In the Caribbean Sea, just outside of St. Croix’s Salt River Bay, can be found a breathtaking underwater geographical feature known as the Salt River Canyon. This underwater canyon is formed by the remains of an ancient river and waterfall that formed a deep “V” in the wall of the Puerto Rico Trench that runs just off of the island’s North Shore. As you can imagine, diving the canyon is like stepping back in time. You can almost visualize the prehistoric river and waterfall running as you look across the geographical features still present under the surface of the sea today, thousands of years later, now teeming with fish, coral, sponges, and sea fans.
Not only is it a unique place to dive, but Salt River Canyon is an extremely historical site as well. Christopher Columbus came to this site on his second trip to American, bringing 17 ships with him. Unfortunately, there was bloodshed between the native Caribs and the Spanish, and Columbus took some of the Tiano captives from the Carib village back to Europe with him. On a happier note, the canyon is also one of the oldest geological areas in the Caribbean. This historic area was also home to the Aquarius Hydrolab, a NOAA Underwater Research Center, in the 1970’s and 80’s. The Aquarius Hydrolab allowed scientists to live underwater for a week or so at a time doing research on the geology, corals, and fish life in the canyon. The Wall itself brings a rich biodiversity of life due to the mixing of nutrients where the deep waters of the Puerto Rico Trench meet the shallow reefs, making the canyon the perfect place for Aquarius Hydrolab to be housed.
As a diver on St. Croix, don’t miss out on seeing the beauty and magnitude of the Salt River Canyon for yourself. The U.S. Virgin Islands Top 10 Dive Sites article in Scuba Diving magazine described Salt River Canyon well when they wrote: “St. Croix’s north shore is one of the best-kept secrets in wall diving, and this site has two walls facing each other across a quarter mile of blue water. Hordes of reef fish swarm the tops of the walls, deep-water sea fans and black coral cling to the deeper sections, and big animals like hammerheads and black-tips sometimes make appearances.” While it is true that the East Wall and West Wall of the canyon are only a quarter of a mile apart, they offer two very different diving experiences. I highly recommend doing both!
Salt River Canyon’s East Wall has a mooring which lies in about 40 feet of water. However, due to the vertical drop of The Wall in this location, when moored the back of the dive boats often hang over a depth of 1,000 feet! Often referred to as “the fishiest dive on the North Shore”, the East Wall of the canyon boasts tons of reef fish at the top of The Wall. From about 40-80 feet, The Wall slopes down into sand chutes between large formations of hard corals, covered with sponges and soft corals. This area boasts huge schools of black durgeon, yellowtail snapper, soldier fish and striped grunts. At around 80 feet The Wall drops off into the blue abyss and you will often see black tip reef sharks and large spotted eagle rays. Thanks to the gradual slope before the drop-off, the East Wall is also home to numerous tropical species in addition to pelagic species, including moray eels, large numbers of barracuda (hence the dive site name ‘Barracuda Bank’), large angel fish, parrot fish, lobster and conch. Hammerhead sharks have even been spotted lurking off the East Wall.
Salt River Canyon’s West Wall has a mooring in just 20 feet of water, but is a sheer drop to 200 feet, then 500 feet, and then down The Wall to 4,000 foot depths. This portion of the canyon is known as ‘The Pinnacles’ due to the geological formations believed to have been formed by an ancient, above ground waterfall. These formations offer a maze of swim-throughs, cuts, ledges, overhangs, recesses and sand chutes to be explored. At this site you will likely see rays gliding around ‘The Pinnacles’, while schools of creole wrasse, black durgeon, and squirrelfish can be found under ledges and swimming off the edge of the wall. As you descend, you will find jacks, grouper, permits, barracudas, as well as large pelagic sea life such as sharks. While there is a seeming endless amount of fish to see, don’t overlook the geological features of the canyon itself. There are few dive sites in the world that offer the unique features you can find here on the West Wall. In fact, the West Wall of Salt River Canyon is the most requested boat dive on St. Croix.
When diving the canyon, you may also see diver favorites such as sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, and dolphins. If you are lucky enough to be here in February or March, you may even be serenaded by the humpback whales’ song as they migrate along the Puerto Rio Trench. Among the crags and corals you may also find historical ship anchors dating from the 1700-1800’s. In Salt River Canyon and along The Wall, history, geology, and biology mix to form some of the most unique and diverse dive sites in the world. While there are many amazing dive sites the island offers, please make sure to dive the Salt River Canyon. St. Croix is home to several world-class dive operators that show you the canyon sites and the underwater beauty they behold.
For a current list of dive shops offering dive trips to the Salt River Canyon, please visit our Scuba Diving page. Remember to always dive safely, and enjoy the amazingly diverse offerings of Salt River Canyon.
– Jennie Ogden, Editor
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