Title 29, Chapter 17 of the U.S. Virgin Islands Code.
Related laws regarding the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources are in Title 3, Chapter 22. Laws about the Coastal Zone Management Program are in Title 12, Chapter 21, and laws about the Territorial system of marine parks and the St. Croix East End Marine Park are in Title 12, Chapter 1.