Diving in the shadow of rogues in the British Virgin Islands
The sun has set when we arrive at Fat Hog Bob's barbecue on Tortola, and the place is packed, most of the crowd wearing identical blue T-shirts. It turns out they are a group of Polish tourists who sail and dive together, and tonight is their last evening in the British Virgin Islands. One of their numbers is attempting to earn his own small bit of immortality on the entryway plaque by devouring the "Gutbuster" the house's 3-pound porterhouse in a single sitting. His friends pound the tables and encourage him, but 2 pounds in, he gives up and pushes back from the table, shaking his head and smiling. No name will be added to the plaque this evening. A conciliatory round of refreshments is ordered.
Later that evening, as I step out onto the spacious balcony at Hodge's Creek Marina Hotel, I hear singing as it wafts up from the sailboats docked below. It's the Poles again, crooning together under a not-quite-full moon. And as I hear it, it strikes me that 300 years ago, this sheltered anchorage, with its shallow-water approaches and breakwater reef and sandbar, was probably resounding with songs beneath the moon as well. Only back then, the singers weren't European office workers on a diving holiday. They were honest-to-goodness pirates.
ON A DEAD MAN'S CHEST
That thought is underlined the next morning as, after parking the rental SUV at Prospect Reef Resort, I head out to do some underwater exploring with PADI Gold Palm Resort Dive Tortola.
We put in to dive Painted Walls a series of underwater canyons that culminates in a grotto where the various colorful plate sponges are crowded so close together that it looks as if Jackson Pollock did a one-man show on scuba. As we begin our dive, a pair of Atlantic spadefish swim slowly ahead of us, and as we return to the mooring line, they pick up another one of their relatives and swim right though our midst, slowing to gaze into our dive masks. For a while, I point out flamingo tongue cowries to my dive buddy, but eventually I realize that these submarine snails a relative rarity in many parts of the Caribbean are common in the Virgin Islands.
It's as we surface, though, that thoughts return to pirates, because I realize that the dive site is right off Dead Chest Island a coffin-shaped cay where Blackbeard reputedly marooned 15 malcontents from his crew, leaving them on the uninhabited little islet with a goat and one pistol, loaded with a single shot. Dismayed at the prospect of slow starvation, they tried to swim to nearby Peter Island, drowned and washed up on the beach, now known as Deadman's Bay.
Glancing across at the pretty beach we are close enough to make out the umbrellas I offer the opinion that pirates must have been pretty dismal swimmers.
"It was those peg-legs," deadpans Caroline Caporusso, the Dive Tortola divemaster. "Must've made 'em swim in circles."
It's good for a smile in an age when the only pirate most people will ever see is Johnny Depp, and a time when the Jolly Roger is just a cool accessory to fly on one's sailboat. But that afternoon, as I sit down with Ermin Penn, a Tortola historian, I get a different perspective.
A NEST OF PIRATES
"People think that pirates are all legend, but that's not true," she tells me. "The Virgin Islands were known as the 'Nest of Pirates' hundreds of years ago, and while most pirates actually stole rather pedestrian items tools, food and building supplies our pirates robbed Spanish treasure ships and actually made off with what you see in the movies: chests full of silver, gold and jewels. Moreover, while most pirates spent their riches as fast as they found it, many of ours Blackbeard, 'Black Sam' Bellamy, Henry Morgan and others buried treasure here. An Anegadan once bought Norman Island because he'd found a chest full of silver there, and he claimed to know where more was hidden, but he died without revealing where it was. Blackbeard is reputed to have buried treasure on Salt Island, where the airport is now. And Anegada is said to be riddled with pirate treasure."
She tells me more. The modern waterfront at Road Town, the largest settlement in BVI, is reclaimed land made by filling in part of the harbor. Drive down Waterfront Street, past the Pusser's Rum Outpost and the ferry terminal, and you are probably motoring over the ballast stones and sunken keels of ancient pirate ships. Go to Windy Hill, and even today you can find the ruins of a church where Père Labat, a French priest- turned-pirate, had his pulpit oriented so he could look out on the blue waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel. If he sighted a sail, the sermon was cut short, and he and all of his congregants ran down to their sloops in pursuit of plunder.
