There is a reason cruisers refer to the British Virgin Islands as, "Nature's Little Secrets." The BVI chain contains a stunning variety of islands ranging from the coral atoll of Anegada with its endless white sand beaches to the main island of Tortola with its emerald green mountains. There are the spectacular boulders of Virgin Gorda and the friendly quaint village on Jost Van Dyke, along with the diversity and seclusion of the other islands and cays. Each island has its unique charm and attractions, offering the visitor on a sailing charter an infinite range of experiences, but an amazing world of color and flourishing life lies just below the surface of the turquoise waters surrounding these islands.
One of the easiest ways to explore this warm underwater paradise, with its outstanding visibility, healthy coral, vibrant reefs and abundant fish populations, is by snorkeling. What is most wonderful about snorkeling is that it is easy. There is no heavy gear; no need for special lessons and it is suitable for all ages- from school children to grandparents. Whether swimming from shore, slipping over the side of your dinghy, or simply jumping off the transom of your sailing charter, grab a mask, snorkel and a pair of fins and explore the underwater world of the BVI. If you do not bring your own equipment, many sailing charter bases can provide it to you for a nominal fee.
The British Virgin Islands are known as one of the best sailing and cruising areas in the world. They are also recognized as one of the top dive and snorkel destinations. With so many options, it is nearly impossible to explore the plethora of underwater sites in a typical 1 to 2 week sailing charter. Therefore, following are twelve of my favorite snorkeling spots. All are suitable for the entire family, from novice to experienced snorkeler. In order to protect the coral beds, each of these sites have mooring buoys available from either the National Parks Trust or Moor Seacure.
Although located on the north coast of St. John, USVI, this bay is an easy sail from Tortola, however, make sure to check in with Customs if you are coming from the BVI. This well protected, picturesque bay has Watermelon Cay on one end and the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins on the southwest corner. Land your dingy on the sandy beach, and after making sure it is well secured, snorkel along the shore and out toward Watermelon Cay. The grass flats right off shore are home to sea horses and a variety of hamlets. Follow the rocky shore towards the Cay. Schools of grunts, trunkfish, flounder and parrotfish call the reef home. On one occasion, we came across a field of about 100 rusty orange sea stars. On another trip, we had the joy of snorkeling alongside sea turtles and rays, as well as coming face to face with a moray eel. The bay is very calm and thus perfect for the novice snorkeler on a sailing charter.
The main anchorage on Norman Island is the Bight, an exceptionally well-sheltered anchorage popular with many sailing charterers. Excellent snorkeling exists on the reef at the eastern end of the harbor, just south of the beach. Tie up at the Pirates' dinghy dock and walk a short distance down the beach just past the gift shop. The reef along the rocky outcrop is incredibly healthy and it extends several hundred yards. Floating peacefully over this garden of sea fans, sponges, parrotfish, wrasse, elk horn and brain corals is a delightful introduction to the BVI's underwater community. We recently spend nearly 20 minutes hovering over a school of reef squid totally intrigued by their prehistoric appearance.
The Norman Island Caves
Norman Island is famed for its tales of buried treasure, but the caves off Treasure Point offer a different type of booty for snorkelers. A short ride from the Bight, you can tie up your dinghy to the line strung between two small round floats or you may also move your sailing charter and pick up a National Parks mooring during the day. Schools of friendly yellow tails, blue tangs and sergeant majors will follow you into the caves. Bring a flashlight to truly experience the Caves, which shimmer with a pastel coating of orange cup coral and red covering sponge. Look hard - you may just find some of that buried pirate treasure!
Considered a daytime stop only, the Indians, a series of tall jagged rocks off Norman Island, are well worth the effort of trying to find a mooring buoy. As part of the National Parks Trust, this area is protected and thus offers spectacular reef snorkeling. Arrive early - this snorkeling spot is popular and cruisers tend to spend several hours exploring. Four cone-shaped rocks rise from a depth of 40 feet to about 30 feet above the surface. Three rocks stand together while the fourth is separated by a narrow channel. Near the bottom, a myriad of fish fill the narrow passages. Expect to see almost every variety of reef fish and crustacean, as well as schools of harmless jelly fish in the summer. Sea fans and corals of every hue dot the walls. When the sun's rays spotlight the vibrant colors of this reef, you will know why this site is considered to be one of the best spots for snorkeling in the BVI. It is truly a spectacular site not to be missed on your sailing charter.
Located on the western end of Great Harbour, Peter Island, this bay offers private seclusion as both an anchorage and snorkeling spot. A shallow coral reef begins about 20 yards offshore, beginning in 8 feet of water, slopes gently to approximately 18 feet, and then drops vertically to a depth of 40 feet. There is a marvelous array of small marine life. In fact, swimming through literally thousands of small fish felt somewhat like a sci-fi experience. What is particularly special about this site is the large variety of coral and huge, deep purple sea fans.
