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Virgin Islands

Green, soft-sloping mountains, white-sand coves, and offshore reefs alive with eye-popping color — the similarities between the major British Virgin Islands  diving show. Yet together, these islands contain greater than 62 named sites that cater to all experience level diving.

Best Diving British Virgin Island

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British Virgin Islands contain greater than 62 named sites that cater to all experience level diving. Planes, boats and open-air automobile buses cluster on Tortola, the largest island and the territory's hub. Linked by bridge to Beef Island location of the Terrence B. Let some International Airport (EIS), Tortola greets all visitors, whether bound for the hotels, villas, resorts, yacht charters or ferries to any of the 60 islands and keys that make up the British Virgin Islands.

For those either unable to choose between islands or determined to see them all, bare-boating acts as an all- access pass. The yachting lifestyle can be as social or solitary as each party decides. Choose a secluded anchorage site for a quiet escape, or moor at places like the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda where boaters meet up for happy hours and grilling parties. Another popular hangout for the water sports crowd is the William Thorton, aka the "WillyT.," a wooden schooner converted into a floating bar, home to an all-day party. Many dive operators cater to yachters and offer "rendezvous diving" wherein a dinghy collects guests straight from their boats and whisks them to the day's dive sites, hassle-free.

Tortola also serves as a jumping off- point for many dive operators. From here, it's a quick hop to Salt Island, where the R.M.S. Rhone met its fate in 1867, thanks to a late-season hurricane. A collision with Black Rock Point coupled with exploding boilers cleaved the vessel in two and created a wide field of debris. Despite this, the two halves remain relatively intact and can be enjoyed even by beginner divers on most days. Divers can penetrate the hull, home to lobsters, angelfish, eels and other marine life that have grown to cartoonish proportions, in large part due to the site's protected status as a marine park.

Tortola-based operators also visit a handful of sites off Norman Island. Green moray eels, Southern stingrays and fields of sea fans colonize Spyglass Wall, ideal for beginners. Angelfish Reef, a more intermediate site, is a particularly excellent spot for finding green sea turtles and dog snapper. Those who dive around the island's western tip will find canyons and sand chutes where schools of Creole wrasse and goatfish pass through.

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Inland, Tortola bustles with shoppers perusing the clothing at Hi Ho surf shop, the nautical souvenirs at Pusser's boutique and Sunny Caribbee's collection of jams, hot sauces and other local specialties, such as banana ketchup. Those looking tostretch their legs can hike atop Sage Mountain, the highest point in the Virgin Islands. Then head to Cane Garden Bay, where the oceanfront Myett's Garden and Grille serves grilled lobster and steak dinners.

Tortola also hosts monthly full-moon parties at Trellis Bay on Beef Island and at Bomba's Surfside Shack on the northwest coast. Bomba Shack parties are renowned for lasting long into the morning, and for live music and carefree revelers (virgin island).

Jost Van Dyke

West of Tortola, Jost Van Dyke offers a rugged and remote experience — above and below the water. Many boaters and day- trippers target White Bay, bound for the Soggy Dollar Bar. Manyboaters enjoy wading in from the beach, hence the institution is named for the wet bills traded for Painkiller cocktails, a mix of pineapple and coconut juices, and a generous pour of rum. Many travelers never wander beyond the long stretch of white sand and shallow water ideal for lounging or a leisurely game of football. Jost Van Dyke also is renowned for Foxy's Bar, located on Great Harbour, which hosts the world's third largest New Year's Eve Party.

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For divers, Jost Van Dyke is best known for its more advanced sites where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. At Playground, this convergence attracts tarpon, cero, crevalle jack, pompano and other silvery hunters. The nearby Twin Towers, so named for the dramatic pair of leaning monoliths, is another great place to spot Caribbean reef sharks, sleeping nurse sharks and patrolling barracuda.

Virgin Gorda

Virgin Gorda attracts the most dedicated water- sports enthusiasts. Resorts such as the Bitter End Yacht Club have become synonymous with sailing, windsurfing, kite boarding, stand-up paddle boarding and other water sports thanks to the favorable conditions of the North Sound. The resort caters to those looking for a quiet escape: rooms purposefully lack televisions. Instead, they include generous balconies so guests can delight in watching the fiery sunsets and listening to birdsong from the forest canopy.

