Virgin Islands Scuba Diving

The British Virgin Islands are best known for perfect sailing conditions, but they also have more than 100 scuba diving sites well worth a visit. These are full of stunning coral gardens, canyons, caverns, tunnels and wrecks teaming with underwater life.

Most of the 60 islands in the British Virgin Islands, line the 18 mile (30km) long Sir Frances Drake Channel. Many scuba diving sites are in the 15′ to 50′ (5m – 15m) range, with others having 60′ to 80′ (18m – 25m) depths. Two of the deepest easily accessible dives are the Rhone at 80′ (25m) and Ginger Island’s Alice’s Steps at 90′ (28m). Most dives are moored and current is almost non-existent – good for underwater photographers. Needless to say, there are plenty of great sites to bedazzle new divers as well as the advanced or expert.

Virgin Islands scuba diving can be split into three different diving zones with some overlap centered around the wreck of the Rhone near Salt Island. Because of the immense size of the BVI, it is almost impossible to stay at one resort and dive all three regions. Peter Island is perfectly centered between Norman Island and Ginger Island with lots of dive sites in between. Tortola has easy access to these same sites, too. Those staying in Virgin Gorda will have short rides to the Dog Islands, the well-known wreck of the Chikuzen, 6 miles (10km) north of Virgin Gorda, and also the southeastern sites such as Ginger Island.

Some of the best virgin islands scuba diving sites are in open waters and often contain large fish, rays, and sharks. One of my most memorable dives had an array of over 20 different kinds of fish from tiny Queen Angel fish to huge schools of Atlantic Spadefish. We’ve seen eels of all types including a giant 5′ (1.5m) Green Moray. Diving is full of surprises in the BVI. And yes, we’ve seen octopus, even in broad daylight. Turtles seem to be everywhere – BVI has worked hard to protect their turtle populations and it shows. One can see a puffer on almost every dive, and Angels of all kinds.

Some of my favorite dive sites are Painted Walls, Ginger’s Back Door, The Indians, and Tow Rock (unmarked, but easily found by BVI dive operators). Of course, the most famous is the Wreck of the Rhone, an incredible experience, done in two dives to see it all. I’ve probably dived this Wreck 20 times and am still finding more to explore and discover.

Here is a log entry of one of our excursion —

“At Brown Pants, a rather shallow dive near the southern cliffs of Norman island, the mooring was wide open … we grabbed it, even though the shallow depths might limit our options for the second dive.

“Derrylyn’s preview told us that since this site was near open waters, we might see some large ocean fish, along with some unusual tropicals, plus lots of canyons, caverns, and crevices in the underwater cliffs. We sank to 40′ (12m) and were immediately surrounded by ten 4′ – 5′ (1.2m – 1.5m) tarpon! Huge yellowtails swam by. When we reached the canyons, barracuda by the 100s cruised around us. We came up over a small ridge and were within 2′ (60cm) of a Southern Ray feeding … it cast a lazy eye toward us and pretended we weren’t there. Some huge Angelfish drifted by. Clouds of black Durgon floated past. It was almost overwhelming!

“We found a deep cavern and shined our lights on a monster lobster which we later named ‘Granddaddy of them all’. Kenny turned from the cave and came face to face with a 5′ (1.5m) tarpon that had been peering over his shoulder! We found rock beauties by the tons, soapfish, caverns full of glassy sweepers, and grandmomma lobster. We passed back by the ray, still feeding and ignoring us (I really wanted to reach out and touch it, but didn’t). As we reluctantly left the dive site, four 3′ (1m) pompano swam around us and followed us back to the mooring! What a dive – no doubt, our best ever for multitudes of fish of every kind!

“Well, no way the second, and last, dive was going to top that one. Derrylyn was concerned about where we might dive and stay above our maximum depth of 45′ (14m). We approached Shark Point, now empty … and with a flash of brilliance, she pulled up to the mooring and explained that while this was usually a deep dive, she thought we could stay on the tops and edges of the canyons and at least get an overview of the entire site. She’d never done it that way before, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. We floated by the first crevice encrusted ridge and Derrylyn spied a gorgeous chain moray – bluish-black with a golden chain pattern – a BVI rarity. We soon found spotfin Butterfly fish, file fish, and a Queen Triggerfish. Overhead were Bermuda chub and horse-eye Jacks by the hundreds. A dark form flashed overhead – a tiger shark cruising by! We found a virtual barnyard of fish that we’d never seen before – Porkfish, bunches of houndfish, Hogfish and dog snappers. On the way back to the dive boat, we floated under more clouds of fish. What a dive to end our vacation! ”

If you want to see the whale migration (whales permitting!), go scuba diving in the Virgin Islands between late December and early April, stay in the North Sound area, and do advanced dives in open waters north of Virgin Gorda. The best months to see whales are February and March when they have babies and must travel on or near the surface.

Water temperature can vary from 76°F (25°C) in January/February to 84°F (30°C) in August/September. Constant trade winds provide a pleasant year around climate. Rainfall averages less than 50″ (1300mm) annually, with most short tropical showers occurring during the hurricane season from mid-July to mid-November. Visibility averages 100′ (30m), but can drop to 60′ (20m) in the warm summer months, or reach almost 200′ (60m) in the winter and spring months.