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July 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

I sense there’s good Caribbean diving here, but…

from the July, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Jost Van Dyke Scuba"You're in for a real treat tomorrow," Martin, my divemaster, told me. Colin (that's Captain Colin Aldridge, the owner of Jost Van Dyke Scuba would be taking us to one of his secret spots on the Atlantic side, "a sea mount with tons of fish and lots of jacks and sharks." These pinnacle dives normally cost $200, but Colin tossed it in to make up for a week of poor visibility. I set off with five other divers and Colin, who briefed us while we geared up at Cathedral, before cruising around the island tip to the site. We were to enter as a group, head down the anchor line to the top of the mount at 70 feet, and make two or three passes around. Colin would carry a reel with its line tied to the boat in case we lost site of the anchor line. The water was a milky aqua color as I went hand-over-hand down the line in 10-foot visibility. At 96 feet, I put my computer in front of my partner's mask to show her the depth and her eyes popped. At 110 feet, all I could see were my feet standing on the bottom. Colin aborted the dive. Seventeen minutes after starting, we were back on the surface.

My partner and I have been diving in the Caribbean for more than 20 years, seeking out the less-traveled spots and hoping to find a place we would want to return, from St. Eustatius (very good) to Vieques (don't go). When we were in St. Eustatius, our divemaster said when he went on vacation, he went to Jost Van Dyke. So we gave it a shot.

Jost Van Dyke (JVD) is three square miles, with 200 residents, no doctor and no airport, but it's overwhelmed at night when hundreds of people from the endless parade of BVI sailboats fill its bars and restaurants. It lies five miles from Tortola and seven miles from the Red Hook ferry terminal in St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. At the ferry office, there were no signs for Jost, so I bought tickets and luggage vouchers for the M.V. Native Son, only to learn it doesn't travel there. I got a refund. Two guys wearing no uniforms or ID badges but saying they were from Inter Island Boat Services took my $140 for two round-trip tickets, and watched our luggage while my dive buddy and I went across the street to the Marine Market to pick up supplies I had ordered online.

Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin IslandsThirty minutes later, we were in Great Harbour, a picturesque seaside hamlet on JVD. I picked up our reserved Suzuki jeep and drove to the road's dead end at Sandy Ground Estates, a 17-acre property on JVD's eastern end. We had to walk down a steep, 100-yard rocky trail to the manager's office, so we left our gear locked in the jeep overnight with no problem. Caretakers Leroi and Nadine were surprised we didn't take the water taxi from Great Harbour. I would have, had I checked Sandy Ground's "Getting Here" website page, or during pre-trip conversations with JVD Scuba -- or if I had just simply asked the best way to get there.

Eight villas are spread among a lush, tropical hillside above a private white-sand shady beach. We had the Hideaway, a two-bedroom unit with a kitchen and two baths. Every room opened to achingly beautiful views of the blue water of Baker's Bay, Little Jost Van Dyke and Tortola. Sailing catamarans swept past all day long. At night, we sat beneath a full moon, listening to the breeze rustle through the coconut palm and coquis chirping in the garden. As much as I hated humping up that trail in the morning, I loved the quiet evenings.

Next day, we made the 15-minute drive to the dive shop, a funky little place with roving kids and dogs, situated on Great Harbour's sandy Main Street. JVD Scuba is crammed with T-shirts, gear, sunscreen, insect repellant and just about everything you need (or think you need) for a dive trip. Colin and his wife, Andrea, own this and three other shops on Tortola. She checked our C-cards and introduced us to Martin, our divemaster whose Cockney humor helped overcome what turned out to be not the best of diving.

For the next six days, Martin hauled our gear bags to the 27-foot Dedicated, sitting just off the beach. JVD Scuba runs five 27- and 29-foot boats, plus the 55-foot Nautilus. All have first-aid kits and oxygen, and get to most sites in less than 30 minutes. We geared up on aluminum 80s filled to 3000 psi. (Nitrox tanks are available, which Martin ferries over from Tortola daily.)