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On the island's south tip, you'll find the BVI's most photographed destination, the Baths. Smooth granite boulders lean against one another, forming grottos with sun-dappled wading pools.

From Virgin Gorda, when conditions are calm, dive operators ferry guests to the Chikuzen, a 246-foot long Korean refrigeration ship. Like an oasis in the desert, this advanced dive site is one of few shelters for marine life between Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Dozens of schools offish — cubera snapper, horse eye jacks, yellowtail snapper and yellow goatflsh — spill overtop the hull and along the sand around the wreck. This food supply nearly guarantees sightings of eagle rays, barracuda, goliath groupers and stingrays.

Virgin Gorda-based dive operators also head to the Dog Islands, which are riddled with granite boulders now overgrown with corals and sponges. An airplane fuselage lies off of Great Dog Island at about 30 feet. Off of Cockroach Island, an open-water pinnacle known as The Visibles, best for advanced divers, attracts a wide array of marine life, from turtles to sharks.

The smaller islands in the territory offer intimate, relaxing escapes. Cooper Island Beach Club, an eco- friendly resort, accommodates a maximum of eight guests, ensuring a quiet getaway. A private-island retreat, Peter Island Resort and Spa offers its visitors the opportunity to hike within the 1800-acre preserve, and enjoy massages overlooking the beach.

With accommodations on greater than eight islands, as well as countless anchorages available to those who explore via yacht, the choices in the British Virgin Islands may seem endless. Thankfully, the same holds true underwater: greater than 62 named sites keep divers enthralled, whether they stay a week, a month or a lifetime.

 Virgin islands diving map

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RMS Rhone Wreck diving

***** Wreck of the RMS Rhone,featured in the movie The Deep, is by far the most popular dive in the BVI. Struck by a ferocious hurricane in October, 1867, the Royal Mail Steamer Rhonewas hurled onto the rocks at Salt Island as its captain, Robert F. Wooley, struggled desperately to reach open sea. The force with which the 310-foot vessel crashed upon the rocks broke the hull in two, leaving two superb dive spots, a great snorkeling area at the stern, which lies in 30 feet of water amid rocks and boulders, and a good area for div­ing at the bow, 80 feet down on a sandy bottom. The top of the rudder sits just 15 feet below the surface. Its superstructure, encrusted with corals, sponges, and sea fans, provides a dramatic setting for underwater photography.

Fish greet divers and snorkelers as they enter the water. Living among the wreckage are large groupers, curious barracudas, schools of snappers, grunts, jacks, arrow crabs, squirrelfish, and yellow tails. The Rhoneis a boat-access dive. Sea conditions are usually calm; recommended for nov­ices. Visibility is usually excellent, from 50 to over 100 feet. Also, the Rhoneis a national park and off-limits to coral collecting and spear fishing. The wreck is located off Black Rock Point on the southwest tip of Salt Island.

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**** The Chikuzen, a 268- footsteel-hulled refrigerator ship that went down off Tortola's east end in 1981, lies in 75 feet of water. Currently in use as a fish condominium, the wreck is blessed with visibility so good that you can stand on the bow and see the stern.

Tenants of the Chikuzen include several large stingrays, occasional black tip sharks, schools of yellowtail, filefish, barracudas, octopi, drumfish, and jewfish. The ship rests on her port side allowing easy entry. Coral covers the hull. A fine choice for novice divers. Boat access only. The outstanding visibil­ity and large number of marine animals make for excellent photography.

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*** The Chimney, at Great Dog Island off the west end of Virgin Gorda, is a spectacular coral archway and canyon covered with a wide variety of soft corals, sponges and rare white coral. Hundreds of fish follow divers and snorkelers along the archway to a coral-wrapped, tube-like formation resem­bling a huge chimney. Inside the Chimney are circling groupers, crabs, brittle starfish, spiny lobsters, banded coral shrimp, queen angels, tube sponges and schooling fish. This is a favorite spot for close-up photography. Maximum depth of the Chimney is 45 feet. The many shallow areas and protected-cove location make this a "best snorkel dive" as well as a good selection for the scuba diver. Boat access only. Some surge and currents when wind is out of the north.

