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Diving in the Virgin Islands

Updated on April 27, 2010

Diving in the Virgin Islands

The post-dive huddle is a common phenomenon in most Caribbean destinations, but here in the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.) there's a subtle difference. Instead of the jaded, too-cool-to-be-impressed banter of experienced divers, these vacationers happily revel in the smallest details of a common parrotfish (or a turtle, ray, tarpon, or moray eel). They aren't out to impress anyone. They're just enjoying themselves. That's one of the benefits of diving this trio of islands erroneously dubbed a beginner's destination. Thanks to shallow ocean banks that limit many dive sites to a maximum depth of 80 feet, the U.S.V.I. are an extremely beginner-friendly destination, but experienced divers will find deep wall-diving, too.

Another reason vets turn up their noses: diving's shopworn cliché — gin-clear, 100-foot visibility — doesn't apply. Because of an abundance of plankton in the water, visibility averages 60 feet with occasional peaks of 100. These tiny organisms form the base of the aquatic food chain, and while they do reduce visibility, they also fuel a dynamic ecosystem of diverse and colorful marine life. So leave the experts to their snobbery. Who wouldn't want to dive islands where colorful parrotfish outnumber divers, sea turtles and southern stingrays are frequent dive companions, and green moray eels are so common that divers have gotten blasé about their presence?
 
The flag flying over the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix is the Stars and Stripes, but the warm trade wind snapping it to attention is as West Indian as peas and rice. In fact, everywhere you look in the U.S. Virgin Islands, you see a mix of Caribbean ambiance and American convenience.
 
Situated 1,730 miles southeast of Miami, the islands are straight from a Technicolor idea of paradise: green peaks fringed by palm-lined beaches and lapped by aquamarine bays. If you've never traveled the Caribbean before, this is a great place to start. A U.S. territory since 1917, the islands offer easy flight connections and no hassles with immigration, currency, or language, but they still serve up a full, flavorful dose of Caribbean culture — and diving.
 
Each of the three U.S. islands offers a decidedly different combination of diving and topside diversions. The choice is yours.

Wrecks and Reefs

One of the most visited islands in the Caribbean, St. Thomas is a popular cruise-ship port of call, duty-free shopping capital, and international jet-set destination. More than 40 recognized dive sites ring St. Thomas, and since most dives are only 15 to 45 minutes away by boat, a morning of diving at two locations usually has you back in time for lunch and afternoon sightseeing.
 
The most popular dive sites lie along the southern shore of the island, or in the north end of Pillsbury Sound. It's not necessary to go below 60 feet on some of the prettiest reefs, like Tunnels of Thatch Cay and Ledges of Little St. James. One of the finest examples is Cow and Calf Rocks, named for the twin boulders that break the surface. Below the surface, they are connected by a subway system of tunnels decorated in the paint-splatter pattern of colorful encrusting sponges. As you fin your way past schools of the small, pot-bellied baitfish known as glassy sweepers, you end up inside the famous champagne cork, a tunnel in which surge action sends you shooting out the side of the reef like a human cannonball.
 
Continued In: Diving in the Virgin Islands - Part 2

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