The body was suspended beneath the water. The young woman's long hair spread out like a halo around her head and her white gown floated ethereally in the clear Caribbean water. Her eyes slowly opened and her finger pointed menacingly in front of her.
The ghost-like figure then emerged from the water and grinned, "how was that?" A young woman in sunglasses smiled back from the deck of the dive boat and said, "great!"
The ghost-like apparition was Tortola dive instructor Kelly Hellyer, one of two divers enlisted to play spirits haunting the Rhone during a National Geographic Channel film shoot earlier this year. The programme, which aired in August, added a new twist to the tragic story of the Royal Mail Ship, which sank off Salt Island during a hurricane in October of 1867. One hundred twenty four passengers and crew went down with the ship, several of whom are buried on Salt Island. Today, the Rhone is the B.V.I.'s most popular dive site and is considered the number one wreck site in the Caribbean. Each year, hundreds of divers explore the ship's coral encrusted remains, which are now home to a myriad of gorgeous reef dwellers from the stoplight parrotfish to graceful gorgonians.
The Wreck of the Rhone episode is part of National Geographic's Is it Real? series. From Russia's Bigfoot to life on Mars and ancient astronauts, the popular programme exposes the myths of many modern-day tales, separating the science from the science fiction.
Most B.V.I. divers would be astonished to hear of ghosts on the Rhone. But Melisande Rowe, the Director of Sail Caribbean Divers and president of the BVI Dive Operators Association, was not. Answering the phone at her office one day, Melisande found herself speaking to a woman from the National Geographic Channel. "The woman said that she had heard about ghost stories on the Rhone and wanted to know if I knew of any." As it happened, Melisande had. "One of my customers claimed to have been tapped on the shoulder while diving the wreck, but when he turned around, no one was there," explained Melisande. The spooked diver was convinced that he had experienced a supernatural event.
Kate Brunn, co-owner of UBS Dive Centre along with her husband, Tony, told the National Geographic team of her own "supernatural" experiences diving the wreck, including hearing unusual sounds. "What was surprising," she said, "is that I'm not the only one who felt that diving inside the bow was creepy." Kate had heard that one of the first divers on the wreck site had placed some of the victims' bones into the vessel's bow. Intrigued by the stories, the television channel sent a crew to Tortola to weave a tale based around these incidents.
The episode's producers, Croi Mcnamara and Sarah Meyer enlisted local divers and residents to work on the shoot. Ian Jenkins and Kelly Hellyer, dive instructors with Sail Caribbean, were recruited to play two of the shipwreck's victims. Armando Jenik, a British Virgin Islands based photographer and videographer, was hired as an underwater cameraman and Kate Brunn was enlisted to re-enact her "creepy" dive on the Rhone.
What is it like to portray a ghost on a shipwreck? "A lot of hard work," conceded Ian Jenkins. Dressed in the garb of a 19th century ship's mate, Ian wore navy wool pants, a vest, white shirt and a sailor's cap. The ghost sequences were filmed in the calm waters off Buck Island, near Hodges Creek. With Armando waiting in the water with his underwater camera, Ian jumped off the dive boat - again and again - the wide sleeves of his white shirt ballooning out as he slowly sank beneath the surface and then floated back up in his most ghost-like manner.
"It's a lot more exerting than you would think," said the exhausted diver as he climbed back on board the Sail Caribbean dive boat for a break. "It's similar to my nine to five job, working on boats and jumping into the water, but I'm not normally wearing wool pants."
"The first day was easy," said Kelly, who has been a professional diver for 17 years. The crew had filmed her diving on the Rhone for a background segment about the ship as a dive site. The next day was tougher. Portraying one of the Rhone's ill-fated passengers, Kelly sank beneath the water wearing a long muslin nightgown. Watching from the side of the boat, Croi, holding a clipboard, asked Kelly to look like she was screaming under water. Kelly gamely responded by blowing out bubbles as she opened her mouth. "Acting is not something I plan to pursue", admitted Kelly wryly as she emerged from the water, her nightgown dripping. "But I had fun doing it."
In all, the television crew was on Tortola for just five days shooting both above and below water. While Armando filmed the underwater sequences, a National Geographic cameraman shot topside scenics of island beaches and popular tourist sites.
The team also conducted interviews with local residents, including marine biologist and environmental consultant, Clive Petrovic, who recounted the Rhone's history and lore. In addition, he offered insights into some of the possible scientific explanations for underwater supernatural experiences. "Sounds," explained Clive, "can travel great distances beneath the water. Whale calls, for instance, can carry hundreds of miles. The ocean can be a very noisy place. Groupers and other sea life make different sounds and small earth tremors can cause underwater shifting, causing structures like the Rhone to groan." He added, "The Rhone can be a very spooky place and I can't say that someone is wrong if they experience a paranormal event. But there is usually a scientific explanation as well."
According to Melisande, who has been working for Sail Caribbean for 11 years, the episode should be a boon to local tourism. "The B.V.I. has a number of wreck sites in addition to the Rhone, and the programme should be good for the industry, especially for those interested in diving wrecks."
In addition to the segment on the Rhone, the Is it Real? series will tell the stories of other ships embroiled in mystery, including the Mary Celeste, an 1872 Brigantine, which was found drifting halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast, it's crew of ten vanished, and High Aim a Taiwanese fishing vessel that was found abandoned off Australia in 2003. No one knows what happened to the crew of either vessel, although over the years there has been much speculation.
But ghosts on the Rhone? This is something that the hundreds of vacationing divers who visit the wreck each year, hope never to encounter. The question to ask: "is it real?"