There are very few places in the Caribbean where scuba divers can plan dives on a reef, a wall, a shipwreck, and then do a night dive under a pier — all in one day, or more likely, spaced throughout several days. St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is one of those places. It is a great destination for scuba divers of all experience levels, as well as for those who would like to learn.
I recently returned to St. Croix for the first time in two decades. My travel companions included three experienced divers and two who signed up for PADI’s Discover Scuba program before arriving in St. Croix.
Our island home for the next four nights was the Renaissance Carambola Beach Resort, where we settled into spacious beachfront suites. Dives for the certified divers in our group had been scheduled over the next several days with four of the island’s top dive operators.
All along the north shore of St. Croix, an underwater cliff starts at depths of 30 feet and drops to over 13,000 feet. Several of the best sites for wall diving are at Salt River Canyon. We boarded Dive Experience’s boat at the Christiansted Pier for a short ride to its West Wall, ideal for both novice and advanced divers. Before entering the water, our dive guide gave us a pre-dive briefing on what we could expect to see and what our maximum depth and bottom time would be.
A Southern stingray greeted us as we descended to the sandy bottom of the reef and then passed by schools of blue tang and other reef fish darting in and out of crevices before reaching the top of the wall. While we swam along its face, slowly reaching our maximum depth of 70 feet, we also scanned the deep blue of the ocean, hoping a spotted eagle ray, reef shark or other larger, pelagic fish would come into view, but none made an appearance during our limited time under the sea.
Cane Bay, considered one of the premier dive sites in the Caribbean, is one of only a few places in the U.S. Virgin Islands where shore diving is possible. Divers can explore a reef and a wall on the same dive. Shore diving can be a bit challenging for new divers, but the waters at Cane Bay are calm, making entry from the white sand shore relatively easy. With our BCs (buoyancy compensators) inflated, we fin-kicked on our backs until our Dive Cane Bay guide indicated it was time to descend. On our way to the wall, which starts at a depth of 40 feet, we stopped to swim around a staghorn coral nursery, one of several established by the Nature Conservancy to re-establish coral in damaged areas of the reef.
N2theBlue Scuba Diving hosted dives at St. Croix’s wreck diving mecca, Butler Bay, on the island’s north tip. The site includes five distinct wrecks at both shallow and deep depths, so divers of all experience levels can visit some or all of them during the course of two dives. The Rosa Maria a 177-foot steel-hulled freighter, is the deepest at 110 feet. Suffolk Maid, a 144-foot trawler that ran aground during a 1980’s hurricane, and the Northwind, a prop in the television movie, Dreams of Gold: The Mel Fisher Story, are two shallow wrecks at Butler Bay.
For me, the night dive under the Fredericksted Pier was the highlight of our stay. It was the site of my first night dive 20 years ago. I still recall the anxiety I felt as I sank beneath the waters to enter a world I’d only recently become accustomed to seeing in the light of day. This time, there was less anxiety but just as much exhilaration.
We received a dive briefing from our guides at Sweet Bottom Dive Center as the setting sun cast its golden light on the surface. One by one, we jumped from the pier using a giant stride entry—the best way to enter the water from large boats and piers. I released the air from my BC and began clearing my ears to equalize the pressure that builds within the ear canal until I reached the bottom at 25 feet.
Equipped with a small flashlight, which helped to illuminate my shadowy surroundings, I began making my way among the coral encrusted pillars of the pier. I first sighted a spindly brittlestar starfish clinging to the brightly colored growth. On the next pylon, a green sea turtle slept inside a large barrel sponge. A group of divers congregated around a seahorse, a creature rarely seen on daytime dives, its tail anchored to a thin coral strand. I swam a short distance from the pier to watch several large, cushion starfish, illuminated by flashlights of fellow divers, move across the sandy bottom into the blue, then I reluctantly followed one of our guides to the exit point. It was our last dive of the trip and I didn’t want it to end.
Buck Island: A Haven for Snorkelers
While St. Croix seems ready-made for divers, snorkelers should be sure to visit Buck Island Reef National Monument, as we did on our last day via an excursion with Caribbean Sea Adventures. Buck Island is recognized for its underwater snorkeling trail spread over 704 acres of protected reef, established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy.
PADI’S Discover Scuba Program
While we were completing our first two days of diving, our “wannabe” diver friends learned how to set up their equipment, clear water from their masks, and equalize the pressure in their ears as part of PADI’s Discover Scuba program. The abbreviated course allowed them to use their new skills on two shallow dives, under the supervision of a certified Divemaster.
After a successful dive to 20 feet on the first day, they joined us the following day on the reef portion of our shore dive to a maximum depth of 30 feet.
To become a certified diver, Discover Scuba participants must complete the full certification course, which includes classroom instruction and several open water dives. The classroom portion of scuba certification can be finished via PADI’s online e-learning program in lieu of an on-site classroom. Learn more at www.PADI.com.
Why dive (or learn to dive) in St. Croix or another of the U.S. Virgin Islands? Because the U.S. Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, divers enjoy the added safety of diving within U.S. waters. The U.S. Coast Guard inspects all dive boats and captains are USCG certified. St. Croix is the most dive-focused island of the USVI.
Access to St. Croix is easy, since it is a U.S. territory and a passport is not required to visit. Direct flights to St. Croix (STX) originate from several U.S. gateways, including Atlanta, Miami, Newark, Charlotte and Philadelphia.
Find out More
USVI Tourist Board – www.VisitUSVI.com
Dive Experience – www.divexp.com
Cane Bay Scuba – www.canebayscuba.com
Sweet Bottom Dive Center – www.sweetbottomdive.com
N2theBlue Scuba Diving – www.n2theblue.com
Caribbean Sea Adventures – www.caribbeanseaadventures.com
Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort – www.carambolabeach.com