The Wreck of the RMS Rhone
Before she was sunk off Salt Island during an 1867 hurricane, the Rhone had been the pride of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. During the storm, she hit Black Rock, broke in two, and promptly sunk. Today, she sits in three well preserved sections on a sandy bottom and her steel wreckage has become home to many species of fish and is gilded with colorful sponges and flourishing corals. The Rhone is now a marine park that is part of the BVI National Parks Trust. Although preferred as a dive site, snorkelers can still enjoy this spot since much of her decking, rigging, steam engine and propeller are still visible in the section closest to shore. The Rhone is perhaps the most impressive shipwreck in the entire Caribbean.
Located on the northwest shore of Cooper Island, this anchorage is home of the Cooper Island Beach Club. There is a good sandy beach fringed with palm trees with views of many of the islands to the west. Using the dinghy dock, snorkel along the shoreline heading southwest, just past the guest cottages. This shallow, u-shaped reef has plenty of fish action because of the swiftly flowing currents in the nearby channel between Cooper and Salt Islands and the close proximity to the open sea. You will see large schools of blue tang, clownfish, blueheads, butterfly fish and snapper, several varieties of parrot fish and grunts, and an occasional octopus. Along the sandy bottom, closer to the beach, expect to see sea stars, sea horses, and rays.
For some excellent snorkeling, take your dingy to the south of Manchioneel Bay to Cistern Point - a large rock rising above the surface. You can tie your dinghy to the line attached to two buoys and snorkel around the rock. The reef is home to hordes of reef fish, crabs, a nurse shark or two, large barracuda, and according to my husband, the largest spiny lobster he has ever seen.
Although Ginger Island is uninhabited and no overnight anchorage is allowed, Alice's Backside is a good snorkel stop on your way to either Cooper Island or Virgin Gorda. Located on the northwestern tip of Ginger Island, there are only two mooring buoys and they are often occupied by commercial dive operators. If you can find an open buoy, it is worth the stop on your sailing charter. What makes this site unique is that it is a huge sand patch dotted with enormous brain coral and mushroom coral heads. Although our group did not see a lot of fish life other than an occasional ray, the size and beauty of the coral is nonetheless spectacular.
When planning a sailing charter around the BVI, it is essential to include the Baths, a spectacular boulder formation on Virgin Gorda's northwest shore. An extraordinary natural landscape awaits - grottoes created by huge boulders that were scattered by ancient volcanic activity. The sea washes between the huge granite rocks, creating large pools of water that are dramatically lit by shafts of light. A fabulous trail between and over the boulders leads between The Baths and Devil's Bay - the white sandy beach adjacent to The Baths. Although the trail is really fun, especially for kids, snorkeling is also good. A myriad of tropical fish live amongst the tunnels and crevices formed be these enormous granite boulders as they meet the sea. For an ambitious adventure, snorkel from Devil's Bay along the rocks all the way to The Baths. National Park moorings are the only mode of securing your vessel in order to protect the coral. In addition, dinghies cannot be left on the beach. Thus, in order to experience this snorkeling spot, someone will have to drop everyone ashore or you will have to swim ashore from your boat. Either way, prepare to be awe-struck at this marvel of nature!
The Dogs make a good stopping off point for cruisers on their way from North Sound to Jost Van Dyke. The snorkeling is excellent and one of the more common anchorages is on the south side of Great Dog. This area is also part of the National park Mooring System. The reef runs parallel to the island going east-west for approximately 100 yards and drops from 10 feet down to 60 feet. Its rock ledges, overhangs, and cathedral-shaped tunnels and grottoes are home to crabs, lobsters, beautiful fan corals and hordes of reef fish. Snorkelers will be delighted with the kaleidoscope of colors created by encrusting corals and sponges.
At the southern tip of Guana Island is a beautiful rocky outcrop known as Monkey Point. After hooking a National Park mooring buoy, your vessel will be surrounded by hordes of bluestriped grunt and yellowtail snapper. As you snorkel towards shore, friendly yellow jacks are very curious and appear to adopt you as part of their school. What is most special about this snorkeling spot is the several sea turtles that make this day anchorage home. It is truly indescribable to gently swim behind one of these creatures as they glide ever so peacefully through the water.
Visitors come to the BVI to enjoy the magnificence of the area's natural resources - the steady, warm trade winds, glorious sunshine, sandy white beaches, and clear turquoise waters. There is also much to explore with just a snorkel, mask and a pair of fins. A marine park system and mooring buoying program administered by the National Parks Trust is dedicated to the preservation of reefs and marine life. The result is vibrant reefs and abundant fish populations. Accessing this extraordinary undersea world is easy. Arrange your sailing charter and experience "Nature's Little Secrets" for yourself.
Donna Wolfson also know as "Sailgirl" at Virgin Island Sailing, has been sailing in the Caribbean and writing about it for years. Learn more about a