For those on St. Croix Sunday and specifically at Rainbow Beach on the island’s west end, the day before Memorial Day can only mean one thing. It’s the all-day beach bash known as Reef Jam, the biggest celebration of the coral reef and marine environment in the territory.
The sun shone through partly cloudy skies, the music never stopped, the food and drink were plentiful, and if stopped at a booth and talked to the person behind it, you just might learn something about the local environment, too.
With more than a thousand people in attendance and all raised funds going toward local marine programs, the scene was lively and parking limited for the seventh annual festival, which tries to encourage marine conservation and stewardship through community education and outreach.
Reef Jam program manager and founder Janelle Shindler said last year almost $15,000 was raised for monthly snorkel clinics offered island wide by the St. Croix Environmental Association. Money also supported a reef-responsible restaurant program, hiking trips through the mangrove, and bioluminescent tours in Salt River Bay, she said.
Numerous cleanup events – including one along the westend roadside the day after Reef Jam – are also sponsored throughout the year, and every Reef Jam dollar raised stays on the island.
“All of our tours and trips are completely free to the community. They’re paid for by Reef Jam funds,” Schindler said.
About 120 volunteers and 45 local businesses participate in and sponsor Reef Jam, and Schindler said because of the continued enthusiasm and steady attendance the past few years, the event is getting easier to plan.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled. We live on a very small island where the reef is very important to our livelihood,” she said. “I’m humbled by the turnout and the people who support us. I couldn’t ask for more because I think St. Croix has an awesome, awesome sense of community. All you have to do is look around you today. The proof is here.”
The educational component of Reef Jam was also on display when you ventured from booth to booth.
In the Reeftivity zone, a UVI tilapia farm manager, a UVI researcher and a St. Croix Environmental Association member – all Reef Jam volunteers – answered questions and conducted dissections of tilapia, squid and lionfish for anyone who wanted to watch and learn.
At one point the conversation took on a light-hearted tone as the intestines of the various fish were compared.
“I like sharing knowledge with children,” SEA’s Emily Weston said.
She’d been dissecting the squid.
“It’s pretty cool to see the faces and how they react when they see the inside of a fish or what’s under the filet,” Weston said.
UVI contractual researcher Kynoch Reale-Munroe agreed, and seemed right at home with her hands covered in lionfish resin. She’d been dissecting the lionfish and at one point discussed recent findings of a study that concluded at Buck Island.
“Hopefully this (dissection) will create a connection to what’s going on out there,” Reale-Munroe said.
The marine ecosystem as a whole is extremely fragile worldwide, she said, and that with 90 percent total coral-coverage loss around St. Croix, not to mention a pesky, “very predacious fish that’s eating all the native fish” in the Caribbean, the reef that Reef Jam celebrates needs all the tender loving care it can get, especially from those who live among it and rely on it the most.