SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
February 04, 1980
From the highest peak to the ocean depths, the British Virgins are an amiable archipelago
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February 04, 1980

The Low-key Islands

From the highest peak to the ocean depths, the British Virgins are an amiable archipelago

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A heavy swell was running from the southwest when the Shah dropped anchor over the Rhone wreck, sending swirls of foam whorling over the rocks that took the packet's life, but 10 feet underwater all was calm. I followed Francine headfirst down the anchor line. Squadrons of fish greeted us at the bottom, looking for a handout: angels, parrots, trumpetfish, spadefish and a five-foot-long, baleful-eyed barracuda that the Kilbrides call Fang. We were at 75 feet and had no time for feeding them. Angling off to her right, Francine swam through a huge, upright framework of stanchions. Encrusted in gaudy corals, it resembled a Greek portico or perhaps a giant's bedstead. Then down, down into the gaping blue-black hole that led to the Rhone's ruptured hold. The sharp lines of a man-made structure in the midst of the sea's random array of forms, all of it covered in reds and yellows and blues and greens of coral, put me in mind of lines from Shelley's Ode to the West Wind:

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day.
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!

In the dark of the hold, something moved. Francine whooped through her regulator and grabbed for it—a hawksbill turtle. As her hands closed on the rim of its two-foot-wide shell, the turtle bolted back the way we had come, carrying Francine along until it crashed blindly into an upright stanchion. Then, with a clank and a cloud of gray marl, the turtle slipped loose and disappeared. Emerging from the hole, we slid down one sloping side of the ship, angling past corroded portholes that yawned at us with coral teeth, to a cannon that lay pinned under the wreckage. I peered into the muzzle. Three shrimp squirted out.

We prowled around and through the wreck for the better part of half an hour. The eerie green gloom reminded me of the rain forest I had visited on Mount Sage. Odd that, to my mind, the two most compelling places in the entire BVI should be the mountaintop and the deep. By contrast, the nodding palms, the powdered-sugar beaches, even the million-dollar yachts heeling along with bones in their teeth appeared workaday, banal.

I would dive again with the Kilbride Gang, but in shallower water and through less stirring scenery. I would snorkel around the strange rocks of The Baths, and in the caves at Norman Island, feeding bread crumbs to fleets of voracious sergeant-majors; I would explore the Indians, pinnacles that rise 50 feet above the sea and descend as far below into the rocky shoals across the way from Road Town. I would check out the other resort hotels on the islands and even spend an amusing half hour at the Tortola dump where huge pigs root in the smoking rubble while pelicans dive-bomb the shallows offshore. But the high point and the low point—the mountain and the wreck—would remain for me the essence of those easy islands.

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