We picked up another diver from a sailboat moored in Great Harbour, and headed off on a flat sea to the collapsed Pirate's Perch, a 150-foot Dutch freighter sitting upright at 94 feet near the western tip of the island, where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. I back-rolled into 81-degree water and followed the mooring line to a lobster trap where a second line led to the wreck. The railings and deck were covered with white Carijoa riisei soft corals waving in the gentle current. A large horse-eye jack hung back from a cloud of several hundred French grunts. Two decorator crabs on one side were either fighting or making little crabs. Large bristle worms covered the deck. Visibility was 70 feet at best; late winter undersea swells had churned up the bottom, and particulate matter hung in the water column. We wrote this one off as a checkout dive.

Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin IslandsAfter 35 minutes, we took a 15-foot safety stop, then Martin ascended to the untended boat. I handed up my weights and clambered up a narrow stern ladder between the twin outboards. Martin handed out oranges and water, and we motored to The Cathedral, a two-minute ride away. After 42 minutes of surface interval, we were swimming over and around huge basalt boulders encrusted in bright magenta, orange and blue. A large spotted drum swayed in the surge that led to a funnel-shaped cavern. Sunlight filtered through a natural chimney in the rock, and we surfaced in the grotto under blue skies. Heading back under, we timed the 10-foot surge and emerged from the cave to swim along the coast, to chasms carved by the sea into huge boulders over millennia. Although dolphins had been seen eight times the previous week (yeah, the "you should have been here last week" schtick), aside from a lone barracuda, the fish life was limited to queen triggers ,queen angels, four-eye butterflyfish, soldierfish and other common tropicals. The underwater topography was great but I wanted more fish.

After the second dive, I hauled my mesh bags on the short walk to the shop, washed the sand out of the large plastic rinse buckets, washed my gear and hung it up. Theft is not a problem on an island with only 200 residents, so they say. In the morning, I packed it up again. Martin was available to help at any time, but divers are responsible for their own gear.

The undersea swells dogged us for the rest of the week. The following day, we headed east to Playground, another rocky site in unusually calm water bordering the Atlantic between Little Jost Van Dyke and Green Cay. We met at a grouping of brown pillar coral, and headed through canyons of immense rock covered in healthy coral and gorgonians, but visibility was down to 50 feet. There were lots of crevices and swim-throughs, and I did see a big puffer in one cavern, but what was supposed to be a very fishy dive wasn't, at least from what I couldn't see. We ended up in an amphitheatre of rock and gazed up at a large tarpon hanging in the crashing surf above. At the base of the cliff, two lionfish hovered in small holes in the rock. Between dives, Martin looked in the hold for a spear, but in vain. He said that groupers routinely take dead lionfish off the spear, but these predators still remained unspeared as the week progressed.

The Scene at Corsair'sWhen we weren't cooking at the house, we tried the local restaurants. JVD is a sailor's party island, its bar and restaurants packed as soon as the sun drops under the yardarm, and two hot spots get most of the press. At Foxy's, at Diamond Cay, the true-to-life Foxy holds court and plays guitar, but service suffers. Four of the five Foxy's brand microbrews were out of stock, along with several standard brands of beer. When I asked for menus, the bartender looked at his watch, even though lunch is served until 3:30, and spent the next 10 minutes trying to figure out how to make a frozen margarita instead of taking our order. We walked out. Foxy's is the only place out on the east end , and mainly caters to the yachties who moor there. You could walk there from Sandy Ground, but has got to a good half mile. The place is full every night, though, and does offer free wifi. At the Soggy Dollar in White Bay, visiting day boats are moored cheek-by-jowl in the bay, and the beach is wall-to-wall people at lunchtime. The Soggy Dollar is living off its reputation, and you probably won't get even close to the bar. Walk down the beach to One Love, try the lobster quesadilla or one of the other fresh fish dishes and relax while the madding crowd carries on elsewhere.

