Flora, Fauna and the Deep Blue Sea: Bermuda Works to Recreate its Natural Past

It is peaceful on Nonsuch Island, a 14-acre nature preserve at the eastern entrance to Bermuda’s Castle Harbor. Migratory songbirds flit through canopy trees, their calls disturbed only by the distant and distinctly incongruous whine from a motorcycle track on the mainland. With its Bermuda palmetto, olivewood and cedar forests, scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs and nesting Bermuda petrel seabirds just offshore, the island represents a rare opportunity to experience Bermuda as its first visitors saw it.

Mainland Bermuda—located 570 nautical miles east of the North Carolina coast—is undeniably lovely, although its beauty is enhanced mainly by non-native flora and fauna. Much of the rich, original bird and plant life was wiped out by early settlers, who left behind their domestic animals to create further ruination. Between 1947 and 1951, a cedar blight destroyed nearly 99 percent of the island’s trees. The native petrel (also known as the cahow) was thought to have gone extinct as early as the 17th century, but eight nesting pairs were rediscovered in 1951 by a team of naturalists that included a teenager named David Wingate.

Wingate was so inspired that, 10 years later, he moved permanently to Nonsuch Island as its resident warden. He’s still there, but the island is no longer a monocultural grassland grazed by feral pigs. Wingate spent decades watching over the slowly increasing cahow nest sites and carefully tending native flora. With his family’s help, he recreated salt and freshwater marshes. “By 1974, we had planted 100,000 trees and shrubs on the island, including a resistant strain of the Bermuda cedar,” says Wingate. “It’s become a living museum for Bermuda’s endangered flora and fauna.”

One of Wingate’s biggest successes, paradoxically, involves the introduction of a non-native: the yellow-crowned night heron. With no natural predators, Bermuda’s land crabs had become a ubiquitous pest. Wingate discovered that a long-extinct heron had kept the crabs in check. In the 1970s, he brought in a near-relative, restoring an important environmental balance.

Eco-Tents and Longtail Condos

Restoring the environment on the major volcanic islands of Bermuda will be even more daunting than it was on Nonsuch Island. Although the five main islands, linked by bridges and causeways, retain considerable charm (fast-food restaurants are prohibited there), they are crowded by a population of 60,000 and increasing numbers of motor vehicles.

Bermuda extends 21 square miles, and much of it is covered by introduced species like the casuarinas tree, an import from Australia. Roads are lined with squashed cane toads, another import. Bermuda’s windswept northern coastline is protected from spray by non-native tamarisk trees. On the tip of that coast is a 19-acre peninsula that once served as a military base. Today, it’s the location of Daniel’s Head Village, an eco-resort with 100 “tent” cottages (aluminum frameworks with laminated acrylic skins) that sit right above—or even right over—some of the bluest water in the world. The cottages have windows in the floors that reveal a rich parade of marine life: bonefish, jacks, garfish and whip morays. Offshore, there are cruising humpback whales and dolphins, as well as vintage wrecks dating from the 19th century and earlier.

The country’s only native land vertebrate is the small, increasingly endangered Bermuda skink lizard, Eumeces longirostris. Wingate, as a consultant to Daniel’s Head, is working with Environmental Resource Manager Graeme Outerbridge to establish a skink colony on one of the peninsula’s rock promontories. Another project, says Outerbridge, is establishing a “condominium complex” for native longtails—beautiful birds that have lost much of their natural nesting sites to erosion.

Daniel’s Head offers three interesting nature trails, with guided tours conducted by the charming Christine Watlington, author of Bermuda’s Natural Wonderland. There are 10 beaches (some are tiny, tide-shaped pockets perfect for honeymooning couples). The water is mostly calm, so there are excellent opportunities for diving and sea kayaking. Underway is a project to label underwater corals to allow snorkelers to take self-guided tours. Nearby is one end of Bermuda’s ill-fated railway, now turned into an excellent bicycle and hiking trail. Solar panels line the trails at Daniel’s Head, and gray water is recycled.

“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves,” says David Allen, Bermuda’s minister of tourism, and there is ample evidence of that.