Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Lawson Wood
THE VIRGIN ISLANDS, NAMED AFTER ST URSULA and her 11,000 virgin followers, were discovered by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage of discovery of the West Indies in 1493. The Islands are located 95km (60 miles) east of Puerto Rico and 1800km (1100 miles) southeast of Miami. Originally settled by Ciboney, Arawak and Carib Indians, the indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish in their thirst for gold. Over the following years, the islands were fought over and settled by the Dutch, Danish, British, French and Spanish explorers, marauding pirates, plantation owners and Quakers.
Primarily known for their excellent cruising and safe anchorages in a multitude of secluded bays and inlets, with generally shallow water, perfect for sport diving, the Virgin Islands are rapidly becoming one of the most popular diving destinations in the Caribbean. Their geographical position probably contributes most to the diversity of marine life found around these islands, as the Gulf Stream flows through the islands on its way up, past the Bahamas and on to Bermuda in the eastern Atlantic. The island group is split into two distinct and entirely separate areas. To the north is the British Crown Colony of the British Virgin Islands, comprising some 60 islands and cays, of which 16 are inhabited. To the south lie the United States Virgin Islands, an unincorporated territory of the USA with three main islands and a further associated 65 islets and cays.
THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
The British Virgin Islands are clustered around the Sir Francis Drake Channel and are of granite origin - only Anegada in the north is a true coral island. Once a huge subterranean mountain plateau, the islands are clustered around a wide, shallow bay, perfect for yachting and sport diving. Once the home base of pirates including Henry Morgan, Sir John Hawkins and Blackbeard, tales of hidden treasure brought speculators from all over the world in the early days of colonization.
While Tortola is the main island, much of the diving is actually carried out on her satellites of Ginger Island, Cooper Island, Salt Island (where the wreck of the Rhone can be found), Dead Chest, Peter Island and Norman Island. To the north of Tortola lie Jost Van Dyke, Guana Island, Great Camanoe, the Dogs (named after the barking sound from the now-extinct population of Caribbean seals), Mosquito Island, Eustatia, Necker Island and Beef Island where the international airport is situated. To the northeast is the true coral island of Anegada, formed on the northern ridge of the now-submerged ancient volcano. More sparsely populated than any of the other islands, its barrier reef is credited with over 300 shipwrecks, many of which have been researched by Bert Kilbride, the former Receiver of Wreck for the islands.
The wreck of RMS Rhone near Salt Island is split into two sections, one deep and the other shallow.
The National Parks Board have installed over 200 mooring buoys since 1989, which have eliminated anchor damage at sites. Now a system of first come first served applies to all dive boats and private yachts, with the size of the boat determining which mooring to take.
1 WRECK OF RMS RHONE
The 95m (310ft) Royal Mail Steamer Rhone was launched on 11 February, 1865 and considered one of the finest steel-hulled transatlantic ships of her generation. During a particularly violent hurricane, which struck the islands in October 1867, she lost her main anchor and chains and was swept onto the rocks at Salt Island, broke her back and split in two, with great loss of life and few survivors.
The forward part of the hull and bowsprit lie on their starboard side parallel to the shore in 27m (90ft). The decking has rotted away, leaving her ribs exposed and easily negotiated by divers. There are always large schools of snapper and grunt around the ship and while bottom time is limited due to the depth, the wreck is a superb dive. The stern of the ship lies at right angles to the shore, with her four-blade propeller and the remains of her sternpost in less than 6m (20ft) of water. Part of the hull forms a small cavern where light-sensitive fish, such as squirrelfish and large grouper, can hide. Divers can swim along the entire length of her propeller shaft and gearbox. Separate from both sections, but in line with the stern, is the large square section of the boilers and part of her mid-decking, now covered in brightly coloured Gorgonian Sea Rods and Whips. The shallow section of the wreck is particularly popular at night because it is home to thousands of invertebrates including squid, octopuses, nudibranchs, snails, crabs and shrimps.
The Rhone is now regarded as one of the top ten wrecks in the world and the area surrounding and including the wreck has been declared a national marine park - the first of its kind in the British Virgin Islands. Numerous moorings have been installed around the site and the wreck is the favoured dive site of all the dive shops.
