A Week Underwater

For spring break this year (2023), friends of mine had booked a trip to Saint Croix in the US Virgin Islands. When they offered for me to join them in their condo, I was overjoyed. Despite a 26-hour flight itinerary from Missoula, MT to this tiny Caribbean island, I welcomed the warm salty air of the airport with a smile. Tomorrow I would be diving. 

We booked a week of 2-tank boat trips with Cane Bay Dive Shop, a long-time favorite of divers headed to St. Croix. The Ibis, their dive boat, comfortably sat 15 divers and crew, though usually had much fewer guests. Our first day in fact, we were the only guests. Throughout the week, dove reefs just outside of the Salt River, wrecks just north of Frederiksted, and the Frederiksted Pier. We encountered schools of Caribbean reef sharks hungry for lionfish, the stray nurse shark sleeping in the sandy alcoves of the reefs, and herds of charming green sea turtles grazing calm seagrass meadows. 

While lionfish spearfishing is practiced throughout the Caribbean to combat this destructive invasive species with no natural predators hoovering the reefs empty of juvenile fish, it is not safe or ethical to do here. The Caribbean reef sharks living near popular dive sites have been hand-fed from the spear too often, to the extent that they now associate divers with handouts and free lunch. And while there have not yet been any shark v. human incidents, it is imperative that divers practice good dive etiquette and do not feed the sharks, lest there be an incident that inevitably makes life harder for these threatened apex predators. 

The coral gardens around the island have clearly suffered at the hands of numerous hurricanes, global warming, and ocean acidification, but are recovering remarkably well. On a shore dive off Cane Bay, one of the top shore dives according to PADI, our group encountered many vibrant sea fans, albeit babies only a foot or two in diameter, swaying in the currents amidst a myriad juvenile tropical fish whizzing about. These delicate purple corals are the first to be lost after any traumatic ocean event, and seeing their rebound made me optimistic about the future of these reefs. Alien-like contortions of brown moose-antler looking sponges, hairy orange anemones, and lime green soft corals pepper the reef surrounding these sea fans, each doing their part to build a stronger, more resilient reef.

Across from this seemingly untouched dive site, is The Landing Beach Bar, which quickly became our favorite watering hole. Over four visits we sampled the fish n’ chips ($21/plate), the burgers ($10/ea on Mondays), wings ($10/plate on Wednesdays), and a handful of beach cocktails, all of which were satisfying and shockingly affordable. Our other top restaurant of note was The Chicken Shack, a local rotisserie shack featuring ½ chickens with local sides like Johnny Cakes and plantains ($15/plate). We also stopped by Leatherback Brewing Company on Friday night to hear the local live music, a lovely way to round out the waterlogged week. 

Before heading out after this exhausting yet exhilarating week of underwater adventures, I had to stop at Sonya Limited, a true Cruzan gem. In the 1960s, Sonya designed the Cruzan Hook bracelet which has now become a symbol of the island and of love. Pointed with the hook open, away from the wearer, the hook symbolizes the wearer is open to finding love. With the hook closed, pointed towards the wearer, it symbolizes the wearer has already been caught and is happily paired off. Though there are many replica jewelers, Sony LTD is the original. 

Walking into the small shop in my beach-bum attire, I should have felt out of place. It is a luxury jewelry store above all else, but the staff are so kind and welcoming, I lost track of the fact that I was covered in sand and sunscreen. They gently fitted me with a bracelet of my choosing and treated me with the utmost care. Seeing the Cruzan Hook on my wrist every day now gives me a warm feeling, wondering when my next dive adventure will begin. 

There are so many Caribbean islands to visit, but few of them offer the charismatic megafauna found off the beaches of Saint Croix. And fewer of them are accessible with only a US driver’s license; no passport required for US citizens. If you find yourself with a spare few days to visit the US Virgin islands, you won’t be disappointed in Saint Croix.