Diving in the Virgin Islands - Part 2

Dive, Snorkel, Hike

Located just three miles across Pillsbury Sound from the east end of St. Thomas, St. John manages to exist worlds away from its larger neighbor. With 51 splendid beaches and bays, and a national park covering two-thirds of the island, St. John is the nature lover's alternative to bustling St. Thomas. Pack a snorkel and a good pair of shoes, because the national park on St. John has some great hiking trails and some of the most picturesque beaches you'll find anywhere, including Caneel, Cinnamon, and Trunk Bays. You can also soak up the local culture by touring the ruins of the 18th-century Annaberg Sugar Plantation or by liming (local slang for relaxing) in downtown Cruz Bay.

As for the scuba sites, you can see it all on a typical St. John dive like Congo Cay. Here, in water no deeper than 80 feet, you'll find hunting parties of the big, steely tarpon herding massive waves of baitfish. Grizzled hawksbill turtles lumber by inches away, indifferent to the divers who have come to explore this rock island converted by the ocean into a living mural of hard corals, sponges, and delicate, lacy sea fans. You start the dive by settling down in the sand flats to commune with the leathery-backed southern stingrays buried in the sand, and you end it in a waving field of sea rods and sea fans that sway to the ocean's rhythms.

Dive, Dive, Dive

At 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It also stands out from her sister islands for the steeply sloping wall that runs along the north shore. Larger than St. Thomas but almost as laid-back as St. John, the island is undergoing a tourist renaissance. In 1999, new construction included a hotel and casino complex and a boardwalk linking hotels, restaurants, and dive shops along the waterfront of Christiansted Harbor.
 
The two largest towns on the island, Christiansted and Frederiksted, both provide access to St. Croix's wealth of diving options. Off Christiansted, the wall begins sloping away about a quarter-mile from shore, dropping to hundreds of feet, but there are plenty of sites suited to intermediate and beginning divers as well. Blue Hole is a shallow coral garden of sea fans and brain and star corals marked by a 40-foot-diameter sand bowl at its center. Just outside the bay, Eagle Ray is a sloping series of sand gullies running between coral ledges. With depths of 30 to 80 feet, this beginner-friendly dive suits advanced divers too, thanks to the frequent sightings of eagle rays and sea turtles.
 
Even some of the deeper wall dives start shallow enough to make beginners feel comfortable. At Cane Bay Drop-off, just 40 feet of depth puts you on a coral garden of sea whips and brain corals dominated by schools of creole wrasse, black durgon, and blue chromis, and you can dive it from the beach. Accessible by boat, the drop-off at Salt River Canyon West offers a sheer vertical plunge sprouting pipe organs of purple tube sponges, as well as deepwater gorgonians and black coral saplings.
 
So maybe you won't find the U.S. Virgin Islands on the hot list of dive destinations compiled by the been-there, done-that crowd. You won't find the dive boat full of self-styled experts, either. Instead, you'll meet a group of relaxed, happy-to-be-here divers who haven't forgotten how to enjoy the simple pleasures of a day under water.
 
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