The US Virgin Islands are the only US territory in the Caribbean, and offer the traveler a chance to experience life island style with an American touch. Located only 80 miles east of Puerto Rico, the US Virgins are near the “top” of the Caribbean chain, and some of the shortest air flights from Miami or other stateside departure points.
The US Virgins consist of three main islands: St. Thomas, which is the capital; St. Croix and St. John. Travel between the three islands is easy and inexpensive; both tourists and residents frequently use water or air taxi services for shopping and business.
The waters around the islands are so clear that snorkeling is extremely popular. For divers, there are over 200 dive sites, caves, coral reefs, drop offs and lots of colorful fish to see, although be careful of short sighted barracuda if you swim into murky water. There are several wrecks of ships and even a wrecked plane to explore. Some divers go to the British Virgin Islands dive sites like the famous RMS Rhone wreck.
Best Diving Destinations in US Virgin Islands
The type of diving available includes reefs, mini walls, and wrecks. All diving is done on the shelf and depths rarely exceed 40 meters.
The great thing about scuba diving off the US Virgin Islands is that a wetsuit is optional thanks to warm water temperatures all through the year.
In the summer months, the water temperature closely matches the air temperature around 83°F, while in the winter the water temperature tends to only drop by 3 or 4°F, staying at 79°F. The US Virgin Islands do not have a rainy season, although they tend to experience slightly more rain during the fall months as well as the months of May and August. Again, the minimal amount of rain does not tend to affect travel plans or affect visitor’s enjoyment of the islands.
Hurricanes are the only weather consideration to bear in mind when planning a trip to the US Virgin Islands as these usually occur between August and September, although they have been known to occur as early as the month of June. It is generally advisable to book a trip to the islands in the early summer months rather than waiting until August and September to ensure the seas are calm and clear.
US Virgin Islands Dive Sites
Some of the top rated dive sites in the area are located off St Thomas’s southern shores. While shore dives are a possibility in this area are are sure to be enjoyable, the best dive sites can only be reached by boat. It is also very helpful to have an experienced local dive guide/captain to show you the best spots for scuba diving around St Thomas.
St Thomas is well-suited for beginner divers or those who have become out of practice in the sport. It is well-known and loved for its clear, warm waters and high visibility levels. Turtle Bay is a popular dive site for novices thanks to its shallow depth of 20 feet and protected location nearby Buck Island. Snorkelers are also able to enjoy Turtle Bay, where they can expect to see schooling reef fish, spotted eagle rays and of course sea turtles, specifically the majestic green sea turtle. Dive Flag is another nearby site suitable for beginners as the maximum depth is just 65 feet. Nurse sharks and a variety of colorful reef species can be seen around this site that is close to Buck Island.
Beginner divers are in for a treat in the US Virgin Islands, as there are even wreck sites that are shallow enough for them to dive. Navy Barges is fairly close to the central south coast of St Thomas and boasts 4 magnificent wrecks to explore, some of which are easy enough for beginners. All 4 wrecks were barges from WWII that were purposefully sunk in 1961 in order to become artificial reefs. Divers can hope to encounter one or more of the many octopuses that live in the wrecks’ nooks and crannies.
For those at an intermediate level of diving, French Cup off the island of St Thomas is a site worth visiting. With a maximum depth of 85 feet, this site is close to some steep walls with drop offs where the current tends to be stronger and the fish tend to be larger in size. For advanced divers looking for an exciting exploratory dive, the WIT Shoal is a popular spot. There are 5 levels to explore on this 300 meter wreck which lies at a maximum depth of 95 feet. Yet another wreck that is worthwhile exploring is that of the 1997 Cessna Multi Engine Airplane, which now lies 100 feet down and shelters families of lobsters under its wings. Aside from great wreck sites, St Thomas is also a good spot for drift diving enthusiasts thanks to the presence of steep walls with dramatic drops, and moderate currents to take divers on an enjoyable ride.
St John’s island is another diving hub well worth visiting, especially for the great shore diving possibilities that can be visited unguided and without any assistance. On the island’s east end is Haulover Bay which boasts a 60-foot mini wall just 100 yards from the shore. Kiddle Bay in the magnificent Coral Bay gives divers the chance to swim through underwater arches and experience some unique coral formations, not to mention enjoy the surrounding inhabitants of reef sharks, nurse sharks, lobsters and schooling fish.
St Croix is the biggest of the 3 main islands, and is world-renowned for its amazing wall dives and drift dives. These walls are alongside drop offs of 1000 feet or more and divers will marvel at the sheer depth of these underwater formations. Salt River Canyon on the island’s northern shore is one well-known site with an enormous drop off, and this site will actually take 2 dives to explore the entirety of the west and the east walls. This site holds historical significance for the islands as it is the site where Columbus moored 17 of his ships during his second trip to the Americas. Cane Bay is another dive site that can be dived from a boat or from the shore and offers steep walls with interesting creatures and marine life to see. There are also a number of small walls and canyons that surround St Croix, making it a top-destination for divers with a sense of adventure.
For scuba divers, St Croix offers pinnacles, reefs, mini walls and wrecks. (Two noted wrecks include Suffolk Mae and the Rosaomaira) Typical marine life includes turtles, manta rays, eagle rays, goat fish, file fish and a forest of black coral trees and forests of elkhorn coral, brain coral, sea fans, a multitude of tropical fish, sea horses under the Frederiksted pier (great day or night dive for novices, an easy shore dive and one of the best in the USVI), walls and drop offs, reefs and wrecks.
