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  1. 1. love triangle 50 M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M 51 “America’s Caribbean” If that phrase doesn’t register on your dive meter, then it’s time to take a look at the lively, peaceful and funky U.S. territorial triplets of St. ­Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. Like a buy-one, get-three bargain, each has its own distinct vibe above and below the surface. “Close and convenient” applies to everything, and both currency and language are courtesy of Uncle Sam. Betteryet, thereare enough dive sites to explore for years — complete with most of the attractions that lure divers to far-flung places. As we’ve found time and time again, there’s a lot to love in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Athree-peat journeytothe U.S.VirginIslands confirmsthat adiver’slove isneverlost By Ted Alan Stedman Photos by Steve Simonsen
  2. 2. st.croix Cane Bay Wall Salt River Canyon Frederiksted Pier ST. CROIX Frederiksted Christiansted 52 M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M 53 Remembrances of your first love might leave you, in turn, giddy, sappy and sentimental — this mix of emotions perfectly sums up my feelings forSt.Croixafteravisitmorethanadecadeago.AndnowthatI’mback, I’m all choked up. “You’ve dived here before?” Rick Meyers, my obser- vantdivechaperonewithCaneBayDiveShop,half-askswhileIsuitup. Ispillmylong-cherishedSt.Cmemories.Afterhundredsofdiveselse- where, returning to the USVI feels like an old lover’s warm embrace. Mention St. Croix to any diver, and talk immediately turns to the wall.BornfromatectonicplateseparatefromtheotherVirginIslands, St. Croix is a mountain poking from the depths. After a series of ver- tical shelves, the north shore slopes to 2,500 feet a meager 200 yards offshore, and eventually plummets to 13,500 feet. The underwater topography triggers upwellings that supercharge marine life with a nutrient-rich buffet. St. Croix’s dramatic diving complements the island’s wild-child ­demeanor.AsthelargestoftheUSVItriplets,it’sthemostundeveloped andhaslargelyturneditsbackonarmadasofcruiseships.Dreadlocked Rastasareplentiful,andoneoftheisland’ssignatureattractionsisthe Mt. Pellier Domino Club’s 650-pound beer-swilling pigs, albeit nonal- coholic brew. Turn seaward and divers get bug-eyed at the encircling 50-mile ­fringing coral reefs, with at least as many named dive sites. Rekindling my love affair here keeps me busy. From the island’s main town of Christiansted, I hook up with St. Croix Ultimate ­Bluewater Adventures for dives along Long Reef, a 3-mile barrier reef section outside the town harbor. With divemaster Mark Fuller, we leap into Scotch Banks, named after a colonial ­Danish ship’s attempt to increase its draft and avoid theshallowreefbyjettisoningitscargoofhooch.This underwatermountainsootheswithagentledriftthat shuttles us over elephant ear sponges, and pillar and brain corals, to limestone ledges that drop into a wall descending 1,000 feet. I’m eager to glimpse manta rays that occasionally do flybys here, but in their ab- senceI’mstillecstaticwiththereefsharks,barracuda andonewide-eyedpufferfishthesizeofamicrowave. ThreemoredaysandI’mprivytoother­magnificent St. Croix sites barely 10 minutes from the dock. Tur- quoise Bay comes up big with two loggerhead turtles and eagle rays, plus the sensation of gliding over a backlitjewelryboxglitteringwitharainbowcoalition of sponges, corals, wrasses, and parrotfish. At Eagle Ray, just outside the harbor entrance, I descend to 85 feetandspythesite’sburlynamesakesouthernrays andanaffable6-footgreenmoray.It’sadive-eat-sleep rhythmthatcouldmakeanyrecreationaldiveraban- donhis9-to-5routinetogopro.WhenIpackmybags for my next USVI stop, I realize that everything on St. CremindsmewhyIbegandivinginthefirstplace. DIVERS GUIDE TO ST. CROIX DON’T-MISSDIVES Salt River Canyon East and West Wall The East Wall begins at 40 feet and drops like a 5,000-foot eleva- tor shaft. Across the submarine channel, the West Wall gets ver- tical from 20 to 90 feet and sprouts fishy ­narrow  passages. Cane Bay Wall This famed north shore dive begins over sandy flats and slopes to the dropoff, craggy with corals until the bottom drops into the 13,500-foot Virgin Islands Trough. Watch for hammerheads and reef sharks. Frederiksted Pier Your ticket to night- diving bliss lies 40 feet beneath this aging pier, a macro dive renowned for spectacular corals and sponges, plus a cast of characters like frogfish, batfish, seahorses, spot- ted eels and lobsters. DIVEOPERATORS Cane Bay Dive Shop canebayscuba.com N2theBlue ­Scuba ­Diving n2theblue.com St. Croix Ultimate ­Bluewater Adventures stcroixscuba.com Average water temp 79 degrees F winter/83 degrees F summer >> What to wear 3 mm wetsuit or shorty >> Average viz 60 to 120 feet >> When to go year-round, with chance of hurricanes from July through October >> For more information, go to sportdiver.com. LEFT: Butler Bay’s five wrecks (the deepest at a little over 100 feet) are best seen over two to three dives. BELOW: Cane Bay’s famed wall is accessible via shore from Cane Bay.
