With its size of only 96 square kilometers, the island of St. Maarten is famous for the fact that it is split in half, being French on one side and Dutch on the other. One half, St. Maarten, is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands; the other, St. Martin, is a French Overseas Territory. Physically, the west end is an atoll of low land surrounding a lagoon, while the east end is a range of conical hills. The island has white sandy beaches and numerous bays. A lagoon and three brackish ponds are home to all four species of mangrove.
The island’s largest mangrove forest is at Simpson Bay Lagoon and Mullet Pond. The vegetation is seasonal evergreen forests, drought-deciduous and mixed evergreen deciduous thorn woodlands, and succulent evergreen shrub land. The mangrove forests are vital breeding grounds for reef fish and other marine life.
Patch reefs are found approximately 2 kilometres (~1.2 miles) offshore in waters as shallow as 15 metres (~49 feet). The reefs include 20 species of coral that are breeding grounds for many coral reef fish and invertebrates. Seagrass beds that extend from Great Bay to Cupecoy Beach are vital breeding grounds for lobster and conch and help with coastal stabilisation, hurricane protection and increase water quality. Endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Green (Chelonia mydas) and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles nest on St. Maarten. Various offshore islands, such as Pelican Rock, are nesting sites for migratory and resident seabirds and have been listed by Birdlife International as Important Bird Areas.
The Dutch Caribbean’s youngest protected area, the Man of War Shoal Marine Park includes the island’s most important reefs and provides a safe haven for whales, sharks, sea turtles and hundreds of species of fish. It includes not only a range of habitats from coral reefs to seagrass beds and open water, but also the Proselyte Reef, which was named after the HMS Proselyte, a 32- gun frigate that struck the “Man of War Shoal” on September 4th 1801.
Artifacts such as large anchors, cannons, barrel hoops, cannon balls, and pottery are still evident on this popular St. Maarten dive site, which is considered a marine archaeological treasure. Studies have confirmed that biodiversity, as well as coral cover, in the area is high. The establishment of the Man of War Shoal Marine Park is recognised by Specially Protected Areas of Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol and falls under the Federal Decree on Maritime Management.