Diving ‘Wreck Week’ in the British Virgin Islands

By Cherie Beling

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Author: Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell

a diver over the wreck of the RMS Rhone in the British Virgin Islands
RMS Rhone is one of the most popular wreck dives in the BVIs (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)

The British Virgin Islands is known for many things; beautiful beaches, secluded private islands and a vibrant culture, but the islands’ waters are aslo home to a number of notable shipwrecks in the water that make the BVI particularly enticeing for divers.

Each year the BVI holds an annual Wreck Week for divers, which will take place this year from 16 – 22 June. Alongside the diving, Wreck Week also hosts a series of events including beach parties, live music and dancers, beach clean-up days and other water sports activities.

Ahead of this year’s Wreck Week, here’s a look at some of the top wrecks for divers in the British Virgin Islands…

RMS Rhone (Salt Island)

The wreck of the RMS Rhone (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)
  • Max depth: 26m (85ft)
  • Dive level: Advanced

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Rhone was commissioned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSP) in 1865 to carry mail, passengers, horses and cargo from England to the Caribbean. She was a 94m (310ft) iron-hulled sail-steamer, rigged with two masts and a steam engine, and one of the first to use a propeller cast in bronze.

Her maiden voyage was between Southampton, England and Brazil, a route she made six times in total before being transferred to the RMSP’s Caribbean route in January, 1867.

On 29 October 1867, Rhone was moored in Great Harbour, Peter Island, alongside another ship, RMS Conway, when the island was struck by the San Narciso Hurricane. Concerned that the ships – which had already begun to drag their anchors – would be driven onto the rocks, the passengers from Conway were transferred to Rhone and Captain Frederick Woolley ordered his ship out to sea to escape the worst of the weather. Many of the passengers, as was standard practice at the time, were tied to their beds to prevent injury.

(Photo: Frogfish Photography)

Just as the ship was rounding Black Rock Point, the storm violently changed direction and Rhone was smashed into the rocks. Captain Woolley was thrown overboard, never to be seen again. Legend has it that he was using a silver teaspoon, which remains encrusted into the reef today, to stir his cup of Captain’s tea when it happened.

RMS Rhone split in two, and cold seawater contacting the hot boilers caused them to explode. She went down quickly with many of the passengers – still tied to their beds – lost as she sank. Only 25 of the 145 people on board survived. The deeper bow section is dived first, with the mostly-intact steel hull open to be explored, coated with orange cup corals and populated by a school of grunts, accompanied at times by a variety of jacks and a resident great barracuda known as Fang. Scenes from the 1977 horror movie The Deep were filmed in this part of the wreck.

a picture of a great barracuda
Fang the barracuda (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)

The shallower stern section is more broken up but the drive train, boilers and propeller remain in place, and many fascinating relics from the ship, including Captain Woolley’s silver spoon. Nearly every surface of the wreck is covered in corals and sponges, which are particularly spectacular when diving the ship at night,

Chikuzen (Tortola)

(Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)
  • Max Depth: 23m (75ft)
  • Dive level: Intermediate/advanced

Chikuzen was a 75m (246ft) refrigerated trawler built in Japan in 1960, originally named Seujo Maru No. 1, but renamed by her Dutch owners, the International Caribbean Shipping Inc. based in Willemstad, Curaçao. In 1981 she was moored, unused and decaying, in St Maarten’s harbour, when the island’s governors ordered the owners to move her for fear she would block the harbour or damage other ships during an incoming hurricane.

The owners thought this would be a good chance to dispose of the ship, so they set Chikuzen on fire and set her adrift hoping it would sink, but she kept drifting towards the island of Tortola’s Marina Cay. After local boat owners unsuccessfully attempted to halt her passage, tugboats were brought in from St Croix and Antigua to tow her back out to sea. One of the tow lines snapped – badly injuring a crew member who had to be airlifted to hospital – but the smouldering wreckage of the Chikuzen, now 12km northwest of Tortola, finally gave up and sank.

(Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)

The wreck is too far from shore for most dive operators to reach and it’s not always possible to dive due to its exposed location. When conditions are right, however, Chikuzen attracts both pelagic and reef fish ‘like an oasis in the desert’, with a good chance of sharks, turtles and larger stingrays during a dive. It is an excellent wreck for most levels of diver, resting on its port side in 23m of water with its starboard side just 15m below the surface. Much of the sponge and coral-encrusted hull is intact, and there are three large cargo holds that can be entered through open hatches.

Kodiak Queen (Virgin Gorda)

a picture of the Kodiak Queen ship with its Kraken art sculpture before it was sunk
The Kodiak Queen and the Kraken before she was sunk (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)
  • Max Depth: 20m (65ft)
  • Dive level: advanced

Kodiak Queen was a decorated Second World War US Navy fuel barge, first commissioned in September 1940 as USS YO-44. She was one of only five boats thought to have survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, after which she appears to have been abandoned until 1961, when she was converted to a trawler and registered as Vardsha, before being re-registered as Kodiak Queen in 1967.

Kodiak Queen was operational until around 2010, after which she was abandoned until being discovered in 2012 in a scrapyard in Road Town, Tortola, by Texan historian Mike Cochran, who set up a web page to drum up some attention in the hope that the historical Navy vessel could be restored. This brought it to the attention of British photographer Owen Buggy, who took the idea of sinking it as an artificial reef to his friend and former boss, the Virgin magnate, Sir Richard Branson.

A huge sculpture in the form of a Kraken was built around the ship, and the art-installation-cum-artifical reef was sunk in April 2017, where she now lies at a maximum depth of 20m, with her superstructure rising to 3m below the surface, making it a good wreck for snorkelling. The Kraken sculpture was damaged by Hurricane Irma just a few months later, but the mesh structure of its tentacles remains largely intact and wrapped around the ship, where a spectacular array of marine life has taken hold.

Sharkplaneo (Virgin Gorda)

a diver hovering over the wreck of sharkplaneo in the british virgin islands
Part aeroplane, part shark! (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)
  • Depth: 12-23m (40-75ft)
  • Intermediate/Advanced

Sharkplaneo is the result of a project to turn vessels destroyed by the devastating impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 into something useful. Members of the not-for-profit organisation Beyond the Reef, who were also instrumental in the sinking of the Kodiak Queen as an artificial reef, removed three derelict aeroplanes from the airport and turned them into three sculptures resembling a bull shark, blacktip reef shark and hammerhead shark, before sinking them as a scuba diving attraction to depths between 12 and 23m

The BVI Wreck Week runs from June 16 – 22. Direct flights are available with American Airlines from Miami International Airport to Terrance B Lettsome Airport on Beef Island. For more information and to find a participating dive operator, visit www.bviwreckweek.com

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