St Croix is the largest of the islands and remains of some 100 sugar plantations dot the island. St Croix like St Thomas has world class restaurants, vibrant night life and great shopping.
Scuba diving is good around St. Croix, with forests of elkhorn coral, black coral, brain coral, sea fans, a multitude of tropical fish, sea horses under the Frederiksted pier (great day or night dive for novices, an easy shore dive and one of the best in the USVI), walls and drop offs, reefs and wrecks.
The wrecks are varied, some 40 years old and some recent, with marine life slowly growing on the structures and schools of fish taking up residence. They range from 75-300ft in length and 15-110ft deep, providing something for everyone, from the beginner to the experienced, and should not be missed.
Butler Bay off Frederiksted is home for six shipwrecks. Nearby in Truck Lagoon there are the remains of around 25 old truck chassis that were sunk by Hess Oil to promote marine growth and create an artificial reef. The wrecks of the North Wind, The Virgin Islander Barge and Suffolk Maid are close together, but usually done as two separate leisurely dives otherwise you have to swim rather briskly to get round them all.
There are also the Rosaomaira, the deepest of the wrecks, and the Coakly Bay, the newest, while in between them is the Sondra, a shallow dive which can even be snorkeled, although there is not a great deal remaining on the site. Just behind the Sondra is the wreck of a small sailing boat.
At Buck Island there are underwater snorkeling trails, the two main ones being Turtle Bay Trail and East End Trail, but the markers are in disrepair. The fish are superb, but much of the coral is dead because of hurricane damage; it is hoped that it will come back and some regrowth has been noted. The reef is an underwater national park covering over 850 acres, including the island. Hawksbill turtles nest on Buck Island and, during a 1993 Buck Island National Monument Sea Turtle Research Program, Sandy Point Leatherbacks were also observed nesting there. Half day tours to Buck Island, including 1¼ hours snorkeling and 30 minutes at the beach can be arranged through hotels or boat owners on the waterfront at Christiansted. Another attraction is the Salt River coral canyon.
St Thomas and St Johns
St Thomas and St Johns provide diving for pinnacles, reefs, deep banks and wrecks. Wrecks include the Cartanser Senior and the 350 foot British steamer RMS Rhone sunk in 1867. The RMS Rhone is officially in British Virgin Island waters, but can be dived from the US virgin Islands. Typical marine life to be found includes manta rays, eagle rays, chromis, hamalets, creole wrasse and turtles in summer. Luminescent Atlantic oval squid can be seen at Coki beach on St Thomas, while at Conga Bay orange tubastrea open at night to form a tangerine carpet.
A playground for tropical fish and slow flying sting rays. Depths from 17 to 70ft make this an ideal dive site for experienced divers to snorkelers.
Grottos, overhangs and crystal blue water make this an ideal habitat for tons of tropical, pelagic and reef fish. Occasional turtles and sharks add to the wonderment of this 30ft to 70ft dive.
Large coral-encrusted fingers starting at 50+ft, reaching shoreward to 10ft make this dive seem like a walk in the park. Enjoy the wildlife as you slowly weave through the rows of coral.
Picture frame swim throughs, billows of coral, make this a wonderful dive. With the average depth of 40ft, it’s a memorable experience.
A sea mound laying in 80ft, is home to a bevy of sea life, from the tiny bassets to a shy Jewfish. Often times you may be greeted by turtles, free-swimming eels, eagle rays, sharks and all the wonderment mother nature has to offer.
With ribs reaching upward like the very skeleton of an extinct dinosaur “The Navy Barges” provide a home for an array of tropical fish and colorful coral. The 45ft depth allows plenty of bottom time for your voyage into the past.
A derelict freighter that was moved from Charlotte Amalie harbor and set near Buck Island Cove, was broken into three parts by hurricane Hugo and rolled into 45ft of blue water. Now a home to countless tropical fish, eels, rays and occasional sharks, it’s a great dive for the novice to experienced diver.
Corporate yacht that fell victim to a squall and ended up on the rocks in the late 60s. Time and hurricanes have reaped their toll and have scattered the remains among the colorful reef, with swim-throughs, a large population of tropical fish, lobsters, occasional sharks and turtles, making this 50ft dive a beautiful and exciting dive.
A 300ft plus hospital ship that was used as an office complex now lies 3/4 upside down in 90+ft. Home to a huge Jew fish, and other pelagics, make this an adrenaline-pumping dive.
The premier dive of the Virgin Islands. 400+ft freighter, laying upright in 90+ft of crystal blue water. Home for large Jewfish, snappers, roaming pelagics, turtles and tropicals. A photographer’s dream, as light penetrates the holds and passage ways. Penetrate the ship by entering the smoke stack openings, enter the very soul of the W.I.T. Shoal.
Grain barge, W.I.T. Concrete, Aaron’s barge, Kennedy, Tow boat, and others.
When to Visit US Virgin Islands
Visibility is normally in the 60 to 100ft range, with occasional days of 120ft at some dive sites. The water temperature stays between 80 and 84°F most of the year, dropping to around 77°F in the winter. Dive skins are the favorite apparel here but a shorty wetsuit will probably keep you comfortable any time of the year.
Scuba diving is a highly popular touristic past time in the US Virgin Islands, and dive operators are available on all 3 major islands to assist with dive planning and transportation. Many dive shops also offer dive instruction, training and certification as well as dive guides who can accompany tourists on shore dives and boat dives. Some dive shops can also arrange snorkeling trips and other water sport rental such as boats, kayaks and parasailing for the adventurous visitor.