ACS Travel Club explores Puerto Rico for an eco-tourism learning experience

By John Bernhardt
Mysterious blue green light brightens the bay creating a magical, balmy night experience. Sixteen students from Andes Central School marveled as their kayaks sliced through Bioluminescent Bay illuminating her waters. Like shooting stars, fish flash by in the water.
A kayaking tour of the bay in Vieques, had to be the highlight of the Andes Central School Travel Club’s recent trip to Puerto Rico. The kayak excursion took the Delaware County natives to this unique bay that contains nearly three-quarters of a million single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon of water. When agitated, these microscoptic half-plant, half animal organisms light the water with a bluish glow.
Any agitation of the water will light up the bay. Darting fish, oars knifing through the water, raindrops splattering the water’s surface, or swimming students will activate a phenomenon of bioluminescence that is an awe-inspiring experience, a travel gem the students from Andes will never forget.
To set the table for their evening jaunt, the Andes contingent visited the San Juan de los Capezas Nature Preserve at the Seven Seas Beach area earlier in the day. At the preserve, the students toured the educational center, an 1800s lighthouse converted into a place of learning. As they walked along a boardwalk on newly installed ramps, the students learned about the unique ecosystem that makes up the bay.
The bay is surrounded by four different species of mangrove trees. The mangroves survive in leveled locations determined by the varying conditions found in the bay. Leaves from the mangroves are continually falling into the bay where they rot and provide a satisfying diet for the dinoflagellates. The salinity of the water is also well suited for thriving dinoflagellates.
Accompanied by an Eco Tourism guide, the outing to Bioluminescent Bay kicked off the students’ seven-day travel adventure on a high note.

Rain forest hike
In the eyes of most of the Andes students, a hiking expedition through El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park System, finished a close second in memorable travel experiences. El Yunque, a gentle forest with no poisonous snakes, makes a sensible rain forest experience. The rain forest is the home of many exclusive plant and animal species.
The Andes hiking group set their sights on a fire tower at the top of one of El Yunque’s many trails. More daring hikers tackled one of the highest peaks in El Yunque where they enjoyed magnificent water views.
On their sojourn, the hikers came across a mongoose, an introduced species brought to Puerto Rico to minimize the negative effects of rats on the corn and sugar cane crops. Unfortunately for Puerto Rican farmers, the rats are nocturnal animals and the mongoose is not. Rats continue to interrupt farm production as the mongoose population multiplies.
Other highlights of the excursion included a ferry ride to Culebra and snorkeling at the Carlos Rosario beach. The traveling students viewed two types of reefs; the more plant-like soft or fan coral reefs and the hard or rocky brain coral. It was alarming for students to discover great changes to the hard coral reef in the two-year lapse since the last Puerto Rico adventure. The bright coral display previously experienced has badly faded in that short period of time.
The students also visited Plrya Brava beach, the nesting ground of Leatherback sea turtles. Students were pleased to learn that miles of beach they cleaned two years ago have remained in good shape. The industrious youngsters touched up those areas and extended their efforts along the shoreline. At the beach, students came across two turtle nests constructed by a mother turtle with eggs laid the night before.
Camping on the Flamenco Beach Campgrounds, the Andes contingent experienced another cultural extension. With an early Easter, Puerto Rican Universities were closed bringing thousands of college students to the camping site. On previous visits the Andes students almost enjoyed the campsite as their own.
The trip included a visit to the capital city of San Juan where the students enjoyed a feast of 15 different Puerto Rican dinners at the El Siglo Restaurant.
The adventure was made possible by the many folks from Andes and the extended community who supported the trip.