You don’t have to dive deep to explore a vibrant undersea world in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Check out our dive expert’s top spots.
“How deep do you dive?” It always seems to be a question posed by men, wanting to know how deep I scuba dive. My answer: Sometimes you can see more at 50 feet than at 100 feet. You don’t have to go deep to enjoy a dive. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there are myriad delightful dive sites in just 30 to 50 feet of water, perfect for beginner and intermediate divers, and especially good for families. Kids as young as 10 years old can take introductory “Discover Scuba” excursions with a maximum depth of 40 feet. At that depth, there’s an ocean of fun in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
One of my favorite places to dive from in the U.S. Virgin Islands is Cruz Bay, the main harbor on St. John. Wharfside Village Shopping Center is home to Low Key Watersports (tel. 800-835-7718), a great dive operator through which I became a certified “divemaster” long ago, leading divers on underwater tours. Just out of Cruz Bay is Stephen’s Cay, one of the more delightful shallow dives in the Caribbean; at 30 feet, it’s teeming with lobster and schools of colorful fish. If ever there was a time to kick back your fins on a dive, this site is it.
Also near St. John: Congo Cay is also a favorite site and the gliding grounds for spotted eagle rays, one of the most graceful of undersea creatures; they’re stingrays with symmetrical white circles decorating their wings. Carvel Rock is also a can’t-miss site if the conditions are right. It’s for more experienced divers due to currents, but when you hit it right, there are schools of shiny tarpon glimmering in an underwater paradise as waves crash against enormous rocks overhead.
St. John is a stone’s throw away from St. Thomas, and the two islands share many dive sites including Cow and Calf. Legend has it that the humped-rock formations protruding out of the water were commonly mistaken by sailors as whales, a cow and calf, hence the name of the site. It’s a pleasant and easy dive, most of it at around 35 feet, with a kaleidoscope of dazzling corals, tunnels and archways to explore. Nearby, the Ledges of Little St. James is a perfect place to sight a lobster or lounging nurse shark (they’re relatively harmless, preferring to sleep in the sand over more strenuous man-eating).
For divers that think deep equals delirium, head to WIT Shoal off St. Thomas, a 327-foot wreck in 40 to 100 feet of water that is home to goliath groupers and eels. Much of the wreck’s inner corridors are exposed for exploration. Red Hook Dive Center is one of the most experienced dive operators on the island and is within easy reach of most major hotels. Tel. +1-340-777-3483, www.redhookdivecenter.com.
Farther afield in St. Croix is some of the best “wall” diving in the Caribbean at Cane Bay, rated as one of the top dive sites in the Caribbean and good for all experience levels. Just offshore is a beautiful sloping coral garden beginning at 25 feet and teeming with aquatic life. Then there’s a precipice, a wall that drops down to the ocean floor, running parallel to shore for seven miles and providing dramatic underwater vistas and larger marine life. The wall is at its closest point to the beach at a great site called Northstar, just five minutes by boat from Cane Bay and with a dive profile of 30 to 100 feet.
The east and west walls of Salt River near St. Croix have profiles of about 60 to 70 feet. On the west side are beautiful swim-throughs and pinnacles to peruse, while the east wall has wonderfully healthy fish life and the chance to see nurse sharks.
Try Cane Bay Dive Shop (tel: 800-338-3843) to experience the best of the area; www.canebayscuba.com. For a different view of the underwater world, experience it at night with a dive off the old pier at Frederiksted, St. Croix’s cruise port, where you can spot sea horses, odd-looking frog fish and other mysterious creatures of the deep.
Dive prices range from $40 for a one-tank beach dive at Cane Bay to up to $125 for a two-tank boat dive, all equipment included, at Red Hook Dive Center. Ask for package deals like Low Key Watersports’ six-tank special for $230.
For a good introduction to the sport, consider a Discover Scuba course, which involves a short video presentation and basic in-water instruction; divers then are on their way to an ocean of fun. Or, consider getting fully certified while on your Virgin Islands vacation. At Low Key Watersports, it takes three half-day classes for a full certification. Cost: $385.
Discover Scuba As a long time Scuba enthusiast I'm a little wary of the excursions that promise a quick video and then take you into open water. My experience introducing the sport to friends and family has been that only those who were already very comfortable with snorkeling had a good time with Discover Scuba. The experience of the ones that weren't comfortable ranged from unpleasant to down right traumatic. Bottom line: If you're really interested in doing scuba diving- take the full course. Its really fun and less nerve racking for newbies!