Main Menu
Join Undercurrent on Facebook

The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975 | |
For Divers since 1975
The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
"Best of the Web: scuba tips no other
source dares to publish" -- Forbes
June 2024    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 50, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

BVI Aggressor, British Virgin Islands

better diving than most Caribbean destinations

from the June, 2024 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

I've made more than 86 trips on liveaboards worldwide, and after my April week on the BVI Aggressor, I'm baffled that the British Virgin Islands is not a more popular dive destination for easy-going divers. Most tourists visit to lie in the sand or sail among the scenic islands, with diving just an afterthought. Yet, I found varied diving, lots of wrecks, lovely reefs, big sponges and sea fans, and enough sharks, rays, and turtles to please the big animal fancier. So why don't we hear about the diving more often?

The BVI AggressorWell, there is one widely known site, the crown jewel of BVI diving, the wreck of the RMS Rhône, which divers put on their go-to list when it was featured in the 1977 film The Deep, starring Jacqueline Bissett and Nick Nolte. The Rhone is a 310-foot British mail and passenger vessel that went down in a hurricane in October 1867. When built, the Rhone was considered unsinkable (such hubris!). It was propelled by a massive steam engine that drove a three-bladed bronze propellor, the largest ever made at the time. But it could not outrun a hurricane. In an attempt to reach a safe harbor near Salt Island, it ran at full steam when it hit a reef, and the hull breached. When seawater hit the boilers, the ship exploded in half. It sank instantly, losing 123 souls.

Today, it's a premier wreck dive, one of the prettiest I've dived. I dived it years ago but never had the luxury of a four-dive day there. The bow section is deepest, around 80-90 feet, and features an enormous bowsprit and mast (the Rhône could also sail) that juts into the sandy bottom. It was magnificent, and even after nearly 160 years, it is still striking. Nearby, our divemaster pointed out a tiny black seahorse female, a dainty contrast to the architectonic majesty of the wreck. Though I didn't exceed 80 feet on this dive, I sucked down my gas, emerging with 500 psi.

The stern section of the Rhône, on which we did two dives, was brilliant. As the day boats had left, we had it to ourselves. I was amazed at the long drive shaft that ended in the massive prop; not far were the remains of an exploded gearbox. And an octopus found the wreck a very hospitable place! Under the huge hull near the screw, a large school of glassy sweepers patrolled. They weren't so happy when I illuminated them with my torch! My log notes "really strong sense of the structure of the ship; the late daylight on the wreck made it magical."

The BVI Aggressor, built in 1980 as an oil field tender, was converted in 2018 to the Cayman Aggressor and rechristened in 2022. She is a beamy 110 feet long, with four decks and ten cabins. It's spacious, with a large, comfortable main deck salon, a big dining room and lounging area on the upper deck, and a bar, dining tables, and hot tub on the partially shaded top deck. We had only six divers, all from the U.S., but even with its full complement of 20 divers, there would be plenty of places to curl up with a book and enjoy some privacy.

Captain John, originally from Maine, welcomed us aboard, and the friendly crew hauled our bags to the dive deck. First mate Jon, a Brit, helped us set up. The dive staff included Madison and Rob from the U.S. and Matt from Britain. Chef Carlos and hostess Sonia hail from Spain, and Jordan, the engineer and night watch, is American. English was the lingua franca, but two divers on my trip often conversed with the crew in Spanish. Vessel safety was the usual: life vests drill, muster points, no charging in cabins unless you are there and awake.

I booked a lower deck mid-ship cabin and luxuriated in a king bed. Built-in shelves and a couple of drawers held my stuff, and the shower in my large bathroom had plenty of hot water, though I often showered on the transom after dives. Two of the main deck cabins have small balconies with great views. The downstairs cabins are comfortable but have far less natural light. It was nice to have nearconstant cell service. Two divers I met onboard were New York Times puzzle lovers like me, and we kibitzed about Connections and Wordle between afternoon dives, and I stifled my spoilers.

British Virgin Islands - MapAfter boarding Saturday, we started diving Sunday morning with an easy checkout at Angelfish Reef off Norman Island, which was a little boring but sheltered. That was the last dull dive. Matt's Rocks near Peter Island -- so named in honor of DM Matt -- were delightfully scenic. The rock tips stuck out above the water, but below the surface, they were massive slabs, as if extruded from the seabed. Schools of snappers and grunts milled about while two gray reef sharks swam lazily by. Nearby Carrot Shoals featured a series of ovoid coral heads, one with a modest swim-thru, particularly pretty as it framed schooling grunts. I often saw lobsters and saw sharks on about half of the dives -- though not at Shark Point! Why is it that dive sites named for big animals rarely deliver?

