Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the British Virgin Islands for the first time. I spent a week aboard a small sailboat and spent some time visiting a few of the islands. (To see my tips on touring the islands, click here!)
The crystal clear waters around the British Virgin Islands were stunning! In between the islands, the water was a deep shade of blue, but close to land, there were miles of shoreline in sparking hues of aquamarine.
I surprisingly had a great experience scuba diving in the BVIs. Not all of us in the US can afford the time or the money to vacation in Fiji, the Maldives, Thailand, Bonaire, or the Galapagos Islands. These are top places to scuba dive, but are rather far from the US. However, you can still see marvelous sea life in places like Mexico, Florida, and the Virgin Islands.
Because we charted our own sailboat in the BVIs, we were simply able to rent dive gear and dive on our own. I really enjoyed the independence of choosing where to dive and explore on our own. Here’s a little bit about what we saw under the deep blue sea.
Diving the Wreck of the RMS Rhone
Our most exciting dive was that of the RMS Rhone near Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. The RMS Rhone was a UK Royal Mail Ship that crashed during a hurricane in October of 1867. Due to its popularity, the British Virgin Islands made this area a National Park in 1980, to preserve the treasured dive site.
When my husband and I started off to dive the wreck of the RMS Rhone, we spent 15 minutes just trying to find the wreck. Despite the fact that we anchored our boat near a dive boat leading guided tours, we couldn’t find the other divers or the wreck. Knowing coordinates, having a compass, or simply going with a dive tour would be a smart way to go so you don’t use up your oxygen tank just wandering about, like us! (the downsides of diving on your own!)
I have to say, I was a little leary before reaching the wreck, as I’ve never done a wreck dive; knowing that around 120 people died from the ship’s sinking was unnerving (only 25 people of 145 survived). Knowing that so many spent their last breaths on this boat gave me pause.
When the bow of the RMS Rhone finally came into view, it presented itself as an eerie monument to the sailors it lost. Lying on its side in about 75 feet below the surface, the bow of the RMS Rhone was fairly intact. The iron hull, broken in some places, was covered in coral reef. Wooden beams were mostly rotted away. Before arriving at the wreck, I read that there were a few places for swim-through opportunities, but I didn’t have time to look for them.
There were plenty of fish in and around the boat. The wreck of the RMS Rhone provided enough places for creatures like eels and lobsters to hide from view (although we didn’t see any). We did saw a sting ray and 2 nurse sharks that were about 8-10 feet long, circling the wreck.
The crow’s nest of the Rhone was clearly visible, with its long pole extending perpendicular to the ship. A little further away, in about 60 feet of water, you’ll find the midsection of the wreck, along with the ship’s boiler. The stern lies in about 35 feet of water and is less intact than the bow. However, this is a good area that snorkelers and young scuba divers can explore. I didn’t see much of the stern. By the time we finished checking out the bow of the wreck, we had run out of time and oxygen to explore the other areas.
There was a very strong current on the day of our dive, pulling us out to sea. This limited our time underwater, as so much time and effort were spent swimming. This also hampered our visibility as sediments were stirred up.
In order to properly see all of the RMS Rhone, you need to do two dives here. Unfortunately, I only had one tank for this dive. There is a lot to see of this wreck, including a porthole with its original glass and the brass propeller.
Although diving the wreck was incredibly enjoyable, my one piece of advice from this is to buy a dive compass. If you like to dive on your own, I recommend having a compass so that you know where you are going and how to return to where you entered. You need to be able to navigate well enough with the compass or know the exact location where you want to dive if you’re adventuring off on your own.
Underwater Sea Life in the BVIs
There were two other places where we saw an abundance of life in the British Virgin Islands. One area was in West End Bay. This bay, which lies in the middle of the Marina Cay, Great Camanoe, and Scrub Island triangle, had an abundance of sealife. We snorkeled in this bay for a bit and saw a puffer fish, trumpetfish, blue tang, squirrelfish, and more. There were also plenty of parrotfish, sea urchins, and a lot of beautiful fan corals.
We also spent some time scuba diving next to Great Dog Island. There is a site here called the Chimney, named for the formation of two rocks that create a gap that looks similar to a chimney. This dive site is in only 30-45 feet of water so it’s good for beginners. It’s also a great dive site because it’s in calm, protected waters.
There were a lot of fish in this area, probably because of the vibrant and abundant coral. While researching, I learned that this specific area with the abundance of fish is called the Fishbowl. There was a plethora of tropical fish here because of the large coral heads growing on boulders. The colors of the coral and of the fish were amazing!
Closer to Great Dog Island you’ll find more overhangs, walls, and boulders to swim around, as well as the Chimney formation itself.
The Chimney was easily one of the top 3 dives I had ever experienced. The corals and sponges were quite colorful here and the beautiful fish that swam through it simply added to the experience. Little did I know it was one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite dive sites! Of course it helped that we were here early in the day, before all the tour and dive boats arrived.
A Word of Caution
(Always be cautious in and around the ocean. Between dehydration, jellyfish, insect bites, illness, and more, use caution to prevent injuries!.)
On a final note, on our first full day in the islands, my husband had the misfortune of stepping on a sea urchin. Upon anchoring, he jumped off the boat to tie a second anchor line to a rock on the shoreline. When doing so, he slipped off the rock he was standing on and stepped right onto a black long-spined sea urchin! As he is usually the one to get bitten by a jellyfish or man-o-war, stepping onto the sea urchin was a first. After consulting the internet, we figured out what we needed to do. (We should have probably called for medical assistance, but my husband insisted he was fine.)
If you step on a sea urchin or simply run into one:
- Immediately remove any and all stingers or needles that are left in your body
- Use tweezers or a straight edge razor to remove any imbedded pieces (only if you can remove them in a safe and sterile fashion)
- Wash the area with soap and water. Some websites said to soak your foot in vinegar if you can’t get all the spikes out. It was very hard to tell if my husband had any further spikes in his foot, or if the black marks were simply the result of the sting. Nevertheless, since we only had a bit of balsamic vinegar on the boat, he tried to soak his foot in that. It didn’t seem to do anything. (Some say soaking your foot in vinegar will help to dissolve any superficial spines imbedded in the skin.) The spines of the sea urchin were incredibly fragile. Use care when trying to pull them out, otherwise they may break off.
- Cover the stung area with an antibacterial ointment. If you experience itching, use some topical hydrocortisone.
- If you have any swelling, redness, warmth, fever, or severe pain, contact a medical professional right away.
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain.
- If you leave any of the sea urchin spines within your body, they can cause tissue, bone, or nerve injury. It’s always best to contact medical help as soon as possible, if you’re in any doubt about your condition.
- A doctor may suggest you receive a tetanus shot as soon as possible.
Fortunately, my husband recovered with just the balsamic vinegar (maybe?), soap, and some sea water. However, a few days later, he did push out some painful spines that remained deep in his foot. Always watch your footing underwater!
If you are a certified diver, add the British Virgin Islands to your list of places to dive. You won’t be disappointed!