The United States Virgin Islands
America's Tropical Triplets
text and photography by Bill Harrigan
The U.S. Virgin Islands are like Neapolitan ice cream, a delicious combination of three distinctly different flavors. St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix, the three main islands of this tropical U.S. Territory, are close together physically but far from identical. They share a common heritage but, in the last half century, have matured along different paths. What does this mean for dive travelers? It means a wonderful variety of experiences in an easy to reach tropical paradise. Pick your favorite island style or sample all three, the possibilities are up to you.
Two-thirds of St. John is within the protective but open boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park, courtesy of Laurence Rockefeller's generous donation of 10,600 acres. As you drive along North Shore Road, you'll come to a series of bays with one tranquil, uncrowded beach after another: Caneel Bay, Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay and Francis Bay. They all have well-protected white sand beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling or just plain splashing in the warm, clear water. Along the way you'll also see entry points for park nature trails that provide interesting hiking routes through the island's dense vegetation.
One of the most popular ways to visit St. John, especially for families or small groups, is to stay in one of the 200 or so rental houses available on the island. Renting a car is pretty much a necessity for this option but it gives you the freedom to see the island on your own schedule. Driving is easy on St. John, with excellent roads and very little traffic. There are only three major roads, North, South and Centerline, so the only trick is remembering to drive on the left.
In keeping with St. John's reputation for preserving natural settings, most of the shops are contained in a specially designed area called Mongoose Junction. The shaded terraces, lush plantings and stone arches recall the feeling of a quaint Caribbean town rather than a mall but shopping selections are still excellent.
Many of the USVI dive sites are between St. John and St. Thomas and are visited by dive operators from both islands. There are a few sites available only on one or the other but the choice about where to stay is dependent more on the desired topside activities and lifestyle rather than the diving.
The Two Brothers are small rocks not far from St. John's Cruz Bay that are only visited when the current isn't running. If you are lucky enough to be there when the conditions are right, this is one of the best shallow dives in the islands. At 15 feet there is a small, deeply undercut ledge that attracts a huge variety of fish life, including numerous species of angelfish, parrotfish, damselfish and wrasse. The black tufts of Deep Water Seafans on the edge of the ledge are testimony to the strong currents that periodically sweep the area. Heading toward deeper water from the ledge, the bottom slopes gradually, giving way to a dense field of absolutely pristine soft corals. Continuing to about 35 feet, the corals become slightly more sparse, with Barrel, Tube and Rope Sponges filling in the gaps. Larger animals such as Hawksbill Turtles and Green Morays are often seen here, as well as schools of fish such as Southern Sennet and Bar Jacks.
Cow and Calf Rocks are sites shared with St. Thomas and there is plenty to go around. Named Cow and Calf because they reminded sailors of a mother whale with her baby, these two rocks provide an underwater playground of swim-throughs and caverns. One tunnel about 20 feet long is filled with Silversides, Copper Sweepers and Blackbar Soldierfish. The surrounding bottom features healthy coral cover with sea life such as Branching Anemones and Lettuce Sea Slugs.
A big Southern Stingray named General Lee lives at Congo Cay, where the pristine white sand contrasts strongly with the adjacent coral. A sand chute flows over the edge of the reef from about 40 to 80 feet on the south side of the site and there is a line of coral-clad pinnacles on the west side. Dives on the north side of the island are often done as drifts because it is more often subject to strong currents, but both sides provide exciting dives.
St. Thomas embraces cruise ships and duty free shopping with one arm and beachfront resorts with the other. This is the high energy island, where things are happening and the pace is a step or two quicker than the rest of the Caribbean. The deep water port of Charlotte Amalie may entertain as many as eight cruise ships a day and the island's tour operators, jewelry stores, T-shirt shops and watersports operators open their doors wide in welcome. Shopping here is not just buying stuff; it's an experience, a multi-cultural celebration expressed in manufactured goods. Even spouses who normally shy away from malls can enjoy walking the historic streets, browsing in the stores and eating in one of the many quaint cafes.
In contrast to Charlotte Amalie, the eastern portion of St. Thomas is given over to smaller marinas and a variety of seaside resorts. If you want a luxury resort right on the beach with family facilities and a selection of watersport activities in addition to diving, head for this part of the island.
Carvel Rock was once used as a convenient target for sailing ships that were required to empty their guns before entering the harbor. It can be completely circled on a single dive but there is so much to see you may decide to cover less ground. The tunnel that cuts through the rock and the numerous overhangs attract a lot of baitfish, which in turn attract big, silvery Tarpon. This is another site accessible from both St. John and St. Thomas but occasional strong currents may preclude diving here.
Joe's Jam is a fairly shallow dive within the protective lee of Capella Island. Two species of the Annularis family, Star Coral and Giant Star Coral, the principal reef builders in most of the Caribbean, are found in abundance here. Star Coral grows in different forms, depending on depth, current and other conditions. At Joe's Jam you can see it in boulders, knobs and plates. The coral, of course, attracts a large number of fish and the dive is packed with parrotfish, grunts and snappers.
