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THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS:

Diving In Paradise

Text and photography by Jim and Odile Scheiner/Rainbow Visions
A British Virgin Islands Tourist Board publication
BVI: Diving in Paradise

Floating on a tranquil sea at the edge of the Caribbean lies a wondrous collection of over 50 islands, rocks and cays known as the British Virgin Islands. Unique in the Caribbean -- and perhaps the world -- this amazing archipelago, long a yachtsman's playground is now gaining recognition as a diver's paradise.

From the air, the islands -- some larger and lightly speckled with houses, others tiny and uninhabited -- lie like an interlocking puzzle along the Sir Francis Drake Channel, which winds through the islands like a grand boulevard for yachts. The water surrounding and embracing the islands is a transparent veil, barely concealing the wonders below. A labyrinth of reefs rising from cobalt depths surrounds the islands and hints of endless adventures ahead -- entire vacations spent exploring a hidden world of coral gardens, sunken wrecks and oceanic pinnacles. Divers and snorkelers are the priviledged visitors, for they get to sample the best of both worlds.

The natural beauty of the British Virgin Islands is unsurpassed. Though it's been 500 years since Columbus first sailed through and name these islands after Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, the islands still look and feel much as they did then -- undiscovered and unspoiled. Verdant green hillsides, rife with the sweet aroma of frangipani, tumble down to deserted palm-fringed beaches. Tall ships and sleek yachts glide by on an azure sea. Countless hidden bays and coral cays entice.

Set apart from the rest of the world, the BVI is twice-blessed. Exquisitely beautiful? Of course. But it's the ambiance that will draw you back year after year. Slow paced and relaxed, this is the tropics with style. Once these delightful unspoiled islands get under your skin, you'll be back for the first of many return visits.

THE ISLANDS

For centuries these islands were a haven for pirates, but today they're a stable British Overseas Territory, with a locally elected Parliamentary Government and a Crown appointed governor. The economy is fourishing, based on twin pillars of tourism and offshore banking. BV-Islanders, as the residents are called, are friendly and have a strong sense of community.

The special attraction of the BVI -- beyond perfect weather, bountiful reefs and friendly people -- is found in its diversity. Instead of being limited to just one island there are dozens to explore, each with its own personality and attractions. The islands are so close together that inter-island travel by ferry, dive boat or day-sail charter is part of daily life.

The major islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Tortola is the largest island and centrally located. The island is divided by a mountainous ridge running its length. Road Town is the territory's capitol and a fast growing center for international finance. Tranquil Virgin Gorda lies to the east and is home to the famous Baths as well as several world class resorts. If you want to get away from it all, head to Anegada, with a maximum elevation of 28 feet and endless miles of deserted beaches. Jost Van Dyke is the funky Virgin Island, with its beach bar culture and world famous New Year's Eve party at Foxy's. Peter Island, Salt, Cooper, Ginger and the Dogs -- the list of islands goes on and on.

Scattered throughout these islands are lush resorts, exquisite holiday homes, hilltop villas and small beachside hotels. Throw in a couple of campgrounds and there's something for every taste and budget. Luxury hotels and resorts provide outstanding service and many on-site facilities, while the more independent traveler might prefer a villa or smaller hotel.

Pristine and crime-free, there's not a single traffic light or fast food franchise to be found anywhere. This is the Caribbean the way it should be! No casinos or high-rise resorts, just natural beauty with modern comforts. You'll soon be enchanted with the simple pleasures of the BVI.

THE DIVING

In a word, the diving is exceptional. There is such a variety of dive sites that every day you'll be able to explore yet another aspect of the BVI's unique topography. From remote offshore pinnacles to lush coral gardens and fantastic shipwrecks; no two dives are alike and each of the over 70 established sites has its own special attractions.

Most of the diving is done on the islands and rocks that line the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Their outlying location assures superior visibility and healthy coral. No matter what the weather there are always calm, protected places to dive. Because there are so many dive sites and so few dive boats, many of the sites are rarely visited.

