USVI (part 2) – Best Dives
It’s Week Two in the US Virgin Islands (you can read about Week One here) and we’ve relocated to a rental house near the Mountain Top and it’s World Famous Banana Daiquiri. The view alone makes it difficult to leave the balcony overlooking the rear patio pool. Contemplating real estate and full-time residency over my morning coffee has become part of my routine… but this week is all about underwater adventure and the USVI promises to be incredible.
Downtime between dives allows for some additional exploration including a retreat to Magens Bay, hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (and the bay immediately below our balcony). This area gets a little crowded but the beachside bar and grill provides the flexibility needed to support even the most complex of family outings.
The east side of the island is referred to as Red Hook – an unofficial town named for the red-tiled roofs along the coastline overlooking Pillsbury Sound. It’s ostensibly a marina (Red Hook is also the St. Thomas end of the St. John’s ferry) and much of the area supports the fishing and sailboat cruisers – hardware, pharmacy, and grocery stores but also banks, bars, and restaurants.
I like Charlotte Amalie – the capitol of the USVI – but Red Hook is more my speed. It reminds me of a Jimmy Buffet song, of time spent in Central America back in the 80’s, and fits the mental image I have of Caribbean shore-life. Starting the day with a coffee overlooking the yacht harbor at Lattes in Paradise; afternoon tacos at MeLT Mexican Grill; an evening of cold beer and juicy burgers playing bingo at the Tap & Still; and nightcaps at Duffy’s Love Shack – I’ve forgotten what I came here to worry about. In the pauses and stillness, I feel connected to Red Hook.
Not everything has recovered from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and the more you get off the tourist track, the more you experience it. We have a rental car for our trip – something that makes financial sense given the tourist-rate carfares, but also enables us to go when ready – eliminating the wait for taxi service (especially when the cruise ships are in port). Driving on the left side of the road however (made even more challenging with our left-side-American-Jeep), is not for the unadventurous. Vehicles dart in unexpected directions. Even short drives have a Disney Mad-Hatter’s Tea Cup ride element.
And speaking of adventure…
I’m diving with Aqua Marine Dive Center this week and couldn’t be happier.
I’ll get more formal, but first just let me say this about Aqua Marine: I’m happy to see them each morning, enjoy our time together before and between dives, and after leaving I find myself wanting to dive more. And that’s quite simply the highest review I can offer anyone. Still… here are the specifics:
Aqua Marine operates out the Saga Haven Marina – the facilities are a little rough in the Hurricane aftermath, but it’s location offers a strategic advantage in that’s it’s remarkably close to some of St. Thomas’ premier dive sites. If you’re accustomed to lengthy boat rides with plenty of time to get your gear together, you’re group will be treading water waiting on you.
They also operate the only dive boat that I know of operating a jet drive vessel. This makes for a smoother ride and is also far safer for divers in the water. Moreover, it utilizes a fly bridge, providing a lot of room (I mean, a lot!) for gearing up, stowing equipment, preparing cameras, or just lounging around between dives. I believe that the boat will support 16 divers, but I can’t remember a group size larger than 6 or 8 at any time during the week.
Divemasters Anna and Wolfgang have a tremendous amount of local knowledge (not to mention world-wide diving experience and seamanship). This makes their stories and advice as informative as they are entertaining. They’re also very particular about the gear they offer and utilize – you’ll only find the latest, high quality equipment in use here – and they’re more than happy to discuss why they chose what they dive with and suggest what might work best for you. One of my favorite dives involved Wolfgang and I comparing a variety of regulators in different configurations inverted, upside down, and hovering (I’m never buying a regulator without comparing notes with Wolfgang again!)
And just so I say it: I also appreciated the complimentary Cheetos and rum punch after the last dive each day – lol.
If you’re new to diving (or perhaps have no experience at all), don’t let this prevent you from experiencing and underwater adventure in the USVI. You don’t have to be a certified diver to explore scuba. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) “Discover Scuba” dives let you experience what it’s like to breathe underwater. Or perhaps you’re ready to get certified? Complete all of your certification coursework online before your trip and you can all the necessary dives in 2 days. Here is the link to all of certification courses offered by Aqua Marine.
I thoroughly enjoyed diving with Aqua Marine, our go-to recommended dive operator in St. Thomas and I look forward to many more visits.