The Invisibles 2 are due east of Necker Island and form part of Eustatia reef, which in its wider reef formation eventually becomes part of the southern side of Horseshoe Reef. The latter is the third-largest barrier reef in the Caribbean and the final resting place of hundreds of shipwrecks. Little more than a couple of granite peaks surrounded by a jumble of huge, wave-sculpted granite blocks, most dive centres only find the location by looking for the breaking waves over the rocks. Numerous caverns, gullies and under-hanging walls have are formed by the position of the boulders. Although poor in large coral growth, every surface is smothered in large Atlantic Thorny Oysters and brilliantly coloured encrusting sponges. The undersides are aflame with golden cup-corals, their brilliant orange and yellow polyps extended to feed on the passing plankton on this exposed site. To the north of the granite boulders there is usually a large school of Atlantic Spadefish. However these are always in open water - and about 100m (330ft) offshore - and therefore unlikely to be seen by most sport divers.
THE UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS
Formerly known as the Danish West Indies, these islands were bought by the USA in 1917 for $25m. The northern islands of St John and St Thomas are situated a few kilometers (miles) southeast of Tortola and are part of the same island group as the British Virgin Islands.
St Thomas is the USVI capital and main tourist island, with thousands of cruise shippers arriving annually into Charlotte Amalie harbour. Thatch Cay to the north is the largest of the satellites, while Outer and Inner Brass, Saba Island, Water Island, Birsk Island, Capella Island and Great St James Island, are all popular for diving. St John is the smallest and least developed, with two thirds of the island given over to a national park. The largest of her offshore islets or cays are Leduck Island, Congo Cay and Grass Cay.
Many of the inshore shallow reefs are of granite carved by eons of wave action and covered in small corals and sponges.
Shade-loving fish like French Grunts (Haemulon flavolineatum) can be found under the granite boulders.
Most of the local cruzans of St Croix (pronounced Saint Croy) are either involved in the tourism or oil industries, which have taken over from the large sugar cane plantations of the early Danish settlers. The capital, Christiansted, is in the northeast, set on a bay now filled with yachts, protected by an offshore reef, called Long Reef. Nearby, the National Park of Buck Island has excellent beaches. The other main town, Frederiksted, on the west coast, has some delightful diving off the old pier.
A 25-minute drive west of Christiansted is Cane Bay 3, primarily used by the locals. Beaches are not all that evident along the north shore of St Croix and most are just a narrow strip before you reach the raised platform of the old ironshore. The top of the reef shallows is a classic spur and groove reef with long fingers of coral interspersed by sand and coral rubble gullies, the perfect habitat for Yellowhead Jawfish, Flying Gurnards and Peacock Flounders. The corals in this area are not that great, but as you reach the outer reef crest beyond 100m (330ft) from the shore, the corals grow larger, the sponges are more prolific and there is less algae intrusion. The Cane Bay area is renowned for its well-developed field of many different varieties of sea fans. On closer inspection, these fans harbour one of the most common molluscs in the Caribbean, the Flamingo Tongue (Cyphoma gibbosum) and its much rarer cousin the Fingerprint Cyphoma (Cyphoma signatum).
The main town on the sheltered west coast of St Croix is Frederiksted. It has some superb diving off the new town pier 4. Local divers have collected all the debris from the construction and placed it in small heaps beneath the shaded area between the pillars and this is where you will find the resident sea horses, frogfish, juvenile French Angelfish and Spotted Drum. Rather boring on first inspection, the new pier’s pilings are now covered in a thin layer of sponges, tunicates and small corals.
This new facility has replaced the fabled old Frederiksted Pier, reputed to have been the best pier dive in the Caribbean. However, much of the old pier was destroyed during the new construction, leaving only three ‘dolphins’, (separate mooring facilities) unattached to the main facility. It is around these leg supports that most of the marine life is found. Access is directly from the shore or from the pier itself before 19:00 when the gates are locked to vehicular traffic. Average depth is only 6m (20ft) and it is one of the best night dives. These old piers had Orange Ball Corallimorph, Redeye Sponge Crabs, hundreds of juvenile spiny lobsters and Spotted Spiny Lobsters and the most octopuses found in one small area, often three or four per square metre (square yard). Boxfish, trunkfish, Blue Tangs, soap-fish and Red Night Shrimps were everywhere. Often neglected in the rush to dive the excellent reefs and wrecks on these Caribbean islands, the functional, often ugly structures which we see above the water belie the fact that below them there are secret gardens waiting to be discovered.
The Bimini Islands, to the northeast of the Bahamas and the closest point to Florida, are home to wild spotted dolphins and the underwater rock formations that have become known as the Atlantis Road.
The remains of the Sapona, the former concrete ship wrecked in 1926.