I swam through the most beautiful coral reef recently: large quantities of vibrant elkhorn coral just a few feet below the water's surface. When healthy, coral supports a vast network of underwater life, and the reef was full of Sergeant Majors, Butterflyfish, Fairy Basslets, Gobys, Trunkfish, Parrotfish of every variety, and even a Porcupinefish. It was a technicolor display in crystal clear, turquoise water.
I was snorkeling about 100 feet off of Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Necker is the private property of one Sir Richard Branson, England's answer to Donald Trump. He's a busy figure in the BVI these days, having recently bought a second island--the nearby Mosquito, which he wants to turn into the world's most environmentally friendly resort--and generally pushing "green" causes like wind and solar power (and less green ones like better air access to the islands). His initiatives get a lot of press in America and Britain, yet the locals don't always seem so keen (though their government likes the publicity the self-obsessed billionaire's habits bring to the country).
Mosquito is part of the chain of islands that make up the North Sound of Virgin Gorda--a large anchorage that during the Age of Sail sheltered the British West Indies squadrons from hurricanes and remains a destination for sailors the world over. Necker sits just beyond and is far more secluded. Branson has made it into an ultra luxury rental--$46,000 a night right now, going up to $51,000 in 2009--with a Great House and Balinese-style guesthouses, offering "beach Olympics, tennis tournaments, sailing, snorkeling and kite-surfing," and, of course, the Bali Leha spa. It's a popular destination for the weddings of the well-to-do. A year ago, one of Google's two founders was married there, with the bride and groom reportedly planning to windsurf away after the reception. The celebrity guests filled up all the nearby resorts and kept a lot of the regular visitors away from Virgin Gorda. All that December, I heard complaints about how everything for the Google wedding had been brought in special so that few dollars entered the local economy. The locals were none too pleased--the 3,000 or so permanent residents of Virgin Gorda are reliant on tourism--though they were happy to relate that a late storm blew in and brought rough seas and rain to the celebration. The guests who were supposed to be ferried direct from their hotels had to be taken by car over Virgin Gorda's peak to the larger ferries at Gun Creek, so at least the taxi drivers got some business.
I thought of Branson's reinvention as environmentalist (from music mogul, airline proprietor, space tourism magnate, and reality TV star) as I climbed back into the boat and stared at the hand-crocheted hammocks and rows of Hobie cats lining Necker's shore. I had been taken there by a wonderfully good-natured man named Quinto, who runs snorkeling trips throughout the North Sound and the attending islands. He takes people out a couple of times a day in high season and never seems to tire of it, getting swept up in each group's enthusiasm for these waters. I've been out with him at different times over a few years, and he settles his destinations based on the tides and the recent weather--avoiding places where sand has been kicked up by the northern swells or where the surf is heavy. It's an adventure every time. As he was running us out that day, he suddenly veered to starboard and pointed out an Eagle Spotted Ray. The vast black shape skimming just under the transparent water was an awe-inspiring sight. You could make out the motion of its wings. Quinto told us that they leap out of the water at times as they swim. One of the other folks on the boat asked him how he had spotted it. He laughed: "Lots of practice, man. Lots of practice."
Quinto was born and lives in the village that overlooks the North Sound, and I've rarely met a man more in sync with his environment. Proud as he is of it, he worries over the fragile underwater world--one easily undone by increased human presence--as much as he does over the ebb and flow of tourism. I asked Quinto what he thought about Branson. He'd already joked about the rental costs of Necker and Branson's purchase of Mosquito--" 'cause everybody needs a second island." As he looked over at Necker with its beautiful Balinese style buildings and villa, he said, "You know he's gone green. He's a nut for all things green." He then pointed toward the end of the beach, "Look, he's even painted his satellite dish green and his water pipes, too. Yup, he's big on the environment now."