When dive travelers start naming places for great wreck diving, few would be surprised if the British Virgin Islands were omitted from the list. Yet the wreck of the RMS Rhone is almost always listed as one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean, and it is the signature dive in the BVI. So how is it that a place not known for wreck diving is accurately represented by a wreck site? One dive on the Rhone will tell you.
Sunk in 1867 by a late-season hurricane, the bow of the Rhone rests just off Salt Island in less than 80 feet of crystalline water. The stern is on a slope from about 50 feet up to about 25 feet. There is rarely current on the site, and navigating around the wreckage is easy. After more than 100 years underwater, the ship is more beautiful encrustation and critters than it is wood and metal. Accessibility, clear water, minimal current, lots of corals and plenty of reef fish. It not only sums up the Rhone, but virtually all of the diving in the BVI. That is why this wreck accurately represents the non-wreck diving throughout these 50 islands. An instructor working in the BVI once said to me, ''If you want to dive deeper than 100 feet in the BVI, you're going to have to take a shovel down with you to get there.'' An exaggeration, of course, but not much of one.
Whose Site Is It Anyway?
Most of the BVI's islands and cays are clustered close together, so you have easy access to lots of sites no matter where you stay. Most of Tortola's sites are actually located on the reefs surrounding neighboring Norman, Peter, Salt, Cooper and Ginger islands. Fortunately, they're just a short jump southeast across Sir Francis Drake Channel. Sites like Indians and Rainbow Canyons, both off Pelican Island, are shallow, colorful and well populated with reef fish. If you haven't been diving for a while and are looking for a way to start back in, these are great sites. They can even be done on snorkel (snorkelers also explore the Rhone). Coral Gardens off Dead Chest Island is another relaxed dive where you'll see brain, sheet and star corals decorated with fans, gorgonians and sponges. The fish range from large chub and snapper to small wrasse, damselfishes and squirrelfishes. Once you've warmed up your fins, you can move east to sites around Peter, Cooper and Ginger islands, including Carrot Shoal, Alice in Wonderland and the Steps. These sites all boast extravagant coral formations, some spur-and-groove, some coral flats, and others that are embankments and ledges. Spiny lobsters and morays make the best of the ledges and overhangs, while the reef flats burgeon with sergeant majors, snapper, blackbar soldierfish, grunts and almost every other reef tropical. White-spotted filefish, grouper, angelfish and durgon can also be found all over the area. Barracudas, permits and jacks frequently visit these places too.
In between Tortola and the second-largest island, Virgin Gorda, lie an array of smaller islands all loaded with hard and soft coral assortments and booming fish populations. Sites like Bronco Billy, Flintstones, Wall to Wall and the Chimney — all in the Dog Islands — offer everything from narrow swim-throughs to jutting rock pinnacles.
Other than the Rhone
Just because BVI isn't known for wreck diving doesn't mean it doesn't have good wrecks. It just means that they're less known. The Chikuzen, a 246-foot refrigerator cargo ship, went down in 1981 in the open Atlantic halfway between Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Resting on her port side in 80 feet of water, Chikuzen regularly attracts huge schools of barracuda that circle above the starboard rail, as well as amber and horse-eye jacks. Jewfish and cobia are also regular visitors. Other wrecks include an airplane put down in 1993 off Great Dog Island, the Marie L and the Pat sitting together off Cooper Island, and the Fearless near Peter Island.