Finding Treasure in the BVI

A diver begins his descent onto the wreck of the RMS Rhone off Black Rock Point, Salt Island.

I have fond memories of snorkeling crystalline shallows beneath the lush hillsides of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) as a youth in the early 1970s. Back then, our friend's sailboat navigated many a zigzag course across the Sir Francis Drake Channel to the islands' various anchorages, each steeped in pirate folklore.

Some 300 years ago the golden age of piracy was alive and well in these waters. That history of piracy, both real and fabricated, is still vividly prominent throughout these islands in bars, restaurants and location names. But as a kid I didn't know I was frolicking amid the inspiration for the enchanting pages of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island — it was the islands' underwater world that enchanted me.

Squirrelfish, French grunts and goatfishes hide from the currents on the Rhone.
Now, after more than 30 years of diving around the globe, I am again suspended over that radiant blue water, geared up on the stern deck of a dive boat moored off of Salt Island. We are floating above one of the BVI's most famous dive sites: the wreck of the RMS Rhone. I pierce the placid surface and waste no time heading down toward the swirls of color that glide and surge around the wreck. As I swim past the mast and the sponge-encrusted crow's nest I find it hard to imagine the last hours aboard the 310-foot Royal Mail Ship. A hurricane in 1867 shoved the Rhone unrelentingly into Black Rock Point and sealed her fate.

As I fin past shadowy recesses I see shimmers and flashes — a huge school of baitfish has taken up residence and darts about to avoid my strobe flashes. A pair of coney groupers lies on a rusty section of hull, awaiting the right moment to lunge and snatch a single silverside from the mercurial mass. It is little wonder that these vibrant remains are such a captivating and sought-after underwater backdrop for photographers and filmmakers.

Silversides in the Rhone’s bow section

Fifty Isles in Easy Reach
The BVI comprise a double strand of 50-plus rocks, cays, islets and islands spread along the northeastern perimeter of the Caribbean, just east of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Affectionately referred to as "Nature's Little Secrets," the islands are gilded in tropical greens and range in size from Tortola at 21 square miles to tiny Sandy Cay, just big enough for a picnic with a few friends. Sixteen of these islands are inhabited, and most of the islands' 28,000 residents live on Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada or Jost Van Dyke.


Deadman’s Beach, Peter Island
home for the first few days of the trip was on Peter Island, which boasts five white-sand beaches and many remarkable vistas of the rest of the BVI. My bungalow featured a stunning view of Deadman's Beach and, a mile out to sea, the distinct shape of Dead Chest Island. I soon learned that the island was alleged to be the place Blackbeard marooned 15 of his men, each equipped with a cutlass and a bottle of rum. They take their pirate lore seriously in these parts, so I felt it was best to embrace it all as fact and hope to uncover a doubloon somewhere along the way.
Where the Treasure Really Lies

A dive boat secured to one of the BVI’s many mooring buoys
At least 40 moored sites dot the waters of the BVI, marking an array of pinnacles, walls, tunnels, caves and shipwrecks. The shallows in the BVI are also some of the Caribbean's finest, and many sites are ideally suited to multilevel profiles. The aforementioned wreck of the RMS Rhone, for instance, can be explored at several levels, and it takes at least two dives to experience it. Almost every dive on this unique site brings new discoveries; many artifacts remain, and large sections of the structure are remarkably intact, including a "lucky porthole" (rub it for good luck).

Sponge growth on the Rhone
Nearly every solid surface we swam past was splashed in gold, orange, crimson and indigo from decades of rampant coral, sponge and tunicate growth. The bow rests on its starboard side at 90 feet at its deepest point. My favorite area is the midsection; it features upright columnar framing at 60 feet, which allows huge "windows" for life to meander through against a blue background. The stern sits in less than 30 feet and offers an enormous bronze propeller that can be admired while offgassing at the end of a dive.

On one Rhone excursion, the divemaster helped me find a coral-encrusted spoon on the wreck that is rumored to be the captain's silver teaspoon. The divemaster had set the stage for this discovery in elaborate fashion during his briefing. I had to admit it looked authentic — maybe too authentic, but I felt no inclination to argue about it — legends seem to grow like coral in these waters.

Wreckage of the Rhone

Another must-dive site was Blonde Rock, located in mid-channel not far from the Rhone. During our descent we could see that every square inch of ocean-floor real estate was covered with sea fans, large sea rods, pillar corals and a garden of gently dancing soft corals. The labyrinthine topography features a striking ledge with deep overhangs filled with schooling jacks, snappers, chubs and a colorful riot of crustaceans, including lobsters, huge channel clinging crabs and banded coral shrimp. A sleeping nurse shark almost ran into me as I peered deeper under one ledge. Just as I started my ascent I could see dense schools of yellow wrasse gathered in the shallows for their late-afternoon spawning ritual. They collectively rose from the bottom and then exploded like yellow confetti away from the spawn event.

A reef shark
The next place I dived was an open-ocean site not far from Peter Island called Shark Point. This is an unusual dive site that ranges in depth from 20 to 80 feet. The underwater terrain consists of a series of rocky pinnacles, some rising to within a few fin-kicks of the surface. Much to my delight, larger pelagics such as eagle rays and reef sharks tend to keep things exciting here, so you learn to keep one eye on the blue. Three Caribbean reef sharks made pass after pass, while a large school of silvery bar jacks swarmed around us.