We dived from large, rigid, inflatable tenders. I would gear up, walk to the transom, and hop on board with some assistance from the crew. Some folks preferred to gear up on the RIBs, so the crew carried their kits to the RIBs and gave them a hand gearing up. To exit, a few divers climbed up fully geared, but rather than tax my back, I ditched my kit in the water. The crew were eager to help.

I'm used to long liveaboard dives, 70 minutes or more, so I was disappointed when I learned that dives were limited to 50 minutes. The BVI Aggressor is a big boat, and there are few places it can safely anchor or tie up, especially when the wind is up. That means getting to dive sites must be on the RIBs, usually 3- to 10-minute trips each way. Those extra minutes come off the dive times. Shorter dives did allow me to switch to a small tank, and since the water was cooler than I'd expected (78-79F), I was OK with a shorter dive. Besides 80 cu. ft. aluminum tanks, they offered 100s. I dived a 63, and one diver who sipped her gas dived a 50.

The BVI AggressorWe arrived at The Indians dive site near Peter Island around 4:45 p.m. The late daylight illuminated a series of big rocks that rose above the water like pineapples. Below, a field of big sea fans undulated, a pair of squid hovered, and a baby nurse shark lurked in a hole. A pair of sleek Spanish mackerel zipped by. I lolled underwater on my back, finning gently, and enjoyed looking up as the light faded.

For wreck diving, the BVIs offer a lot. Some, like the Rhône, are enormous and historic. But Wreck Alley, off Cooper Island, boasts four wrecks sunk within the last 30 years on a sandy bottom as artificial reefs. I didn't find the wrecks themselves deeply interesting, but they clearly interested fish like tarpon and sharks. Many big silver tarpon hung out, looking like they were made of gleaming hammered steel.

Near Virgin Gorda, the wreck of the Kodiak Queen had more historic interest. Though repurposed as an Alaskan fishing vessel, this naval fuel barge survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was oddly embellished underwater with a rebar sculpture intended to represent a giant squid attached to it -- not very convincingly after Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore apart much of the sculpture. But the craft does shelter a lot of mixed schools of the ubiquitous grunts and snappers; I also saw a big green turtle nosing around. Near Virgin Gorda are three small aircraft sunk for divers. Called Shark Planeos, they were modified to resemble sharks. I thought they were a one-line joke, so I cruised to a high-profile reef nearby, where I found shy, black, and indigo hamlets.

At West Seal Dog, not far from Virgin Gorda, I reveled in a shoal of 40 squid lined up like dancers in a chorus line, with the smallest on either end. Seal Dog Rock is exposed to wind and currents and attracts a lot of small critters, as well as Spanish mackerel, lots of lobsters, a turtle, a gray reef shark, and a lovely queen triggerfish. After this dive, most of us headed to the Baths at Virgin Gorda, where we climbed the path and slipped through enormous boulders leading into the water. It's very cool to clamber among these giant rocks and float through rocky channels made of boulders. If you have ever seen a brochure of the British Virgins, you've probably seen a photo of the Baths.

While the coral everywhere was generally in good shape, a lot of drifting filamentous red algae on many sites concerned me. The dive staff called it "hair algae," and that's what it looked like. There was enough in some places to lower the visibility. And, of course, when I see a lot of algae, I see the effects of warming waters and perhaps nitrogen-rich pollution. I hope what I saw is temporary.

Lower deck, mid-ship cabinChef Carlos' food was delicious. I'm not a big eater but I laid into each meal as if it were my last! Hot breakfast with eggs (perfectly poached for me), a variety of meats, and treats like waffles and pancakes were offered before the first dive. Lunch always began with a hot soup, like curried butternut squash with coconut cream or savory sancocho, a traditional Spanish stew; courses at lunch spanned the globe, from Moroccan beef keftas with mint to chipotle beef to lasagna and teriyaki bok choy. Between dives, snacks included homemade carrot cake, apple turnovers, cinnamon rolls, samosas, and pizza. Dinners had more unique food -- appetizers like asparagus croquettes or prawn bisque; main courses ranged from rack of lamb with mango chutney to red snapper. I left room for desserts like brownies, fresh berries, and Basque cheesecake. The kitchen was happy to accommodate special requests. Wine and beer were gratis.

