Text and Photography by Dan Holden Bailey
By land and sea the BVI remain a tantalizing archipelago of warmth, white sand and reefs for discerning divers and assorted adventurers.
Reputedly, Dead Chest Island is the barren little Caribbean speck nestled among more than 60 British Virgin Islands where Blackbeard the pirate cast off 15 rebellious crewmen with just a single crock of rum between them. Their fate is unknown and long forgotten. But from this incident has endured, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”, or so the story goes.
And there are plenty more stories where that one came from because these islands are steeped in history. They’re also exceptionally beautiful and the diving in its considerable diversity is nothing short of superb. A couple of the best shipwrecks in the West Indies also happen to be in these waters.
This is a place where you’ll find adventure ashore and on the high seas. It is, indeed, a place that calls to mind some cautionary words offered to those contemplating a visit: “Beware! Only gypsies may enter here. Only those with wanderlust in their hearts may venture forth in these waters and lands… none but those instilled with a thirst for adventure and whose souls yearn for the exploration of the unknown.”
There is truth in this. These islands leave you with the impression you’ve entered a land apart. Scalloped by tranquil bays and rimmed by white-sand beaches, the islands are so plentiful it’s easy to think you’ve discovered the place; peace and quiet are in plentiful supply. The turquoise Caribbean in which these emeralds are set is crystal in a way that only divers can fully appreciate, a clarity more evident at depth where tropical sunlight penetrates – several hundred feet – illuminating an underwater realm that only those of us who know the thrill of undersea exploration get to see.
Here’s something you may have heard: there are more sea-going yachts in the BVI than anywhere else in the Caribbean. In fact, nearly half of the available visitor rooms here are aboard boats of some sort. These range in size from small, two-passenger sailboats all the way up to the 105-foot (32m) trimaran Cuan Law, the largest of its kind in the world. And the good news is that you don’t have to be a sailor. These boats can be chartered with or without a crew. A great many passengers booking passage have never even been on a boat before. Some take sailing lessons on their first trip, and then charter a ‘bareboat’ on their second visit, for even more of that privacy I mentioned, and freedom…and adventure.
As you’d expect, the BVI is ideally suited for this type of vacation. Sailboats can roam for miles across calm, blue water without ever leaving sight of land. The jagged shorelines of the many islands offer an almost endless choice of sheltered, picture-perfect bays in which to tie-up for the night. Permanent mooring buoys have been placed at nearly every anchorage for the convenience of boaters and to prevent anchor damage to the reefs. A large part of every restaurant’s business hereabouts comes from the many island-hopping sailboats. Even the dive shops cater to them, stopping at various boats on the way out to dive sites to pick up passengers who want to explore the BVI’s marvelous reefs.
That Spanish explorers appreciated the natural beauty here is evident in the name they chose for the largest island of Tortola, which means turtle dove. Though it’s home to most BVI residents the island remains largely undeveloped. Here, colourful houses dot steep slopes that rise behind the capital of Road Town, but in most places green is the dominant colour. Tortola’s north coast is well known for its many palm-shaded white-sand beaches, especially Cane Garden Bay, a favourite with the sailing crowd. Frangipani and ginger add their vibrant colours to the slopes of Mount Sage, a 1,780-foot (543m) peak that now constitutes one of the BVI’s eleven National Park areas.
A handful of cruise stop in Road Town Harbour, but most visitors arrive by air or ferry. More a village, Road Town exudes a rural charm whose attractions include the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens, four lush acres of exotic and indigenous tropical plants, and the V.I. Folk Museum, whose artifacts tell of the Taino Indians and of island history during the plantation and slavery eras.
Unabashedly laid-back, Virgin Gorda is an island full of bucolic charm. Its sparse population of 1,500 means deserted beaches and empty hiking trails are everywhere. A jumble of gigantic granite boulders strewn across a sugary white beach, known as The Baths, offer up sea caves that are, well, bathed in ethereal light. It’s one of the most popular spots in the BVI, if not the entire Caribbean. The middle of the island is mountainous, with several secluded beaches at the foot of the precipitous slopes. The northern end wraps around North Sound, an area of wondrous tropical delights. Several of the BVI’s top resorts are situated here and on nearby Mosquito Island, linked by water-taxi for daytime explorers and nightlife action.
Mountainous Jost Van Dyke, named after a notorious Dutch pirate, was without mod cons until recently. No phone! Imagine the luxury of that. But there’s no shortage of lovely beaches and if it’s tropical restaurants and quaint watering holes you’re after, Great Harbour and White Bay will not disappoint.
Then there’s privately held Peter Island, owned by the Amway Corporation, and a resort that covers almost the entire island. Accessed from Road Town, its many private beaches ring the island, each of them so attractive that it’s hard to decide which one to visit first. Its elegant lodging and excellent dining have drawn the likes of Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset, the Hollywood stars who stayed there during the filming of Peter Benchley’s The Deep, a good book and still one of the best dive movies out there.
Which brings me to the fabulous diving. Variety may be the best word to describe what’s on offer: lush coral reefs, rocky caverns and pinnacles, vertical walls, wreck diving. It’s all here. The marine life is equally diverse with large numbers of brilliantly coloured reef fish. Turtles, nurse sharks, and eagle rays are common, and many other pelagics are seen from time to time. If you’re lucky you’ll see humpback whales during the winter months and hear them sing.
