Salt Island, British Virgin Islands
I approach the wreck my favorite way - head-down, no hand on the line, free-falling slowly through the steadily darkening sea. Below me, an amorphous oblong form begins to take shape. Details soon emerge.
The ship lies on its starboard side, the bow amazingly intact. Its hull has collapsed somewhat through the years, giving it considerably less than half the 40-foot beam that it once enjoyed. My dive light picks out a few planks of the original teak decking, still there after nearly a century and a half underwater.
Such preservation would be remarkable were this an old warship; the thick hulls of naval vessels, built to withstand shells and torpedoes, usually weather best on the seafloor. But this is no battleship. These are the remains of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's onetime flagship RMS Rhone, a 310-foot freight-and-passenger vessel powered by both sail and steam. Like the Titanic 45 years later, the Rhone was considered unsinkable, a ship that represented the apex of 19th-century marine technology when it went to the bottom in a hurricane, just two years after its christening.
The Rhone was salvaged in the years following its sinking, yet vestiges of its era remain in and around the wreck. A signal cannon lies next to the hull and, on the scattered stern, divers can marvel at the huge driveshaft, cast screw, porthole from cabin No. 26 (burnished by passing divers rubbing it for luck) and possibly the wreck's most-famous artifact - a silver teaspoon embedded in the coral encrusting the hull.
But, while the Rhone's longevity and artifacts are, themselves, reason enough to travel to the Virgin Islands to dive it, the "wow" factor in this wreck comes in its decoration. Plate and tube sponges, wire, brain and encrusting corals, anemones and more - it's safe to say that the Rhone is the single-most beautifully decorated wreck in the Caribbean, a masterpiece 141 years in the making.
More than a century ago, the Rhone transitioned from wreck to reef, and like a reef, has long since attracted a resident population. When 19th-century hardhat diver Jeremiah Murphy was salvaging the wreck just three years after the Rhone went down, he reported that a huge, but shy, goliath grouper had already taken up residence on the ship. And when I last dived the Rhone this past spring, I suddenly got that you're-being-followed feeling, and turned around to find myself mask-to-face with - you guessed it - a goliath grouper, presumably the great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of Murphy's long-ago dive buddy.
Other Rhone residents include crabs, eels, squirrelfish and legions of snappers that like to hide in the shadows under the foremast. A huge and amazingly blue lobster, nicknamed "Lobzilla," has lived on the wreck for as long as it has been visited on scuba. There's also a resident turtle that practically preens for still and video cameras, and French angelfish that will happily take visitors for a pirouette or two.
The Rhone sank in seconds and practically lies at the foot of Black Rock Point, the obstruction on which the great ship broke its back. Dive operators from both the British Virgin and the United States Virgin islands visit regularly, and operators running more than one boat at a time will often greet customers with the question, "Reef or Rhone?"
If you've not visited it before, by all means, answer, "Rhone." Yes, this is the most-popular dive in the Virgins. But it holds that distinction for good reason. You'll be glad you paid the visit.
The BVI Scuba Organization (bviscuba.org) is a coalition of nine land-based dive operators and two live-aboard dive operations, including Blue Water Divers, Sail Caribbean Divers, Dive BVI and Cuan Law live-aboard. They all offer services that complement one another, and all provide visitors with a variety of dive-trip options, while vigorously representing the interests of diving and the underwater environment. Dive resorts include Paradise Watersports at Peter Island Resort (peterisland.com) and Dive Tortola at Long Bay Beach Resort & Villas (eliteislands.com). Check out Caribbean Dive Vacations (caribbeandivevacations.com) for a selection of dive travel-package options. For more information on the BVI, visit bvitourism.com.