Diving the
American Caribbean

THE UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY BILL HARRIGAN


We were on the east Side of St. Croix's Salt River Canyon, one of the best wall dives in the Caribbean. Looking down from tile surface, I could see a Spotted Eagle Ray feeding on a sandy ledge near the top of the wall. We drifted down, expecting it to bolt at any moment. My computer read 52 feet as my partner and I leveled off about ten feet away. I could see the ray's strong lower jaw working like a shovel and its large black eye swiveling back and forth as the fine sand billowed upward. If the half dozen small craters nearby were any indication, this ledge was the ray's equivalent of an all-you-can-eat restaurant. I eased slowly forward, trying to get close enough for a photo. Eagle Rays are notoriously skittish around divers, though, and this one finally decided I was getting too close and flew off gracefully.

We continued down the face of the wall, past multi-barreled tube sponges and heads of Grooved Brain Coral. The first bushy colony of Black Coral appeared at 70 feet, a delightful pink species. Between 70 and 90 feet the Black Corals became more numerous and, at one spot, where the wall almost doubles back on itself, we found a huge, pristine colony of soft green Black Coral. Heading toward the surface we swam through thick schools of Bar Jacks, Creole Wrasse and Blue Chromis. What a great place to dive!

USVI Map

St. Croix

The Frederiksted Pier is back! Damaged by Hurricane Hugo, it has regained its previous glory. Day or night this is a great dive for anyone, but it's phenomenal for macro photographers. There are three dolphins (a group of pilings) remaining from the old pier, each with up to eight pilings. Thick sponges and corals decorate these pilings, comparable to the growth on Bonaire's Town Pier. Amid the riotous protrusions there seems to be an endless number of organisms, including Lined Seahorses, Sharp-nosed Pufferfish and Frogfish.

Even the new pier pilings have a patina of encrusting sponges and corals. Although the coating is still thin, it houses a large variety of animals. On a single night dive we came across five Caribbean Reef Octopuses, along with hundreds of Arrowcrabs, Decorator Crabs and Bristleworms.

The Frederiksted Pier also has a small boat dock that harbors hundreds of Smallmouth Grunts and Yellow Goatfish by day. From the small boat dock to the shore are huge boulders that have become home to countless critters, making it a fine area to explore on the way out of the water. Even the fiat sand bottom can be fertile; on our night dive we saw two Gold Spotted Eels and several Bahama Starfish.

After Diving St. Croix
  When you're not U/W, St. Croix has much to see, from the central rain forest with the famous beer drinking pigs to historic towns. The bright yellow ramparts of Fort Christiansvaern (Christian's Defense) are the centerpiece of many restored buildings in Christiansted. Maintained by the National Park Service, the fort is a fascinating place to visit. King's Alley Walk and the surrounding streets are lined with shops for almost every interest.

  A seaplane right on the dock in front of Kings Alley Hotel provides service to St. Thomas. The twin turboprop DeHavillands fly at 1,000 feet, making the trip diver friendly.
Maximum depth on Frederiksted Pier is typically around 20 feet. The pier is on the leeward side of St. Croix and in the center of a protective bay, so conditions are always mild. There is a cluster of wrecks near Frederiksted to try, too, including the Rosaomatra, the Suffolk Maid and Northwind.

Just across from the East Wall described earlier, the West Wall forms the other side of the Salt River Canyon. The bottom formations are like pinnacles, turning a swim along the face of the wall into a serpentine track. Farther along to the west we dived Northstar, another interesting wall dive with some huge Purple Tube Sponges and lots of reef fish.

The top of the Pinnacle is at 60 feet and the base is at 120, making it one of the deeper dives on St. Croix.

Sexy Sadie We swam with Sexy Sadie the friendly Hawksbill Turtle at Eagle Ray and then returned later for a night dive at the site. The reef slopes fairly steeply here, dropping from around 30 feet at the mooring to 65.

The next morning was devoted to diving, snorkeling and exploring the beach on Buck Island. The island and surrounding waters make up the Buck Island National Monument. Spheres of Smooth Brain Coral grow, but it's the Elkhorn Coral that dominates.

St. Thomas

Fun and easy describes the diving on St. Thomas, where the maximum depth is generally about 70 feet, currents are very mild and slight chop is considered a rough day.

St. Thomas and St. John are only a few miles apart, separated by Pillsbury Sound. A line of smaller, uninhabited islands extends across the northern part of the sound like a dotted line. A predominance of the area's best dive sites are in the sound and along the shores of these small islands, all accessible from either St. Thomas or St. John.

St. Thomas Topside
  The large and well-protected anchorage at Charlotte Amalie has always been the prime asset of St. Thomas. Up to six cruise ships can find safe harbor here during the height of the season.

  Coral World at Coki Point offers touch tanks, shark pools, dive shop, gift shop and a snack bar. You can snorkel and swim on Coki Beach between forays into the various displays.

  The red walls of Fort Christian Museum are easy to find in Charlotte Amalie. The shopping district adjacent to the fort is a duty free smorgasbord of jewelry, watches, precious stones and art. There are also many gift shops and an open air market.

  Ferries from Red Hook on St. Thomas to Cruz Bay on St. John run regularly. The trip takes less than 15 minutes and drops you off in the heart of things.