While generations of hopefuls have searched in vain for the valuables hidden away by those ghosts, sunken treasure of another sort is easy to come across in the BVI.
TIED TO THEIR BUNKS
The next morning, PADI Five-Star IDC Sail Caribbean Divers takes me out to the one that leads the list the two dive sites that comprise the final resting place of RMS Rhone, one of the fastest steam/sailing ships of her day, but not fast enough to outrace a late-season Category 5 hurricane that found the ship waiting out a quarantine off St. Thomas in 1867. The Rhone's captain judged that the 310-foot ship would best weather the storm at sea, so after tying all passengers into their bunks he ran for open ocean, but the Rhone struck Black Rock Point off Salt Island, seawater hit the hot boilers and the ship exploded, sinking in just six seconds.
I confirm the violence of that event when taking a compass reading upon descending to the bow of the wreck. The Rhone had been running for the southwest, but its bow is pointed toward Road Town on Tortola the opposite direction and the ship lies on her starboard side. In one small patch, bits of the wooden deck still remain, but most of it is now gone, the underlying support beams sticking up like columns in a cloister. Sponges and corals have thickly colonized the wreck, easily making it one of the world's most beautifully decorated shipwrecks.
I have only just entered a gaping hole in the wreck when I get the feeling I'm being followed. Turning, I find myself face to face with a goliath grouper, easily 4 feet long, and nearly as broad across the gills as I am across the shoulders. His attendant remoras hang from him like medals from an old admiral's chest, and he stays in place even when I close within a foot of his stoic visage. Then I turn back to the wreck and encounter a hawksbill turtle that gently nudges me out of the way so he can squeeze by and go on an underwater promenade around the wreck. As if to complete the trifecta, I glance beneath the ship's hull and find "Lobzilla," an octogenarian Caribbean lobster that has lived on the Rhone for decades and is easily the largest lobster that I have ever seen.
A second dive with a Sail Caribbean divemaster completes my picture of the Rhone the stern is scattered in pieces on the far side of the reef. Two bits of shining metal attract attention here a silver teaspoon concreted into the wreckage by marine growth, and the shining brass of a "lucky porthole" rubbed by passing divers. During the brief, my divemaster had explained that the Rhone's portholes were numbered by cabin numbers on their hinges. As I rub the already bright brass, I wonder just how lucky cabin No. 26 was for its occupants, tied helplessly into their bunks as the wild sea flooded in.
'WE PLEAD OUR BELLIES'
That night, I enjoy an excellent chicken roti at The Jolly Roger, a restaurant on the waterfront across from Soper's Hole Marina. The name "Soper's Hole" rings a bell with me, and as the restaurant's signature skull-and-crossbones flag flaps overhead, I make the connection. Early in the 18th century, this sheltered body of water was the base of operation for "Calico Jack" Rackham, a dandy of a pirate well-known because he had among his crew two women Anne Bonny and Mary Read who were the only ones to truly fight when their ship was taken by the Royal Navy.
Tried in London, Bonny spoke up for herself and Read when she told the judge, "Milord, we plead our bellies." Both she and Read were pregnant, and thus immune from execution under English law. Read would die of fever in prison, but Bonny apparently had her freedom arranged with some judicious bribes by her father. When Calico Jack asked if the same strings could be pulled for him, Bonny reportedly told the dishonored pirate, "If you had fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog."
Early the next morning, I take the opportunity to drop in on friends at the sailing vessel Cuan Law, a magnificent trimaran set up for live-aboard diving. She's being outfitted for her next trip, so I don't stay long, but as her master shows me the chart of her most recent voyage, I can't help but note the number of places in BVI Necker Island, Bellamy Cay and more all of them named after pirates.
