On September 20, Hurricane Maria slammed into the VIrgin Islands as a category 5 hurricane and pounded Puerto Rico as a category 4. With torrential rain and wind gusts up to 200 miles per hour, it caused widespread devastation including loss of electricity and cell service for the entire territory.
The hurricane also impacted four bioluminescent bays. Unlike our local bioluminescent red tides, which are unpredictable in occurrence and appear only every couple of years, the bioluminescent bays of the Caribbean exhibit bright bioluminescence throughout the year and are extremely popular for ecotourism and contribute greatly to the local economy. These bays are extremely rare mangrove ecosystems, with a total area less than 5 sq km in the Caribbean. The four impacted bioluminescent bays include three in Puerto Rico and one in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.
Three of the four bioluminescent bays went dark after Maria, due to multiple factors including freshwater runoff and high winds. The good news is that the bioluminescence of Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Laguna Grande in Fajardo, and the Salt River Bay bioluminescent bay in St. Croix have recovered. Phosphorescent Bay in La Parguera was largely spared.
El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest within the territorial U.S., is closed indefinitely because of major slides that blocked the access road.
Everyone has been working hard to clear debris to allow ecotourism activities to be re-established. Nighttime tours should resume within a few weeks to most of the bioluminescent bays. According to one tour operator:
“I have never seen the amount of Federal works from all over the United States, forest rangers, FEMA, US Corp of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife and the army all engaged with the island and the rebuilding of the rainforest! We have outside Electric companies from NC, TX and others working to reestablish the light and communications!”