The terrestrial (land) portion of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park stretches from Carlisle Bay to Memora Bay. At the heart of the Park in English Harbour is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua Naval Dockyard and Related Archaeological Sites.
The southern hills of Antigua are the remains of long-extinct volcanoes. Thirty million years ago, Antigua most likely resembled the Windward Islands. During that period, the active volcanoes were at least 3,000 feet high, and the island had actively flowing rivers.
The south-west of Antigua is all that remains of those volcanoes, but traces of the volcanic past can be seen all along the coastline around the Dockyard. The Pillars of Hercules, Carpenter’s Rock, and Snapper Point were all formed from these events.
Later, Antigua became quiet, coral reefs grew on top of the volcanic base, and limestone rock was formed as sea levels rose and fell. These rocks gradually raised above present-day sea level and now occupy the Eastern and Northern parts of Antigua with the Dockyard lying just about at the boundary of the two geological processes.
English Harbour was probably created during the volcanic era when rivers flowed down from the mountains.
Soils are a direct result of several factors working together, namely the composition of rocks, rain, and time. In the area around the Dockyard, the volcanic rocks have contributed to soils that are generally light textured – with more sand than clay. These types of soil tend to erode away easily unless covered with vegetation. Due to the deforestation of many areas in early Colonial times to grow crops like sugar, tobacco and cotton, many of the soils in the National Park are badly eroded and thin, limiting the growth of vegetation.
The climate of Antigua is determined by the Trade Winds blowing steadily from Africa across the warm waters of the Central Atlantic and their interaction with fronts and depressions formed further north. Tropical Storms and hurricanes are also an important component of the weather, and they have had considerable influence on vegetation and wildlife habitat due to their destructiveness. Our wettest part of the year (September to November) coincides with the peak of the Hurricane Season and the driest, coolest weather is from December to March – the peak of the Tourist Season.
Very little natural vegetation remains from what was present when Columbus first passed this island in 1493. By the 18th century most of the island had been cleared for agriculture and trees like the Lignum vitae (Tree of Life) were almost extinct in the wild. Since then, the gradual demise of the sugar industry has allowed the land to return to more natural vegetation and this process continues.
The NDNP environment is blessed with a varied mix of dramatic coastline, including some of the tallest cliffs around Antigua, and steep hills and valleys, including Sugar Loaf Mountain, which reaches over 1,000 feet in elevation. This supports a wide range of trees, shrubs, cacti, orchids, and herbaceous plants within a couple of miles of the Dockyard. There are also mangrove wetlands in several of the Creeks, including Ordinance Bay in English Harbour and Indian Creek to the east of Blockhouse Hill. The NDNP is home to one of the rarest plants in Antigua – the Black Berry (or Catesbea melanocarpa). A handful of plants of this species survive in Puerto Rico and St Croix, but all the rest of the global population exists in the NDNP.
Birds are also common in the Park. The harbours provide feeding for pelican and frigate birds and along the muddy shorelines, various sandpipers and other waders feed. The mangrove wetlands are home for herons, egrets and the occasional osprey. Inland, the forests host many species year round. Migrating birds passing through the Caribbean between North and South America rest here in Spring and Fall.
Bats outnumber the birds, however, being nocturnal they are often not noticed and are usually less appreciated despite their importance in pollination and insect control.