*** The MV Inganess Bay, a new wreck sunk by BVI dive operators as an artificial reef after a storm snapped its anchor chain, lies off the southern tip of Cooper Island. The 136-foot freighter lies in 95 feet of water, its masts at 45 feet. Two national park moorings mark the sight. A good show of inverte­brates and fish inhabit the wreck. Boat access.

*** Gary's Grottos lie near the shoreline, four miles north of Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. It is a shallow reef characterized by three huge arches that give the feel of swimming through a tunnel. At the end of the "tunnel" di­vers find a cave guarded by a friendly moray. This rocky area is teeming with shrimp, squid and sponges. Protected from wind and waves, the cove is also a choice spot for a night-dive. The average depth is 30 feet.

** The Wreck of the Rokus. On New Year's Eve, 1929, the Greek ship Rokus hit the reef on the southeast tip of Anegada. She sank in 40 feet of water with much of her hull remaining above the surface until hurricane Frederick struck in 1979. Remains of her cargo of animal bones can be found scattered around the wreckage. The reef surrounding the hull is pretty, with large for­mations of elkhorn and staghorn, as well as brain coral. An enormous eel has been spotted under the wreck by a number of divers. During the winter months, February through March, the song of migrating humpback whales can be heard from this site. This area is occasionally rough with small surges. (see first picture)

** Great Dog Island's south side drops off to a shallow reef with 10- to 60-foot depths. Nice elkhorn stands hide spotted and golden moray eels, spiny lobsters and barber shrimp. Good for novice divers when seas are calm.

Alice in Wonderland

***** Alice in Wonderland, a coral wall at South Bay off Ginger Island, slopes from 15 feet to a sandy bottom at 90 feet, with most interest at 50 feet. Named for its huge mushroom corals, villainous overhangs, and gal­lant brain corals, this ornate reef shelters longnose butterflyfish, rays, conch and garden eels. Visibility is good and seas are usually calm. Alice in Wonder­land is aboat-dive, good forphotography, free diving, and novice through ex­pert scuba diving. Private yachts should choose the eastern mooring which is closer to the larger coral ridges.

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**** PoS was named after Project Ocean Search, a Cousteau project. The reef, which follows the shoreline of Cockroach Island (one of the Dog Is­lands), is a "must" for every underwater photographer. Beautiful, towering pillar, staghorn, and elkhorn corals at 35 feet are swept by huge silvery tar­pons, French angels, crabs, lobsters, and schooling fish. The "Keyhole," a hole in one of the coral walls, is just big enough to frame a diver for an under­water portrait.

*** Blonde Rock, a pinnacle between Dead Chest and Salt Island, starts at 15 feet below the surface. Coral-encrusted tunnels, caves and overhangs support a wealth of crabs, lobsters and reef fish. Good for novice divers when seas are calm. Boat access.

** Santa Monica Rock, a seamount, sits about a mile south of Norman Island. Depths range from 10 to 90 feet. Currents attract spotted eagle rays, sharks and other pelagics.

*** Joe's Cave, an underwater cavern on the west side of West Dog Island, can be explored by swimming from the entrance at 20 feet down to 75 feet, where you'll find a magnificent opening to the sky. Corals and boul­ders form the cave's outer walls. Eels abound. Rough bottom terrain accents the masses of gleaming copper sweepers inside. This is a protected area with no current or surges. A good choice for divers of all levels.

** Van Ryan's Rock, in Drake's Channel, sits between Beef Island and Virgin Gorda. The top is at 16 feet and the bottom at 55 feet, with boulders and coral leading down to a sandy plain. Nurse sharks, eels, huge turtles, lobsters, jacks, spadefish, and barracudas circle it. Divers and snorkelers should take care to avoid the huge clumps of fire coral. A light current is occasionally en­countered.

