GHS 4th Graders Create Memories on Magical Vieques Island

Special to St. John Tradewinds
By Barbara Winch
4th Grade Teacher at The Gifft Hill School

Feeling the vibrations on Vieques are Julien Doran, Francine Francis, Chloe Jarvis, Paola Davis, Makenna Clark, Olivetti Samuel, Elena Haynes, Sydney Knowles-Donnelly, Coulter Conley, Pace Knowles-Donnelly.

As we boarded the barge to go to St. Thomas on the first leg of our Vieques journey, I had no concept of what awaited my 4th grade class. I could never have imagined the incredible experiences that we would encounter which would bond this class together and create memories for a lifetime.

I was truly blessed with the opportunity to take my students out of St. John and to the magical island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Ten students, six parent chaperones, and I were on a grand adventure from start to finish!

When we reached St. Thomas Airport, we were all a bit taken aback by the extremely small plane that would carry half our group at a time over the Carib-bean waters to Vieques. We climbed in a bit apprehensively, fastened our seat belts, and very smoothly reached Vieques half an hour later.

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As we waited for the second group to arrive, we picked up our two rental SUVs. I was “volunteered” to drive.

Driving Experience
Driving around Vieques was quite an experience because they drive on the right hand side of the road there. It was rather disconcerting to pull out, immediately go to the left every time, and hear someone in the back say, “Go on the right Ms. Barbara! Right!”

The Posada Vistamarâ Guest House in Esperanza was quaint, quiet and very clean. The women who ran it were extremely accommodating to our rather excited group.

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Vieques National Wildlife Refuge Outreach Specialist Gisella Burgos, Julien Doran, Olivetti Samuel, Chloe Jarvis, Barbara Winch (back row); Elena Haynes, Sydney Donnelly-Knowles, Coulter Conley, Pace Donnelly-Knowles, Paola Davis, Makenna Clark, Francine Francis.

History Lesson
After dropping off our things, we went to tour Fort Conde de Mirasol Museum.

Prior to our trip we had brush-ed up on the history of Vieques and the U.S. Naval activity that had taken place there, but the talk that Robert Rabin (professor and historian at the fort) gave helped deepen our understanding of Vieques’s vibrant history, and the struggle the Puerto Rican people had to end the testing of Naval bombing on island.

We all walked away with an immense feeling of awe at the destruction that the U.S. had caused this beautiful island and triumph at the solidarity of the people and their commitment to stopping this tragedy.

We followed our tour with a hotdog and s’more roast at gorgeous Sun Bay, and collapsed exhausted into bed very early! The next day we went to the National Wildlife Refuge at Kiani Lagoon and met Vieques National Wildlife Refuge Outreach Specialist Gisella Burgos for a discussion on the ecosystem of the mangrove and moist forest.

It was very informative and the students learned a lot. She then took us out onto the mangrove mud flats where the students got to really “get into” the mud (literally!).

Gisella then escorted us to the munitions sites on the military base. It was eerie to imagine them once full of bombs and ammunition, and I was grateful to see them standing empty and abandoned. When we left there it was time for dinner, so we took in some local flavor at a restaurant called “Banana’s” and fueled ourselves for what was to be the highlight of the entire trip — The Bioluminescent Bay.

Bioluminiscent Night
We chose these particular three days to visit Vieques specifically because it was during the New Moon Phase, and we had heard that the Bio Bay would be the most spectacular during this dark time. I can honestly say that before this experience, I don’t think that I even knew what “spectacular” truly meant.

As Gerald Singer describes it in his dramatically beautiful book: “Vieques: A Photographi-cally Illustrated Guide to the Island, Its History and Its Culture:”

There was no moon and it was almost totally dark. It was really dark. That is, if you didn’t move. But we were moving. And everything and I mean EVERYTHING was glowing and sparkling in electric greenish and bluish-white light…Surreal… totally. And the fish were leaving twisting psychedelic jet streams behind them as they shot away from the intruders into their territory. And some of the fish were pretty big. Even some sting rays. And they made a really big glow. Wow, what an experience! Then we stopped and were silent. The stars were shining above us and the air was crisp. It was a perfectly clear amazingly beautiful summer night and…(we) were there, in Mosquito Bay, in Vieques, in the Caribbean and on the beautiful planet that we are fortunate enough to inhabit.

It truly was a “surreal” experience for all of us! When we raised our arms out of the water it looked like tiny golden drops of light trickling down. As well, the constellations, planets, and solitary stars were outrageous! We played in the water, laughed, and were awed by (and even cried at) the beauty of it all. It truly was the most unbelievable experience that I have ever had.

On our last morning in Vieques, we went to the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust Museum to meet Educator Mark Martin. He showed us the museum’s unique aquariums and hands-on salt water tanks. Mark explained about the sea creatures that were in the tanks, and the students got to hold and examine them all up close.

It was an exceptional experience. We completed our trip with the obligatory souvenir shopping in the local stores and readied ourselves to leave this delightful island. The flight home was just as smooth as the previous one, although a lot less exhilarating and much more reflective on all our part.

When asked what their favorite part of the trip was they replied (in unison, no less), “The Bioluminescent Bay!!”

As well they individually replied:

“My mom took me out farther in the bay and it glowed even brighter. I’ll always remember being with her in Vieques.” – Pace Knowles-Donnelly

“We went to Sun Bay beach and roasted marshmallows together. It was the first time I had ever done that!” – Francine Francis

“The constellations were really bright. I liked how the stars connected and made objects in the sky.” – Olivetti Samuel

“Climbing on the lifeguard stand at Sun Bay with all my friends. We had so much fun together.” – Makenna Clark

“Learning about the fort and the history of Vieques was very interesting. It made me realize how different this island is from Puerto Rico even though it is so close.” – Chloe Jarvis

“Seeing the magazines where they used to store the bombs made me really curious about what happened on Vieques. It’s an important part of the history of Vieques.” – Paola Davis

“Seeing all the fish glowing when they swam out from under the boat at the bioluminescent bay. I had never seen anything like that before!” – Julien Doran

“Learning that the organisms in the bioluminescent bay were half plant, half animal. It was really interesting to learn.” – Elena Haynes

“Seeing all the horses running around freely. There aren’t that many horses on St. John!” – Coulter Conley

The amazing people of St. John must once again be thanked for their generosity and kindness in helping us to achieve this level of experience for these fourth grade children. After months of planning and raising money, the life-long memories of this group of children (and adults) far surpassed the work. Providing them with novel, cultural and educational experiences is what this trip was all about.