Seduced by the Virgins

by Steve Simonsen

Three days, three islands, three opportunities to achieve total diving serenity. Sounds like a tough assignment, but I was up for the challenge. The United States Virgin Islands were calling me once again—tantalizing me with promises of coral-infested waters, sponge-covered ledges and dropoffs, secluded beachs and some of the best wreck diving in the Caribbean.

St. Croix, Plunging Wall Lines

Day One: St. Croix means only one thing to me—wall diving—and that’s what I intended to do. The north shore of St. Croix is loaded with ledges and dropoffs, covered in coral and sponges, and teeming with marine life. Two of the most unique lie in close proximity to the Salt River Marina and are only a short five-minute boat ride away from each other. These two sites provided me with two very incredible and unparalleled dive experiences.
The first was Salt River East, which I dived early morning off St. Croix. In the light of an orange sunrise, I slipped into the crystal water, reaching the wall at 40 feet. Giant sea anemones, purple seafans and outcroppings of huge black coral jutted out from the wall, creating a canyon-like effect. I swam back and forth along the the wall’s edge, dizzying myself in a forest of Purple and Yellow Tube Sponges habitated by large schools of Blackbar Soldierfish. I felt an undying urge to explore further—past my limits—but decided against it.
Sure that my first dive of the day could happily have been my last, I proceeded just 300 feet west to the second site, Salt River West. The wall there begins at 20 feet and drops steeply to 90 feet and beyond. Seawhips, broad shelves of leaf, plate and sheet corals form many canyons. I cruised above and below each ledge, in search of the resident large Green Moray Eels. They played hide-and-seek, peeking out from inside their dens to tease me. Ending the dive, I was satisfied in fulfilling my search, seeing more than a dozen of the slippery, green creatures along the way.
Further exploration west of the Salt River dive sites, just before Cane Bay, brought me to the Sea Mount. This site was a whirlwind of marine life. Each time I entered the water, I was greeted by a school of curious Horse-eye Jacks. The school would break formation and swim directly toward me, circling quickly as if sizing me up, and then disappear. I navigated a mountain of rock that had a deep undercut ledge on the lee side. There was a busy school of eight butterflyfish nibbling away at polyps from deepwater gorgonians. Five Queen Angelfish, the most stunning of the Caribbean angels, flashed their bright colors, making yet another affirmation that attempting to describe all visible forms of marine life at this site would read like a Who’s Who of the Paul Humann fish I.D. books. The Sea Mount had quickly become one of my favorite sites in St. Croix.
A bit water-logged, I took a trip to the Dutch-influenced and picturesque town of Fredericksted, where divers can be seen during the evening hours gearing up for night dives along the Fredericksted Pier. There, divers can come face to face with Striped Sea Stars, several species of decorator crabs, file clams and three different types of octopi.

St. Thomas, Hustle, Bustle and Shipwrecks

Day Two: Just as St. Croix meant wall diving, so does St. Thomas mean wreck diving—and some of the finest in the Caribbean. North of serene St. Croix, St. Thomas’ harbor is constantly packed full of sailing vessels and cruise ships. The shops lining the interiors of the restored Danish warehouses along the harbor stand ready for the day’s duty-free shopping. Cafés nestled in narrow brick alleys offer shade and refreshments to those touring the Danish-inspired architecture and experiencing the historical downtown of Charlotte Amalie. In the end, however, it’s the wreck diving that I came to do, and I wasted little time jumping on the first available dive boat.
Good thing I caught one because off St. Thomas there are more shipwrecks than there are dive operators. Of the wrecks, the W. I. T. Shoal is one I couldn’t pass up. A large cargo ship sitting upright in 90 feet of water, she spans nearly 400 feet from bow to stern and towers 60 feet up toward the surface. This dive was awesome—a gigantic hull and huge propellers rested in the sand—a decorated submerged piece of machinery laden with soft sponges, delicate corals and shimmering fish.
Not too far from the W.I.T. Shoal lies another enormous wreck—the Grain Wreck. Unfortunately, it was one I had to pass on due to time constraints. The wreck is said to be seldom visited by divers, but rumored to be used as a training site for Navy SEAL free diving. It rests in 115 feet of water and sightings of larger pelagics are commonplace, making one thing for sure—I’ll be back.
Moving on through Gregory Channel is one of my all-time favorite wrecks, the J.B.K. The wreck glistens with a mixed school of Striped Grunts and Cottonwicks. During this dive, I saw two Hawksbill Turtles ascending to the surface to take a breath. And later, a passing school of Horse-eye Jacks seemed to escort me to the surface with a swift fly-by.
Although St. Thomas is known for its wreck diving, there is one dive site that doesn’t involve a wreck that should be mentioned. The site is called Sail Rock and is off the southwestern shoreline of the island. It has three pinnacles, each of which is buzzing with marine life and wildly covered in marine organisms, such as Green Finger Sponges and flowery, translucent hydroids. Many coral crevices conceal armor-plated slipper lobsters. Sail Rock is an incredible dive and an easy one for the novice diver.

St. John, Au Nátural

Day Three: From the plunging walls of St. Thomas to the awesome wreck diving of St. Croix, I felt like I needed some down-time—and St. John was the perfect place to get it. After arriving at the southern-most island of the USVI, I found myself on a bumpy dirt road cresting the top of Bordeaux Mountain, St. John’s tallest peak. The smell from the lightly scented bay rum and cinnamon trees wafted in the air. And in every direction, only trees and ocean surrounded me. The beaches were secluded and serene, while the waters were tugging at me and, of course, I couldn’t resist.
Straight out from Salt Pond Bay is a circular pile of stone called Booby Rock, a sanctuary for nesting booby birds and a beacon for divers. I slid into the warm water and encountered reef sharks and Nurse Sharks amidst colorful ledges busy with tropical fish. The dive soothed my mind and my senses.
Another must-see site marked by a rock formation is the Carval Rock site, off the north shore of St. John. It’s a double-humped rock resembling a wooden, square sailing ship. A story tells of the rock being fired upon during a rain squall, mistaken for an enemy sailing vessel. The sailors who thought they would uncover the booty after the storm had passed, discovered instead a battle-scarred outcropping covered with bird droppings.
With the story in my mind, I ventured below the waves and found a great natural treasure. A constant parade of marine life welcomed me, and at the southeastern base of the rock, on the shallow reef, there were enormous schools of silversides, herring and anchovies.
Just around the corner from Carval Rock is one of the best dives on St. John—Lind Point. Designated as a National Bio-Reserve, this may easily be the fishiest dive in the territory—and one I make each time I visit St. John.
Although I couldn’t explore it, a newly discovered site south of Stevens Cay called Witch’s Hat is abuzz with blue runners, flirtatious Queen Angelfish and gorgeous Orange Cup Coral. That’s one I’ll also be back for.

Not Enough

A little more than four days after I left for the USVI, I was back on a plane headed home. This assignment gave me only 72 hours to get in some serious wall and wreck diving, but take my advice—take more time. Three incredible islands and three opportunities to achieve complete diving serenity warrant far more attention.