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Diving in the British Virgin Islands

Updated on April 27, 2010

Like ghosts dancing around an ethereal ballroom, sun-bleached sailboats flutter across the blue waters of the British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.). So many boats, in fact, that the sound of canvas whipping the wind and lines clanging on aluminum masts is at times almost deafening. Divers, however, prefer the silent world beneath all that tacking and jibing, where they quietly savor an altogether different kind of nautical experience. Shipwrecks — scores of them — litter the shallow coral gardens of the B.V.I. In fact, the B.V.I. are generally acknowledged to be one of the finest spots on Earth to dive amidst a plethora of shipwrecks from almost every era of sailing, from the tall ships all the way to the modern era's giant cargo carriers.

Wreck-Divers' Wonderland

Oddly enough, thousands of people made their first wreck dive right here on the R.M.S. Rhone without even realizing it. Granted, it was made vicariously through Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset on the set of the 1977 motion picture The Deep, but for many, this first dive introduced them to the mysterious and beautiful world of wrecks in the depths of the glorious British Virgins.
 
Today, divers come here to rekindle some of that mystery, making the Rhone the B.V.I.'s most popular dive. But the wreck is not just some Hollywood prop. Her fabled history predates the movie by more than a century. In the mid-1800s, she delivered passengers and mail on a route that took her to the far-flung corners of the Caribbean. Part sailing ship, part propeller-driven steamer, the 310-foot vessel was revolutionary in design, built at the cusp of nautical technology. But Mother Nature has no pity for humans' futile efforts. Attempting — unsuccessfully — to shelter her from a hurricane in 1867, the crew of the Rhone tucked her into a cove off Salt Island, which would become her final resting place.
 
Over time, the ship split in two, dividing her bow and stern sections into two completely different dives and experiences, both protected by marine-park status. Her bow is more intact and lies in water about 80 feet deep, while her stern is strewn in pieces from 20 to about 60 feet below the surface. In 13 decades on the seafloor, the Rhone has grown a dazzling Technicolor coat of sponges and corals and attracted a dizzying array of tropical reef fish, including yellow-speckled French angelfish, pastel-hued parrotfish, and schooling snapper, jacks, and grunts.
 
The fish, coral, and other creatures you'll encounter on the Rhone and throughout the B.V.I.'s reefs are standard Caribbean fare. Larger, more tasty fish species like grouper may be more common on restaurant menus, but there's no shortage of smaller tropicals. Hawksbill and green turtles are a dime a dozen, and you're quite likely to see a spotted eagle ray or two, and plenty of moray eels. If you're lucky, you may snag a rare glimpse of humpback whales, especially from December through April, when the leviathans come here to calve. Look for them frolicking in the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
 
Continued In: Diving in the British Virgin Islands - Part 2

 

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