The Three Extraordinary Bucks of The Virgin Islands
by Jeff McCord
It’s a curious fact that there is a small “Buck Island” located in the waters off each of the Virgin Islands’ three principal isles: St. Croix; St. Thomas; and Tortola. Visitors might easily assume these “bucks” were named after male deer since white tail deer can be found there. Europeans reportedly introduced them to the islands in the 1700s for game.
Actually, though, each Buck Island was named by European settlers for a remarkable local tree called buck wood, according to many sources including a St. John Historical Society paper. Known formally as lignum vitae, this native tree is stronger and more durable than mahogany, another local arboreal wonder.
Also known as ironwood, lignum vitae is so dense it sinks in salt water and has been used to make cricket balls, belaying pins on sailing vessels and propeller shaft bearings in World War II submarines. It’s so valuable that most trees were cut down long ago.
The biggest of the Virgin’s three Buck Islands is a couple miles off St. Croix, which was once Danish and now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. An early Danish map labels that Buck Island as “Bocken Eyland.” English speakers later corrupted Bock into Buck. Regardless, today the 176 acre island is an uninhabited gem of tropical dry forest surrounded mostly by crystalline white beaches and easily accessed coral reefs.
Because President John F. Kennedy took action to preserve the island in 1961, the Buck Island National Reef Monument off St. Croix is a major Caribbean eco-tourist attraction. The National Park Service explains its’ importance and allure:
“Endangered and threatened species live and nest here: four species of sea turtles — hawksbill, green, leatherback, and loggerhead — and the St. Croix ground lizard. Elkhorn coral, the first listed marine invertebrate, surrounds two-thirds of the island. Elkhorn coral patch reefs rise to the surface from the seabed as much as 40 feet below.”
To better enjoy the coral, Buck Island’s waters has one of only two underwater snorkeling trails in the United States. The other is right off Trunk Bay on St. John within the Virgin Islands National Park.
Beyond the coral, on Buck Island’s west end may be found Turtle Beach, one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean.
Buck Island can be visited with several charter boat operators based in nearby Christiansted, St. Croix. Much of Christiansted, St. Croix’s capital, is a national historic site preserving fine Danish colonial buildings and a classic fort.
The Virgins’ second largest Buck Island is located about 4 miles south of St. Thomas’ main harbor at Charlotte Amalie and best known for its Turtle Cove and Danish lighthouse built in 1916. The tattered red lighthouse and island is now Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for migratory birds.
For most visitors, however, the island’s main attraction is Turtle Cove where snorkelers are almost guaranteed to see and, if quiet and gentle, follow sea turtles as they move slowly grazing sea grasses on the bottom and occasionally coming up to breathe. Each year, the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park sponsors a snorkeling event for the public guided by a Fish and Wildlife Service expert. A boat from St. John takes guests to the Cove “to swim with green and hawksbill turtles that live there year round.”
For scuba divers, St. Thomas’ Buck Island waters also offer a historically significant ship wreck — the Royal Mail Packet Steamer Wye. Now embedded in Wye Reef (named after her) on the southwestern side of the island, the RMS Wye went down during the infamous San Narciso hurricane on October 29, 1867. The storm struck St. Thomas with little warning in those pre-radar days. The Wye and her more famous sister ship, the RMS Rhone (sunk off Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands) were among the more than 60 major vessels lost in the Virgin Islands during what today NOAA estimates to have been a category three hurricane.
The officers of a British naval vessel, the HMS Doris, were among the early expert witnesses to the devastation in the days immediately following that storm. In his report to superiors, Captain Charles Vesey described the Wye’s attempt to escape Charlotte Amalie’s harbor as the hurricane struck:
“The Wye [hastily] left St. Thomas in the charge of her Chief Officer — the Captain being on shore — and she steamed about  miles to the Westward when her compasses became useless from the amount of electricity in the atmosphere. About 65 were drowned and about 11 saved, including the Chief Officer who had his arm badly broken. I have since heard that nearly 50 bodies are in a small Bay on Buck Island – but cannot be approached for sanitary reasons.”
For more eyewitness accounts of the San Narciso hurricane (and a great yarn), please see my fact-based adventure/mystery novel “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea” available on Amazon.
In addition to making a good story, some hope the wreck of the Wye will become a tourist attraction. St. Thomas Source reported in 2006 that maritime archaeologists from the University of Bristol explored “what’s left of the 210 foot Wye.” In and surrounding the coral, they found some hull structure, part of the keel and steam engine parts.
The waters of St. Thomas’ Buck Island may be visited with several charter operators.
The Virgins’ third Buck Island is a short distance off Tortola (the principal British Virgin Island) within Sir Francis Drake Channel. Because it’s privately owned, very little information is available about this 43 acre rocky island located only about a thousand feet from Tortola’s shoreline. Presumably, it was once a ready source of buck wood for early European settlers.
One modern owner of Buck Island reportedly started building a bridge to Tortola. Construction was halted, though, when it became clear the Island’s beach would be open for public use if connected to Tortola’s shoreline.
All three buck islands are beautiful and well worth preserving for future generations.