BVI dives tend to last a while, one of the benefits of the moderate (20 to 80 ft.) depths and a customer-comes-first approach to diving. The Indians is one of those special sites that is perfect for both scuba divers and snorkelers. Its calm protected waters and easy navigation make it ideal for either following a guided tour or exploring solo with your dive buddy. You'll find the slower you go, the more you'll see -- cleaning stations galore, jawfish excavating their burrows, glassy sweepers dancing in unison in a small cave. More of Nature's Little Secrets revealed. The Chimney, on Great Dog, near Virgin Gorda, is a similarly spirited dive. These sites, and scores of others, are ideal for divers of all experience levels.

Some of the more spectacular dives are on remote sea mounts laced with dramatic ledges and undercuts. Blonde Rock, Santa Monica Rock and the Invisibles are teeming with schools of fish and offer the likely possibility of encounters with larger pelagics such as tarpon, amberjack, sharks and turtles.

SHIPWRECKS

The best wreck dive in the Caribbean lies in the calm water of the BVI.

The HMS Rhone was a 310-foot iron-hulled steam-sailor that sank off Salt Island in the Great Hurricane of 1867. More than a century's worth of marine growth has transformed its remains into an object of sublime beauty. Evocative of a sunken Atlantis, five sets of "Greek columns," as well as two huge masts and a massive propeller await your descent. At 75 feet, the intact bow section invites safe penetration. Legions of friendly fish round out the attraction.

Over the centuries Anegada's treacherous Horseshoe Reef has claimed hundreds of wooden ships, though today little remains to be seen. Other more modern and more conveniently located wrecks include the Fearless, the Marie L., the Pat and the recently sunk 146-foot Inganess Bay, as well as the remains of an airplane off Great Dog.

Seven miles out in the open Atlantic, halfway to Anegarda, lies the exciting wreck of the Chikuzen. Sunk in August of 1981 it has become a fertile oasis -- attracting marine life from miles around.

DIVING SERVICES

Great diving is just the beginning. If you're coming to the BVI, get ready for lots of personal attention, both above and below the water.

Visitors can choose from a variety of diving options, from daily boat trips to week-long live-aboard cruises. A unique BVI product, "rendezvous diving," serves the large number of vacationers on chartered yachts. A dive boat comes to your yacht, takes you diving and brings you back when you're done -- nothing could be simpler.

GETTING AROUND & ISLAND AVENTURES

The BVI is perfect for traveling with non-divers. Not only are snorkelers and "bubble watchers" welcome on the dive boats, but there are so many other activities that there just isn't enough time to do them all. When you're not underwater try boardsailing, ocean kayaking, horseback riding, or even mountain biking. Of course, you can always do nothing, stretched out on a fine sand beach or curled up in hammock with the latest bestseller. Don't be afraid to go "local" and partake in the nefarious full moon party held monthly at Bomba's Shack or sample real native cooking in one of the many fine local restaurants.

You'll be amazed by how quickly you'll feel "right at home" and eager to venture out. It's easy to get around by ferry, taxi and rental car. Today, hike the wooded trails atop Sage Mountain or Gorda Peak, tomorrow try the yachting-life with a day sail to the Baths (house-sized boulders piled atop one another at the water's edge) or the Caves at Norman Island (where legend has it Blackbeard stashed a king's ransom in pirate booty). The following day, enjoy a trip to a castaway beach on a deserted island. There are no "don't go there" places -- just lots of safe, fun adventures.

PRESERVING PARADISE

Preserving the natural beauty of the BVI -- both underwater and on land -- is very important to the people and government of the British Virgin Islands. Nearly 200 moorings have been installed at popular dive and snorkel sites. Local conservation regulations forbid the removal of any marine organism from the ocean. A growing list of National Parks and Sanctuaries and a commitment to controlled development assures that "Nature's Little Secrets" will be around for years to come.

Text and photography by Jim and Odile Scheiner/Rainbow Visions.
A British Virgin Island Tourist Board publication


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