Here are my top three dives of the week:
Turtle Bay at Buck Island
It’s a misconception that significant depth is necessary for great scuba diving. The overwhelming majority of my most memorable dives have taken place in 15-30 feet of water (once you’re in over your head, depth becomes somewhat relative). And while that can absolutely be done in Turtle Bay at Buck Island (coincidentally the snorkeling destination of the VI Cat mentioned in Part One), I particularly enjoyed the deeper diving along the reef. The reef sharks kept a curious eye on us all morning.
Cow and Calf
Located off the southeast coast of St. Thomas, Cow and Calf are two of the most recognized dive sites in the Caribbean. The area is named for two large rock formations that breach the surface and are said to look like whales – a cow and her calf. This dive boasts dramatic ledges, wide canyons and a network of coral tunnels filled with caves, reefs, and ancient boulders encrusted with coral.
This one requires a bit of history first:
The Virgin Islands have been ruled at varying times by a host of European countries including Holland, Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, Britain, and Denmark before eventually selling to the U.S. in 1917 for $25 million (in gold, by the way – the Dutch didn’t want paper). But Germany also had an interest in purchasing the Virgin Islands at the time. St. Thomas has long been recognized as a key location for naval operations in the West Indies (U.S. Secretary of State Seward tried to secure it as early as 1867 after Civil War blockade running demonstrated its usefulness) but after 1914, the Virgin Islands were on the direct steamer lane between European ports and the newly opened Panama Canal. So when World War II began, it stood to reason that Germany might simply take then.
The Marines established an air base, the Navy built a submarine base (now the cruise ship terminal), and U.S. warships patrolled the region – including a 190 foot freighter named the Cartanser Sr transporting supplies. After the war, the Cartanser continued to pilot the Caribbean, carrying agricultural goods from South America to the Lesser Antilles.
During one trip to St. Thomas in the late 1970s, the Cartanser was abandoned by her captain and crew for reasons that aren’t altogether clear. The story I heard was that the crew somehow received warning that they were about to be boarded by the Coast Guard, so they abandoned ship (presumably with their illicit cargo), leaving her moored near the mouth of St. Thomas harbor. Over time, the unattended vessel took on water and sank. Again, I don’t know if this is true, but I like the story.
Story aside, a sunken ship in this location proved to be quite a hazard for incoming cruise ships (and we can’t have that). So the Army Corps of Engineers was enlisted to blow it up (“we’re with the government and we’re here to help”) – and that’s when the local dive shops got together and launched the “Save the Cartanser” campaign – selling T-shirts (which I’m now in the market for) and ultimately raising enough money to pay for a large crane mounted on a barge to move the ship.
The effort was led by Bill Letts, a local dive shop owner who was a passionate fan of the Cartanser, and when he passed away in 2005 his ashes were sprinkled amid the wreck at his request. I didn’t know this story when I ran across the concrete plaque embedded in the sand of Shipwreck Cove a few yards west of the stern section honoring Bill’s efforts on behalf of the Cartanser, but I took a photo which led me on this discovery.
On July 16, 1979 the Cartanserwas towed out to an area west of Buck Island and dropped intact into about 85 feet of water. She rested there as an advanced wreck dive until the 1980s, when Hurricane Hugo rolled the Cartanserup out of 85 feet of water, broke it into three pieces. And though I’m not entirely certain of it, my feeling is that part of this wreck has once again been moved by 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (If I’m wrong or you have an opinion on it too, please leave a comment below)
I’m not sure why the Cartanser had such a great impression on me. Humans, their ships, and the oceans have long been intertwined and here lies evidence of it: a vessel built to support a country’s defense; a workplace with schedules, tasks, and demands; and later, an asset and tool for commerce – mission, purpose, and desire enjoined. Someone long before me shaped this metal, forged a bearing, or set a rivet – not to mention those that serviced, enjoyed, or simply stood near these features – a young serviceman, an officer, or a merchant marine. What must they have worried on, hoped for, stressed over, and dreamed about? Maybe they all wanted something better. Maybe we all do.
Perhaps it’s the human story that the wreck tells. Perhaps our stories are tomorrow’s wrecks.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of dreaming and considering my own life lately on boats, and today, as I hover through their history, I feel connected to those visiting these waters before me. And had I not come out here – had I been overly controlling about my location, over-concerned about sharks, or remained afraid of life’s deeper waters – I would have missed out on this experience.
Anything you might be missing out on?
(On an unrelated note, they inadvertently introduced us to live-aboard sailing and we’re now obsessed by it. Stay tuned… this adventure continues).