  3. 3. st.john ST. JOHNCow and Calf Rocks Ledges of Little St. James Cruz Bay Carval Rock 54 M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M 55 If I had any regrets about leaving St. Croix,St.Johnlovinglyconsolesme.The ferry from St. Thomas arrives in Cruz Bay,endearinglydubbed“LoveCity,”not just for its heart-shaped bay but also for theisland’swarm,welcomingattitude.In the mood for mellow? Try this: St. John — “The Park Island” — has protected nearly half of its 20 square miles, plus 12,708 underwater acres of federal sub- mergedlandthatmakeupVirginIslands Coral Reef National Monument. Divers droolforitsnorth-shoresiteslikeCarval Rock and other rocky outcroppings and cays,repletewithcanyons,pinnaclesand coral-encrusted rock formations teem- ing with Spanish mackerel and tarpon. My ticket to St. J’s diving begins and ends with Low Key Watersports in Cruz Bay,whereIwadetothediveboat,board with a handful of newbie divers, and meetmydivemaster,SarahMcCutcheon. “I’ve been here only one month, and I’m stilllearningaboutallthesites,”shetells me.Iquizheraboutthebetterdives,and she provides me the perfect answer. “I think that applies to everything here.” Mingo and Grass cays are our first DIVERS GUIDE TO ST. JOHN DON’T-MISSDIVES Carval Rock This legendary rocky upthrust has divers going in circles. You’ll muscle through a stiff current to navigate a shallow cut leading to a sheer 80-foot north wall, where platoons of tarpon hit baitballs. Watch for nurse sharks and octopuses. Cow and Calf Rocks The sister rocks barely jutting above the surface are a labyrinth of swim-throughs and caves that max out at 45 feet. Fin into Cow Rock’s “Champagne Cork,” a narrow open- ing where the surge sucks in and spits out divers like a cork. Ledges of Little St. James This funhouse of coral ridges, alcoves and ledges (also accessible from St. Thomas) runs at two depths, 45 (out) and 25 (back) feet. Fin out and see angelfish, parrotfish and the occasional eagle ray ­snoozing on sand flats. DIVEOPERATORS Low Key Watersports divelowkey.com Average water temp 80 degrees F winter/82 degrees F summer >> What to wear 3 mm wetsuit or shorty >> Average viz 60 to 100 feet RIGHT: Cow and Calf Rocks (also accessible from St. Thomas) offer a labyrinth of swim-throughs. BELOW: Snorkeling the sparkling waters off Mingo Cay. I’m not averse to celebratory ­happy-hour cocktails after diving, but St.  John nudges my sober side, and I spendafternoonswanderingsomeofthe park’s 22 unique nature trails. In 1976, UNESCOdesignatedtheareaaBiosphere Reserve, paving the way for long-term preservationstatus.Amongthebenefac- tors is the Cinnamon Bay Trail, where I walkbeneathacanopyofguavaberryand mango trees, and the marvelously aro- maticbayrumtree,whoseleavesareused in fragrances and flavored rums. After perusing the ruins of the Cinnamon Bay Estate, where settlers processed sugar cane, the trail deposits me at its name- sake Cinnamon Bay. The paper-white crescent sand beach lapped by water that’s every shade of blue is as perfect as they come — a scene I want to stash in a bottle and keep forever. A couple more days and I’m smitten by the island’s marquee dives, like Lind Point, Ledges of Little St. James, Cow and Calf, and my favorite, Carval Rock. Carval reminds of me of a giant ring- toss game, with a core jutting from the surface and surrounded by a coral val- ley base. Like paratroopers, we hit the water on the sheltered south side and immediately kick hard into current to thread through a cut leading to the north side. We swim fast over a ridge formation, then drop 80 feet to the cor- al and a reverse archway. All our work is rewarded when one of the divers in our group becomes enveloped by ­thousands of ­silversides corralled by a nearby school of huge tarpon, which take turns strafing the baitball like silvery incom- ing missiles. Whoever coined St. John’s mellow ­reputation hasn’t dived here. stops,aduoamongseveralcayswithvast fringing reefs in the protected waters of Pillsbury Sound. We drop in 55 feet on the south shore of Grass Cay, and I feel like I’ve invaded someone’s aquarium. The 100-foot-viz water explodes with reef fish, swaying lavender sea fans and purpletubesponges,heftybarrelspong- es, and on and on. Predictably, perhaps, reef sharks make a showing. An hour later at Mingo, we enjoy a repeat of the same idealized Caribbean marine show, onlythistimeahawksbillturtlemakesa courtesy showing.
