St. John’s Antigua- Our country boasts more than 30 offshore islands, cays and rocks. Some dot the scintillating waters of the Caribbean Sea and others hold fast in the tempestuous, deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Visiting the offshore islands offers a welcome break to many locals who seek respite from the hustle and bustle of mainland life.
The offshore islands are also known to attract international visitors who desire a glimpse of uncommon wildlife such as rare plants, endangered birds and even snakes. The offshore islands are a point of pride for many Antiguans and Barbudans. The necessity to keep them in pristine condition should be at the forefront of all our minds.
Why is so much emphasis placed on the offshore islands? A part from their obvious natural beauty, due to factors such as development and the presence of invasive species of plants and animals on the mainland, some of our country’s rare wildlife finds refuge on these very offshore islands.
Birds such as the magnificent frigate bird, red-billed tropicbirds, the elusive West Indian whistling duck and the Caribbean brown pelican can all be observed on these islands. Three of the four species of endangered sea turtles found in the Caribbean go ashore and nest on some islands as well. We can’t forget our critically endangered Antiguan racer snake, once abundant on the mainland, now existing on literally a handful of the islands.
Before, local fishers mostly frequented offshore islands, but nowadays, more persons have the means to hire or own a sea vessel. Although more persons are now able to appreciate the beauty of the islands, the increased traffic to these spaces places tremendous stress on sensitive ecosystems. In fact, Great Bird Island in the last 15 years has seen an increase in the number of visitors from approximately 20,000 per annum to 70,000 per annum.
When visiting the islands, one must be aware of the importance of his/her behaviour for the sake of the longevity of our natural heritage. Taking into account the following considerations can go a long way to ensure that future generations are also able to enjoy what we are experiencing presently:
- Monitor the number of persons in a group when visiting the island. Large groups are harder to control and may cause unwarranted damage and disturbance to wildlife on the islands.
- Check your boat and equipment for rats. Rats are a highly invasive species that can swiftly transform even the physical appearance of an island. Rats reproduce quickly, carry diseases, and predate on local wildlife.
- Bag and take your garbage with you. Garbage is unsightly, taking away from the beauty of the islands. Some animals, such as birds, often mistake bits of garbage for food, consuming them and dying.
- Be careful with plastic bags. In the sea, they mimic the appearance and movement of a jellyfish, a favourite food of sea turtles. Consuming plastic can lead to their demise.
- Enjoy your barbecue but be careful to clean up the coals. Coals do not disappear into the sand and can leave an unsightly mess on the beach. Wildlife may also crawl, walk, or slither through hot coals and become injured or die.
- Be careful around nesting birds, and try not to disturb bird colonies. A colony that is constantly disturbed may permanently move to another island/country causing a particular offshore island to lose some of its biodiversity. It is better to stick to existing tracks.
- Don’t walk on or pick at coral, which although beautiful, takes hundreds of years to grow.
In short, when you leave the island, it should look exactly the way it did when you first arrived.