Five Favorite Dives Virgin Islands
Text and Photography by Bill Harrigan
After 16 years in the dive business, Chris Sawyer still enjoys it enough to make 10 or 12 dives each week. That makes me think there must be some very good diving around St. Thomas and St. John. So I asked Chris to show me his five favorites when I visited the Chris Sawyer Diving Center recently. Like many U.S. Virgin Island operators, Chris visits a large variety of sites around St. Thomas, St. John and even in the British Virgin Islands. With 40 dive sites within 20 minutes of the dock, he can choose from a wide variety.
If Chris had to stack one USVI site up against any others in the world, it would be the Arches and Tunnels at Thatch. This is a great one for divers who like to explore unusual places. The twists and turns will test your sense of direction and the underwater scenery is superb. The site begins in a narrow canyon, squeezes past a giant boulder, dips and climbs through a small gap formed by another boulder, then enters a long swim-through that angles to the left and exits on the other side of the point. A school of Copper Sweepers nervously patrols the inside of the cavern, parting like smoke around the divers. Tarpon and Silversides are also thick on this dive, particularly in the summer. Swimming around the point brings you to a second canyon, this time ending in a closed cavern coated with sponges and soft corals. Not far from the cavern is another narrow swim-through, leading back to the first canyon. Depths along the way are from 30 to 45 feet, allowing for plenty of bottom time.
Chris always looks forward to the two tank trip to the wreck of RMS Rhone off Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands. This is an all day affair with lunch provided and plenty of time for a leisurely surface interval between diving the bow and stern sections. Part of the fascination of diving the Rhone is learning the compelling drama of her tragic fate during a hurricane in 1867, and Chris tells the story as well as I've ever heard it. Knowing what you're looking at, and what you're looking for, makes diving the Rhone even more enjoyable than usual. The bow section is the most intact portion of the wreck and lies on the sand in about 75 feet. The stern section is more scattered and lies in shallower water.
A light current is nearly always running at the Canyons, creating perfect conditions for an easy drift dive. The route follows a series of canyons formed by the ridges and valleys between great slabs of stone, weaving through narrow alleys, broad openings and coral covered archways. Liberally covered with corals and sponges, the canyons provide habitat for myriad reef fish such as Four-eye Butterflyfish, Queen Parrotfish, Gray Angelfish and Rock Beauties. The colors are exquisite, owing to the red, purple and yellow encrusting sponges and Orange Cup Corals that grow on the stony slopes.
More fish and bigger fish have been showing up at Cow and Calf since the surrounding area was included in the Jersey Bay Marine Reserve about three years ago. Marked only by two small rocks on the surface, Cow and Calfs feature numerous ledges, canyons and swim-throughs underwater. Depths range from the surface to around 55 feet, but the most interesting parts of the dive are generally between 10 and 35 feet.
The diving is always good at Grass Cay's Coral Mounds but Chris says it is truly spectacular as a night dive during a full moon. The reef is fairly flat on top, sloping down to a sand bottom at 55 feet. The coral mounds sit scattered on the sand, around 50 feet in diameter and 20 or 25 feet tall. It's difficult to think of the mounds themselves as animals but that's exactly what they are mature colonies of Star, Brain and Giant Star Coral, some more than 200 years old. The full moon nights are special because of the extraordinary marine life activity. Turtles, eels, lobster and other animals are out in unprecedented numbers.
These dives are excellent but I suspect that diving with Chris Sawyer would be a pleasure anywhere. His main goal is fun, safe and hassle-free diving. In Chris' eyes, providing a great time for 10 divers is better than giving 20 an adequate dive. That attitude brings people back year after year. One couple on the boat, John and Lisa Marosky from Indiana, told me that Chris' relaxed pace and people friendly approach were the primary reasons they return frequently.
A staff with longevity is one sure sign of a well-run dive operation and Chris Sawyer's dive staff have been here for many years. Perry Cowan has been with him as a NAUI instructor and USCG captain since 1984. Russell White, who is also a USCG certified captain and PADI instructor, joined the outfit in 1986, along with PADI instructor Homer Calloway. Brook Peele signed on this year, bringing dual instructor ratings with PADI and NAUI.
Chris Sawyer's dive boat is like the rest of the operation comfortable, easy to dive from and equipped with all the USCG required safety equipment. Named Fool's Gold, this 42 foot custom dive boat rides gently and cruises at 15 knots. A maximum of 12 divers are carried on Fool's Gold, which provides plenty of room to move around and stow gear. The seats are padded, with a choice of sun or shade. A freshwater shower, a marine head and a camera rinse bucket complete the amenities. The divemaster and captain do the heavy work aboard, including all handling of your tanks.
The normal dive schedule is a two tank morning dive every day except Friday. The afternoon dives are set up for one tank on Monday and Wednesday and for two tanks on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Friday is reserved for the Rhone. Dive sites are selected according to the conditions on the spot, which ensures the best possible diving.
Renaissance Grand Beach Resort
Life at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort centers around its long, secluded beach and the adjacent swimming pool. And life is very good here, with outstanding service and luxurious accommodations. Refrigerator, satellite TV, marble bathroom, coffeemaker and private balconies are standard in these large rooms. Complimentary robes and an ironing board and iron are also provided in each room. Thirty-six suites and townhouses, with living rooms and whirlpools, are also available.
In addition to the pool, beach and dive center, the resort's 34 impeccably landscaped acres include two restaurants, six tennis courts, a second pool, fitness center and watersports center. A complete menu of spa services, such as facials and massages, is offered at the fitness center. The resort has a very attractive dive package with the Chris Sawyer Diving Center that can be custom tailored for any length stay.
American Airlines operates twice daily direct flights from Miami to St. Thomas, as well as convenient connections from many East Coast cities via its hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even though the USVI is a U.S. territory, a passport or a certified birth certificate and photo ID are required. Driving is on the left side of the road, but in all other respects travel is like other parts of the U.S.
For more information, call (800) 882-2965 or fax (340) 775-9495. E-mail should be addressed to sawyerdive@ worldnet.att.net; additional information is available on the Web at www.insights intl.com/dive/.