Fueled by wine at our end-of-the-trip cocktail party, I picked up two pairs of fine earrings at a wholesale price. Divemaster Matt's dad lives in the mountains of Turkey, from where Matt brings back silver and zultanite jewelry (zultanite is a semi-precious stone that changes color in various lights). Not your standard dive boat souvenir!

The dive deck is large and comfortable, with hot water showers on the transom, a large camera table, two rinse tanks for cameras and computers, and lots of hanging space for wetsuits. But what? No bin or tub for rinsing wetsuits? Some liveaboards ditched these during COVID, but now that we know they don't spread the virus, most I've been on since have brought them back. So, everyone's rubber and skins really began to stink after a couple of days. I can only imagine the funkarama when there is a full boat. It would be simple and smart to add a garbage bin with water and a splash of disinfectant for folks to dip their garments. Or else provide clothes pins to pinch noses.

And there was no container or basket at the tank setup. You had to use little cubbyholes near the salon door for masks, defog, etc.; booties just sat on the deck. It was fine with six of us on board, but it would get messy with a full boat. Adding some kind of catchall to each dive station would be easy enough.

For the most part it was a flawless trip, but the water pump developed a leak, which took about five hours to fix -- and went out again a day later. It was a minor inconvenience, and Captain John treated everyone to free Nitrox as compensation. He also jiggered the schedule to add two-night dives to the two planned, much appreciated by the divers. I'm not gung-ho on Caribbean night diving, but the other divers on the boat were delighted.

RIB dive tenders awaitSo as not to rush, I added a night in Tortola on both ends of the trip at Cane Bay's boutique Quito's Luxury Inn, owned by Quite Rymer, an internationally acclaimed Reggae music writer and performer (Quito and the Edge), so I enjoyed good local music at the waterside restaurant. They booked an island tour for me with guide Jariel Jones, who not only knew Tortola's history and historic and scenic sites, but his comments on neighborhoods and mores enriched my appreciation of the island. Sixty islands comprise the BVIs; the 31,000 residents are spread among only 16.

Maybe one reason that diving BVI not many divers visit the BVIs is that Tortola's short airport runway isn't long enough for anything bigger than a regional jet. To take off, the pilot spun up the engines to full and then released the brakes, shooting the plane down the runway; landing meant some serious air brake action.

I do think BVI diving is probably more gratifying to less experienced divers; after well over 4000 worldwide dives, it takes a lot to make me gasp. BVI lacks Cozumel's dramatic drifts, Belize's stunning reefs, the Bahamas' sharkiness, and Saba's sheer walls. But overall, BVI diving is lovely, with wrecks, pretty reefs, sharks, and critters large and small, all among picturesque islands with breathtaking scenery ... that says "bucket list" to me, especially for Caribbean divers. It was not high voltage, but I had a truly delightful vacation.

-- A.E.L.

Our undercover author's bio: AEL has written for Undercurrent for over twenty years and has dived all over the warm-water world. This was AEL's 87th liveaboard trip.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: The BVI Aggressor costs between $3295 and $3895, depending on the cabin (on the Aggressor Fleet website, there are frequent lower-price promotions) . . . . C-cards were checked, but there was no requirement for a minimum number of dives or special certifications . . . . Rental gear is best if reserved in advance. If your gear develops a problem, the boat will lend you rental gear at no charge but not repair anything for liability reasons . . . . Tortola's Beef Island airport (EIS) is served by American Eagle from Miami and regional flights from San Juan or Saint Thomas) . . . . . Quito's Inn ran about $400 per night ( . . . . . Nearest chamber is Saint Thomas . . .

I want to get all the stories! Tell me how I can become an Undercurrent Online Member and get online access to all the articles of Undercurrent as well as thousands of first hand reports on dive operations world-wide

Find in  

| Home | Online Members Area | My Account | Login | Join |
| Travel Index | Dive Resort & Liveaboard Reviews | Featured Reports | Recent Issues | Back Issues |
| Dive Gear Index | Health/Safety Index | Environment & Misc. Index | Seasonal Planner | Blogs | Free Articles | Book Picks | News |
| Special Offers | RSS | FAQ | About Us | Contact Us | Links |

Copyright © 1996-2024 Undercurrent (
3020 Bridgeway, Ste 102, Sausalito, Ca 94965
All rights reserved.