When you spend the bulk of your professional life snorkeling the reefs of St. John, USVI, aiming your underwater camera at a succession of bikini-clad babes and creating images for clients such as Kodak, National Geographic and Playboy, a day off seems like a wasted opportunity. But if you’re CT+L contributor Steve Simonsen, you still grab your snorkel and head for the water. At Leinster Bay, you’ll hit belly-scrapingly shallow water just yards away from the path to Waterlemon Cay, where the skinny water is packed with millions of sardine-size silverside. The baitfish ebb and flow around you as you move, so don’t be surprised to find yourself dive-bombed by a pelican looking to fill its bill.
In deeper water, vast schools of French grunts and goatfish move amid fields of Venus sea fans. On a recent four-hour masked marathon in Leinster Bay, Simonsen tailed a sea turtle as it grazed on grass and then tried to crack open a small conch, and he spied healthy young stands of endangered elkhorn corals five to eight feet in diameter.
Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay lie inside the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park – which isn’t surprising, since about 60 percent of St. John lies inside the park’s boundaries. Other favorite spots include the island’s number-one snorkel destination, Trunk Bay, with its famed underwater nature trail. Trunk, of course, shouts out from every visitor map and package-tour brochure, but early in the morning before the crowds begin to arrive, it is a magical place. Stingrays forage in the sand, turtles in the grass, and in the summer, an explosion of baitfish attracts schools of huge tarpon. Once the maddening crowds arrive, head off the beaten path to Haulover Bay, on the northeast coast, to visit its healthy corals. Or for a combo day of great beach and great snorkeling, head to Hawksnest Beach, with its beautiful backdrops of elkhorn forest populated by schools of grunts and blue tangs. For a professional underwater photographer like Simonsen, snorkeling on a day off may seem like a busman’s holiday, but when you live on St. John, it’s a magic bus.