From an undersea mountain to deserted islands, western Puerto Rico boasts abundant wildlife and largely undisturbed habitat.
Colorful corals, lush mangroves, and miles of coastline host an array of animals from manatees and fish to sea turtles and migrating humpback whales. These natural resources support the fishing, surfing, diving, and other coastal businesses that form the backbone of the region’s economy.
Here are 10 places, habitats, and animals that make western Puerto Rico special, and are therefore worth safeguarding.
- Bioluminescent bay. The southwest coast is home to one of the world’s rare glowing bays at La Parguera. The phenomenon occurs as a result of microorganisms, frequently algae, that make their own food through photosynthesis. Their chlorophyll captures light and can put off a blue-green glow in shallow areas, typically those surrounded by mangroves—a big draw for tourists.
- Bajo de Sico seamount. This underwater mountain, which rises thousands of feet tall to within just 75 feet of the surface, is home to fragile corals that provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for animals ranging from sharks to snappers and groupers. Bajo de Sico is the only annual spawning site in Puerto Rico of the threatened Nassau grouper; some of these fish travel hundreds of miles to mate under the full moon.
- Corals. Visitors to Puerto Rico who seek out coral reefs for activities ranging from diving to fishing spend more than $1.9 billion annually on the island. On the west coast, Tres Palmas Marine Reserve hosts all seven species of endangered Caribbean corals—elkhorn, staghorn, rough cactus, pillar, boulder star, lobed star, and mountainous star. Some coral hotspots, including the waters off Mona and Desecheo islands and municipalities La Parguera, Guanica, Cabo Rojo, and Rincón, are home to some of the densest coral cover in Puerto Rico. Healthy coral reefs support abundant fish populations and help protect coasts from storm surge.
- Fish. Western Puerto Rico’s colorful reef dwellers, including stoplight parrotfish and queen angelfish, bring snorkelers to the region, while recreational and commercial fishers come to seek red hind, yellowmouth grouper, numerous snapper species, and queen conch, among others. Roughly 40% of all commercial fishery landings in Puerto Rico occur on the west coast. Scientists have documented multiple fish spawning sites in the region—Abrir la Sierra, Tourmaline Bank, Bajo de Sico, the La Parguera shelf, and the Guanica shelf.
- Sea turtles. Five threatened and endangered species of sea turtles visit the west coast—the threatened green and loggerhead turtles and the endangered leatherback, hawksbill, and olive ridley. Three of these species nest on the region’s beaches.
- Seagrass. These underwater plants form large meadows in shallow waters, particularly around Lajas, Cabo Rojo, Mayagüez, and Añasco. They provide homes, food, and nursery areas for a range of animals, stabilize sediments and absorb wave energy—which helps limit erosion and protect coastlines—and absorb climate-changing carbon and polluting runoff.
- Mangroves. These coastal forests serve as essential nursery habitat for a wide variety of species, including many commercially and ecologically important fish. Like seagrasses, mangroves absorb pollutants, thereby filtering the water, and protect coastlines by absorbing wave energy, including during hurricanes.
- Manatees. These gentle giants loll in large swaths of seagrass, plucking the blades for nourishment. West coast visitors may see them in shallow areas, canals, rivers, estuaries, and saltwater bays, including off Cabo Rojo and Mayagüez.
- Whales. Many humpback whales travel more than 1,000 miles—some from as far north as Canadian territory—to the warmer waters off western Puerto Rico every winter to rear their young. They often breach near shore and are visible near the municipalities of Isabella, Aguadilla, and Rincón, making whale-watching popular among locals and tourists alike.
- Mona Island. This 584-square-mile natural reserve about 40 miles west of Cabo Rojo allows visitors but no fishing or other extractive activities. That makes the area a haven for snappers and groupers, which breed unfettered and whose offspring populate reefs throughout Puerto Rico and even the Lesser Antilles to the east. Corals, mangroves, and seagrasses live unaffected by runoff or other land-based pollution. And the island is home to a creature that lives only there—the Mona ground iguana, with a tail that can stretch five feet.
Protecting western Puerto Rico’s natural assets is important for the environment and the economy. Cohesive policies and management can help ensure this ecologically special place is thriving and healthy for future generations.
Holly Binns is a director and David Ortiz is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.