Unexploded bomb being blown up

Vieques Island: A Caribbean Gem That Was Used, Abused And Abandoned By The USA [Part 2]

Article written by Niels Chaneliere

This is part 2 of a 2-part story about Vieques Island

If you haven’t read part 1 yet click here

Vieques is known for its unique attraction, Mosquito Bay, otherwise known as the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay.

For those who don’t know what a bioluminescent bay is, it is an ultra-rare and fragile ecosystem in which microscopic single cell organisms called Dinoflagellates (let’s call them Dinos) thrive in the water. When the Dinos are agitated by an external force, they release energy in the form of a bright blue light. In other words, anything that comes into contact with the Dinos makes them glow.

Mosquito Bay is the world’s brightest and most dense bioluminescent bay in the world due to its special characteristics. The very narrow opening to the sea protects the bay from winds, waves and tides, allowing the Dinos to thrive in the calmest of waters. The mangroves surrounding the bay provide a consistent source of nutrients to feed the organisms and the fact that for once, humans (yes, us!) are protecting the area allows this phenomenon to maintain itself. No boats are allowed in the bay and the dense mangrove prevents public access to the area.

An example of bioluminescence

An example of bioluminescence, photo courtesy of BMC Ecology flic.kr/p/e6dxcc

Since the bay is protected, the only way to visit it is through a guided tour. One of the guys working at Duffy’s recommended we go with Abe’s Biobay Tour because of the laid-back nature of the tour.

We got to the meeting spot at nightfall and there were about 10 people waiting there. We had already noticed since our arrival that the island was full of free roaming horses everywhere. On the side of the road, on the beaches, in the parking lots and in the small streets of the town. Abe himself was the tour guide and as he was explaining the procedures for the tour we were about to start, 2 horses in the grass beside the parking lot started fighting aggressively.

We watched for about 10 minutes until all the horses ran away. He explained to us that all the wild horses we see on the island are all owned by someone. Vieques horses have ‘free range rights’ and the owners let them roam free to graze in the wild. I still don’t know how the owner finds his horse when he needs it, considering that the island has an area of 350km2, but I guess that doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.

Horses on Vieques Island

We hopped on a minibus and drove for about 20 minutes along a rugged and bumpy dirt road up to the bay’s edge. It was pitch black upon arrival and Abe sorted us out with a 2-person kayak.

Over the next 2 hours, we kayaked through the mangroves and into the middle of the bay, each paddle stroke lighting up the water a bright blue tone. It was surreal to watch the water glow as the kayaks moved. Abe was a real charismatic and funny guy, making jokes and giving us some history about the place. For a guided tour (which I’m not a big fan of), it was relaxing and entertaining at the same time.

At one point, everyone stayed still in the blissful silence while gazing at the universe of stars that was above our head. Just after, a huge stingray glided underneath our kayak, lighting up the waters in an instant flash, literally highlighting the form of the stingray that was about 2 meters deep.

As we were driving back from the bay on the dirt road, Abe suddenly stopped the minibus and jumped out and went running into a bush. Surprised and unsure of what was going on, he returned a few minutes later with a huge crab in his hands. High on the adrenaline of his catch, he says ‘dinner for tonight!’. We all laughed at the randomness of what had just happened as he threw the live, raw crab into the glove box.

The next morning, we woke up to the sounds of horses neighing in the paddock in front of the house.

Horses in the morning

We had a light breakfast with the woman who owns the house while she told us a little bit about her story and some of the island’s history. There are only 9000 residents on the island year-round, making it a small and local population. She explained that in the 1940’s, the United States purchased two thirds of the island for military operations, forcing the local citizens to move to the centre part of the island. Those areas are now today’s wildlife refuge areas.

It was a windy and rainy day, as dark and heavy clouds filled the sky. Regardless, we slapped on our ponchos and headed off to the far Western side of the island.

We arrived at Mosquito Pier, a mile-long pier with a road all the way to the to the end of it. While driving, we did not come across anybody, no cars, no people, just abandoned and spooky infrastructure.

At the tip of the pier, there was an old run-down ship terminal, that looked like it had not been used in over 15 years. As you look behind, a breathtaking view of the rugged coastline of the island becomes visible.

There are no buildings, no hotels and no man-made structures visible to the eye.

The entire atmosphere with the dark grey clouds transformed the clear blue waters into a murky abyss, uninviting and gloomy. It felt like we were the only people on the island discovering a once inhabited and used place that was no more, piecing together the puzzle of what once went on in the past.

