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St Croix, Bottom to Top

By Charlie Hudson

“What a great story,” my husband grinned as we slowly traversed the flat, sun-sparkled aquamarine water that fronts Fredriksted on the west side of St Croix, US Virgin Islands.  “Wrestling the rare scuba bear in the Swirling Reef of Death.”

Dramatic license notwithstanding, the bear, who I still thought looked more like a monkey, was one of the stuffed variety that had been sent to Jason, the boyfriend of Brooke, who was our divemaster for the day.  One of Jason’s young cousins had sent it as a project where you mail an object to a different place and ask to have it returned with some kind of local souvenir. 

It was slow tourist season and my husband, Hugh, and I were the only two customers booked on the boat.  Dave and Sue Ward, owners of Scuba Shack, agreed it was a perfect day for a bit of whimsy to go with great diving.  We’d met Dave during our initial trip to St Croix when he worked the North Shore dive spots along the spectacular undersea wall.  He knew we would enjoy adding a little extra humor to our morning and filled us in on the stuffed bear adventure. 

Since St Croix is a premiere, if not widely known, scuba diving destination, what could be better than to take the bear below for underwater photographs?  My and Sue’s concern for the bear’s survival of prolonged submersion at thirty or forty feet was overridden by everyone’s else enthusiasm.  And where better for this endeavor than the Swirling Reef of Death?

“It’s a local joke,” Dave explained in his laconic way, his face deeply tanned from decades of ocean work.  “The reef has had two or three different names.  Not long ago we had a couple of thirteen year old boys on board and they came up with the new one and so far, it seems to be sticking.” 

On previous trips, our West Side diving had been limited to the popular old cruise ship pier – a delightful, shallow shore entry site that is home to seahorses among other creatures. After we learned Dave had opened Scuba Shack, we promised ourselves we would set aside our last day to go beyond the familiar pier.  

The spectacular diving on St Croix is because of superbly healthy coral, plentiful aquatic plants and a reliable mix of marine life from tiny, bright purple tropical fish to large schools of yellowtail snappers, vividly colored queen angels, gracefully swimming sea turtles and big barracuda; only a few of the species we routinely encounter.  We have yet to see purported hammerhead sharks even though my husband keeps his hopes up.  While the North Side lays claim to the extensive undersea wall that plunges 3,000 feet or more, the West Side does boast large populations of pencil size, shy garden eels that are a special treat.  Unlike the more common green and spotted moray eels that take refuge in rocky outcroppings, garden eels live in the sand in colonies.  From a distance, they resemble blades of swaying sea grass and quickly retract into their holes when anything of size comes close by.  It is interesting behavior and causes them to be virtually impossible to photograph.

As with most dive sites in St Croix, it was a quick ride from the dock to the mooring ball that Brooke snagged on her first try.  The four of us double-checked our equipment while Dave fastened a cord around Scuba Bear.  We back-rolled  off the sides of the boat, descended to depth and glided above orange barrel sponges, lavender sea fans, purple-tipped anemones and tendrils of sea whips until we found an ideal spot for picture taking.  The stuffed bear was understandably buoyant and it took several minutes to position him.  So, I suppose it was appropriate to use the term “wrestle”.  I tried not to giggle since that tends to dislodge the scuba mouthpiece, but it was definitely an unusual dive experience.   It wasn’t until later that we realized the cord around Scuba Bear made it look as if we were strangling him, but my husband successfully “painted” the cord out with a few strokes on the computer.

Once our mission was accomplished, we navigated back to the boat and were rewarded with the sight of a large southern stingray that rose from a sand chute and languidly moved away from we noisy, bubble-blowing humans.

Scuba Bear was indeed thoroughly soaked even though Brooke claimed that an afternoon in the tropical sun and a few squirts of a deodorizer would make him presentable for mailing.  We never heard the actual outcome, but it certainly should have been popular with the girl who was probably expecting nothing more exotic than a picture of the bear leaning against a palm tree.

Despite reluctance to end our week of diving, cold beer and good food were waiting next door at Changes in Latitude, one of our favorite beach bars.  There are dozens of picturesque and/or funky restaurants to choose from on the island, yet the casual beach bars are where topside and ocean meet best.  Umbrella-covered tables and chairs are set on concrete pads. Only the kitchens are enclosed, for even the bars are open-sided. We sit in shorts and swimsuit with a tee-shirt thrown on –  sandaled, if not in bare feet, an icy beer or rum drink in hand and watch multi-shaded blue water lap onto shore or splash against rock outcroppings. We come to these bars direct from a dive, the image of sea creatures fresh in our minds. Our appreciation of companionably swimming in their midst does not, however, stop us from ordering a spicy grouper sandwich or local lobster plate. Relaxing with a view of open water after a sojourn in the ocean kingdom is a joining of sensations that never fails to inspire us. 

While I strongly encourage anyone to join the ever-increasing ranks of women divers, St Croix offers myriad outdoor activities other than scuba and snorkeling.  Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, kayaking, golf and tennis are all available in the largest, if not best recognized, of the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

On the other hand, if you’ve ever strolled through a major aquarium, haven’t you at least fleeting wondered what it’s like to enter the realm beneath the waves?  Dive shops can be found in small towns and big cities across the United States.  If you’re looking for adventure, consider booking a trip to St Croix and taking a literal plunge into their beautiful waters. 

Note: Time does march on and there have been several changes since the great scuba bear adventure. All parties mentioned have left St Croix and the beach bar/restaurant Changes in Latitude is now Coconuts on the Beach.