An easy boat ride away, Painted Walls made for a great second dive after Shark Point. Here the converging walls and valleys are a canvas for marine life to work its Jackson Pollock-style artistry. We made our way through the meandering vertical faces draped with tropical shades of mango, passionfruit, lime, turmeric and cinnamon. Our divemaster had wisely recommended bringing a light to reveal the true intensity of the vibrant hues and to explore the shadows for hidden surprises.

A nurse shark with remoras at Painted Walls

From my second BVI home on Scrub Island I set out on a sojourn to The Chimney, which is named after surface rocks that submerge just enough to create a swim-through. The seas were a bit bumpy on the way out, but the water to the north of Great Dog Island was calm and provided unreal visibility. The fairly shallow site (45 feet) offered some great photo opportunities. In one of its many canyons, the coral-laden walls eventually led to a picturesque archway where the chimney rocks came to a meeting point. My focus light illuminated brilliant scarlet sponge growth and tangerine-colored cup coral lining the walls of the arch.

As the week progressed, we ventured to the aptly named Wreck Alley off of Cooper Island. The site consists of the Beata and Pat tugboats and the Marie L cargo boat, all intentionally sunk to create marine habitat. This site is a magnet for larger pelagics and southern rays. The wrecks are small enough for easy circumnavigation, and encrusting growth is overtaking the structures.

During our dive we had very little current and an incursion of incalculable numbers of moon jellies. What started out as a somewhat eerie experience transformed into a surreal and mesmerizing through-the-looking-glass dive as we gently pushed aside the harmless pulsing blobs of translucence and finned as carefully as progress allowed. The wrecks were virtually draped in jellies, whose constant motion made the structures appear strangely amorphous and alive. Back on the surface I was babbling like a mad woman about how it was better than many of the more famous "jellyfish lakes" I had seen. But our divemaster insisted this was the only time she had ever seen anything like it.

Moon jellies on the Beata, a tugboat that’s part of Wreck Alley off Cooper Island

I didn't reach Anegada on this trip, though from past experience I know its reefs are stunning and its allure is substantial on many levels. The 10-mile-long island is the only nonvolcanic island in the chain, and it features spectacular 18-mile-long Horseshoe Reef. With so many shallow reefs, the snorkeling and diving are superb, but Anegada's reefs have proven treacherous as well. They've claimed more than 300 ships, and a number of the remaining wreck sites are dive-worthy and fascinating. Those pirates who learned the reefs well often used the mazelike waters to their advantage. Of course there are plenty of legends about pirate treasure in Anegada's environs.

On my last day I woke determined to get to one more famous and very special location: The Baths on Virgin Gorda. I was still on Scrub Island, but it's easy to get around in the BVI. After a quick ferry ride to Beef Island followed by another to Virgin Gorda, I rented a car and set off. I was on the hunt for treasure, and I would not be denied. Gold doubloons would be nice, but I had come to realize the immeasurable wealth that surrounded me every day in these islands.

The Baths, Virgin Gorda
The skies were postcard perfect; the roads were friendly and easy to drive. Locals smiled and waved. I spotted other tourists I had met during the week, and we shouted greetings. I stopped in the middle of the road for an iguana crossing. The Caribbean breeze blew fragrances both familiar and exotic through my open windows.

And then I arrived. It's a spot so iconic that it has graced the pages of a hundred magazines and thousands of postcards. The Baths were still every bit as breathtaking and alluring as I remembered. Massive, smooth granite boulders framed the water's edge, and powder-white coral sand stuck to my bare feet. Suddenly I was 9 years old again and exploring the wonderful play of light and water around the boulders, this time with a camera in hand. Paradise was briefly mine alone.

Then the cacophony of approaching tourists from a cruise ship ended my reverie, but I had found treasure. The BVI had once again shared their wealth in countless little ways. I could leave enriched and committed to return soon for more.
How To Dive It
Conditions: Diving can be done year round; the water temperature averages 78°F in winter and 82°F in summer. I recommend a dive skin or a 3mm wetsuit during the summer and a 3mm-5mm wetsuit in the winter.

All diving is by boat. There are numerous sheltered dive sites throughout the year, but more are typically available in the summer when the trade winds are lighter and the Atlantic swells are smaller. Diving depths range from 10 feet to 120 feet, with visibility ranging from 30 feet to more than 100 feet. In the summer, occasional plankton blooms can reduce visibility. Currents can range from nonexistent to strong, depending on the site.

Getting There: The BVI are about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico and are easy to reach via Puerto Rico or St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Fly directly to Beef Island, Tortola (EIS), or fly to St. Thomas (STT) and then take an hourlong ferry ride to Tortola. Remember to bring your passport. From Tortola, the other islands can be accessed via ferry or charter flight, which adds an island-hopping charm to the adventure.

Topside Activities: Sailing among the islands is the BVI's No. 1 attraction. Charter a sailboat, or head out on a day sailing adventure.

Island hop by ferry, and discover the islands by rental car or tour bus. Discovering the islands' countless scenic overlooks is its own adventure — you will be rewarded by stunning vistas of the other islands and the endless sea.

Take a ferry to Virgin Gorda, and rent a car or catch a taxi to The Baths. Go later in the afternoon to avoid the masses of cruise ship guests. Enjoy the light hiking and wading through water; it's beautiful every step of the way.

Take a day trip to the BVI's only coral island, Anegada, and enjoy its stunning beaches and delicious grilled lobster.

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See more of what BVI has to offer in Tanya Burnett's bonus online photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2016