U.S. Virgin Islands:
Wreck diving in America's Paradise
By BOB STERNER
For Northeast Dive News
You want to wreck dive this winter, but thoughts of banana
islands with their funny money, weird electrical voltages and
foreign languages make you so clammy that you never bothered
to get a passport? Not to worry. The United States has a toehold
in paradise that's true heaven for wreck divers.
The U.S. bought the Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and
St. John from Denmark in 1917 as a defense against the
Germans seizing them to serve as u-boat bases in World War I.
The Leeward Islands form a boundary between the Caribbean
and the Atlantic Ocean, so the 1,556-foot peak of Crown
Mountain on St. Thomas was ideal for radio communication with
warships at sea and as a radar base in World War II.
The islands also are strategically located for maritime commerce.
This creates sites for divers, who regularly visit 14 wrecks
ranging from aircraft and tugboats to freighters. Plus encrusted
anchors on some lush reefs hint of long-lost ships from colonial
days. Wreckage from topside operations, such as discarded
machines of abandoned sugar mills and pilings of St. Croix's old
Frederiksted Pier are bustling habitats for everything from
macro-sized denizens to sea turtles amid islands known for their
M/V WIT SHOAL II
As a military outpost, not surprisingly some of the wrecks saw
duty defending the country. The M/V WIT Shoal II, is a
327-foot-long landing ship tank that was built in 1943 for
amphibious assaults. After the war, she served as a freighter until
Tropical Storm Klaus sent her to the bottom in 1984 off St.
Thomas. An attempt to refloat and tow the Shoal to be scrapped
failed, so she remains with the WIT Power and WIT Crane
Barge, which also sank in the storm. The West Indies Trading
Co.'s vessels now are playgrounds for divers.
Mother Nature has been busy decorating the prizes she claimed
24 years ago. Every inch of the Shoal's rails, machinery and
decks is coated with dazzlingly bright sponges, anemones and
fans, as barracuda, jacks, rays and other fish dart about. Enter
the wreck at 90 feet through the yawning open door from which
tanks and troops deployed for battle. Ascend through five levels
of decks, pausing to think about the uses for the machines and
who used them until reaching the top of the wreck at 30 feet.
Currents can be swift outside the wreck, so hold onto the up-line
to the boat. Since gloves are permitted here, there is no need to
worry about stinging hydroids growing on permanent mooring
Another World War II veteran off St. Thomas, the Cartanser
Senior, was saved as a site by local divers. After hauling materiel,
the 190-foot-long freighter carried miscellaneous cargo between
islands for decades. By 1970, the ship was retired to a cove
where she sank. Being a possible hazard to navigation, the Army
Corps of Engineers planned to dynamite it into oblivion, an idea
that created an uproar among divers, who rallied a "Save The
Cartanser" campaign. They raised enough funds by 1979 to have
the ship raised, relocated and sunk in a cove near Buck Island,
where she now rests at 50 feet.
Many boats stop at the Cartanser as the second dive after a
deeper morning one. However, her charm really comes on at
night, when she serves as the bed and breakfast for stingrays and
turtles. They seek the protection of the ship to sleep in peace and
awaken at dawn to dine on prey hiding in the sandy bottom
nearby or darting in the mid-80s F clear blue water.
Although not a ship, the old Frederiksted Pier pilings resemble
one and form a spectacular night dive at St. Croix. Make sure to
slap on a macro-lens to snap pictures of batfish, frogfish, slipper
lobster and literally herds of seahorses and crabs. All are nestled
amid day-glow sponges and corals. Lighting on either side of the
pier creates an eerie effect and makes getting lost impossible.
This can be visited as a shore dive, but being dropped off by a
boat and swimming back to shore allows divers to see more of
ST. JOHN WRECKS
St. John is the islands' nature park topside and below. This is the
quiet island where non-divers can camp and hike trails while
divers visit the General Rogers, a 180-foot Coast Guard buoy
tender, which was scuttled to the 70-foot bottom 35 years ago.
A mere 200 feet away is the self-propelled barge Mary King,
where a resident goliath grouper holds fort. Operators take
charters to the nearby British Virgin Islands, home to the RMS
Rhone, the 375-foot-long freighter that sank in 1867 that gained
fame as the stage set for the movie "The Deep". Reefs
surrounding St. John offer swim-through arches and tunnels
studded with spotted eels, crabs and lobsters.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. Territories, so a U.S. or
Canadian driver's license will get you through the airport.
However, it's a good idea to have your passport, especially for
any excursion to the British Virgin Islands.
Postage, currency, electrical appliances, language and ATM
cards are exactly the same as U.S. Driving isn't. Practice
driving on the left side of the road in the rental car lot before
heading out to the roadways.
Atlantic Standard Time synchronizes the islands with Eastern
Daylight Time during summer months and is an hour ahead of
EST in winter. Topside temperatures are in the 80s F by day
and 70s F by night, with summer months being slightly
warmer. Showers are slightly more likely in September,
October and May, but they're brief and infrequent.
Water temperatures in the mid-80s F are warm enough for
some to wear shorty 3-millimeter suits. However local dive
professionals and visitors doing multiple dives over days prefer
3- to 5-mm full-body suits, often with light hoods.
Dress is casual. Leave sport coats and ties at home. Bring duds
to cover bathing suits if shopping after visiting a beach. A light
jacket or sweater and slacks can feel good after the sun goes
down. Pack a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen to
these islands that are only 18 degrees north of the equator.
Drink lots of bottled water.
Several airlines serve the islands with flights from gateway
cities. Since it's a U.S. Territory, airlines will add baggage
surcharges as they would for domestic flights. Seaplane hops
make the islands just minutes apart.