Angelfish ReefA delightful site, Angelfish Reef is off Norman Island and is a rocky maze that offers surprises at every turn, including a small cave stuffed with silversides.
Renowned as a sailing destination, the British Virgin Islands also offer an unforgettable dive slate, from wrecks and seamounts to reefs and caves. What is it like to combine sailing and diving in these fair isles? We decided to find out.
In the 20 years since I got my C-card, I’ve heard about the wreck of the Rhone no less than 573 times. In a region bursting with famous wrecks, the Rhone sits tall among them for its history and beauty. I’m finally about to see for myself. Despite an early departure, we’ve been warned that ours might not be the first boat there. Luck is with us, and only a small dinghy with a handful of snorkelers is there when we tie up to a buoy at Black Rock Point, marking the Rhone’s final resting place 80 feet below.
As we descend the line, the 150-foot-long bow is clearly visible. The Rhone is equal parts historical wreck and living reef. Lying on its side in 80 feet of water, the bow is encrusted with corals and sponges, and tiny silversides dance in the dim light inside the cavernous interior. Schools of grunts and snappers hug the hull, and barracudas are there, lurking.
Entering one of the hatches, I am reminded of the divemaster’s briefing, a dramatic retelling of how the ship met its fate, and it’s all I can think about. There is a lot to recommend about the Rhone — for starters, it’s in remarkable condition after 146 years on the bottom, and at night, filter-feeding orange cup corals open up and put on a showstopping spectacle — but at this moment, I am thinking about its crew and passengers, desperately seeking shelter during a powerful storm. Divers who love wrecks and their history are familiar with the frisson of emotion felt as history comes alive on a sunken vessel, especially when the story involves tales of human courage and the raging force of nature.
Powered by both sail and steam, the 310-foot Rhone was the flagship vessel of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and represented the best of 19th-century shipbuilding technology. Like the Titanic, it was considered unsinkable. On Oct. 19, 1867, the Rhone pulled into Peter Island’s Great Harbor alongside another ship, Conway. As the weather worsened, the two captains agreed it would be best to ride out the storm at Tortola’s Road Harbor. But it was too late. The Rhone’s massive anchor snagged on a coral head. The captain ordered his crew to cut it loose, and then attempted a run out to open sea. As the ship strained to get past Salt Island, towering waves pushed it into Black Rock Point, breaking the ship in half.
Even minus hurricanes and nor’easters, conditions can make the Rhone too tricky to dive. But on this day, the ocean is a gentle giant, and photographer Jeff Yonover and I encounter only a moderate current as we swim from the line to the bow, resplendent in colors, at 80 feet. The giant hooks lying on the seafloor are actually lifeboat davits.
Our second dive on the stern in 30 feet is current free, but two dive boats have joined us and a flotilla of dinghies are bobbing about; underwater, the dive has a party atmosphere. A full set of massive wrenches is still visible on the midsection. Groups of divers are happily exploring the 70-foot propeller shaft and the massive bronze prop. Swimming and sheltering among all this historic wreckage is a rich assortment of marine life, including schooling grunts, snappers, barracuda, morays, octopuses and lobsters. We look for the “lucky porthole,” a brass porthole that remains somewhat shiny, because divers — including me — rub it for good luck. There are also some black-and-white tiles in the southern midsection of the stern.
It’s somehow fitting that the BVI’s most popular dive is on an iron-hulled vessel that had the graceful lines of a sailing ship. Jeff and I are experiencing the diving off these islands from a beautiful sailboat, the Moorings’ 46-foot catamaran yacht, My Ann. The company has a fleet of motorboats and sailboats, and specializes in skipper-your-own or crewed vacations. We are doing the latter, and the two-person crew are PADI Instructors who effortlessly combine cooking gourmet meals, sailing to uncrowded coves, and serving as divemasters on the best sites the BVI has to offer.
We’ve also arranged to do some rendezvous diving: During our weeklong stay, both PADI Five Star Dive Center Sail Caribbean Divers and Dive BVI meet My Ann, and whisk us to the morning’s dive sites. All we have to do is eat another fabulous breakfast, and then transfer our gear and jump aboard when the dive boat pulls up alongside. (We’re experiencing how the other half lives!) The islands pioneered rendezvous diving when it became clear that the legions of sailors who come here aboard their own boats or on rented yachts often also wanted to do a bit of diving. Dive operators also pick up guests from the docks of various resorts scattered throughout the islands. Many of the dive shops have multiple office locations, and staff take care of coordinating the arrangements.
It’s impossible to be at sea on My Ann and not recognize the trio of forces that give the British Virgin Islands its jewellike natural beauty: a violent volcanic origin, the occasional tropical storm and geography. Dive sites in the BVI — and there are scores of them — are as varied as the rainbow of blues found in the Caribbean, from lush coral gardens on sloping reefs and mini walls to seamounts that rise from the seafloor and an underwater collection of sponge- and coral-covered wrecks. Another nicety for divers — in terms of access to dive sites — is how close most of the islands are to one another. Mainly arrayed on either side of Sir Francis Drake Channel, these hilly, emerald islands and their scenic, protected anchorages are the perfect backdrop for my “wish you were here” Facebook posts during the week.
Much of the diving shares the same architecture as one landmark that’s been written about more times than Kate Middleton’s baby bump — the world-famous Baths, a collection of colossal granite boulders that form grottoes and pools on a Virgin Gorda beach. Joe’s Cave off West Dog Island is one example. After exploring the reef, we end the dive in a small cave filled with glassy sweepers. The chamber is a triangular crack with a narrow opening at the top, so it’s not truly an overhead environment. Light rays filtering down from above illuminate the coral-encrusted walls and huge boulders scattered along the bottom. It is magical.
Large volcanic boulders punctuate the water off many of the islands. We’ve planned a two-tank morning on Thumb Rock and Vanishing Rock, huge formations off Cooper Island. We circumnavigate Thumb Rock first and see dozens of trumpetfish and plenty of other reef tropicals, from parrotfish to grunts and snappers. Vanishing Rock is aptly named; in the briefing, the divemaster points out the pinnacle just barely visible above the waterline and says, “Now you see it,” and when a wave washes over it, adds, “Now you don’t.” This shallow reef is sometimes undivable due to current; the morning we dive it, conditions are perfect. It’s packed with nesting sergeant majors, males furiously guarding their purple patches of eggs by swimming up to divers’ masks to keep them away.
That afternoon, after a light lunch of salami, cheese and fruit, My Ann’s captain sets sail for Benure Bay off Norman Island, where we’ll spend the night. As the color from a fat orange sun pools into the Caribbean, we’re served dinner: beef tenderloin with a chocolate-infused sauce on a bed of mashed cauliflower topped with asparagus. Pinch me — I honestly can’t believe I’m here.