This day's diving takes me to PADI Dive Resort Blue Water Divers and its location at Nanny Cay Marina, yet another anchorage built on an old pirate haunt. Ken Dennison, my captain for the day, is an old friend, and we catch up on one another's families as he guides the dive boat out into Drake Channel.
Ken's arranged one of my favorites for our dive site du jour. We visit Angel Reef, a site I remember as healthy and diverse, and it proves to still be that way. As the boat's mate and I descend to the flat beneath the dive boat, we find a huge southern stingray in full-on stealth mode, only her eyes and tail visible, the rest of her shrouded in sand.
I approach her slowly and get close enough that I could touch her if I wished, but she begins to draw water in through her gills and force it out through her mouth, sending twirls of sand out from under her disk and creating a cushion of water that lifts her a half inch or so off the sand, like a hovercraft about to depart. Still watching her, I back away slowly and she resettles. I go on with my dive, pleased that I did not cause her to flee.
Angel Reef could well be renamed "Crustacean Reef" for what we find in the nooks and crannies. There are banded coral shrimp hiding in vase sponges, Pederson's shrimp defending their personal cracks in the limestone, shrimp that look like breath-hold-diving daddy longlegs on steroids, and yet another lobster, waving long antennae at me and looking confident in its pale-blue armor.
I'm just about to head up for my safety stop when a small stingray crosses a sand spit beneath me. Gliding down, I find it settled on a ledge among the coral, a pair of yellow cleaner wrasse working their way over it, giving it a pedicure. Or a manicure. Or a disk-icure.
ADMIRAL OF THE OCEAN SEA
Dinner that evening is a night out with island friends at Myett's, a place known throughout the island for both its seafood and its West Indian cuisine. After dinner, I work off a few calories with a long and contemplative walk. As I stroll the sand, pale in the moonlight, I wonder how many of the "Brethren of the Coast" used this very beach to careen their ships beaching the wooden vessels to caulk seams and scrape away marine growth, making them fast enough to overtake their quarry.
I'm glad for the previous night's big meal come the next morning, though. There's no time for breakfast because I have to be at the Road Town ferry terminal at 6:20 a.m. to buy my ticket for the 7 a.m. boat over to Virgin Gorda.
Most of my fellow passengers are Virgin Islanders on their way to work. A few are tourists headed to The Baths, a pair of spectacularly beautiful, giant-boulder-surrounded swimming spots and likely the most popular place on Earth among magazines planning swimsuit issues.
My destination is the Yacht Harbour just a few minutes across a palm-surrounded field from the ferry terminal, home of PADI Five-Star IDC Dive BVI. Managed by Jeff and Casey McNutt, a husband-and-wife team of young Texas expatriates, Dive BVI reflects the tempo of Virgin Gorda. The boat is built to hold 20, but charters are usually capped at 12, and on our charter this day, every single person including me has dived with the operation before.
Our first dive is The Visibles, a site in The Dogs off a rocky little cay that was named Cockroach Island by none other than Christopher Columbus.
I like that. It proves that even the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" was sometimes at a loss when it came to poetic monikers.
The Visibles opens with yet another sand-stealthy stingray, and then swiftly proves to be the best site I've found in the Virgin Islands for spotted morays. As if in deference to the site's name, the little eels are hiding, but with their spotted tails sticking out. We learn to just hover by their coral heads patiently. Eventually, curiosity overcomes them, and they stick their heads out, peering gape-mouthed and nearsightedly at their bubble-blowing visitors.
For a second dive, Casey takes me over to The Chimneys, a site in a cliff-bound cove off Great Dog Island. BVI dive sites tend to be relatively shallow (an exception is the Rhone, where one typically hits 75 or 80 feet), and The Chimneys proves to be very bottom-time friendly. We touch 60 feet for just a fleeting moment, and the rest of the dive is relaxed and shallow. The site is a nursery, with little boxfish bobbing along like vibrating peas, and confettilike juvenile spotted drums. (Casey's signal looks like she is playing the world's smallest snare drum.) Toward the end of the dive, after searching for a moment, Casey directs her light into a crevice under an overhang and shows me a juvenile Caribbean lobster, just like a grown one, only amazingly itty-bitty. Watching him probe with toothpicklike antennae, I wonder how many decades will have to pass before the little creature before me becomes another Lobzilla.
