|Soaring over the catacombed reef at Eagle Shoals off St. John.|
The U.S. Virgin Islands are an American-Caribbean dive destination in red, white and turquoise blue. No passport is required, the islands are served by most major domestic airlines daily, and it's about as easy to get to as Peoria. What's not to like?
The steep hillsides of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John are carpeted in lush green vegetation and rise out of a brilliant sapphire sea. Besides their physical beauty, the islands' allure is in the ease of access from North America. The comfort of listening to the English language spoken with a melodic calypso lilt and the crisp quality of light that exists only in the tropics. The spectacular views of sun-drenched landscapes interrupted only by seaside towns displaying old world charm and thick-walled forts with cannons pointed out over the white masts of modern sailboats. While the islands share similar sights, they are siblings with distinctly different personalities.
A trip to the Virgin Islands is an excellent choice for divers traveling with family and friends, and the variety of diving experiences is as complete as anywhere in the world. If wall diving is what you seek, St. Croix has tons of it. If you're more of a shipwreck aficionado, St. Thomas has some dramatic wreckage. If diving in a marine preserve specially designated for its biodiversity is what you're after, then head to St. John where half the island is a national park, including the waters surrounding it.
|Enjoying the sunset from horseback at Cane Bay Beach on St. Croix.|
St. Thomas: Where it All Begins
A natural starting point for many USVI vacations, St. Thomas is the arrival point for many flights from the mainland and Puerto Rico. The island is home to one of the Caribbean's most stunning cruise ship harbors--Charlotte Amalie--called on by mega-liners. St. Thomas is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the three islands, boasting an almost mile-long shopping district that lines its bustling waterfront. Here, an eclectic array of shops in artfully restored Danish warehouses offer some of the best duty-free shopping in the world. A drive along the north shore will give you the same breathtaking view of offshore islands that Christopher Columbus may have enjoyed during his sailing excursion here. Hotel names like Blackbeard's and Bluebeard's Castle and a historic site called Drake's Seat overlooking stunning Magens Bay are reminiscent of the island's pirate past.
St. Thomas's Best Dives
Unique to St. Thomas in the vicinity of the cruise ship port are shipwrecks for every level of diver. The Navy Barges near Triangle Reef are densely inhabited in bright shallow water, seemingly glued together by colorful sponges.
One of the larger St. Thomas wrecks is The Wreck of the JBK. It's close to the harbor--which means it's deeper--and is larger than the Navy Barges, offering more areas for offshore exploration.
The Wit Shoal has the biggest reputation and an interesting history as a tank transport ship during World War II, later converted to haul cargo. More than 300 feet long, this behemoth lies upright in 90 feet of water with the wheelhouse sitting in only 25 feet. Five decks invite exploration, the poop deck being the most colorful with railing and rigging dripping with orange cup corals.
On weekends, weather permitting, special trips are made to French Cap Cay, a deep rock pinnacle in exceedingly clear water with enormous ledges that support super-sized queen angelfish.
The Grain Wreck is where you'll find perhaps St. Thomas's most abundant wildlife, including rays, sharks and turtles. This dive is one of the deeper ones, too, maxing out at 115 feet.
Save the best for last--the rock spire of Sail Rock soars 125 feet clear out of the water and has three ice cream cone-shaped pinnacles that lie just beneath the surface and drop to 90 feet, swirling with schools of creole wrasse, bar jacks, and packs of turtles. A word of caution: A dive here must be timed with tide tables as currents can be quite strong.
|Riding DPVs over the wreckage of the Wit Shoal, a cargo ship off St. Thomas.|
St. John: The Virgin Virgin Island
|Discovering the submerged portion of St. John's virgin landscape.|
Every visitor to St. John arrives in heart-shaped Cruz Bay (affectionately dubbed "Love City") by boat, as there's no airport on the island. Furthermore, there are no traffic lights and not a movie theater or fast food restaurant in sight. You will, however, find commanding views of the Virgin Islands National Park. Thanks in large part to a full-time staff of park rangers who work around the clock to protect and preserve its wealth of natural resources, St. John is a world apart from St. Thomas and St. Croix. No wonder it's the least developed and least populated of the three Virgins, with just over 4,000 year-round residents. The beaches and natural topside beauty of St. John set a Caribbean standard, and the title of a popular guidebook by Pam Gaffin sums up the activities on St. John--Feet, Fins and Four Wheel Drive.
St. John's Best Dives
Easily reached from Caneel Bay or Cruz Bay is the legendary Carval Rock. It's small enough that divers can circumnavigate the entire submerged formation, swimming through openings in the rock and through sponge- and coral-covered canyons. The rock is noted for large numbers of tarpon and clouds of silversides, especially in late summer and early fall. Considered an advanced dive because of currents and a seasonal north swell, depths vary from 20 to 80 feet.
Next door to Carval Rock, Congo Cay is a long, rocky landscape covered with gumbo limbo trees and tier palms. It is home to brown pelicans, and red-billed and white-tailed tropic birds. The west end is most often dived, with moderate depths of 35 feet dropping to 80 feet. Here divers swim around a submerged rock peninsula that has been transformed with gorgonians, sea fans, encrusting sponges and orange cup corals. The stars here are puppy dog-friendly southern stingrays and majestic mantas.