Diving the Tunnels at Thatch will challenge anyone's sense of direction. The site never gets much deeper than 35 feet, but there are more turns than the road to the top of Pike's Peak. We left the boat near a long rocky point and finned through two arched swim-throughs. We passed a large cul-de-sac before entering a long passage between two nearly vertical rock faces. Next we dipped into a small downward arch that brought us back in the open briefly, only to enter a longer tunnel filled with hundreds of Copper Sweepers. A left turn inside the tunnel led to a vertical slot that spit us out of the opposite side of the rocky point. Getting around the point U/W involved cutting through more swim-throughs and exploring more cul-de-sacs. Almost anything can be seen here, from Hawksbill Turtles and Spotted Morays to Nurse Sharks and Nudibranchs.

Only the hull and deck remain of the Major General Rogers, a 120 foot ex-Coast Guard buoy tender sunk as an artificial reef in 65 feet of water. Off the southern coast of St. Thomas, on nearly the opposite side of the island from the Major General Rogers, the 400 foot long freighter WIT Shoal sits upright in 90 feet of water. The shallowest part is only 35 feet deep. Down for more than 20 years, the Shoal is encrusted with marine growth, which attracts large numbers of fish. Expect to dive here only in good weather.

Beneath the surface at Outer Brass, an enormous slab of granite extends outward like a fence, slanting from the surface near shore to around 20 feet farther out. Its vertical face drops down to about 80 feet on either side, coated with small hard corals and golden soft corals. Rainbow Parrotfish, Rock Beauties and French Angelfish peck at the encrusting marine life like hungry diners at a monumental buffet. A series of other slabs creates a three dimensional maze on the north side of the point, with many ledges and over-hangs. This site can be too far to go in rough conditions.

Tunicate Pinnacle rises almost straight up from the sand, from 70 feet at the deepest to 22 at the shallowest. Small enough in diameter to be circled several times at different depths, the pinnacle is split by a series of narrow clefts. These indentations provide habitats for lobsters, eels and other bottom dwelling creatures. Several small ledges occasionally harbor resting Nurse Sharks or sea turtles. The sides of the pinnacle attract a variety of predators, including Barracuda and Crevalle Jacks.

St. John

Anytime I see a dramatic rocky island thrusting straight up from the sea I want to dive it. That kind of surface structure nearly always means good diving below. Carrel Rock is one place that makes good on that promise. Carvel is actually a line of rocks sitting on a broad ledge. U/W, one side is a steeply sloped wall dropping to about 80 feet, while the other levels out at only 30 feet. Several passages, in the form of narrow cuts or swim-throughs, allow divers to pass from one side of the rocks to the other, although the current can sometimes be interesting. The formation is a bit long to circumnavigate, but divers normally pass around one end or the other on a dive. In late summer Silversides surround the northern point while shiny silver Tarpon wait for the right moment to snatch a mouthful of them. On this dive we saw a school of Reef Squid, a Hawksbill Turtle and a Green Moray, in addition to the large numbers of parrotfish, angelfish, wrasse and other reef fish that are always present.

Enjoying St. John
  St. John doesn't do cruise ships, but shoppers can enjoy duty free shopping at Mongoose junction. Several beaches, including Hawksnest and Trunk Bay, feature clean bath-houses, snack bars and snorkel gear rentals. At Cinnamon Bay, a water sports center rents a complete line of wind surfers, with a variety of sail sizes. Camping is also available at Cinnamon Bay.

  St. John also has its share of historic sites, including the Annaberg Sugar Mill.

  Couples, families and groups may rent a house or villa and a Jeep for a week, making themselves at home on St. John.

The colors at Cow and Calf Rocks are amazing. Every surface seems to be coated with the orange, red or green of encrusting sponges and corals. The maximum depth is about 35 or 40 feet, with one swim-through or tunnel after another in the underwater saddle connecting the two rocks. One of the tunnels, appropriately called Champagne Cork, can magnify a small surge, sending divers out the end like corks from a bottle of bubbly. Two other swim-throughs are long enough to provide cover for hundreds of Silversides and Copper Sweepers.

Like Carvel Rock, Congo Cay has a deep side and a shallow side, but the similarities end there. The dive begins on one side, where the 40 foot sandy bottom is a hangout for several species of rays. From there you cross to the slope side, which drops to around 70 feet. Nurse Sharks and Hawksbill Turtles are frequently seen resting beneath the overhangs on this side.

Grass Cay is a favorite with many locals because the corals attract so much marine life. At about 60 feet, the reef transitions into a flat sand bottom with isolated coral heads. This area is a good place to see rays, eels, turtles and other large animals.

Details, Details

A dive vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands, some 1,100 miles southeast of Miami, is about as convenient as travel gets. Money, language, phone service and electricity are all the same as at home in any of the 50 states. Nonstop jet service to St. Thomas and St. Croix is provided from many cities by American, Delta and USAir. Several other major carriers provide connections through San Juan, Puerto Rico. Proof of citizenship is required, so bring at least a notarized birth certificate and photo I.D.

Daytime air temperature is usually between 70 and 80F during the winter and between 80F and 90 during the summer. Nighttime temperatures are about ten degrees lower. Casual is the rule when it comes to clothing, but elegant resort outfits will look great in the finer hotels and restaurants. Swim suits are not appropriate in town. Bring a jacket for cool winter evenings.

Water temperatures vary from around 84F in the summer to 76%F in the winter. Summer dive gear varies from swim suits or nylon/Lycra skins to shorties. In the winter most divers opt for shorties or wetsuits in the three to five millimeter range. Visibility depends on the prevailing weather conditions and usually ranges from 60 to 100 feet.

There is a hyperbaric chamber on St. Thomas, on call 24 hours a day. Telephone (340) 776-2686.

The islands are on Atlantic Standard Time, one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. For more information on a United States Virgin Islands vacation, call the Department of Tourism at (800) 372-USVl.