Posted on: May 9 2013

A Boaters’ Paradise That Preserves Coral Reefs: Creating an Anchorless Park


A diver secures mooring at Virgin Islands National ParkBy Joe Kessler, President of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park

Imagine boating to paradise and then—without meaning to—causing it harm. Thanks to more than a decade of work in the Virgin Islands, a national park visit by boat is now gentler on the marine environment.

The spectacular coastal scenery, crystal clear waters, reliable winds, and beautiful bays of Virgin Islands National Park and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument have made them popular destinations for boaters. In the past, these visitors had to use anchors to secure their vessels, causing considerable, albeit unintentional, damage to sea grass beds, coral reefs, and other  benthic (seabed or seafloor) resources. To combat this problem, the park embarked on a mooring program to provide a safe and reliable alternative to anchoring with the long-term goal of creating an anchorless park.

Moorings are permanent installations that allow boats to stay in one place without using anchors. In our case we drive heavy-duty augur-like devices about 15 feet into the seabed and then connect a line to a buoy on the surface (see a diagram of how this works). Boats attach to the buoy and are secure. Anchors are a more temporary solution, disturbing the seabed every time they are dropped and then retrieved. Just imagine the damage that could be done by 50 boats dropping anchors and then pulling them up day after day.

A mooring floats on the surface of the water at Virgin Islands National ParkPark leadership and the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park finally achieved our long-held goal of an anchorless park in February 2013. Since the beginning of the program, the Friends group has installed 340 moorings and invested more than $663,000 in this program.

Starting back in 1999, the Friends installed 180 moorings for overnight use in ten bays around St. John. These white mooring balls along the north and south shores of St. John have played a significant role in protecting coral reefs, allowing the recovery of sea grass and protecting other benthic resources. The sea grass beds had been seriously depleted due to anchoring, but now if you snorkel in the mooring fields you will see a rich carpet of sea grass–much to the delight (and survival) of the myriad of marine creatures that make the sea grass their home.

In 2004, the Friends embarked on a program to install moorings in the recently designated Coral Reef National Monument. As a marine protected area, anchoring was prohibited within the monument. But, while we supported the conservation policies of the monument, we felt that the prohibition on anchoring precluded many of the traditional uses of the monument’s waters.  Installing moorings was the perfect answer and a “win-win” for both the users and the environment: allowing users to continue to enjoy this unique marine environment while providing needed protection to the natural resources. In this case, the Friends installed two dive moorings at popular dive sites in the monument, six moorings for blue runner fishing, and 125 storm-mooring berths and 11 day-use moorings in Hurricane Hole, a traditional refuge here for vessels during tropical storms. These moorings were installed in four phases between 2004 and 2008.

All of the moorings mentioned above were for boats up to a maximum of 60 feet in length. Vessels larger than that still had to anchor. Earlier this year, we installed 14 moorings for boats between 60 and 100 feet in six bays, finally making the park anchorless.

Divers secure mooring at Virgin Islands National Park

The protection of the park’s marine resources was obviously the principal objective of the mooring installations. However, the moorings also have a significant impact on the visiting boaters’ experience by providing a safe and convenient means of securing their boats while enjoying Virgin Islands National Park and the Coral Reef National Monument.

  1. Andrew NAso
    Andrew NAso05-09-2013

    Please do something to protect the coral reef. It is very important that we protect it because it provide a home to special marine life and will cause more damage than expected if it disappears. Stop the traffic of boats entering the area as well to cause less harm.

  2. nicole

    I have been to the great barrier reef in Australia and I have to say that it is one of the most breathtaking and beautiful sights I have ever laid my eyes on. I even cried in my goggles! However, it was incredibly upsetting swimming from spots with rainbows of colors to areas of dried up bleached brown dead reef. It was devastating because of how scary it is that something that is so beautiful could be so easily destroyed. I just have to say that extra caution must be taken when dealing with areas that are so fragile and delicate, especially when you have no intention of the harm being done. This is why places such as reef locations need to be preserved and cared for otherwise no one else will be able to experience what I was lucky enough to experience. I wouldn’t wish such destruction on my biggest enemy and I’d give anything to make sure everyone in gets to experience what I did at least once in their lives, even if it was for a split second.

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