Bad weather on Vieques

We drove deeper into the jungle, searching for the bunkers. The roads became smaller, thinner and overgrown by the thick layer of forest beneath the canopy. The occasional horse was seen grazing on the side of the road.

Finally, out of nowhere, we came across the hidden bunkers. They have been incorporated into the ground, with the forest growing over them. Once again, an eerie vibe took over with all these concrete military structures that had been left abandoned for years.

Bunker on Vieques Island

For kilometres, there are a whole line of bunkers, some of them open and some of them closed. We stopped at an open bunker, and it was full of computer screens and office debris. On the ground, there were literally thousands of shotgun casings scattered everywhere. We spent the entire afternoon driving alone in these winding roads, stopping at different types of bunkers, spotting hidden underground ones with their chimneys popping out of the ground. It definitely looked like there was a big hidden operation going on here in the past.

Bunker on Vieques Island

Inside one of the bunkers on Vieques Island

You could distinguish the power station from the office spaces and the different storage spaces. It looked like the map of a World War II video game. The roads didn’t seem to end, and neither did the bunkers. After a few hours of visiting all the open bunkers we could, we got low on fuel, and since we were alone, without a phone and many kilometres away from the closest town, we made our way back to Isabel II.

That evening, we returned to Esperanza for dinner. We had so many questions from that afternoon. Why were the bunkers there? What were they used for? What are all the used ammunition shells and casings on the ground? Why is the pier that long and abandoned? Why did the guy who rented us the moped not want to talk about the story behind the bunkers? Why are they so strict about the wildlife regeneration area?

Back at Duffy’s, Sam (the guy we met 2 days before) had just finished his shift and hung out for a bit with us at our table. We started chatting and talking about what we had seen during the day. Sam is a Vieques local who gave us the low down on everything to piece the puzzle together.

So as mentioned earlier, two thirds of Vieques was purchased by the US Military in the 1940’s. On one side of the island, the Marine Corps occupied the island for training purposes and on the other side, the US Navy occupied the Western end as an ammunition depot and secret base in the Caribbean.

Military map of Vieques Island

Military map of Vieques Island

This was a strategic move as the US entered WWII. The bunkers were built so deep inland so that any plane flying over the island would only see dense forest. This is where Mosquito Pier comes in.

The US created the secret base in the 1940’s. The original plan was to build a pier/breakwater wall connecting Vieques to the Porto Rican mainland, making it one of America’s biggest offshore naval bases.

Midway through its construction, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour led the Navy to abandon this plan (to avoid having all ships in the same spot). When the Second World War finished, the military and navy continued to use and store their armaments and weapons in the bunkers on the island.

For the next 60 years, Vieques became a testing ground for new weapons, bombs and missiles.

An unexploded bomb on Vieques

An unexploded bomb about 80 feet off the coast of Vieques, discovered by a fisherman in early 2013. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News

This destroyed not only the ecology but the local communities living on the island. Today, 30% of the population suffers from cancer or serious illnesses due to the extremely high levels of uranium, mercury and lead still present on Vieques. So, what any innocent tourist may believe is a wildlife regeneration area, is actually, and still up to today, a dangerous minefield with unexploded bombs and dangerous debris lying around. This is why they are so strict about not entering the area. Pellets, casings and old rusted weapons cover the ground.

Sam continued to explain that after intense protests in the late 1990’s that got international coverage, George W. Bush signed a treaty in 2001 with the Porto Rican Governor to withdraw the military by 2003. In 2003, the military and navy left the island leaving behind a trail of destruction and contamination. The occupied land was handed over to the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife Service who have since then been conducting a huge cleanup operation, funded by the US Navy.

Unexploded bomb being blown up

Unexploded bomb being blown up in 2008 on the former military training range. They estimate that the cleanup won’t be finished until 2025. Photo courtesy of AP

Today, 15 years after leaving Vieques Island, locals still have a bitter taste about the last 80 years and the mark it has left on their precious piece of land that they call home. Everything now made sense.

On our last day, we sunbathed and swam at a local beach called Playa Caracas, enjoying the last of our days in the sun, away from the world, on this beautiful island with a shady history. One last time, the turquoise water and sun kissed our tanned skin before we returned to reality.

The next morning was rush hour as we got the woman from the house to drop us off at the airport at 7 in the morning. We then had to fly back over to Ceiba, then catch a transfer (1h30mins) in time for our 11.30am flight in San Juan.

Article by Niels Chaneliere

Born and raised in Sydney. Half Australian and half French, Niels is currently based in Barcelona. From there, he is exploring what Europe has to offer. Follow him on Instagram below to keep up with his latest travel adventures!

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