That night, some friends take me to dinner at the Sugar Mill, one of Tortola's finest restaurants, housed in a building that was there during the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy. As we enjoy filet mignon, followed by what has to be the best Key lime pie in this end of the Caribbean, I wonder if Blackbeard ever stopped here for provisioning, or if Read ever came by for something sweet after fighting one of her many pirate duels.
I'm still wondering that when I get back to Hodge's Creek and step out onto my balcony. A low moan, like a soft breath across an open rum bottle, comes up to me from the moonlit water, a moan that sounds as if it has crossed centuries to reach my ears. But it is only the wind, playing on the rigging of the sailboats sleeping in the marina below.
At least that is what I tell myself.
Then I go to sleep and dream of fast sloops, daring companions and a black Jolly Roger, fluttering defiantly under a blue Caribbean sky.
Special thanks to: BVI Tourist Board (bvitourism.com); Blue Water Divers (bluewaterdiversbvi.com); Dive BVI (divebvi.com); Dive Tortola (divetortola.com); Hodge's Creek Marina Hotel (hodgescreek.com); and Sail Caribbean Divers (sailcaribbeandivers.com).
Tortola is full of alfresco watering holes, but a sailor's favorite is Pusser's Landing at Soper's Hole, with the same menu as Pusser's Outpost in Road Town, but tranquil and it has Wi-Fi. For a relaxing midweek dive break, take the private ferry over to Peter Island Resort for its signature Thermal Sand Bundle Massage. On Anegada, start your day with hot cinnamon rolls from Pam's Bakery, and then (after shore diving) enjoy fresh lobster at Big Bamboo Restaurant on Loblolly Bay. And if you use the ferry to get to Virgin Gorda, bring a beach towel to use while you wait for the return ferry at the Spanish Town ferry terminal; there's a great stretch of sand next to the dock.
THE GUIDE TO THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
Average water temperature: 75-83ºF, by season
Average visibility: 60-90 feet
What to wear: dive skin or shorty to 3 mm fullsuit
When to go: year-round, but inquire first many operations reduce schedules as they overhaul dive boats in late September and early October
Drop in on the Gov. Revisit the period when the British Virgin Islands were Her Majesty's Crown Colony of the Leeward Islands by visiting the Old Government House Museum, housed in the former governor's residence (just next door to the current residence). Highlights include: colonial-era furnishings, historic papers, impressive displays of local flora and striking views of Road Harbour.
RMS Rhone: The premier shipwreck in the Virgin Islands, the Rhone is also one of the most beautifully decorated wrecks in the world. Done as two dives: the deeper bow and the less-intact stern.
The Visibles: Named for a pair of breaching rock reefs (if they are visible, the site will be a good dive), this is a good spot for morays.
Painted Walls: This site has three reef-walled canyons, the largest of which sports the painted wall, which is thick with multicolored sponges.
The Indians: To truly enjoy this dive, swim all the way around the projecting cay; if you're good on air, you'll still have plenty left to explore with at the end of the dive.
Good not only for angelfish, but for a diversity of sea life, this is one of the prettiest reefs in the Virgin Islands.
Piece of Paradise
Ever dreamed of living in the British Virgin Islands? Check out our online guide to owning a piece of this diver's paradise. sportdiver.com/ownapieceofparadise
Bone up on your pirate history with Virgin Islander, Jill Tattersall's charmingly homespun compact histories and books of island lore. Each is readable in a single surface interval, and they sell for about $4 at local gift shops.
Rigged & Ready
Pirate lore book: Discover what a pirates' life was really like for Blackbeard, "Calico Jack" Rackham, "Black Sam" Bellamy and other rogues through Colin Woodard's Republic of Pirates. republicofpirates.net
Peter Island Resort
Long Bay Beach Resort & Villas
Blue Water Divers
Sail Caribbean Divers