The beauty and diversity of the U.S. Virgin Islands extends far beyond the white sands of the shore. Whether you are newly certified or an advanced diver, diving in the U.S. Virgin Islands is easy, accessible and offers an array of experiences for everyone. And because the U.S. Virgin Islands is a territory of the United States, you’ll enjoy the added safety of diving within U.S. waters. This means that all dive boats are inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and captains are USCG certified.
Sea life is abundant in the U.S. Virgin Islands. More than 500 species of fish, 40 types of coral and hundreds of invertebrates inhabit the water. Vibrant blue tang, silvery horse-eye jacks, queen triggerfish, spiny Caribbean lobster, spotted eagle rays, creole wrasses, and cleaner gobies are just a sampling of the marine life populating the underwater terrain. As the sun sets, octopus, seahorses and moray eels make their appearance. Hawksbill, green, and leatherback turtles call the USVI home and can be seen on many a dive. Lucky vacationers may even witness turtles hatching on one of the many turtle nesting grounds.
Most dive operators teach a full range of PADI and NAUI educational courses from Discover Scuba to instructor training. Specialty courses such as underwater photography, peak buoyancy, wreck, drift and boat diving are also available through many operators. Training for those with physical disabilities is available at several dive outlets.
Also known as the “Diverse Virgin” St. Croix offers great diversity of dive sites. Here are a few of the local dive operators’ favorite sites:
Butler Bay Wrecks
This bay, on the west end of St. Croix, includes two distinct sites featuring deep and shallow wrecks. Rosa Maria, a 177-foot steel-hulled freighter, is the deepest of the wrecks and was the first to be sunk intentionally. Brightly hued rope, stovepipe and barrel sponges can be found on the ship’s hull. Blackbar soldierfish, mahogany snapper and French, queen and gray angels are regulars. Coakley Bay, a former oil refinery tugboat, is the newest of the wrecks. Suffolk Maid is a 144-foot trawler that ran aground during a 1980’s hurricane. It is considered a shallow wreck. Creole wrasses are the predominant residents, but a green moray comes to visit every now and then. Virgin Islander, sunk in 1992, is a 300-foot oil barge and is the largest of the wrecks. It is heavily encrusted with sponges and coral. Look for tiny fans of pink Stylaster coral in the recesses and for stingrays beneath the ship. North Wind, a 75-foot oceangoing tugboat, was sunk at Butler Bay after being used as a prop in the TV movie Dreams of God-The Mel Fisher Story. Snappers, hinds, sergeants, fairy basslets and chromis inhabit this wreck.
This phenomenal site is known as one of the top macro dives anywhere. As you head out, catch a glimpse of the coral-encrusted pilings from the old pier. Scattered debris serves as shelter for moray eels and octopus. Closer inspection will uncover the real beauties of the pierhigh hats, grape-sized juvenile smooth trunkfish, sea horses, spotted scorpionfish and the rare roughback batfish. Golden-eyed shrimp and resting parrotfish live in the boulders of the shallows. This is an excellent day and night dive.
Salt River Canyon East & West Walls
The East Wall boasts vibrant sea life including soft corals, sponges and gorgonians all growing along a steep wall. The West Wall begins at about 30 feet, quickly drops to 90 feet and then plummets to 1,000 feet. The excellent topography — including pinnacles, mini-canyons and swim-throughs — easily makes this the most requested dive on St. Croix.
Rated one of the top dives in all the Caribbean, Cane Bay is one of the few places in the U.S. Virgin Islands where shore diving is possible. You start on smooth white sand that gradually slopes downward as more coral heads and 19th century anchors appear. There is no doubt that you will find the wall because, after a short swim, the bottom literally drops away. The colorful reef is on one side and the bottomless blue is on the other.
St. John shares many dive sites with St. Thomas, so dive boats from both islands can roam freely to the reefs between the two islands. Here are a few of the local dive operators’ favorites in St. John:
The prevailing southeast swells make this a tricky dive, but when seas are calm this site is magical. So much so that it has hosted several underwater weddings. Located on St. John’s east end between Ram Head and Leduck Island, arches, tunnels and caves are its signature features. The cave, known as “The Cathedral”, is encrusted with vivid sponges and orange cup coral. Schools of black durgeons, porkfish and silversides populate the shoal. Northeast of the cave is a series of deep walls and tiers that shelter spotted drums and Queen and French Angelfish.
This series of adjacent rocks, which serves as a nesting site for terns and other birds, is a fascinating dive when conditions are right. The south side is blanketed with sponges, gorgonians and a variety of sea life. The north face is the star attraction, dropping below 80 feet. Watch for stingrays in the sand and tarpon who regularly scavenge on silversides.
Here’s a site with an interesting and groundbreaking history. In a joint effort by NASA and the Department of the Interior and the Navy, Tektite was anchored at 50 feet to the seafloor in Greater Lameshur Bay. In 1969, four “aquanauts” spent two months being monitored by behavioral specialists for the psychological effects of extended isolation and the physiological results of breathing compressed air. Divers visiting the site will find a varied terrain of coral-encrusted tunnels, caves and ledges. Tarpon, squid, triggerfish, mackerel and small reef fish thrive here.
St. Thomas is surrounded by some of the Caribbean’s healthiest reefs, and it offers more than a dozen shipwrecks. Here are a few of the local dive operators’ favorite sites:
The twin barges originally housed men’s quarters during WWII. After the war, they were demolished and sunk, creating the ideal habitat for marine life. Trumpetfish, big angelfish, feather dusters and Christmas tree worms hang topside, while squirrelfish, bigeyes and channel clinging crabs hide out in the crawl spaces.
Wit Shoal II
Situated southwest of the St. Thomas airport, this former Navy tank-landing ship sunk in 1985. Now a thriving artificial reef, the ship is home to yellowtail snapper, barracuda and grouper which patrol its five decks. Brilliant orange cup coral and sea fans are among the amazing coral communities.
Cow & Calf
Located off the southeast coast of St. Thomas, the two largest rocks that break the surface are said to look like whales—a cow and her calf. Cow & Calf boasts dramatic ledges, wide canyons and large caves.
Tunnels of Thatch
The black rock arches and lava tubes are indicative of the volcanic origin of the islands. The tunnels are a part of Thatch Cay, an island northwest of St. Thomas. Bright cup corals and sponges are visible from the moment of entry. Divers wind their way through a series of tunnels, past big boulders and gorgonian patches actually swimming though the island. Butterflyfish, parrotfish and trumpetfish spend their days in the gorgonians, while tarpon pursue schools of silversides. Moray eels and spiny lobsters are regular residents of the reef.
Adjacent to the popular Coral World Ocean Park, Coki Beach is home to two fringing reefs located 50 yards offshore and separated by a sandy flat. Beginner and advanced divers enter the pool-like conditions to find bar jacks, grunts, yellow headed jawfish and cleaner shrimp. An occasional stingray or turtle can be seen passing by.
Currency: US Dollars
Dive Season: All year round
Air Temperature: 24°-32°C (75°-90°F)
Water Temperature: 26°-29°C (79°-84°F)
Visibility: 18 – 30 Metres
Skill Level: Beginner – Professional