Sunlit, Shallow Reefs in a Turquoise Sea

The Allure of the United States Virgin Islands

by Tamara Collins

The water in the United States Virgin Islands is imbued with myriad shades of subtle blues and greens. Beneath its surface is a world even richer in color. Sunlight filters through the warm, lucent water and transfigures the shallow reefs; shades of purple, orange, pink, green and blue enchant snorkelers who float lazily on the surface or dive down to take a closer look.

When I entered the calm, inviting Caribbean Sea from the stern of a chartered sailboat, I was amazed by the hours of enjoyment it provided and the diversity of life it held. There is always the next coral head to explore or the shallow wall around the corner. Coral heads and rock formations are usually interspersed with sand flats and seagrass meadows, which present their own unique encounters. Once, while crossing over one of these seemingly desolate areas, I spotted a Southern Stingray in about 15 feet of water feeding on something buried beneath its considerable wingspan. At another cove a large school of squid patrolled a shallow rocky reef. They scooted backward in unison when I approached, keeping a safe distance until I relaxed and let the surge carry me. Once I was still, they let me float among their ranks, mere inches from their beautiful, opalescent eyes.

These kinds of encounters are not rare in the USVI but, typically, snorkelers will find themselves among Elkhorn, Star, Boulder and Fire Corals (beware their stinging nematocysts), with purple Common Seafans undulating in the gentle surge. Many varieties of tube sponges are also prevalent and, if you dive down to take a closer look, you will notice the delicate appendages of Featherduster and Christmas Tree Worms, as well as purple tipped Giant Anemones.

The multihued fish that live within these coral gardens busily go about the daily business of survival. Careful observation may reveal a Trumpetfish camouflaged within a seafan or flanking a Yellowtail Snapper, carefully stalking its next meal undetected. Other reef beauties include crimson squirrel and soldierfish; silver, streamlined Barracuda; coral munching parrotfish; Trunkfish, with their distinctive pursed mouths; and a variety of gobies, damselfish, grunts and wrasses. If you’re lucky, you may see a Caribbean Reef Shark, Eagle Ray or turtle cruising the shallows.

The underwater vistas are fairly uniform throughout the islands, the health of the reef being the only variable, usually determined by its remoteness. The main islands that make up the U.S. Virgins; St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John; are surrounded by 50 smaller islands, cays and rocky pinnacles, with myriad shallow sites ideal for snorkeling exploration.

St. Croix, separated from St. Thomas and St. John by a 40 mile stretch of deep blue Caribbean, is the largest island and the most diverse in its terrain, with rain forests, arid lowlands, sheer cliffs and lush mountains ripe for exploration. The main population centers, Christiansted and Frederiksted, provide a range of accommodations, shopping and nightlife.

St. Croix’s reefs and offshore Buck Island will charm the curious snorkeler. Cane Bay Reef, a short swim from Cane Bay’s idyllic white sand beach, stretches for four miles along the island’s northern shore. The reef gradually slopes from 5 to 40 feet, then drops to 130. Snorkelers will find the services of Cane Bay Dive Shop ideal for exploring this spectacular shoreline. Just up the road, the seaside Waves at Cane Bay provides an intimate, family run inn for visitors looking for personalized service and access to a gorgeous half mile stretch of beach.

Shallow Elkhorn Coral gardens, patch reefs and seagrass beds surround Buck Island, two miles off the northeast shore of St. Croix. More than 700 acres of Caribbean Sea and 180 acres of land have been designated Buck Island Reef National Monument; preserved by the government for the enjoyment and edification of future generations. Visitors to historic, downtown Christiansted can arrange snorkeling excursions through Dive St. Croix, a snorkeling friendly operation specializing in trips to the island. Snorkelers can explore the Underwater Trail established on the barrier reef at the easternmost tip of the marine garden or strike out on their own to find sea turtles grazing in the seagrass beds.

St. John and St. Thomas, though separated by only a few miles, are worlds apart in character and ambiance. St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook are bustling centers of commercial activity and provide visitors with shopping and nightlife. The island still retains its old Danish charm and visitors flock to its beautiful beaches and world-class resorts.

Snorkelers looking for easy beach access and friendly fish will enjoy Coki Beach, adjacent to Coral World (a marine park) on the northeast shore of St. Thomas. This shallow reef slopes to 60 feet and harbors schools of Yellowtail Snappers and Sergeant Majors eager for a handout.

Little Buck Island, a remote spot 10 minutes by boat from the southeast shore, will provide a welcome respite from the bustle of St. Thomas and some incredible snorkeling sites. Buck Island Cove has shallow coral heads populated by midnight blue juvenile damselfish and, beginning in 20 feet of water, the Cartanser Senior wreck.

For those seeking the quiet solitude of a lush island paradise, St. John is the jewel of the USVI. Saved from overdevelopment by national park status, its mountainous emerald peaks rise from a pristine shoreline etched in white sand. Cruz Bay, only a 20 minute ferry ride from Red Hook, is a quaint haven for shoppers and an excellent spot to start your island exploration, which can include hikes along 20 miles of marked trails and snorkel trips. On the north shore of St. John, at beautiful Leinster Bay, isolated Waterlemon Cay can be reach by a short hike from the road. Its eels, hidden in the reef’s nooks and crannies, are plentiful and starfish virtually litter the reef.

The glassy, calm waters and crystal visibility of the Ledges of Little St. James will draw snorkelers from St. Thomas and St. John. Its deeply indented ledges harbor a resident Green Moray Eel and several exquisite stands of Pillar Coral rise majestically from the reef.

Once you have experienced the peace of this mountainous, green clad island nation and the splendor of its underwater wonderland, you may wonder how you can return to the reality of your everyday life. Rest in the knowledge that time passes slowly in the United States Virgin Islands and soon you will return to its welcoming shores to find it virtually unchanged.