Tortola, British Virgin IslandsTravel report written by TJ David
Tortola is a small Carribean island located 60 miles east of Puerto Rico. This island hosts the capitol of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a territory of Britain, and is one of 50 small islands in the area most of which aren’t inhabited. It is a relaxing and informal island where vacationers are very welcomed by the locals, who are known as “belongers.” The highlight of the BVI is sightseeing, diving, snorkeling, and sailing. Tortola is an extremely hilly volcanic island, and driving the hills can be challenging especially since you drive on the left side of the road like in Great Britain, but the steering wheel in the car is on the American side! It is unlike any place I have been before; chickens, goats, roosters, and donkeys can be seen while driving around and sometimes get in your way.
The capitol of the BVI’s is Roadtown on Tortola, which is located on the south side of the island and where most of the businesses are located, and it is the major pickup point for bare boaters. The shopping on the island is minimal, but you will find some local clothing stores and small shops for the cruise ship passengers that come in about once a week. One of the most interesting and fun stores is a small shop called Sunny Caribbee, which is a spice store that sells all sorts of spices from the West Indies including delicious hot sauces, flavored teas, and many other local spices. In addition it offers locally handmade wooden bowls and serving pieces as well as local artists’ works. Other mentionable shops are Latitude 18° (clothing), Hucksters, and Bambooshay Pottery, all of which are located right near Sunny Caribbee. There is an excellent bakery in Roadtown (the Roadtown Bakery) that has the best scones I’ve ever had!
On the other north side of the island is Cane Garden Bay where I stayed in a beautiful home owned by friends (no addresses—the house is just known as Seven Peaks). This small bay is the most attractive of all the small bays because of the restaurants, live music at night, wonderful white sandy beach, and the reef for snorkeling. There are also quite a few places to stay including Myett’s Cottages, Agape Cottages, the Sugar Mill, and Mongoose Apartments. Prices vary according to the accommodations you are seeking as well as the season. Renting a car is a great way to see the island, and it allows flexibility for restaurants, diving, snorkeling, and general exploring. Do stop by Soper’s Hole on the west end of Tortola and also Nanny Cay (there’s a nice shop there called Arawak—you’ll have to hunt for it though!).
The snorkeling on Tortola is excellent; Cane Garden Bay and Brewers Bay are the two nicest spots on the island to snorkel. Each of them is easily accessible by shore, and the reefs are very healthy. On the west end of Cane Garden Bay the reef ranges from about three feet to about 15 feet and is filled with marine life such as nurse sharks (the biggest I saw was about 5-6 ft.), blue tang, slipper lobsters, turtles, angelfish, and trunkfish. Colorful tropical fish are everywhere too! The coral is plentiful too—brain coral, fungus coral, elkhorn coral, fan coral, etc. To get to the nicest part of the reef in Cane Garden Bay, just follow the old pipeline that runs out from the south end of the shore; you will know you’ve reached the best spot when you look up and are directly in front of the house with the purple peaks (Seven Peaks). The beach is so nice at Cane Garden Bay that you can spend the day there snorkeling, beaching, and choosing from one of the many restaurants to have lunch and specialty rum drinks! Stanley’s is a great place to catch a drink.
Just on the other side of Cane Garden Bay is Brewers Bay. This bay also has excellent snorkeling; in some ways it is nicer than Cane Garden Bay with less people and a less disturbed reef because not as many people go there. The beach is beautiful, and there is just one small restaurant/bar there. It can get very hot there since there isn’t much shade, so plan your excursion accordingly. Nearby to Brewers Bay there is a campground and an old rum distillery, which is in ruins. The two times I went snorkeling there I saw many of the same fish I had seen at Cane Garden Bay or while diving in addition to very large tarpon and a nice size hawksbill turtle cruising along the bottom.
