|My husband Kenny and I were certified in a murky
Texas lake during the spring of 1991. We'd talked about learning to dive
for years but never got around to it until our three kids became teenagers
and we finally decided to all become divers.
Right after certification, the kids and I took our first official "dive trip" to Cozumel, the favorite destination of our instructor who thought it was a great place for everyone to take the PADI Advanced Certification course. He was an excellent open water instructor, but NOTHING prepared me for being swept along in total terror by 2-3 knot currents at 110' - not a real enjoyable situation for a new diver! I was so busy trying to maintain buoyancy and stay in control that I hardly remember the walls, reefs, or fish flying by! I almost gave up the newly acquired sport, but decided to give it one more try in the Virgin Islands which were known for maximum depths of 90', little current, and no stress diving. I also figured it would be a far better place for my hubby to do his "first" dives than the swift, deep waters of Cozumel.
We stayed in the North Sound of Virgin Gorda that year and went out with Dive BVI at Leverick Bay. A nice sized boat (not too big, not too small) pulled up to the dock and we were greeted by Roger and Paul, the "instructor" diveleaders, who both had a great sense of humor, gave super previews of the sites, and made our trip quite enjoyable. On our way to the Dog Islands, I mentioned to the guys that we'd always wanted to see a puffer fish - "NO problem!", said Roger with a grin and we all laughed at the odds of finding a puffer on one of Kenny's first "real" dives.
We submerged ... I remember that Roger swam backwards most of the time, carefully watching our little troop of shiny new divers while Paul brought up the rear. Roger seemed to have eyes in the back of his head since he continuously found all kinds of critters as he wound us through the canyons and arches of Chimney - named for an unusual formation where divers' bubbles flow upwards and turn into underwater "smoke". We suddenly rounded a bend, and there it was - a nice big puffer! (I began to wonder if Roger had plastic fish up his dive suit sleeve, but nope, it was real). Our first underwater experiences with Dive BVI were good ones and we came home very excited about our new sport.
We eventually landed at "sister operation" DIVE BVI Peter Island, where we discovered Manager/PADI dive instructor Derrylyn Churchwell, and NAUI/PADI instructor "dived everywhere" Randy Keil. Back then, this branch had a 34' six pack boat - just right for very personalized diving. The first day, Kenny and I were the only divers, so Derrylyn fired up the boat and off we went. Now, when there are only three of you and the sites are moored, divers turn into deck hands. By the end of the day, Kenny and I became very adept at hooking the moorings and doing what we could to help out.
We found the Peter Island bunch as friendly, fun,
and humorous as Roger and Paul of Leverick Bay had been. Diving the Rhone
with Randy is like watching an underwater movie ... not only does he show
you everything in,
around, and through the wreck, but he also enacts the entire movie "The
Deep" playing both Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset (picture an underwater
Tootsie and try laughing without drowning all the way through an 80' dive
some time!) Alas, I didn't get a photo of him doing his "act", but here's
one of him wearing a very fashionable underwater "sponge" hat.
The next year, we returned to Peter Island and were delighted to find the same great Dive BVI staff still on hand. The week started with flat seas, perfect for diving at almost any site. While more than 30 dive locations are within a 20 minute boat ride of Peter Island, some of the advanced dive sites are located in open water and are best attempted in calm weather and flat seas. By the second day, the wind came up and was blowing hard from the east, thus knocking out many of the advanced dive sites. No problem, we chose those which were protected and concentrated on enjoying the canyons, arches, pinnacles, and huge array of tropical fish.
It also gave me an excuse to crank up my game again - this time, I upped the ante to an octopus! Randy hedged and said he hadn't seen many during the day, but... he'd try! We didn't see one, not that any of us really thought we would.
The next day, we were piddling around looking in cracks and crevices when I heard an underwater scream! I turned and saw Derrylyn take off after something while Kenny madly pointed ... they'd seen an octopus which had quickly scurried into a hole. Randy had been finishing some certification dives around the bend, noticed the activity, and lead his students over to us. Meanwhile, I eased down and saw two beady eyes hoping we'd all go away! Randy managed to entice the octopus out of its hiding place and off it went to the next available hole. We all did our underwater grins and couldn't believe my game continued to work! [I must admit though, that I'd been looking for giant 8' monster octopus like on TV and didn't realize that Caribbean octopi were usually only 2' to 3' long! Learn something new every dive!]
We saw an eagle ray at the next site ... it swooped right over our heads and followed us along for a brief spell. I was running out of things to play my game with!
Meanwhile, the wind continued to blow (the sailers were happy). The year before, Roger told us that when we stayed at Peter Island to do Shark Point if we had a chance - a 90' advanced dive next to open waters off the south side of Peter Island and also try Brown Pants, a great second dive, near the southern cliffs of Norman island - two of his favorite sites in that part of the BVI, but they needed calm seas. We all hoped for mother nature to settle down before we left.
We woke up the last diving day of this trip, looked out the window and saw glassy waters stretching into the distance! Derrylyn had the dive boat ready to roll and the three of us were off to Shark Point ... alas, another boat had beat us to the mooring. We went on to Carrot Shoal, another advanced open water site, and it too was taken, but Brown Pants 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 all kinds of large ocean fish, along with some unusual tropicals, plus lots of canyons, caverns, and crevices in the underwater cliffs. We sunk to 40' and were immediately surrounded by ten 4'-5' tarpon! Huge yellowtails swam by. When we reached the canyons, barracuda by the 100s, some 4' long, cruised around us. We came up over a small ridge and were within 2' of a Southern Ray feeding ... it cast a lazy eye toward us and pretended we weren't there. Some huge Queen and French Angelfish drifted by. Clouds of black Durgon floated past. This 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' 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 divesite, four 3' 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 our last dive was going to top that one. Derrylyn was concerned about where we might dive and stay above our maximum depth of 45'. We passed by 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!
