Diary of a US Virgin Islands Dive Odyssey
Jim McManus loves scuba diving - so much so that he has spent the last 26 years of his life diving the waters around St. Thomas in the USVI. Over a plate of moussaka and a Greek salad smothered in feta cheese, Jim expounded on the surfeit and quality of diving St. Thomas has to offer. I don't care what anyone tells ya, he said, St. Thomas has the best diving around. Why, there're places here where the reef roller coasters in less than 60 feet. As I sipped a cappuccino and finished off some sweet dessert, I strained to hear more. There are hundreds of wrecks and artifacts and a huge Great Lakes grain tanker ... wrecks that most divers never heard of, much less get to see, Jim said. And after diving there I learned that he's right - St. Thomas does have the best diving around. Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas' only city, is made for walking. Shops and historical landmarks are comfortably accessible by foot, and a taxi ride the length of the island takes but a few minutes. St. Thomas's beaches have been described as some of the finest in the world. At Drake's Seat, high on the mountain slope, a view of Magens Bay, with its mile-long curving beach, is a breathtaking sight. But the most frequented beach for divers is Coki Beach. I was told Coki Beach offers one of the finest night dives north of the equator; supposedly a little bit like Grand Cayman's Stingray City. As it turned out, I wasn't disappointed! At dusk we drove down to the bay near Red Hook and began preparing for our beach dive. Coki Beach is known for its dozens of southern stingrays that find solace in the evening by gathering in the shallow waters. Night diving with the rays is exciting, but what was most thrilling were the dozens of large tarpon that also come to the shallows. Divers staying on St. Thomas can dive the Caribbean and the Atlantic on the same day, and you'll find no shortage of dive facilities or dive sites. Spectacular caves, tunnels, seamounts and nearly three dozen reefs keep diving visitors busy. St. JohnAfter several days of diving and many more rolls of film, I headed for the ferry dock at Red Hook for the short ride to Cruz Bay on St. John. St. John is the smallest of the American Virgins and has managed to retain an atmosphere of idyllic tranquillity and natural charm - mostly because it was planned that way. The spectacular beauty of this island has been undisturbed for centuries, because two-thirds of it is a national park. Most visitors come to St. John for a day to take a guided tour of the Park by safari bus or jeep, as well as swim, snorkel and hike. I immediately felt a different ambience, thinking I would rather stay here and visit St. Thomas on a day's outing. There are some 30 bays indenting St. John's shoreline, and most have excellent dive sites. Because St. John is small and the Atlantic Ocean washes its shores, reefs proliferate in the shallow protected bays that virtually surround the island. Places such as Cinnamon Bay offer sloping coral formations to depths of 80 feet, and other sites around Watermelon Cay boast acres of corals. Perhaps more typical of St. John diving are the rocky ledges found at Carval Rock on the northwest side of the island. You'll find plenty of reefs teeming with tropical fish and tiny invertebrates, beautiful elkhorn formations and colorful sea fans in shallow coral gardens. St. John does offer an opportunity for adventure diving. The island is blessed with six to eight offshore islands and rocky pinnacles, most located off the north side. Here you'll find the kind of thrill and excitement associated with the big-fish action inherent to the Virgin Islands. I decided to take a little time out at Trunk Bay to snorkel the underwater trail that winds through a maze of magnificent corals and colorful fish. It was a refreshing change from lugging heavy diving gear. Later that afternoon, I rented a Jeep for a safari to see the rain forest and to find that perfect spot to photograph Trunk Bay - that picture-perfect postcard view that has become synonymous with U. S. Virgin Islands advertising campaigns. Winding my way through the jungle mountains and past bays with electric-blue waters, I came across Coral Bay Overlook above Hurricane Hole, once the natural harbor where tall ships sought anchorage from fierce tropical storms. From the overlook the view is incredible - even more beautiful than one would expect or than one can capture in a photograph. St. CroixSt. Croix is the other U.S. Virgin Island. Alone in the Caribbean Sea, it's about 40 miles south of St. Thomas and a world away. Leaving Charlotte Amalie aboard one of Seaborne Seaplane Adventures' twin turboprop planes, we gently touched down 20 minutes later in the harbor of Christiansted, the capital of St. Croix. Christiansted is uniquely charming among Caribbean port cities. The town's red roofs and pastel-yellow buildings, cobblestone streets and covered shopping arcades still evoke images of its Danish architectural heritage. Sometimes called the Garden of the Antilles, St. Croix got its name in 1493, when Christopher Columbus first set foot near Salt River. The island has had seven nations' flags flying over it throughout its modern history: those of Spain, Holland, England, France, Malta, Denmark and the United States. St. Croix is huge by comparison to its sister islands. Measuring more than twice the size of St. Thomas and four times larger than St. John, St. Croix is encircled by more than 50 miles of fringing coral reefs. You'll also find the Buck Island National Park there, an undersea playground and America's first underwater park. From a diver's point of view, St. Croix offers the one major attraction that both St. Thomas and St. John lack - wall diving. Blessed with miles of fantastic vertical drop-offs, big sponges and pelagic creatures, St. Croix has always been a favorite dive destination of mine. At Cane Bay, the wall is less than 200 yards from shore. It is one of the few places I enjoy beach diving. Still, another unique attraction exclusive to St. Croix is its outstanding pier diving, possibly the best in the Caribbean. At the small town of Frederiksted on the western shore, the new cruise-ship pier has become the jump point to explore the ruined pilings of the former pier. When the sun goes down, I generally prefer to indulge in post-dive libations, but I couldn't pass on an opportunity to dive the pier. I was amazed at the sponge and soft coral growth on the old pilings, but the real treat was seeing tiny sea horses for the first time. These unusual attractions, and more, make St. Croix a necessary addition to the underwater potpourri that the USVI offers.