A wide estuary on the northern coast of St. Croix, Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (340/773-1460) is a site of both natural and historical significance. Archaeological studies have shown that the pottery-making Igneri people settled at Salt River Bay as early as AD 50. By AD 700 the Taino people had arrived at Salt Rivers. In 1914 Danish archaeologists found evidence of a large ceremonial ball court on Salt River Bay’s western shore, proof of the settlement’s size and importance to the Taino people. Petroglyphs, stone belts, and zemis associated with the ball court are in the possession of the National Museum in Copenhagen.
There is evidence of habitation by Kalinago people from around 1400, and when Christopher Columbus sent a longboat ashore at Salt River Bay in search of water on November 14, 1493—on his second voyage—the party encountered several Kalinago in a canoe. The two parties fought, with both sides suffering casualties in the first recorded instance of Native American resistance to European encroachment. Columbus named the site Cape of Arrows.
Salt River Bay was the site of successive fledgling European settlements during the early years of colonization on St. Croix. In the 1580s John Smith stopped here on his way to Roanoke Island, and between 1641 and 1655, the English, Dutch, French, and Knights of Malta (through a lease from the French) sited settlements on the bay’s western shore. Remains of an unusual triangular earthwork fort called Fort Flammand or Fort Salé, started by the English in 1641 and finished by the Dutch in 1642, sit on the western point of the bay.
In addition to its historical importance, Salt River Bay is a dynamic coastal habitat that plays a critical role in the area’s marine environment. Extensive mangrove forests that line the estuary act as a buffer between the sea and the land, providing a sheltered home for juvenile fish and filtering runoff from the land. The area is also a major bird habitat. Just past the mouth of the bay the sea floor falls away, creating the deep Virgin Islands Basin and its coral-covered walls. At night, certain parts of the bay glow with bioluminescence.
Many visitors to Salt River Bay gravitate to the Columbus Landing Beach, a sandy shore at the western mouth of the bay. This is where a Native American ball court once lay, where Columbus’s longboat came ashore in 1493, and the site of Fort Salé. Today, it is a somewhat unremarkable beach for swimming which is, nonetheless, popular with residents on weekends.
Visiting the Park
If it is open, start at the National Park Service’s Salt River Visitor Contact Station (9:30am-4:30pm Tues.-Thurs. Nov.-June) on the western side of the bay in what was once a private home. The visitors center is difficult to find and the main reason to seek it out are outstanding views of the mouth of the bay. It also houses exhibits about the human and natural history of the area. To find the center turn onto Route 801 at the Salt River Bay marina and then look for the first road on your left. It is unpaved and there is no park sign. In about 100 yards this road intersects with another road, also unpaved. Turn right and follow the road another 50 yards to the visitors center driveway. Inexplicably, this is where the park sign is. If the station is closed when you visit, pick up a map and guide from the Christiansted National Historic Site and explore on your own.
To reach the Cape of Arrows, on the eastern side of the bay, take Route 75 west from Christiansted and then turn north onto Route 751. You will have to pass through a security gate to enter the residential community of Judith’s Fancy. A number of unofficial and unmarked trails on the eastern shore take you through the mangrove forest and to the top of the point overlooking the site of the 1493 skirmish.
Until a planned museum on the eastern shore of Salt River Bay comes to fruition, the best ways to explore Salt River Bay is on a guided kayak or walking tour. Kayak tours typically take about two hours; daytime tours focus on the natural features of the bay as well as its Native American history. Nighttime tours show off the bioluminescence. Walking tours explore Cape of Arrows’ human and natural history. Expect to pay $50-60 per tour.
Paddle out into certain parts of Salt River Bay after sunset and you will be treated to one of nature’s most remarkable shows. Bioluminescence is a natural scientific phenomenon, created by a species of plankton called a dinoflagellate that lives in the water of the bay.
Dinoflagellates are a microorganism, invisible to the naked eye, that lives in ocean water. In certain conditions—to do with the temperature, salinity, and amount of water flow—dinoflagellate blooms occur, where millions of these tiny organisms gather in one place. When this happens, you can get bioluminescence that’s visible to the human eye as light.
It is not unusual for marine creatures to emit some form of bioluminescence, especially species that live in the deep parts of the ocean where little if any sunlight penetrates. Undersea divers have long marveled at the glowing eels, fish, sharks, and coral that they see at night. Terrestrial creatures like fireflies and glowworms also emit bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence occurs in just a few parts of the Salt River Bay, and the quality of the display varies from night to night; generally speaking, avoid the week of the full moon, when the moonlight interferes with our ability to see the light from the water. When the glow is “on,” a cool, white light is visible when the water is disturbed—whether by a hand, paddle, or fish swimming below the surface. The result is a magical experience—where the seemingly electrified water becomes a source of almost endless fascination. It is especially fun to paddle quickly through the dark water, startling fish, who swim ahead of your craft and look like meteors flashing through the water.
Salt River Bay kayak tours, including bio bay tours, are available from four outfitters. Caribbean Adventure Tours (7A Salt River Marina, 340/778-1522 or 800/532-3483) is probably the largest Salt River Bay operator, and with them you get the benefit of departing from a dock at Salt River Bay Marina, as well as the use of popular see-through kayaks. Virgin Kayak Co. (Cane Bay, 340/778-0071 or 340/514-0062) busses participants from Cane Bay to the Columbus Landing Beach and uses foot-powered kayaks with rudders which make journeying around the bay a breeze. Bush Tribe Eco Adventures (Rte. 801, Salt River Bay, 340/277-2503) are the newest outfitters to receive a concession, and Sea Thru Kayaks VI (340/244-8696) offer clear see-through kayaks which heightens the experience.
Meanwhile, Ras Lumumba Corriette of Ay-Ay Eco Hikes and Tours (340/772-4079) offers an excellent hike along the eastern shore of Salt River Bay, which focuses on the ecological importance of the area.