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November 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cane Bay Dive Shop, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

easy diving, easy vacation

from the November, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

A cheerful tour guide who called himself "Hollywood" took my dive partner and me in his air-conditioned van to visit the home of St. Croix's "famous" beer-drinking pigs. One pig, actually a boar, crushed the can I put into his mouth, swallowed the beer, and then spit out the can. There are college kids who pull the same stunt, only they would scoff at the O'Doul's the pig drank. They would at least want Bud Light.

Cane Bay Dive Shop's IbisNot many college kids find their way to St. Croix, because it's no party place and not even much recognized as a diving place, just an overlooked member of the U.S. Virgin Islands. But Caribbean easy-divers should pay more attention to it, or so I decided as I finned about Cane Bay in July and discovered comfortable diving on decent and fishy reefs. I was impressed with the loads of barrel sponges and large, undamaged sea fans. The usual Caribbean suspects -- porcupine fish, barracuda, parrotfish, trumpetfish, goatfish, and blue tang -- were abundant, and lionfish were few. I was reminded of the diving on Bonaire's eastern side. In 50-foot visibility on my first dive (and most thereafter), I saw half a dozen Caribbean reef sharks looking for lionfish handouts from guides with spear guns. Many spiny lobsters sequestered themselves in reef holes, as did a large green moray, while shrimp, both coral banded and Pederson's, cavorted nearby. I surfaced a happy diver, warm in the calm, 83-degree water.

For its convenience, I selected Cane Bay Dive Shop, across the street from Cane Bay, though it has three smaller branches across the island. While I considered staying elsewhere, truth be known, I simply didn't want to deal with the British driving rules in effect on St. Croix. Give me an intersection with a yield-only left-hand turn, and I want to pull into the oncoming traffic lane. Give me a traffic circle, and I want to go around it in the wrong direction. Why the British rules? The French threw out the British in the 17th century. In 1733, the Danes bought it and in 1926, the U.S. paid them off. So why does left-hand driving still rule? Because of my driver dyslexia, my partner and I booked a cottage next to the Cane Bay Dive Shop, so we could walk to diving and dinner.

As part of the dive package, Hollywood picked us up at the airport, then stopped at a supermarket so we could stock up with breakfast and lunch supplies. While loading our groceries into his van, he told me I would find a bottle of rum waiting for me in the cottage. After checking in with the dive shop, then sipping a pre-dinner rum and walking to dinner, the long day caught up with me and I hit the hay early.

Cane Bay Dive Shop, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin IslandsMy partner and I were the only boat-diving customers our first day, except for a NOAA intern along to spear lionfish. While the boat of choice for larger groups is the Ibis, a 36-foot Newton kept in Salt River Marina, we dived from the Sea Spider, a 20-foot rigid inflatable boat (RIB). After it was launched from a beach ramp with our gear on board, my buddy and I stepped aboard to join the captain and the divemaster. The Sea Spider was fully equipped with safety gear, and had radio communications to the shop and the Coast Guard (in Puerto Rico). I don't like RIB diving, because too often I have had to kick up over the gunwales only to slip off and roll back into the water until a crewman pulled me in. But this RIB was a surprise. Plywood flooring covered the back two-thirds of the boat, where I sat, while a crewmember unzipped an entry hole in the rubber floor. I dangled my feet in the water, put on my fins, and the crew brought me my rig and helped me slip into it. Then I leaned forward and let gravity do its work. To exit, I swam under the RIB, popped up through the hole, fully protected from splashing waves, and the crew pulled my rig onto the boat. One could kick up or, with crew's hands under armpits, get lifted out. (My wife said she usually expects dinner and drinks before that type of intimacy.) The crew was experienced, mature, and professional - when I got a tank with a bad O-ring, they quickly replaced it. To a person, they were fun to dive with.

We made 10 two-tank morning dives, four from the Sea Spider and six from the Ibis. After the boats moored in 35-foot depths, we divers hit the water and assembled under the boat until the divemaster began the pre-briefed 45- to 50-minute tour, pointing out creatures along the way. Maximum depth was 90 feet. After the tour, we were free to dive unescorted until ready to surface. I arrived at my cottage between 1 and 2 p.m., had lunch there or at Eat@Cane Bay (great burgers), then lolled away the afternoon. Many divers rent tanks and shore dive (the wall is about 400 feet out) both day and night.

Midweek, we reported to the dive shop at 8:30 a.m., climbed into a van, and divemaster Christine drove us to Frederiksted's cruise ship pier (only one ship a month in the summer) to join the Ibis. Offshore, the sea bottom comprised featureless sand flats, with garden eels swaying in the light current. Our first dive was on purposely-sunk small wrecks, all festooned with coral and alive with critters. It was a fun hour-long dive, averaging only 37 feet in depth. We then motored to the pier for an outstanding critter and macro dive. With Christine leading the way, I entered the long passage between the pier pilings, where the variety of sea life was remarkable. Of course, my camera battery died before I could record the frogfish, any of the three octopi, a young scorpionfish and the huge barracuda. Our dive took almost 80 minutes, enabled by the average depth of 26 feet. I would have stayed down longer except we ran out of pier. This dive reminded me of Bonaire's Salt Pier, but with more life. After I climbed back onto the boat, another diver came up carrying a gun she found under the pier. Though only a pellet gun, it added a frisson of danger to this fine dive.

