The Baths in Virgin Gorda

an aerial view of the BathsThere are few places on earth that are quite so stunningly beautiful, quite so awe inspiring as The Baths on Virgin Gorda's south-west point. On a stretch of coastline that runs for about a mile, it's almost as if the hand of a giant sprinkled boulders randomly onto a white sand beach. Some rolled to a stop near the water while others piled high; some balanced precariously one on top the other, and yet others cracked on impact. In reality there is a geological answer to the spectacular formations at The Baths.

The origin of the boulders has been the topic of speculation for years. We can clear up many conjectures right now: The boulders were not hurled up onto the beach by a tempestuous storm; they were not disgorged by a volcano or carried here by a glacier of a long gone Ice Age. The boulders and the wonderful natural sculptures they form are due to magnificent geologic processes and weathering that has occurred over eons of time.

The indications are that the origin of the boulders occurred about 50 million years ago (give or take a few hundred thousand) when molten rock known as magma pushed its way upwards, cooled and solidified forming large slabs of mineral rich granite. This became exposed due to faulting and uplifting of the sea floor and today large parts of Virgin Gorda are composed entirely of granite.

So how do you get boulders from slabs? The answer is that when the molten rock solidifies it cools and on cooling it shrinks and cracks. At The Baths there are some great examples of unusually shaped cracked boulders.

The rest of the story, which entails the formation of the natural sculptures, can be accounted for by the process of weathering over millions of years. The four main elements in granite are hornblende, biotite, feldspar and quartz. All these are susceptible to chemical decay except quartz. This white crystal makes up a large part of the beach sand and accounts for the slippery nature on the trails since granules of quartz are left when the other elements have been chemically dissolved and washed away.

The BathsMany boulders display interesting pock marked or pitted surfaces while others are fluted. Large indented sections may have contained different material that weathered more quickly. Then water in the cavity would aid in chemical disintegration accelerating the forming of a depression and, sometimes with the help of the pounding sea, fluted surfaces would develop. Remember we're talking about millions of years here. Several quite amazing hollow boulders are evident on some of the trails. These probably started with depression erosion and with the help of the trade winds and hundreds of thousands of years of windblown sand and driving rain wonderful natural sculptures developed.

For yachtsmen, The Baths is undoubtedly the most popular attraction in the B.V.I. and in order to explore it in depth at least two days are necessary. Many sailors, though, find that a few hours is enough to catch a glimpse of this natural wonder. A dinghy is a useful companion for exploring the water's edge because the trail does not always follow the coast.

If you are arriving by land, a well-trodden path takes you from the car park to the beach at the entrance to The Baths. As you descend the trail you will notice some interesting balanced boulders right in the middle of the path. The path can be slippery with granules of rounded quartz underfoot, like mini roller skates. At the beach there is an impressive boulder pile and an interesting split boulder.

The entrance to the Devil's Bay Trail is at the southern end of the beach. Enter by crawling through a narrow cleft between two boulders and you come to the main cavern with a large pool of clear sea water. From here on the more difficult parts of the trail have been fitted with handholds and strong wooden platforms and ladders. Along this section of trail you will see some good examples of hollow boulders, the most spectacular being Neptune's Hideaway. After the main cavern go up the slippery sloping rock with the help of a rope to hang on to. At the next ladder up look back and there it is: incredible, with a hole right through it.

As you approach Devil's Bay look out for the Anvil, an impossibly balanced rock that looks like it would topple at the faintest touch... and it's been there for 50 million years! It is surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water and is a great snorkeling spot. Further on there is a great photo op. Look out to the anchorage through a triangular shaped aperture formed by three converging boulders. If a classic yacht is in the right place you've got a prize-winning picture.

The BathsThe boulders eventually become less numerous and finally you exit the trail at beautiful Devil's Bay. What a great place for a snorkel, swim and a rest. The continuation of the trail up to the car park winds its way past various cacti. The pipe organ or dildo cactus is prolific; it is a tree cactus and is the kind commonly found in Mexican cartoons. The Turks head cactus looks like a rugby ball and has a red cap growing from its top. It sits on the ground and small pear-shaped bright pink fruit protrude from the cap. They are edible and sweet and make a wonderful garnish for ice cream and other desserts.

Other plant species you will notice on the trail are the pungent wild sage, frangipani, wild jasmine and the odd turpentine, often called the tourist tree because of its red peeling skin.

Much of the island's fauna can be seen on this wonderful nature reserve. You will undoubtedly see geckoes and lizards of all shapes and sizes; the anoles are easily spotted, with their bright red expanding throats, if they're courting. A shiny brown snake may slither by, but don't be alarmed it's harmless. The zenaida or turtledove is common in this area with its haunting "oooh, oooh." Wheeling overhead could be frigate birds and last time I walked this trail I spotted some of the less common, raven-like black ani. You may be surprised to see a whelk scuttling up the path. On close examination, though, you will see that in fact the whelk shell has been inhabited by a hermit crab, which uses the shell as a temporary residence.

Back at the car park you may well be annoyed at yourself for not taking more rolls of film but one thing is for sure: you will have had an exciting and exhilarating day.

Geological information courtesy Charles A. Ratte, (former state geologist, Vermont).

Julian Putley is the author of the Virgin's Treasure Isle, the story of treasure buried on Norman Island. He has also written, Sunfun Calypso and the Drinking Man's Guide to the BVI.