The next year, we went out with Dive BVI-Leverick Bay to the Wreck of the Chikuzen, an open water site located north of Tortola. The wreck is a 200' long freighter which went down back in the 1980s. It rests on its side, miles from anywhere and attracts large oceanic fish as well as lots of small ones such as angelfish and yellow snapper.
I was the first to do a front roll off the Dive BVI boat platform and begin my descent. Busy trying to set my camcorder to record, I finally glanced around and was stunned to find that I was surrounded by a school of no less than 100 huge barracuda, all beginning to eye me as a possible invader to their underwater world! I looked up and saw that my husband had just hit the water (ah good, more baracuda bait!). Fortunately, the toothy fish seemed to take interest in the subsequent divers dropping into the water, so I continued my drift toward the Chikuzen.
As our group settled near the bottom, Kimo, our divemaster, noticed a rather large stingray sleeping in the sand near the wreck. He slowly moved behind the creature and tapped it on the side. The stingray rose, swooped toward me while I watched its eyes fill the viewfinder, brushed my legs as it powered by, and then lazily flapped off into the distance. Unfortunately, the camera was out of focus, and all we got was a fuzzy blob! At the wreck, huge schools of fish swarmed in, around, and over the top - hundreds of yellow tail snappers and horse-eyed jacks. A strange hogfish darted by, as did several groups of angelfish.
Our next dive was at Wash Rocks off George Dog Island. As usual, I was the first to drop into the water and as I floated down toward a series of underwater grottos and arches, noticed a huge tail sticking out from one. Settling on the bottom, I was delighted to find that it was attached to an absolutely HUGE grouper!
After eying me awhile, he finally decided to slowly swim past on his way to another arch. Meanwhile, my husband kept flashing his dive light at a wall - I'd pan over, not see much of interest and continue filming the grouper. He'd flash the light again, I'd pan over and once again not see anything. Suddenly, I felt something fly past my right shoulder and thought it was probably another diver who decided to chase the beast. My viewfinder filled with the growing image of a 7' nurse shark which had been sleeping under a ledge, the one my husband kept trying to show me!
Now, you'd think that would have been enough for a day of diving, but nope, we also found several turtles, lots of high hats and eels, plus the usual colorful reef fish!
We left the North Sound of Virgin Gorda and headed for Peter Island for a few more days of diving. The resort was preparing for the arrival of 90 "diving docs" taking over the whole resort ... needless to say, Dive BVI was also making preparations to handle this huge medical group and planned to use their three largest boats plus a leased one, their 12 instructors, and also had arranged for Underwater Safaris and Blue Water Divers to each provide a staffed boat. During our visit, some of the Virgin Gorda instructors came and joined us to scout some of the southern and mid-region sites before the arrival of the "scuba docs" - thus providing a fun and experienced bunch of scuba leaders to accompany us on our dives. I was excited to find that we planned to dive Santa Monica Rock, located in open waters located southwest of Norman Island, and the Indians, known for its great snorkeling as well as diving.
The Indians site is a series of pinnacles rising
from the ocean floor in 45' of water and breaking the surface to resemble
an Indian War Bonnet. Divers circle the base of the pinnacles which have
colorful coral and sponge encrusted walls, a cavern, arches, and always
lots of reef creatures. I seem to film some of the best video at this site.
On "Santa Monica" day, only Kenny and I signed up for the morning 2 tank run, and we all laughed that the "student to instructor" ratio of 2 to 4 was quite unusual! For us, it was underwater heaven - the four instructors, all quite adept at hunting things for us to film, found a tiny baby spotted drum, two juvenile spotted drum, turtles, spotted eels, and several rays; Derrylyn discovered a school of high hats, and Kimo found an 8' nurse shark. They also turned into underwater cowboys and herded several schools of tarpon, barracuda, and grey angelfish in front of the camera. I call this photo "Randy's Roundup".
We were headed back to the boat when Kimo (who is as adept at finding underwater critters as Randy) discovered a huge 5' Moray eel hiding in a big crevice. I swam over with the camera but had problems catching a good shot of the eel since he was so far inside. Randy grabbed my camera and crawled IN with it and caught this shot. This is one of the largest we've seen!
Yes, we will continue to return to the BVI in the "off season" and enjoy no crowds, friendly residents, quiet and peacefulness, all the interesting dive sites which don't need strong currents, endless walls, and bottomless depths to be exciting, and the personalized diving offered by the Dive BVI staff who so nicely, humorously, and continuously play along with my underwater "find it" game and always manage to "find it"! Hey Randy... can we find a whale next time? <grin!>
P.S. We never saw a whale because we don't go to the BVI in February and March, but here's an interesting peacock flounder that Kimo found for me. I started following it and was delighted to find it fluttering to a rock, changing color to blend in and become almost invisible, then swimming off to the next stop. I must have followed that flounder for 10 minutes and was fascinated with all the colors it became! Can you see it in the middle photo below?
|All photos were first filmed
by Lynn McKamey with an RCA video camera in a SubXero housing and then
transformed into computer images with a program called SNAPPY.
Copyright (C) January 1997 Lynn McKamey (ScubaMom)