Since this was my third trip to Tortola, I stuck with the same dive charter that I had used in the past. The shop is called Dive Tortola and is located in Roadtown. Their friendly and knowledgeable crew and shop owners are very easy to get along with, and best of all I was able to tell them the places I wanted to dive, and they accommodated us. The pictures that are taken are from a Reefmaster Mini with an attached Sealife SL960 strobe from Scuba.com. Each time we went diving there were only about six people on the boat—a luxury! Below is a description of each of the dive sites I dove and the great things to see at each spot.
Spyglass Wall – Norman Island
The swells were picking up from the wind whipping in from the southeast, but it was still a beautiful day to go diving. It made for a bumpy ride out but well worth it. Our first dive began on Spyglass Wall, which is named after Spyglass Hill on Norman Island where pirates kept a lookout for well stocked merchant ships. This dive site had a maximum depth of about 55 feet at the sandy bottom. Off to our right was the “mini-wall,” which we swam across. The wall was covered with corals and schools of fish swimming all around. We swam along the wall and then moved up to the top and turned around and swam back along the wall to our left side. We saw a couple of barracuda and small Pederson shrimp hiding in the holes. Some of the other fish that we saw was the Spotted drum, Yellow goatfish and Squirrel Fish. This dive was especially fun because of all the rocks covered in different types of hard and soft corals.
Pelican Reef – Pelican Island
This dive was much shallower than Spyglass Wall, but it allowed for more bottom time to enjoy all the life at this reef. This reef had a maximum depth at 40 feet along the sandy bottom. I observed quite a few garden eels that live in little holes in the sand. They are fun because when you swim near them they slowly creep back into their little hole, and it’s a kick to see how close you can get to them before they retreat. This was the type of reef where there was a lot to see if you looked in the right places. Since it was right up along the side of the island, there were many rocks with cracks and crevices where all sorts of marine life were well hidden. The depth for these spots was generally between 15 and 20 feet. It’s common to see octopuses here due to the plentitude of rocks where they hide. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any, but you can find their dens by looking for piles of empty shells. They eat the critters inside the shells, and then put the remaining shells outside of their dens in small piles. We also saw two different types of eels. The first was a Spotted Eel hiding in between the rocks, and the other was a Goldentail Eel that was hiding in between some ribbon coral. Various coral was seen including sea rods, sea fans, and brain coral and even the small little rose coral. Some of the fish we saw were French Angel fish, Blue Tang, and the beautiful rainbow colored Parrotfish.
Inganess Wreck – Between Cooper and Salt Island
This was our deepest dive of the day, and with such great conditions it made for an awesome dive. The wreck of the Inganess Bay was sunk by the BVI dive association as a new artificial reef in August 1996. The story of how this ship became the newest wreck dive in the BVI can be found here. The wreck sits in two pieces broken up in the middle at about 80 feet. Since it is surrounded by sand, there isn’t much to see except the wreck itself and the life growing on it. Not much of it was intact anymore, but there were some sections of the bow and stern still intact. Some coral was growing on it, but not a whole lot of other life except for schools of squirrel fish and other small tropical fish swimming around. There are lots of little cracks and crevices for fish to hide away in, so having a small flashlight was key at this site. It was an interesting wreck to explore, and it certainly it changed up the scenery a little bit instead of looking at “just” another reef.
Thumb Rock – Cooper Island
This was our second dive and was quite an amazing one. It is called Thumb Rock because at around 45 feet there is a rock that looks like a thumb. There was an abundance of outstanding and striking fish and coral life to see here as well. Spotted Drum fish were very common along with the occasional Black Durgon and a Coney with a Pederson Shrimp hanging off its head. A small Hawksbill Turtle was also seen swimming around the rocks and reef. There was lots of coral to see as well including tons of soft coral swaying with the surge back and forth along with tube coral, stovepipe coral, and a variety of orange and purple sponges. The interesting rock structures that the island is made up of make for great hiding spots for spotted lobster. Maximum depth was around 45 feet with an average depth of 25 to 30 feet. This is a great site since many dive boats do not venture here due to only one mooring, and it’s even better because it is close to continental the shelf, which makes you keep your eyes peeled for the occasional shark that might swim by.
