Inside the wreck of the RMS Rhone

Wreck Diving in the BVI

by Julian Putley

The Island Seal
Above: A diver hovers over The Island Seal

The Island Seal was on its way to Tortola, BVI from St Martin with a cargo of seven containers. In the early hours of August 25, 2006 the vessel hit a shoal near Salt Island and started taking in water. Under full power the captain decided to try and make port in Road Town but the ship began listing badly. At around 7:20 am the small cargo ship capsized losing all its containers; the crew jumped into the water and all were saved. The upturned vessel drifted and became stranded on a reef near Brandywine Bay and was later moved to near Fish Bay in a less hazardous location. All efforts to right the vessel and salvage it proved unsuccessful so it was a welcome announcement by the BVI Tourist Board when they decided to finance the movement of the wreck to its new location. Husky Salvage and Towing, in a tricky operation, succeeded in depositing the wreck in exactly the right location.

Marine Marketing Manager of the BVI Tourist Board, Ms Abigail O'Neal said, "Any addition that enhances the tourism product in an environmentally conscious way is always welcome." The Island Seal is the fourth wreck purposely sunk in the area for the benefit of divers. The new wreck has been applauded by leading journalists.

The other interesting wrecks in Wreck Alley include, the cargo boat Marie L and the tugboats, the Pat and the beautifully preserved Beata. The Pat and Marie L are adjacent to each other and sit upright on the sand in calm water, and along with the nearby Beata and the Island Seal, can be accessed from a mooring on the surface. Follow the mooring line down to the pin on the bottom and then swim about 80-feet out (perpendicular to the shore). These artificial reefs naturally attract many species of colorful fish and invertebrates and the sandy bottom provides a feeding ground for stingrays, sand eels and the more uncommon eagle rays. These wrecks can be enjoyed on the same dive.

The Beata sits at the bottom of Wreck Alley
Above: The Beata sits at the bottom of Wreck Alley

Wrecks can be found not just in Wreck Alley, but throughout the BVI. The 136-foot cargo carrier Inganess Bay, located between Cooper and Salt Islands, was an inter island cargo boat that served the islands between Puerto Rico and Trinidad. It went aground by the Moorings charter yacht base in 1996 after a storm snapped her anchor cable. The wrecked vessel with its conspicuous red hull lay there for months before she was declared a 'write-off' and a salvage team spent weeks preparing her for her final resting place in Wreck Alley. The ship lies in 95 feet of water but the mastheads are visible from the surface at a depth of 45 feet. The ship is easily accessed from a mooring ball on the surface. Schools of snappers and grunts hover motionless about the broken midsection. Many of the walls of the wreck are encrusted with corals and colorful sponges while sections of windows still hold their glass panes. The interior sections of the wreck are easily accessible adding to the excitement of the dive. Exploring the shadowy and eerie living spaces and cargo hold of a once active inter island work boat is a unique experience.

Vessels sunk in protected locations to form marine habitats make for fascinating dive sites. But there is nothing like a shipwreck caused by a catastrophic event or natural disaster, surrounded by all the human emotion of those who were in imminent peril. The wreck of the RMS Rhone is just one of those dive sites. It combines a shipwreck in calm waters in a perfect depth with a truly awe inspiring historical drama of a terrifying ordeal during a ferocious hurricane. This shipwreck is all the more wondrous since she has been on the sea bed at Salt Island for 142 years and is home to a large variety of fish, crustaceans, invertebrates and soft and hard corals.

Angel fish swim through one of the boats at Wreck Alley

Above: Angel fish swim through one of the boats at Wreck Alley

The Rhone was a modern, luxury Royal Mail ship when she sank; she was one of the first propeller driven ships and was powered by both steam and sail. Many of the parts are recognizable including a mast and crow's nest, the huge propeller, whose aperture at the stern of the ship you can swim through, a cannon, the boilers, prop shaft, cargo room and cabins, which are also accessible. Apart from the drama of the sinking there are many fascinating subsidiary stories surrounding the wreck including the harrowing details of the victims' demise. The inhabitants of Salt Island were honored for their valiant efforts in assisting the survivors, and the victims' bodies, approximately 124 of them, were buried in a communal, open grave on the island. Years later salvage efforts produced many bottles of fine champagne "as cool and delicious as the day it was loaded aboard," and a portion of the wreck was blown open by the navy in a search for gold. The mystique of the wreck site was only enhanced when it was used in the filming of the 1977 Hollywood movie The Deep based on the novel by Peter Benchley and starring Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte. Is it any wonder that the Rhone is hailed as the best wreck dive in the Caribbean?

Another fascinating wreck with its own unique story is the Chikuzen, a 246-foot Korean refrigerator vessel. It was disabled and in danger of sinking in St Maarten's harbour (80 miles ESE of the BVI) so the authorities decided to light it on fire and set it adrift in the belief that it would sink in deep water. Incredibly it drifted all the way to the BVI and was in danger of ending up at Marina Cay or its outlying reef. Local dive operators and a tug were instrumental in guiding the burning ship away from coastal and marine habitats and finally the crippled vessel sank in 75 feet of water about four miles west of Virgin Gorda on a sand bottom. Since the wreck lies in open water, diving is only possible in calm conditions, but the habitat or artificial reef is like an oasis in a desert. Both large pelagic species and reef fish populate the sunken vessel and it is truly a fantastic dive. Rays, sharks, cobia, pompano and schools of barracudas can be seen as well as grunts, snappers, groupers and jacks. The hull is encrusted with corals, sponges and gorgonians and on a calm, clear day there are great opportunities for photography.

The BVI's with its great variety of reefs has some of the most amazing scuba diving in the region. Now, with the concerted efforts of the BVI's Scuba Operators' Association and the Tourist Board the fascination of wreck diving has been enhanced with the addition of the Island Seal.

Photos by Jim-Scheiner of Rainbow Visions Photography.