One night, my partner and I walked to Off the Wall, where to get food and drink service, we needed to join in the community Bingo game. While we arrived 30 minutes early, most of the 100 seats were already occupied. We each bought a $5 card and found a spot at a table with two local ladies, each of whom was playing several Bingo cards. The game was humorously conducted as if Garrison Keillor had written the script, each beginning with an announced prize: a Thermos, beach chairs, a couple of bottles of wine which were described as "red" and "white." To win the first game, a player had to get Bingo in a vertical line. Each progressive game required more matches than the previous one. At some point, servers brought everyone a small cup of rum punch, a "sunset shot," to toast the sunset. I didn't see any green flashes, although I might have if I had had a few more shots. My dinner finally arrived with round five of Bingo, which required the winner to cover all the squares on the card. Two players did just that, and split $1,000 cash.

One of Cane Bay Dive Shop's CottagesAt 22 miles long, St Croix is the largest of the American Virgins. The most heavily developed portion is between Frederiksted and Christiansted, where you can find Wendy's and Kmart. Along the southern shore are two rum factories, one of which was reported to be discharging toxic material into the ocean as late as the 1990s, leaving behind a five-mile-long benthic dead zone -- forget diving here. East of Chistiansted, there are low mountains, generally rocky and arid. Extending from this area is a shelf supporting a rich reef community, now a national marine preserve. The offshore wall, which begins a few hundred feet from shore, falls quickly to the depths and contains a narrow band of barrier reef extending from the marine preserve into Cane Bay.

I loved the convenience of staying and diving at Cane Bay. We were within walking distance of several restaurants, including the delicious but somewhat pricey Eat @ Cane Bay, across the parking lot from my cottage (prices were about 20 percent higher than the mainland). I dined on "Lazy Lobster," grilled and chopped into bite-sized pieces, flavored with spices and butter, and placed into lobster half shells. I drank a very good French Columbelle with it, then finished with vanilla ice cream served with chocolate sauce. We also enjoyed a good dinner at Rowdy Joe's, a two-mile walk from the cottage. The owner graciously gave us a ride back, as it wasn't possible to call a taxi.

The cottage made for comfortable living. Measuring around 900 square feet, it had a nicely equipped kitchen, including a microwave, stove, and fridge; a dining area; a comfortable living room with a TV and DVD player; and bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a single bath. The deck, with a barbecue, served well for drying dive gear. My request to fix one of the ceiling fans was answered promptly. However, the single AC unit, even with three ceiling fans, was inadequate to cool the entire cottage, given the 90-plus temperatures that prevailed in late July, and affected my sleep each night (I was told conditions were hotter than normal). The humidity was high, though an active breeze helped.

Cane Bay Dive Shop, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin IslandsThe number of boat divers varied daily, with most coming from California, which is quite a trip. Among the divers was a 12-year-old boy, certified two years earlier, diving with his father. While I have concerns about the ability of children to handle diving, this conscientious young guy carefully monitored his depth and air consumption, and his father stepped in to signal the divemaster when the boy was running low on air.

There was more to land excursions than seeing beer-drinking pigs. Hollywood drove us through the rainforest, replete with mahogany and kapok trees. We had lunch by the water at Rum Runner's in Christiansted, where the National Park Service has done a super job preserving this 18th century seaside town.

All too soon, I was diving the last dive, always a bittersweet experience. We shared the Sea Spider with an underwater photography professional working at another shop who told us she loved to dive Cane Bay on her days off. We drove to a mooring directly in front of the dive shop, perhaps 500 feet off shore. Unlike on my earlier dives, the water was choppy, so the boat rocked and rolled, and all of us hung on tightly. My partner even got seasick. Just past the end of the sandy flat area extending out from shore, the coral reef dropped off steeply into the depths. I passed "the world's biggest seahorse," a small statue that resembled a carousel horse, and was greeted by several reef sharks, one of which attacked a lionfish still on the divemaster's spear. As usual, small schools of the usual reef fish flitted about, and several spotted morays peered from holes. A large female lobster waddled on the sand, her tail's underside loaded with eggs. A small hawksbill turtle munched at sponges, and I saw a sizeable Southern stingray on a sandy ravine plunging through the coral. Perhaps nothing remarkable, but surely a wellrounded, fitting end to an enjoyable week of diving.

The variety and abundance of fish life here approaches that of Bonaire, which I've been visiting annually for a decade, with large trumpetfish, drumfish, trunkfish, large lobsters, peacock flounder, moray eels, snapper in abundance and occasional turtles. And like Bonaire, St. Croix is a fine one-week vacation venue with easy, not-so-adventurous diving. It's American, the dollar is the currency, there are good restaurants, and enough to do and see to fill up afternoons if you get tired of kicking back or decide not to take a third dive. A fun and friendly island, it will be on my list next summer. But I doubt I'll visit the pig again.

-- J.N.F.

Cane Bay Dive Shop, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin IslandsDivers Compass: The price is right: $2,300 for two included five days of boat diving, unlimited shore diving, our cottage, and transfers to/from the airport . . . Cane Bay Dive Shop charges $115 for a standard two-tank boat dive and rents Cressi equipment . . . Electric voltage in the Cane Bay Cottages is the same as the mainland U.S.; maid service isn't offered . . . Ask your airport-transfer driver to stop at the Extra Grocery Store on your way to the cottage so you have the widest (and least expensive) grocery options to stock up on . . . Cruzan Run is the homegrown favorite drink of choice . . . Website: www.canebayscuba.com

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