The Tunnels at Thatch is a fascinating dive where you can actually swim through the underwater extension of the western end of Little Thatch Island. The main tunnel, open enough to be easily traversed, is packed with Copper Sweepers. Several shorter swim-throughs are dotted like wickets around the area. Tunnels are not the only story at this site, though, since the granite rocks are also liberally coated with a mix of hard and soft corals and sponges.
Coki Beach is one of the few shore diving sites on St. Thomas, which makes it very popular with snorkelers. The protected conditions make it an excellent place for beginners or divers who want to knock the rust off their skills with an easy dive. Lots of interesting reef creatures can be seen on the Coki Beach reef at night, making it a good night dive for anyone.
Several nice wreck dives are found on St. Thomas, including the Major General Rogers and the WIT Shoal. The Major General Rogers, which can be dived from either St. Thomas or St. John, is a 120 foot ex-Coast Guard buoy tender that was sunk in 65 feet of water. Most of the superstructure has been removed but the hull is intact and upright. Corals and sponges heavily encrust the sides of the ship and the propeller. The rudder is no longer attached to the hull but can be seen partially buried in the sand close by. There are several open compartments in the hull that can be entered without special equipment.
The 'WIT' in WIT Shoal stands for West Indian Trading Company. This 400 foot freighter has been on the bottom upright and largely intact for about 25 years. The deepest part of the wreck is at 90 feet and the shallowest at 35. Interior compartments provide penetrations from beginner to advanced, while the exterior attracts many of the larger pelagic animals. The WIT Shoal is along the south shore, close to the airport, so expect to dive with a St. Thomas operator if you want to visit this one.
History has left a more obvious and indelible mark on St. Croix than the other islands. The influence of Danish rule is still charmingly evident in the buildings of Christiansted and Fredericksted and in the many sugarmills that stand on the hillsides. The bright yellow fortifications of Fort Christiansvaern still dominate the harbor but only visitors walk its ramparts these days. The excellent self-paced Park Service interpretive displays help you get a feel for life here during the centuries since the fort was built in 1738.
The wide variety of topside activities on St. Croix should satisfy nearly everyone. Some of the highlights include the Aquarium, aerial tours by helicopter or biplane and the WHIM Museum. The whole gamut of watersports; from parasailing to kayaking; is also available. The opportunity for duty free shopping has not been ignored on St. Croix; it's just been tastefully incorporated into a series of courtyards and arcades that blend appropriately with the surrounding historic buildings.
The entire north shore of St. Croix provides a multitude of walls and reefs for divers. Toward the western end, the wall dips inward in a cul-de-sac at a site called Northstar. The top of the wall is at about 30 feet and it drops off steeply to four digit depths. At 45 feet there is a sand grotto with a large anchor and two spectacular sponge formations, a big Purple Tube Sponge and a massive tangle of Moose Antler Sponges. If you look up as you follow the wall around, you'll see hundreds of fish, including Black Durgons, Creole Wrasse and Blue Chromis.
The Diver Crossing road signs at Cane Bay show how strongly this community is committed to diving and snorkeling. The wall here is within swimming distance of the beach and there is a lot of nice snorkeling in the shallows.
The two sides to the Salt River Canyon, the East Wall and the West Wall, both provide excellent diving. The topography of the West Wall consists of a series of pinnacles that rise along its face, creating an unusual labyrinth for divers. In places there are also massive overhangs that add to the maze. The East Wall drops off in true wall fashion but it also bends around a sharp point that is always thick with fish. The wall also slopes down in steps until about the 100 foot mark, providing lots of interesting habitat for sea life. Star Coral, Brain Coral, Deep Water Seafans and Giant Barrel Sponges are only part of the biomass here. Whether you focus on the tiny creatures or take in the panorama of the entire wall, this is a great dive.
Just off Fredericksted on the west end of St. Croix a series of wrecks provides good diving in calm, protected waters. The Rosamaria is the largest wreck at 177 feet. This Venezuelan freighter sits upright and intact in 110 feet of water. A short distance away, the 144 foot trawler Suffolk Maid sits upright in only 65 feet of water. Less than 100 yards from the Suffolk Maid the Northwind also sits upright and intact. This vessel is a 75 foot ocean-going tugboat. The Northwind site is only 45 feet deep at the bottom and rises to within 15 feet of the surface.
The seahorses that used to be prolific on the old Fredericksted Pier are being seen again on the New Fredericksted Pier and that's good news for underwater photographers. Night is the best time to dive the pier, when the colors are their most vibrant.
Buck Island Reef National Monument is just off the northeast shore of St. Croix. White sand beaches and shallow reefs of fossil and living Elkhorn Coral make this a worthwhile excursion.