Tuesday, May 29, 2018
“Do you remember me sleep-walking last night for, say, 7 miles or so?” I ask Jeff as I strapped on my fitbit this morning. “What are you talking about??” he answers. We both know I don’t sleep walk. “My fitbit says I have over 13,000 steps and I’ve been out of bed for about 20 minutes.” We realize that the rocking of the ship has fooled my step tracker and it thinks that the gentle movement of the waves is steps. Wow! I’m going to be in GREAT shape by the end of this cruise!
We’re up and about – going for a leisurely breakfast. The ship doesn’t arrive in St. Thomas until about noon so we’ve plenty of time to dink around. After breakfast we go to the library to pick up the daily sudoku puzzle, get some fancy coffee and work our way back to our cabin on the Aloha deck (deck 12). We always use the stairs when going up or down and I swear this ship has the steepest stairs I’ve ever used. Whew!
We have two excursions planned today and since the first returns at 5 p.m. and the second departs at 5:30 we’re a little concerned about timing.
We get ready to go on our first excursion by packing swimsuits, towels, sunscreen into our beach bag and leave the ship to meet our tour group. We are going to “Coral World” with a beach visit to follow. Coral World is a 4.5 acre marine park, and though it was heavily damaged by hurricane Irma in September of last year (2017) and again by a second hurricane, Maria, roughly 3 weeks later, it has reopened with some exhibits. The description of the tour sounded almost apologetic, but these folks have nothing to apologize for! Though their recovery and cleanup are continuing (and here we are on the cusp of a new hurricane season) the tour was great. Coral World has a 360 degree observatory where there are many, many fish, stingrays and Caribbean lobsters. It was very fun to walk around the glass walls and see the fish, some of which were huge, swim past. A scuba diver entered the water and, so everyone could see a stingray up close,was feeding it and the lobster. She carefully walked all the way around the enclosure feeding the fish; several times the stingray plastered itself against the glass
and provided for some great photos. I say “enclosure” but there is a connecting tube that goes out into the ocean and small fish come and go quite readily.
The second area was a turtle habitat that had enormous green sea turtles. These turtles have been rescued and for one reason or another cannot be released back into the wild. For example, one of them had been raised in captivity and had never learned to submerge! She didn’t know that her food was really sea grass under the surface of the water having been fed inappropriate things like processed turtle food pellets and fruit throughout her life. In addition, because she was in such an environment, she had grown very accustomed to human contact. Our guide said that every day, sometimes several times a day, staff would come down to the pool and either scratch her shell or slide into the water so she could touch them. If they didn’t do this, the turtle would get depressed and demonstrate stress by pattern swimming. So they were careful to keep her happy and healthy.
Our next stop was very cool! We crossed a walkway to a concrete tower and descended a couple of spiral steel staircases in near darkness. At the bottom we found ourselves about 20 feet underwater, separated from the ocean only by thick glass windows. Here we could observe a huge variety of fish in a completely natural habitat.
We saw an enormous school of “feeder fish” (about the size of minnows); our guide referred to them as the “potato chips” of the fish world. They are called feeder fish for a reason, and where they are found you will see many larger fish looking for a snack. Again a diver entered the water with a bag of dead fish and began feeding the fish. Naturally she was mobbed by fish large and small. Our guide told us that fish who commonly hide in the nearby coral emerge when the diver appears, and since this is the open ocean, sharks have been known to attend as well. As a result there was a second diver closely watching the first in case any of the large predators arrived as had been known to happen. Hey, free fish food buffet? You can see how that would attract lots of hungry mouths.
We climb back out of the cool dark tower into the heat and sunshine to make our way to the sea lion enclosure. It is only through the care and quick thinking of the staff at Coral World that these sea lions survived the hurricanes. Of course, Coral World had a hurricane plan which was put into effect; what they never counted on was the first hurricane taking the roof off the “safe” sea lion area. Luckily the animals had moved very far back in the cave like enclosure and were unharmed. But, with hurricane Maria bearing down they had to quickly find safe space for these three very large animals. The sea lions at Coral World are trained – not to entertain, but for research. For example, if a researcher needs to know the average weight or something like that, the sea lions are taught to get onto a scale. So the staff put their training skills to use. They acquired gigantic kennels, one for each animal, and with Maria getting closer and closer, began training the sea lions to go into and out of the kennels. Not an easy task, but a day or two before it was clear that the hurricane was to hit St Thomas hard, the sea lions were trained; and the kennel doors were closed on them for the first time. It really is a testament to the staff that the animals didn’t freak out at being enclosed. Then a giant crane picked the kennels up and moved them to a more secure hurricane ready building. As the hurricane hit, a young woman, one of the staff members, stayed with the sea lions, cleaning their kennels, feeding them, etc. and everyone was safe. Wow! During the sea lion “show” we did see one stand up on her front flippers, clap, bark, etc on command. All of these “tricks” are taught to help evaluate the animals’ health. It was a very, very interesting session.
We also learned that Coral World had had a shark enclosure, but as Hurricane Irma approached (the first hurricane) and its strength became clear, the Coral World staff realized that the shark tank would flood and the sharks would escape, with a high probability of injuring themselves in the process, so before the storm, they opened the gates and released all the sharks to safety.
Our next stop was to a small petting pool. Jeff and I had seen everything in the petting pool in the wild, and in at least the instance of the starfish and rays handled them in the wild. We enjoyed watching the little kids hold the various creatures. One little boy shrieked as the sea cucumber he was handling moved. Quite funny! He shouted, “That’s alive!” hahaha!
Like I said earlier, the people at Coral World have no reason to apologize for some of their exhibits being closed and for the still obvious damage from the storms. They are working hard to come back to full strength.
The beach part of our day is right next door to Coral World, so we walk over and find a mass of people. It is super crowded…not at all enticing. Jeff and I go back to Coral World and ask our guide about renting a locker so we can stash our beach bag. Though there is a fee for the lockers she doesn’t charge us which is very nice. Unburdened we go for a short walk around the area, returning to find our group all sitting around together. Our taxi driver out was “Mr. McQuire” and he told us to take “Grandpa’s” taxi back. Soon, grandpa’s wife arrived; immediately she is adopted and we all clamor for seats in Grandma’s van.
We get back to the ship about 4:45 and have plenty of time to go up to our room, drop off our stuff, and freshen up before we need to go back down to the dock for our second excursion of the day. Jeff has booked us on a catamaran sunset cruise. First, though, we walk and walk and walked to get to the dock where the catamaran is moored. There are not very many of us so the boat is not crowded at all. Soon the rum punch and champagne is freely flowing. The young woman piloting the cat puts the sails up and we are zooming across the ocean. Jeff and I start the sunset cruise sitting in the back on benches with older folks (i.e. people our own age +) but then I go up to explore the front of the boat. Oh! This is where we want to be! I motion for Jeff to come forward and we join a lively group…wind is rushing through my hair, great conversations, glasses of champagne (skipping the watered down rum punch).
The sunset is absolutely gorgeous!!!
I think this is the best, definitely the most romantic, excursion I’ve ever been on. Everything was perfect…the people we hung out with, the weather, the sea spray splashing on us as we sailed across the ocean, and the sunset. I wanted to never get off. I think even the crew was having fun…one of the mates said this was the first time they’ve actually had a sunset recently because either they’ve had to return to port before sunset or it has been cloudy. We were late returning, but no one cared.
What a wonderful way to end our day in St. Thomas!