>Some 300 years ago the golden age of piracy was alive and well in these waters. That history of piracy, both real and fabricated, is still vividly prominent throughout these islands in bars, restaurants and location names. But as a kid I didn't know I was frolicking amid the inspiration for the enchanting pages of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island — it was the islands' underwater world that enchanted me.
>As I fin past shadowy recesses I see shimmers and flashes — a huge school of baitfish has taken up residence and darts about to avoid my strobe flashes. A pair of coney groupers lies on a rusty section of hull, awaiting the right moment to lunge and snatch a single silverside from the mercurial mass. It is little wonder that these vibrant remains are such a captivating and sought-after underwater backdrop for photographers and filmmakers.
>The BVI comprise a double strand of 50-plus rocks, cays, islets and islands spread along the northeastern perimeter of the Caribbean, just east of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Affectionately referred to as "Nature's Little Secrets," the islands are gilded in tropical greens and range in size from Tortola at 21 square miles to tiny Sandy Cay, just big enough for a picnic with a few friends. Sixteen of these islands are inhabited, and most of the islands' 28,000 residents live on Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada or Jost Van Dyke.
>Fifty Isles in Easy Reach
>On one Rhone excursion, the divemaster helped me find a coral-encrusted spoon on the wreck that is rumored to be the captain's silver teaspoon. The divemaster had set the stage for this discovery in elaborate fashion during his briefing. I had to admit it looked authentic — maybe too authentic, but I felt no inclination to argue about it — legends seem to grow like coral in these waters.
>An easy boat ride away, Painted Walls made for a great second dive after Shark Point. Here the converging walls and valleys are a canvas for marine life to work its Jackson Pollock-style artistry. We made our way through the meandering vertical faces draped with tropical shades of mango, passionfruit, lime, turmeric and cinnamon. Our divemaster had wisely recommended bringing a light to reveal the true intensity of the vibrant hues and to explore the shadows for hidden surprises.
>As the week progressed, we ventured to the aptly named Wreck Alley off of Cooper Island. The site consists of the Beata and Pat tugboats and the Marie L cargo boat, all intentionally sunk to create marine habitat. This site is a magnet for larger pelagics and southern rays. The wrecks are small enough for easy circumnavigation, and encrusting growth is overtaking the structures.
>During our dive we had very little current and an incursion of incalculable numbers of moon jellies. What started out as a somewhat eerie experience transformed into a surreal and mesmerizing through-the-looking-glass dive as we gently pushed aside the harmless pulsing blobs of translucence and finned as carefully as progress allowed. The wrecks were virtually draped in jellies, whose constant motion made the structures appear strangely amorphous and alive. Back on the surface I was babbling like a mad woman about how it was better than many of the more famous "jellyfish lakes" I had seen. But our divemaster insisted this was the only time she had ever seen anything like it.
>On my last day I woke determined to get to one more famous and very special location: The Baths on Virgin Gorda. I was still on Scrub Island, but it's easy to get around in the BVI. After a quick ferry ride to Beef Island followed by another to Virgin Gorda, I rented a car and set off. I was on the hunt for treasure, and I would not be denied. Gold doubloons would be nice, but I had come to realize the immeasurable wealth that surrounded me every day in these islands.
>And then I arrived. It's a spot so iconic that it has graced the pages of a hundred magazines and thousands of postcards. The Baths were still every bit as breathtaking and alluring as I remembered. Massive, smooth granite boulders framed the water's edge, and powder-white coral sand stuck to my bare feet. Suddenly I was 9 years old again and exploring the wonderful play of light and water around the boulders, this time with a camera in hand. Paradise was briefly mine alone.
>Then the cacophony of approaching tourists from a cruise ship ended my reverie, but I had found treasure. The BVI had once again shared their wealth in countless little ways. I could leave enriched and committed to return soon for more.
>Conditions: Diving can be done year round; the water temperature averages 78°F in winter and 82°F in summer. I recommend a dive skin or a 3mm wetsuit during the summer and a 3mm-5mm wetsuit in the winter.
>How To Dive It
>All diving is by boat. There are numerous sheltered dive sites throughout the year, but more are typically available in the summer when the trade winds are lighter and the Atlantic swells are smaller. Diving depths range from 10 feet to 120 feet, with visibility ranging from 30 feet to more than 100 feet. In the summer, occasional plankton blooms can reduce visibility. Currents can range from nonexistent to strong, depending on the site.
>Getting There: The BVI are about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico and are easy to reach via Puerto Rico or St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Fly directly to Beef Island, Tortola (EIS), or fly to St. Thomas (STT) and then take an hourlong ferry ride to Tortola. Remember to bring your passport. From Tortola, the other islands can be accessed via ferry or charter flight, which adds an island-hopping charm to the adventure.
>Topside Activities: Sailing among the islands is the BVI's No. 1 attraction. Charter a sailboat, or head out on a day sailing adventure.
>Island hop by ferry, and discover the islands by rental car or tour bus. Discovering the islands' countless scenic overlooks is its own adventure — you will be rewarded by stunning vistas of the other islands and the endless sea.
>Take a ferry to Virgin Gorda, and rent a car or catch a taxi to The Baths. Go later in the afternoon to avoid the masses of cruise ship guests. Enjoy the light hiking and wading through water; it's beautiful every step of the way.
>Take a day trip to the BVI's only coral island, Anegada, and enjoy its stunning beaches and delicious grilled lobster.
>For more information, go to bvitourism.com.
>See more of what BVI has to offer in Tanya Burnett's bonus online photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2016