The 289-acre Royal Palm Reserve was created in the 1980s at the southern side of the Great Morass as a means of protecting this crucial wetland. While very sadly officially closed due to a lack of funding and visitor interest, it is still very much worth a visit and there’s always someone on hand to show you around for a small tip. The royal palm cluster here is one of the largest single collections of the tree in the world; tall and magnificent but devoid of coconuts, the palms have a stately presence that lends the reserve a patently tropical air. Wreathed in creepers and vines springing up from the nutrient-rich bog below, the trees are thick enough in places to block out views of the hills behind. Fishing is possible in the peat channels, and there’s a rickety birdwatching tower.
A tour of the reserve makes use of a system of boardwalks, which is the best place to view this rare habitat without getting wet (though boat trips are also available from the Kool Runnings Adventure Park). Jamaica’s second-largest wetland comprises six thousand acres of rivers, peat bogs and grasses that back right onto Negril’s beach; fed by rivers from the Orange and Fish River hills, the area is crucial to freshwater supply, acting as a giant natural filter, protecting reefs from being smothered by silt and providing a sanctuary for insects, shrimps, rare plants and birds – commonly seen are Jamaican euphonias, parakeets and woodpeckers. Land crabs enjoy one of the few remaining perfect habitats in Jamaica and are a common sight during the summer breeding months. The morass has long been threatened by pesticide and sewage pollution and proposals to remove peat fuel, but so far the cut-and-drain activities of the government-owned Petroleum Company of Jamaica (PCJ) have been contained.
The onsite small museum is predictably desultory and poorly kept since NEPT withdrew its permanent staff, but there are still explanations of wetland ecosystems and bird varieties on the walls. The informal guides that are still to be found on site are unpaid and expect to accompany visitors on a 45-minute tour; most are informative and enthusiastic, however, and justify their tip. Dawn or dusk birdwatching as well as fishing for tarpon and tilapia are especially worthwhile activities here (also guided should someone be on hand).