Inside the protected waters of Pillsbury Sound, along the south shore of Grass Cay and Mingo Cay, are two enormous fringing reefs. The top of the reef lies in as little as 10 to 20 feet of water and is festooned with boulder, brain and finger corals. Soft sponges and lavender sea fans rock in the gentle surge. Currents, if any, are generally mild and run parallel to the gently sloping reef face that drops to a depth of 60 feet. Black and white spotted drums, eagle rays and hawksbill turtles round out the cast of characters.
While much of the diving from St. John is done inside Pillsbury Sound on the uninhabited cays, there are a number of dive sites on the south side between St. Thomas and St. John like Cow and Calf Rocks and The Ledges of Little St. James. Less accessible from the west end of St. John is a catacombed reef that lies out of the mouth of Coral Bay named Eagle Shoals. Trips here are reserved for light wind days and calmer seas. Once under water, divers can explore an assemblage of coral ledges, canyons and caves. Depths max out at 60 feet.
St. Croix: An Island Apart
On a clear Caribbean day, you can see St. Croix from St. Thomas or St. John, 40 miles to the south. The island is separated from its saintly brothers by the incredibly deep Venezuelan Basin--plunging 11,000 feet beneath the waves. This vast depth that sets St. Croix apart from Saints John and Thomas affords divers deep wall diving from the island's north shore. St. Croix is historic, immersed in an ambitious renovation project focusing on the Christiansted National Historic Site and Visitors Center. The old world charm of Christiansted is evidenced by Danish Colonial architecture featuring picturesque arch-covered walkways filled with shops and restaurants.
St. Croix's Best Dives
One of the main attractions of any trip to St. Croix is an excursion to Buck Island National Reef Monument. Buck Island is bordered by an elkhorn coral barrier reef and home to huge schools of blue tangs, sennets and houndfish. A local resident stingray by the name of Sandy greets charter boats and yachts as they arrive at the deserted white sand beach on the western shore.
St. Croix attracts a more serious dive enthusiast because the diving is not confined to shallow reefs. While most of the best diving along the north shore begins in as little as 20 feet of water, it is characterized by steep, convoluted drop-offs that lead divers to the wall. Fittingly, there's even a restaurant perched along the iron shore near Cane Bay named "Off The Wall." Cane Bay is a popular weekend beach with locals. There's lots going on, from horseback riding to full moon parties, beach barbecues and lively music at beach bars. Near Cane Bay, there are several outstanding shore dives that are as easy as a walk on the beach.
To the west of Cane Bay, accessed by land or by boat is the popular North Star. The dive begins in 20 feet of water and drops steeply to 60 or 70 feet, where you'll find an ancient Spanish anchor embedded in the base of the reef. An undercut ledge here provides a good habitat for green moray eels and spotted drums. The reef itself is made up of lettuce coral, cactus coral, sheet coral and star coral. Sticking out from the reef like antennae are sea whips and sea plumes. From there it slopes down well beyond recreational diving limits.
Two of the best dives are located between Cane Bay and Christiansted at the mouth of Salt River Bay. Better done as a boat dive, Salt River East and Salt River West are separated by a deep chasm. The eastern wall drops vertically near the mooring line which is in about 40 feet, enticing divers to explore to the limit of safe diving depths. There's a surprising number of large black coral trees, colonies of yellow tube sponges and schools of blackbar soldierfish.
Beyond the blue, separated by several hundred yards and a deep submarine canyon, lies Salt River West. Closer to shore, this dive begins in 20 feet of water and abruptly drops to 90 feet, where it again continues to slope away gradually to the abyss. This dive is characterized by narrow passages where sections of the reef have separated from the main wall. Graysbys, hamlets, coneys and sparkling blue chromis adorn the water column.
On Saturday mornings it's customary for a small group of advanced divers to travel west to Annaly Bay, home to an incredible wall dive. Here, the edge of the wall begins at 90 feet and slopes back under itself, creating an enormous overhang. This angle continues well past 200 feet and hence the name, Vertigo--a big-dog dive. Not all dive operators know where it is or are willing to take divers there, as it's not for the faint of heart or the novice.
U.S. Virgin Islands: A Travel Primer
|Clear vis, warm water, easy access from the U.S. and Canada. No wonder divers flock to the USVIs.|
BEST TIME TO VISIT It's never a bad time, though some divers try to avoid hurricane season, especially September and October. Naturally, those two months are also the cheapest time to visit, so it's up to you. The slightly higher-priced season runs Dec. 15 through April 15 and the "low" season April 16 through Dec. 14.
AVERAGE WATER TEMPS Mid-80Fs in summer, dropping to the upper 70Fs in winter.
AVERAGE VISIBILITY Anywhere from 50 to 100 feet.
AVERAGE AIR TEMPS Highs range from the low to high 80Fs year-round.
MONEY Greenbacks are universal, as are credit cards and ATM machines.
TIME Eastern Standard year-round; the U.S. Virgin Islands do not observe daylight saving time.
FOR MORE INFO Call the USVI Tourism Board at (800) 372-USVI or visit the official web site, usvitourism.vi. Also, pick up a copy of the new Lonely Planet/Pisces dive guide to the U.S. Virgin Islands.