Scuba Diving St Croix in the Age of COVID

Our hotel was right on the beach, so Pam and I took my housed Nikon Z6 camera, 8” dome port and wide angle lens, to try some over/under shots. Fortunately, we had a good day as the weather was perfect with blue sky, no wind and almost flat seas. Nikkor 14-30mm • ISO 400 • f/22 • 1/100 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle


Succumbing to Pier Pressure...

By Glenn Ostle

Enough, we can’t take it anymore!

Pam and I are used to traveling frequently to pursue our passion. But for nine months we had been virtually cloistered in our home. We needed to find a place to “get wet.” But where? 

We considered a number of locations but found that they were either a) closed, b) required a plane ride (scary), or c) had harsh and frequently changing virus restrictions. We settled on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as it was relatively close to home, offered Caribbean diving and was still accepting visitors.

Frederiksted Pier St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

The columns supporting the Frederiksted pier are encrusted with a dazzling array of corals and sponges. My two DS161 strobes provided the light to bring the colors to life. Nikkor 14-30mm • ISO 500 • f/8 • 1/80 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Our first hurdle was figuring out how to meet the local requirement to present a negative result from a COVID-19 test, received within five days of touching down on the island.

As a rehearsal, we took a “practice” test in advance at a local drug store and were amazed when the (negative) results arrived within 24 hours. Assuming the arrival time would be about the same, we scheduled our “real” test, hoping that it wouldn’t arrive too early, and not be within five days of departure, or too late and thus force us to cancel our trip and forfeit our hotel payment. It was time to play “travel roulette.”

Fortunately, everything worked out. The test arrived in time. After the scary plane ride (which really wasn’t scary after all as everyone wore masks in the airport and on the plane and no one acted like a jerk), we arrived at St. Croix airport, duly presented our negative tests, picked up a car and headed to the west end of the island where forty dive sites awaited.

Octopus under Pier St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

A number of octopuses scamper about beneath the pier. We followed this one around for quite a while, finally getting him framed nicely against an interesting background. Nikkor Z 14-30mm • ISO 500 • f/8 • 1/80 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Diving the pier

One reason we chose St. Croix was because it offered the opportunity to do lots of shallow diving, day or night, under the Frederiksted pier, billed as One of the Seven Jewels of the Caribbean. Jutting one third of a mile into the Caribbean Sea on the west end of the island, this is a working pier built to accommodate cruise ships, although there isn’t much going on there during the current pandemic. Diving is mostly done under the shallow portion of the pier but dive boats offer an option to do a deeper dive at the very end.

Within walking distance of the pier is Frederiksted’s shopping area, with museums and restaurants as well as a number of full service dive shops that rent equipment, arrange boat dives, and offer underwater tours of the pier. We had a very good experience with Nep2une Scuba Diving and St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures. After gearing up and donning a tank, the pier was just a short walk across the street.

Blennie St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

This tiny blenny has found himself a colorful home in a piece of sponge attached to one of the columns supporting the Frederiksted pier. For lighting on a lot of my macro shots I often used a ring light attached to the front of the housing, supplemented by my two DS161 strobes. Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 500 • f/9 • 1/160 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Diving here isn’t difficult once you understand the entry and exit techniques. But as it is a working pier, sometimes local regulations come into play and the access gates are locked. This requires that divers get creative including “shimmying” around stone columns in full dive gear.

The entry point is on the right side of the pier where dive boats pick up customers. The water is typically about 4-5 feet below the platform, so a giant stride is best. After that, navigation is easy: drop down, work your way out along or under the pier, then turn around and return and exit on the opposite side. 

Yellow Frogfish St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

We had been told that there was a pair of frogfish under the pier, but that they were hard to find as they moved about. We found this yellow one in several different locations but never found the black one. This guy was sitting in a perfect location that allowed me to get very close with a wide angle lens, and shoot upwards for a more dramatic angle. Nikkor Z 14-30mm • ISO 500 • f/18 • 1/80 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

We typically used the “rule of thirds” approach consuming one third of our air to go out, one third to return, and one third to explore a few structures at the end of the dive, left over from the old pier that was destroyed by hurricane Hugo in 1989. Other times, we kicked out on the surface to deeper water and then dropped down and worked our way back under the pier.