The Indians – Pelican Island
This dive site is one of the most popular one in the BVI for the tremendous amount of fish that are in the area. It had four pillars sticking out of the water and has many ancient and interesting stories on why it is called the Indians. You can almost be guaranteed to see every type of fish and creature here. While diving we swam around all the pinnacles and then swam through a swim through into a fishbowl-like area with thousands of small silversides or bait fish. There were so many silver fish that when you swam under them it looked like a cloud went right over you. It was so amazing to note that no matter how close you came to the silverside they never actually touched you! Under many of the corals were banded coral shrimp and other small sea creatures including the lettuce sea slug. On occasion you could see a small reef shark in the area, which we saw out in the distance nonchalantly swimming around. The depth ranges from 45 feet to five feet, and it is also a great place for snorkelers to come check out as well. This was my third time at the Indians, and every time there is something new to see. This dive site is definitely a dive site to check out. There are at least a dozen moorings here, but get there early because it does fill up.
Rainbow Canyons – Pelican Island
Rainbow Canyons is right next to the Indians up against the side of the island. Once you descend you can see why it is called Rainbow Canyons because of the small canyon-like walls covered in coral that run perpendicular to the shore. While swimming in between each of the small canyons there is a plethora of soft coral and sponges filled with fish such as Gasby’s, large Tarpon, Sergeant majors, Spotted drum’s, Balloon fish, Trunkfish etc. One of the other small interesting small snails is the Flamingo Tongue. These snails are about an inch long, and most of the time they can be seen feeding on Sea fans. The depth on this site is about 45 feet to an average of 15-20 feet.
RMS Rhone – Salt Island
The RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Rhone was a 310-foot steamer captained by Robert Woodward headed for St. Thomas in 1867. Since there was a yellow fever outbreak on the island of St. Thomas, the RMS Rhone anchored at Peter Island. On October 29 of that year, the winds picked up, and a massive hurricane was fast approaching. The ship fought the storm until there was a lull and tried to pull up anchor. The 3,000 pound anchor got caught and they were unable to raise the anchor and discarded it. Captain Woodward decided he needed to move the Rhone out into the Sir Francis Drake Channel to ride out the storm away from the dangerous shore. With the winds blowing from the southeast and the ship running the engines at full speed, she was blown into the rocks on Salt Island. When she hit the rocks, she instantly split into two and sank immediately taking most of the passengers and crew with her. Today she sits in two pieces at the bottom split between the bow and stern.
Diving the bow on my first dive of the day was so incredible. This was my third time back to the RMS Rhone; I always find it fascinating swimming around it thinking about how she sank and the dreadful storm she fought. Once descending to the bottom at about 70 to 80 feet, I swam around the bow looking at all the portholes and swimming along the crows nest covered in coral, crustaceans, and sponges. After spending some time looking in all the holes and crevices, I swam under the bow of the ship and then into the hull looking at all the growth inside. Having a flashlight at this point makes it much more interesting because you can see all the colorful life inside including some huge spiny lobsters hiding beneath the wreckage. After entering the hull I swam out through the center of the ship illuminated by filtered light from above. Since this is a deep dive, it is important to watch your bottom time and no deco limits.
Diving the stern of the Rhone was much more interesting in my opinion than diving the bow. The depth on this second dive was an average of about 30-40 feet. The wreckage of the stern sits closer to show where she hit the rocks on Salt Island. Here there are more fish to see because of the larger abundance of coral life than on the bow. Some of the most interesting things are not just the life on the stern but the ship itself. Swimming among the huge boilers that exploded when she hit the rocks and the massive 15 foot propeller make you feel so minute. There are also a couple of intact portholes; one actually has the glass still in it. Legend has it if you rub the brass three times it will bring you good luck. I’m still waiting to see if it brings me good luck! Also another small piece of the ship’s contents that you can hunt for is the small silver spoon. (I was lucky enough to locate it this time!) Even though this is only my third time back to this magnificent dive site, there’s still so much more to explore. If you have time, spend at least a few dives at each part of the ship to see it all!