*** Invisibles, a seamount off Tortola's northeast tip, is a haven for nurse sharks, eels, turtles and all types of reef fish, from the smallestto the larg­est. Diver Gayla Kilbride describes this area as a "Symphony of Fish." Depths go from three to 65 feet, a nice range for both snorkeling and diving.

A wetsuit top, shortie, or wetskin is recommended for night-dives and winter diving. Snorkelers should have some protection from sunburn. The BVI reefs are protected by law, and no living thing may be taken. "Take only pictures, leave only bubbles."

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Snorkeling

Gear can be rented or borrowed from most hotels and charter boats, although it is best to have your own to insure a comfortable fit. Be sure to bring your camera. Snorkeling trips are offered by the dive shops.

**** Wreck of the Paramatta, which ran aground on her maiden voyage in 1853, rests at 30 feet off the southeast end of Anegada. The ship is on a dense coral reef - perfect for snorkelers. If you stand on the engine,you'll be shoulder-deep. Enormous reef fish swim around the wreck, in­cluding a 200-pound jewfish, 30-pound groupers, butterflyfish, turtles, and rays. Still remaining are the stern and bow sections, long chain, port holes, and cleats of the wreck, all sitting amid beautiful elkhorn and stag- horn coral formations, large sea fans, brain corals and red and orange sponges. This is a great spot for underwater portraits.

 **** The Baths, atthe southern tip of Virgin Gorda, encompasses the islands' most famous beaches. A natural landscape of partially submerged grottoes and caves formed by a jumble of enormous granite boulders, this is a favorite beach-access snorkeling area and one of the biggest tourist attrac­tions in the BVI. The caves shelter a variety of tropical fish. Get here by taking the trail that starts at the end of the Baths Road. A small bar just off the beach rents snorkel equipment. Beware of dinghies! The Baths is a favorite of cruise ship visitors.

** Spring Bay, neighboring the Baths, has a gorgeous sandy beach and good snorkeling.

** Crawl National Park, a great spot for beginning snorkelers, also on Virgin Gorda, is reached via a palm-lined trail from Tower Road, just north of the Baths. A natural pond created by a boulder formation is ideal for children.

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*** Smugglers Cove, off the beaten path on the northwest end of Tortola, may be tough to find but is well worth the effort. The last mile leading to this spot is rough driving. There are two lovely reefs, about 100 feet out, with crowds of grunts, squirrelfish, parrotfish and some good-sized trunkfish to keep you company. Depths are shallow and seas usually calm. Good for chil­dren. The beach is shaded by palms and sea grape trees. No rest rooms or changing facilities, but there is an honor bar with sodas, beer and some snacks and a phone with a couple of taxi numbers.

Guests of the neighboring Long Bay Beach Resort are shuttled to Smug­glers Cove twice a day.

** Brewers Bay, on Tortola's north coast road, has two good snorkeling sites, one to the left along the cliffs with depths from eight to 10 feet, the other in the center of the beach opposite the rock wall edging the road. The reef starts close to shore and stretches out in shallow depths for a long way. Schools of trumpetfish, barracudas, octopi, stingrays and sergeant majors in­habit the area.

**** The Caves at Norman Island are accessible by boat. It is a favorite snorkeling-photo site, bright with sponges, corals and schools of small fish. The reef slopes down to 40 feet. Norman Island is rumored to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasurelsland and the Caves are reputed to be oldhiding places for pirate treasure. Moorings are maintained by the National Park Trust.

** Manchioneel Bay, Cooper Island, has a beautiful shallow reef with packs of fish around the moorings.

Additional excellent snorkeling sites are found on the northeast corner of Benures Bay, Norman Island, or the Bight and Little Bight, also off Nor­man Island. At Peter Island, try the south shore at Little Harbor and the west­ern shore at Great Harbor. Diamond Reef on the southeast side of Great Camanoe can be reached by dinghy fom Marina Cay. The shallow reef sits straight out from the utility pole on the shore.

Long Bay, near Smugglers Cove, Tortola, has pretty corals and the biggest fish, but water entry is difficult as the coral grows to the surface.