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A black and white photo from 1986 of Tropical employees gathering on the stairs of a shipping crane.
The Tropical Team in St. Thomas, circa 1986 on Tropical’s 10th anniversary on the island.

Tropical St. Thomas Island Manager Nisha Aubain re-created a 30-year-old photo to remind co-workers of their importance to life on the island.

By Hilary Reeves

When Nisha Aubain lifted an old, dusty photo from a storage-room box about to be thrown out of Tropical’s St. Thomas offices, she knew immediately she had come across something extraordinary.

“The photo was taken in 1986, 31 years ago, on Tropical Shipping’s 10th anniversary of service to St. Thomas,” said Aubain, Island Manager for the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John. “I thought to myself, ‘This picture is special. These are the people who came before us, the people who built our reputation on this island.’ I knew I had to re-create it. I walked around with that picture for two weeks, telling everyone we were going to re-create it. They thought I was nuts.”

Aubain was born and raised on St. Thomas. Though she moved to Florida after high school, she soon returned to her island home.

“I have a lot of family in the states,” she said. “I have family in Maryland, Texas – my only sister moved to the (Florida) Keys 25 years ago. But I missed island life.”

The birth of her daughter sent her searching for a stable job. She had three cousins who worked for Tropical in West Palm Beach, and she joined the company in November of 1998.

“Back then, on St. Thomas, Tropical was one of the only stable, concrete places to build a career,” she explained. “Seventy-five percent of the island’s population worked for the government. All of my cousins, my father worked for the government. Or you could work in tourism or hospitality. I saw Tropical as something else.”

When Aubain began at Tropical, she was familiar with the shipping company, but didn’t realize the extent to which islanders relied upon it.

“I quickly realized that everything we had on the island had to be shipped over,” she said. “Of course, you know that, but it hadn’t really sunk in before I started at Tropical. It really hit me how much a part of the community we [Tropical] are.”

And when Aubain found the picture in the box, her intense, early feeling of pride returned.

A photo of tropical employees gathering on the stairs of shipping crane
The Tropical team in 2016, celebrating more 40 years of service to St. Thomas.

“While I was walking around showing everyone the picture, I was explaining to them, ‘do you realize that we bring 90 percent of the food into the territory? Do you realize that we bring the oxygen into the hospital, and without us, people would die? We are very important. We don’t just have a job, we have a purpose. I don’t care what your job is at the port, you are part of something big.’”

Aubain said Tropical is the only shipping company to make major investments on the island, and was again voted best shipping company on St. Thomas in the “Best of the Virgin Islands” awards, an honor the company has held since 2011. She hopes to organize a series of school tours, so the island’s youth – including her 14-year-old son – understand how vital and important the shipping industry is to island life, and the on-island job opportunities of the future. The daughter who inspired Aubain to begin her career at Tropical is now 22, and works in Child Protective Services in Jacksonville, Florida.

Aubain now manages a team of 53.

“I tell everyone all the time: ‘I can’t work a crane. I can’t work a forklift.’ I have a phenomenal team that deserve more recognition than me. They work so hard.”

It’s a family, she continued, citing the unexpected death of her father in December of 2015.

“We didn’t expect it. He died a week before Christmas. I was in shock. My daughter was coming home with her fiancé for the first time.

Nisha poses in a business suit in a Tropical shipping yard.
Nisha Aubain, Tropical Shipping Island Manager for the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John

“The operation guys who worked the vessels and warehouse came to my house to make sure I was okay. After a long day of work, they showed up to the wake. The next day at the church, a mechanic was standing next to the organist leading the songs. This is what we do for each other.  We are a family.”

True to her word, Aubain scheduled a photo session for the Tropical employees on St. Thomas. She hired her sophomore photography teacher, a professional photographer on the island, to take the picture. Three people from the original photo were still working at the port and were part of the second.

“People were still thinking I was crazy, but I knew – I knew – that they were going to get on board with it. I went up to the Office Max and I bought printer paper and frames. Sure enough, people started coming by my office, asking me to print out the picture for them! Thirty years from now, I want someone to get that feeling about us. I want them to feel like everyone who has ever worked for Tropical on St. Thomas – including them – is a part of something big. Something important.”

A side-by-side comparison shows the similarities of the photos from 1986 and 2016.