Corsair's has arguably the best food on the island (and right next to the dive shop) and we ate lunch there frequently, noshing on pizzas, great burgers, salads, pasta or fish. The dinner menu includes steak, lobster and Thai dishes. You can hang at the bar with owner Vinnie Terranova (he's from "the islands of Staten and Long"), take a table, an open-air stool or one of the hammocks on the beach (use bug spray for the latter). Ivan's Stress Free Bar has a $25 barbecue every Thursday. It's an island party with ribs, chicken, fish, live music and a laid-back feel. Colin and Andrea may be there when they're not herding day-boaters through the Discover Scuba class.

Wednesday found me at the dive shop at 8:30 a.m., hoping to get an early start, only to find Martin giving a Discover Scuba course to four yachties. I twiddled my thumbs on the beach until 10:30 a.m., when we headed out on the 55-foot Nautilus to North Wall Right. Colin let us gear up first and get in the water. A small nurse shark sat in a hole in the wall, and had been there long enough to acquire a spiny sea urchin on its dorsal fin. The visibility was improving, and I spied a big spiny lobster sharing its den with a slipper lobster. Colin called the second dive off, due to time constraints of the other divers (that sort of thing can be expected, I suppose, at shops catering to sailors and cruisers), but he promised three dives for the following day, rationalizing that the visibility would better still.

And it was. Back at Playground, I was amazed at the colors that a little sunlight and clarity brought to the huge boulders. I saw an eagle ray while still with my group of overweighted newbies, then headed off alone. The sun sparkled off azure vase sponges, while coral trout and rock hinds swam among barrels sponges. Seven barracuda watched me take my safety stop while the rest of the divers were already back aboard.

So while the visibility just wasn't what I had come to expect for March in the Caribbean, Colin tried to do the best by us. On my last day, we went to Great Thatch and Little Thatch, two small islands just off Tortola and in the lee of the swells. The weather was clear, the water was clearer, about 70 feet, and I swam alone along a 65-foot wall, enjoying the healthy coral and reef life.

Frankly, the easygoing life on JVD has me looking forward to returning in the spring or summer, when the swells have subsided and the visibility clears. The frustrating and tantalizing thing is that I had sensed that there's good Caribbean diving there, but I just couldn't see it. JVD Scuba tries to reward experienced divers with freedom and better sites, but sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.

Next time, I plan to stay at White Bay Villas, just over the hill from Great Harbour. I spoke to another couple staying there who got a last-minute deal on a one-bedroom condo in a two-unit building, along with a car for a week for $1,400. You can spend more if you want a villa, but either way, the day boats are gone by evening, and the sunset is yours.

-- E.H.

Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin IslandsDivers Compass: A few U.S. cities have nonstop air to St. Thomas; Jet Blue is perhaps the least expensive carrier, but you stop in San Juan, get to St. Thomas late, and have to overnight there before catching the ferry to JVD in the morning . . . The hourlong taxi ride from Charlotte Amalie to Red Hook's ferry dock will cost about $25, plus tip; Inter-Island Boat Services operates round-trip boats to JVD at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. for $70. . . Grocery stores on JVD have only minimal offerings, so order groceries from Marina Market in Red Hook . . . It cost me $1,750 for a week's stay in a two-bedroom unit, but closer to the action and without the hike are the elegant White Bay Villas; ask for last minute discounts . . . A Suzuki Sidekick runs about $50 a day; open-air pickup truck taxis cost up to $25 each way to Great Harbour, less from White Bay, and you can carry your drink on board . . . A ten-dive package at Jost Van Dyke Scuba cost $499 per person, plus tax, and included tanks and weights; gear rentals ( Sherwood BCs and regulators) are $10 a day, and private charters for the well-heeled are $850 per day . . . Websites: Jost Van Dyke Scuba - www.jostvandykescuba.com ; Sandy Ground Estates - www.sandyground.com ; White Bay Villas - www.jostvandyke.com ; Inter-Island Boat Services - www.interislandboatservices.vi

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