Virgin Islands National Park

The History of the Virgin Islands

©2006 National Park Services The coral reefs at Virgin Islands National Park are teeming with life.

The Virgin Islands have an amazing history. St. John is one of about 100 jewellike islands that dot the blue waters of the northern Caribbean. The islands were visited by Columbus in 1493. Imagining the array of islands to be more extensive than it is, he named them for the 11,000 virgins who accompanied St. Ursula on her ill-fated pilgrimage to Rome.

For the next two centuries, the only Europeans to come to the islands were pirates, but in the 17th century, Danish settlers built vast sugar plantations using slave laborers imported from Africa. The Old World architecture of its towns and villages, coupled with its tropical climate and cooling trade winds, make the islands an ideal vacation spot.

The Virgin Islands owe their natural beauty to the fire of volcanoes. Geologists believe eruptions first occurred some 100 million years ago on the floor of the ocean. Over many eons, molten rock flowed from volcanic vents, forming the foundation of the island that we now know as St. John. Some time after the island building began, the sea floor itself began to rise, lifted up by cataclysmic geologic forces.

The final phase in the construction of St. John was a series of violent eruptions above the sea that created a large island of solidified lava covered by sedimentary rocks, primarily limestone formed from the remains and secretions of marine plants and animals.

It was not long until seeds of plants borne aloft by the trade winds began the spectacular greening of St. John, preparing the island as a welcoming habitat for animals arriving from the mainland. The island's scores of bird species flew in of their own accord, but lizards and other reptiles no doubt floated ashore by accident.

The Underwater Nature Trail

One of the most intriguing aspects of Virgin Islands National Park is its spectacular underwater realm. It's an important part of the history of these islands. The park contains a stunning marine preserve where visitors can explore the complexity of life beneath the sea. Here are coral reefs, broad expanses of underwater grassland, and white sands moving slowly in the water. This lovely, complex, and extremely fragile community of plants and animals forms an exquisite and dynamic underwater reef ecosystem.

One of the park's nature trails lies beneath the sea in lovely Trunk Bay. Special underwater plaques guide snorkelers through the intricacies of the coral reefs. As you swim along the up-to-30-foot-deep, 225-yard-long trail, signs explain how the reef was formed and indicate the kinds of underwater life you are likely to see. In addition to coral, you can observe brilliantly colored conchs, black sea urchins, brittle starfish, and other fascinating creatures.

Virgin Islands National Park is a unique part of the U.S. parks system. With its setting in the Caribbean, this national park seems more like paradise.

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