The British Virgin Islands is called “Natures Little Secret” by the tourism department there. It does kind of sums up what most people know about them. Not very much. The British Virgin Islands has a great reputation among sailing enthusiast, it also has great scuba diving that mostly remains a secret.
The Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles are a part of the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and its marginal sea, the Caribbean Sea. The Virgin Islands archipelago is a portion of the Leeward Islands and contains three subdivisions: The Spanish (or Puerto Rico) Virgin Islands, The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) and the British Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico Virgin Islands are normally just called Puerto Rico. The British Virgin Islands are officially “The territory of the Virgin Islands”, a British Overseas Territory. However, by common practi,ce the title British Virgin Islands (BVI) is often used in the government and public to separate it from the USVI. To add to the confusion, BVI uses the US dollar as its official currency.
The British Virgin Islands are made up of 60 tropical Caribbean islands many of which are uninhabited. Tortola, is the largest measuring 12 miles (ca. 19 kilometers) long and 3 miles (ca. 5 kilometers) wide and is also the capital. Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dykepart are the other main islands.
Diving the British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands is one of the best destinations in the world for sailing. Yacht and sailing enthusiast come here with their own vessels or rent one when they arrive. They spend their time exploring the islands and calm waters of the archipelago. The crystal clear waters are inviting for a quick swim followed by a picnic lunch on a white sand beach. BVI is a place where traveling to get to your next destination is as impressive as the destination. The attributes that sailors enjoy are equally important to scuba divers.
When you are planning your dive vacation to the British Virgin Islands, you do have a number of options. There are over 75 dive sites that can be visited from the different dive operators. Most dive operators are found in either Tortola or Virgin Gorda. There are also dive centers found on Jost Van Dyke, Norman Island and Cooper Island. You can stay in simple beachfront accommodation or five star resorts, you have many options.
You also have the option of taking a liveaboard. Cuan Law, called the biggest Trimaran in the world, sails the Virgin Islands year-round.
If you are a sailing enthusiast as well as a diver, then you might be considering renting a yacht or other vessel for your holiday. Many of the bigger yachts may have the ability to refill scuba cylinders. These vessels will likely be out of the range of most people. However, a smaller vessel does not mean that you have to forego diving or bring a dozen tanks.
Most of the dive centers can arrange rendezvous diving. There are two flavors of this. The one that is mostly used is where you will anchor at a designated point and the dive boat comes to you. You join the dive boat which takes you and others that are on board the dive boat to the dive site. After your day of diving, you are taken back to your boat. This allows you to have a dive with an experienced guide without the need to travel back to port.
The other method has you renting a few filled dive cylinders. After you use them, a boat comes by and swaps your empty tanks for full ones. A small group of divers may even find that a modest boat may be around the same cost per person as a liveaboard, but with the flexibility of doing it your way.
Diving the Virgin Islands is a year-round activity, with the peak season being December to just after Easter. The hurricane season is considered from June to November, with the greatest potential of a hurricane being in the latter three months of the season. Rash guards and 3 mm shorties are the most common protection worn as the water temperatures are typically warm ranging from 78-83F (25-28C) Visibility is generally at 60-100ft (18-30m).
Not To Miss Diving
BWI dive centers promote about 75 different dive sites and there are another 25 that can be added to the list for visiting boaters. The Sir Francis Drake Channel and the surrounding islands are the focus point of most of the diving. To bring the number of dive sites down to a recommended few is a difficult task. However, there are a few destinations that do shine above the rest.
- RMS Rhone Marine Park: The RMS Rhone Marine Park and the adjacent Dead Chest National Park is the leading destination in the BVI. Together they cover about 800 acres. The RMS Rhone was a Royal Mail Ship that was caught in a hurricane in 1867. The storm broke the ship apart and 125 people perished. RMS Rhone’s bow and stern sections sit about 100 feet (ca. 30 meters) apart from each other. Divers of all skill levels will find this an outstanding dive. Visibility is great and there is no current. The depth ranges from 15 feet (ca 4.5 meters) to 85 feet (ca. 26 meters). The RMS Rhone was 310 feet (ca. 94 meters) long and had a beam of 40 feet (ca. 12 meters). Given the violence that causes her to sink the ship is in surprisingly good shape. Now covered in over 150 years of marine growth, it is a robust underwater community. Blonde Rock, also located here, also frequents best dive site list. This seamount rises from 60 feet (ca. 18 meters) of water to 15 feet (ca 4.5 meters). There are many holes and ledges to help hide the marine life that flocks to this pinnacle. The Rhone’s anchor, the Painted Walls Canyons, and Rhone Reef are other outstanding dive sites within the park.
- The Chikuzen: The Chikuzen was a 246 ft (ca. 75 meters) refrigeration vessel that sunk in the open ocean north of Virgin Gorda. The owners attempted to sink her off St Martins, however, she drifted towards BVI instead. To keep her from running aground she was taken to the location she is now until she sunk. The area around the ship is sand, so the ship has become an aggregation device. Fish just love to hang out around anything above the ocean floor. This area can be subject to swells so this site is best for advanced divers.
- Dog Islands: The Dog Islands are only a few minutes by dive boat from Virgin Gorda. Divers will find over a dozen outstanding dive sites here, each with attributes to place them on the list of the best. Big Grotto is a site that leads to a cathedral-like room with passages to the surface. The Small Grottos site has arches and outstanding marine life. Bronco Billy has the best staghorn coral in the area and is said to have been Jacques Cousteau’s favorite dive in the Virgin Islands. Other remarkable dive sites include the Visibles, Chimney, Coral Gardens, and the Flintstones. The Kodiak Queen AKA the Kraken is the newest artificial reef in the BWI. While located in Long Bay in Virgin Gorda, the site is generally grouped with Dog Islands dive sites. The U.S. Navy fuel barge YO-44 survived Pearl Harbor and WWII to enter a civilian career. Eventually, she ended up in a scrap yard. She was rescued from there, had some interesting art added and was transformed into an underwater art exhibit. It is becoming one of the most popular dives in BVI.
- Cooper Island: This is another popular site with about a dozen dive sites including the four wrecks of wreck alley, Cistern Point known for its large population of tarpons and the sea fan covered Cromis Reef.
There are no direct flights from the Continental United States nor Europe. Antigua, St Thomas USVI and San Juan Puerto Rico are the best airports to connect to the British Virgin Islands. British Virgin Islands’ main airport is the Terrence B. Lettsome Airport (EIS) on Tortola with other major airports of Auguste George Airport, Anegada (NGD); and Taddy Bay Airport, Virgin Gorda (VIJ). From these airports, there is air service to some small islands with ferry service to others. You can also access many of the BVI islands by helicopter.
There are also ferries during daylight hours between St Thomas USVI and different ports in BVI. If you wish to charter a boat you can do so in either the USVI or the BVI.