Black Forest or Black Tip Reef – Peter Island
This dive site is well known for its amazing coral abundance—both soft and hard. We dropped down to 20 feet from the boat and swam out to the small mini-wall that slopes down to around 65 feet. At the bottom lies big bushy black coral that is rarely seen. At the sandy bottom you will see garden eels popping up and down in their holes. Swimming around the wall we were able to see other coral including Sea Rods, Sea Plumes, Sea Fingers, Staghorn Coral, and Pillar Coral. Some of the small fish we saw were the usual looking Parrotfish along with Spotted drum, Hogfish, Butterfly fish, and small File fish that blend into the coral. After a slow ascent up to the shallow reef, we swam around the grass looking for Queen Conchs, and we spotted a small stingray hiding out in the grass.
Ringdove Rock – Norman Island
This was the second dive of the day and the last one of our trip. It was my favorite dive site because of the amount of different fish to see along with other sea creatures. It is a large sea mound that sits off the shore of Norman Island near the Fearless and Willy T wrecks. It has a lot to offer becasue of the large quantity of fish you can see here. Sergeant majors were very common, and they would guard their small nest of eggs that they laid. Their nests look like blue gray circles on rocks that other fish come up and munch on when the Sergeant major is lazy and not paying attention. Some other really amazing underwater life were a large channel crab hiding in pillar coral and a huge green turtle moving swiftly through the water. This dive site isn’t easily accessible due only one mooring, so if you have the chance I highly recommend it; you won’t be disappointed.
Each time I go to Tortola I always take a one-day side trip to another island. One of the most interesting islands that I have visited in the BVI’s is Virgin Gorda. This small island is a half-hour ferry ride from Roadtown, Tortola. While Tortola is hilly and lush, Virgin Gorda is mostly flat and desert like. Once getting into Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, there is a taxi over to the Baths, which is the main attraction. This is only about a half-day trip since that’s about all the time you need to see it all. The Baths is a national park and has an entry fee of a few dollars. The Baths are large boulders that surfaced after volcanic eruptions and are the sizes of small houses. They are stacked up on top of each other to form giant pathways and small caves to explore, which is the best part. There is also a small beach to relax on and snorkel out among the giant boulders. I would also recommend wearing your booties while exploring the rocks for sure footing. There is a great restaurant nearby the Baths called the Top of the Baths that is a fun place to have lunch, and there is also a pool there that you can cool off and swim in.
The other day trip that I took was to the island of Anegada. You can get to Anegada via ferry or plane. I took a small charter plane from the airport in Tortola to the little airport on Anegada—saving a lot of time. This island is a coral reef no more than three feet in elevation and difficult to see until you approach the barrier reef offshore. Not many people come to this island on boat because of the difficulty navigating through the barrier reefs. As a matter of fact it was a popular island for pirates since they would lure ships onto the Horseshoe reef at night with signal fires hoping to get more booty! The best snorkeling is Loblolly Bay—lots of turtles and beautiful tropical fish. This island is a neat place to visit, but there really is a lack of a town and not much else to do other than sit on the beach and have a famous Anagada spiney lobster lunch at a small restaurant called the Big Bamboo. You can also get a taxi to take you for a short ride around the island for a small cab fare as well. There is a protected lagoon on the island that attracts flamingoes, but it is has restricted access during nesting season.. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of them (bring your binoculars). It’s truly different and definitely worth a visit at some point.
Tortola and all its beauty is something that takes more than one trip to the BVI to fully understand and learn to love. This small island is quite a happening place and a very fun place to keep going back and seeing. Diving is the best part, and it is what keeps capturing my interest. The warm water and the beautiful underwater life is another whole world in itself to keep returning to. If you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, be sure to keep in mind Tortola and experience it for yourself. The BVI license plate says it all—“Natures Little Secret.”