  4. 4. st.thomas ST. THOMAS Charlotte Amalie WIT Shoal II Armando’s Paradise French Cap Cay 56 M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M M A RC H 2015 | S P O RT D I V E R .C O M 57 The last stop — the first, for most — in my USVI trifecta isSt.Thomas,aquintessentiallyCaribbeancruise-ship port where pricey duty-free jewelry stores outnumber kitschy T-shirt shops 10-to-1. I’m struck by cosmopoli- tan Charlotte Amalie’s emerald-green hills, dotted by red-tiled roofs, all spilling down into a stunning azure harbor. The mile-long shopping district buzzes with gleeful cruise-ship day-trippers, and there’s no short- age of open-air bars filled to the brim with revelers. It’s not for me to say St. T is being loved to death. Because, really, I can’t say I blame them. I soon make a beeline for Bolongo Bay, a picture-­ perfect slice of Caribbean where my digs and St. Thomas Diving Club await. It’s worth knowing that the Club comes with some dive history; namely, that Andre Webberfoundedtheshopyearsagoandwasinstrumen- talinputtingdivingontheUSVImap.Sincehispassing last year, his widow, Pam Balash, has run the shop. Of its siblings, St. Thomas has the monopoly on wrecks, and WIT Shoal II is a favorite. The 327-foot freighter sits at 90 feet with expansive, easy-to-explore passages and plenty of resident marine critters, includ- ing one 600-pound goliath grouper. Another is the USS John F. Kennedy, just outside the city harbor, that lies at 65 feet and is home to large southern stingrays. But on this day, it’s captain’s choice — captain being Club dive- master David Tracy, a gregarious Oklahoma transplant who seems like your best friend in minutes. “Enough talkie, talkie; let’s do some divie, divie,” he says as we giant-stride off the boat. We drop in 35 feet at Wye Reef, a hangout for massive schools of Bermuda chubthatmakemediz- zy as they thread around us. We explore a multitude of grottoes,swim-throughsandcavesthatamounttoavir- tual Hobbit’s shire, inhabited by spotted drum, spotted morays, angelfish of all stripes, and a snoozing nurse shark. We fin 75 yards to what’s left of the Cartanzar Sr., a derelict freighter-turned-drug boat thrashed by Hurricane Hugo and broken into three main pieces. Countless wrasses, gobies, grunts, squirrelfish, and yellow snapper have taken up residence in the wreck’s cracks and compartments. Tracy tugs my fin, and as I pivot, I see the gauzy form of a sizable shark (lemon, blacktip … ­tiger?) in the distance. Like St. John, St. Thomas sits on a subsea plateau DIVERS GUIDE TO ST. THOMAS DON’T-MISSDIVES WIT Shoal II The islands’ most notable wreck, this 327-foot freighter is on its keel at 90 feet with its pilothouse at 30 feet. Five decks offer plenty to explore, but the poop deck is the stand- out with its bounty of orange cup corals and numerous sponges. Armando’s Paradise Thissite,namedafter thecelebratedunder- waterphotographer, hostsawho’swhoof Caribbeancritters. Swim-throughs,forests ofsponges,coral-en- crustedoutcroppings andpassagewaysmake this50-footdiveoneof theislands’mostscenic. French Cap Cay Rock pinnacles spiral upward from 80 feet at this small mountain piercing the surface 6 miles south of St. Thomas. As crashing waves create a foamy surface halo, divers below can spot trum- petfish, angelfish and spotted eagle rays. DIVEOPERATORS St. Thomas Diving Club stthomasdivingclub​ .com Average water temp 80 degrees F winter/82 degrees F summer >> What to wear 3 mm wetsuit or shorty >> Average viz 60 to 100 feet TOP RIGHT: Charlotte Amalie’s picture-perfect harbor lures tour- ists by the thousands. BOTTOM RIGHT: The wreck of the 327- foot WIT Shoal II is one of St. Thomas’ most popular dive sites. that makes for relatively shallow reef dives, and I’m loving the long bottom times with four dives per day. Armando’s Paradise is hands-down the fishiest of my USVI dives — not surprising since it’s named after re- nowned photographer Armando Jenik, who used this site as his go-to for images of an A-to-Z list of species. Following Tracy’s lead, we cruise scenic passageways, explore shallow caves and enjoy the company of surly sergeant majors pecking our masks. Another dive at PacketRock,andI’mfanningawaysandat50feettofind pottery shards and clay smoking pipes from the HMS Warwickthatsankherein1816—just2milesfromshore and after a 2,000-mile journey from England. Back at Iggies Beach Bar at Bolongo Bay, I buy a ­coupleofrounds forTracyandotherSt.Thomas ­Diving Club staff. Tongues gradually loosen; people talk. Most all hail from stateside, and each has his own stories about the USVI — favorite islands, favorite dives. But what connects everybody is a sense of community and appreciation that diving is their job, and that, techni- cally, we’re still in the U.S. “Think about it,” says Tracy. “We’re diving the Caribbean, the ocean’s 84 degrees, rum is cheap, and we’re still in the States. How cool is that?” And, once again, my long-standing love affair with the USVI is confirmed. SpecialthankstoUSVITourism,CaneBayDiveShop,St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures, N2theBlue Scuba Diving,LowKeyWatersportsandSt.ThomasDivingClub.