The best-known dive site is the wreck of the Rhone, a 310-foot (95m) sailing steamer that sank near Salt Island in 1867. Broken in half by the fury of a hurricane, the ship rests at depths from 30 to 75 feet (9-23m). The much-photographed wreck, focal point of the aforementioned movie, is usually explored in two dives, one on the bow, the other on the stern, which is the shallow end. But it would take dozens of dives to completely explore this marvelous wreck. Every square inch of her is carpeted with vividly colored marine growth, and descending divers are immediately greeted by schools of semi-tame reef fish that call the Rhone home.
Another great wreck dive is the 256-foot (78m) Chikuzen, a Japanese refrigeration ship so severely damaged in a storm that she was towed 12 miles (19km) off Virgin Gorda and sunk in 75 feet (23m). There she lies on her port side in a vast expanse of white sand. Huge schools of jacks and snappers animate the hulk. Eagle rays patrol it and giant stingrays snooze in the surrounding sand, only their eyes poking above. Inside, a 400-pound (182kg) grouper has taken up residence, lurking in the dark holds. It’s a truly memorable wreck dive but calm seas are a must to make the offshore trip.
At Alice in Wonderland, near a rocky cliff off Ginger Island, huge mounds of mushroom (star) coral and a large variety of gorgonians explain the site’s magical name. Turtles and nurse sharks are often napping in the sandy-bottomed canyons between the coral ridges here and not to disappoint should you look up, eagle rays are often flying overhead.
Nearby, at Vanishing Rock, you’ll experience another excellent dive. At this place shallow rock pinnacles are covered with a healthy growth of fire coral, and goldentail morays scrutinize you from their lairs beneath thick stands of pillar coral. Juvenile reef fish such as scrawled filefish and French angelfish seem to thrive in the surge that is often part of a dive here.
The Indians, equally popular with divers and snorkelers, is a group of rock pinnacles that jut above the sapphire surface near Pelican Island. Several chimneys, tunnels and caverns are the attraction, one of which is home to a large school of copper sweepers. The sheer sides of the pinnacles, covered as they are with colorful corals and sponges, are a macro photographers delight.
Just off Dead Chest Island is Painted Walls, aptly named for it’s certainly one of the most colourful dive sites in the British Virgin Islands. The sides of the caverns and huge canyons here appear to have been painted by a street gang gone wild with a truckload of day glow spray paint. Tunnels and chimneys cut into the Grand Canyon-like walls at this intriguing site.
Twin Towers, off Jost Van Dyke, is so named for its enormous, towering boulders boasting vibrant coral and sponge growth and huge schools of fish.
There’s a high voltage dive to be found at the Visables, near Great Dog Island. The boat anchors next to Cockroach, a rocky islet whose near-vertical sides are lushly covered with gorgonians and colourful encrusting sponges and corals. Schools of large glasseye snappers swim through fields of the gorgonians at around 80 feet (25m), and during daylight several species of snappers and grunts are while away the hours beneath large overhanging ledges. Pelagics such as black-tipped sharks and eagle rays are frequently observed in the vicinity.
It would take a lifetime to fully explore and really savour the tropical splendor that is the BVI. In an area as breathtakingly beautiful as the Caribbean, it’s a monumental task to stand out yet, seemingly, the British Virgin Islands manage this without breaking a sweat.
IF YOU GO
DIVING: There are five diving operations in the BVI, and at least one live-aboard, all of them excellent. In addition to serving hotel-based divers, the dive operations also offer a pickup service for divers booked aboard the numerous sailing yachts that take advantage of the BVI’s excellent sailing conditions and anchorages.
A typical boat dive includes two one-tank dives. Depths are usually 80 feet (25m) or less and currents are generally very light. Water temperature varies from 78°F (26°C) in the winter to 84°F (29°C) in the summer. Visibility in the winter and spring is generally 60 to 100 feet (18-30m) and 70 to 150 feet (21-46m) during the summer and fall.
SEASONS: The high season is December 15 to April 15. Hotel rates are dramatically lower during the rest of the year.
CLIMATE: Temperatures vary from the upper 70s during the winter months to the upper 80s in summer (25 to 32 °C). Trade winds blow almost constantly year round. The tropical sun is very direct so use plenty of sunscreen.
LODGING: There’s plenty available. On land, there are campgrounds, guesthouses, condos and hotels. Hotel rates range from $60 per day for a single up to around $400 per day to live in luxury. For the big spender with an unlimited budget, ultra-luxurious villas, complete with a service staff, can be had for several thousand dollars per day. Accommodations on a sailboat range from $450 to $1,500 per week per person.
BVI Tourist Board
Sail Caribbean Divers: Call (284) 495-1675
Blue Water Divers: Call (284) 494-2847
Jost Van Dyke Scuba: Call (284) 495-0271 or (284) 443-2222.
Dive BVI: Call (284) 495-9363
Killbride’s Sunchaser Scuba: Toll free (800) 932-4286 or (284) 495-9638
Cuan Law: Call (284) 494-2490
DIVER MAGAZINE. NORTH AMERICA'S LONGEST ESTABLISHED DIVE MAGAZINE. SUBSCRIBE TODAY.