We dove the pier almost every day and photographed a variety of interesting critters including octopuses, sea horses, bat fish, large schools of fish, macro life, and more.  One of the pier’s most impressive sights are the cathedral-like supporting columns which are totally covered with a dazzling array of coral and sponges, which makes this a great place for both macro and wide-angle photography. 

Turtle Under Pier St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

When we came across this turtle under the pier, it almost appeared that an artist had posed him in this picturesque setting of coral and sponges. We later found out that this was a favorite resting spot for turtles and that it was not unusual to find two or three hanging out there. My lens was a little wide for this shot, but the turtle seemed to have no problem with me getting quite close. Nikkor Z 14-30mm • ISO 500 • f/13 • 1/160 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

As the average depth of the dive-able part of the pier is only about twenty-five feet, we were able to stretch many of our dives to more than two hours; like a long safety stop with interesting things to look at.

Exiting the dive on the opposite side of the pier can be a little tricky as it requires climbing over some rocky shoreline. You need to be careful and if you dive full foot fins be sure to carry along water shoes for the rocky exit. A well-worn path leads to some cinder block steps, which helps the climb out. 

Seahorse St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

We found this striking seahorse on our first dive on the pier. It was out in the open and attached to a stalk of pink coral. It was even cooperative and didn’t turn his back to us as seahorses have a habit of doing. Nikkor 60mm Macro • ISO 640 • f/13 • 1/160 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

On a few days we arranged some boat diving to photograph nearby reefs and wrecks including the Northwind tugboat. This was one of a group of five shallow wrecks within 100 yards of each other at Butler Bay on the island's west shore.

Beneath the turquoise waters, St. Croix is almost completely surrounded by a barrier reef, the most well-known part running along the north shore and known simply as “The Wall.”

Where we stayed

Our accommodations are worth mentioning. We stayed at two different hotels, the first being the impressive Feather Leaf Inn, a historic 250-year-old sugar plantation now being totally renovated by an ambitious California couple, that features open-air rooms with ocean view balconies. Midway through our stay we moved to the eclectic Cottages by the Sea which is only a short drive from the pier. Situated right on the beach, it reminded us of family-owned Florida hotels of the 60’s.

Wreck of the Northwind St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

We have dived many wrecks over the years, but we’ve never seen one so totally encrusted with coral and sponges as the wreck of the Northwind tugboat in Butler Bay, a relatively short distance from the pier. Almost every square inch seemed to have some form of life. Some of the locals can reach the wrecks from shore but for most divers it requires a trip by boat arranged through one of the local dive shops. As I often do with wrecks, I converted this photo to B&W for greater impact. Nikkor Z 14-30mm • ISO 500 • f/13 • 1/125 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

We enjoyed the diving and the accommodations so much that we extended our original two-week stay by an additional week. We were in no hurry to return home, especially after all the agonizing we went through to get there in the first place. 

I guess you could say we succumbed to “pier pressure,” but that would be a pun, and as they say, a pun doesn’t become a pun until it is fully….groan!

Octopus St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

This photo was actually taken while snorkeling in front of our hotel using only available light. As I followed the octopus over the shallow rocks, it suddenly stopped and flared its body, I assume as a threat to me not to approach any closer. It turned out to be one of my favorite photos of the trip. Nikkor Z 14-30mm • ISO 400 • f/14 • 1/125 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Red Hind at a Cleaning Station St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

We saw this Red Hind sitting very still in a grassy area. As we got closer, we found that an industrious shrimp was busy picking it clean of debris and parasites. In this shot, the shrimp was strolling in and out of the hind’s gills as if it owned the place. Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 400 • f/10 • 1/200  

Octopus St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

There’s a lot happening in this octopus picture. He had parked himself in an area that was probably close to fish eggs because an aggressive fish kept nipping at his tentacles. At the same time, a group of hermit crabs brazenly marched up the rocks and plopped them themselves down in front of the octopus, which didn’t seem to upset him at all. Lots of critters in one shot! Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 200 • f/14 • 1/200 • Photo ˙© 2021 Glenn Ostle

Reef Squid St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

We regularly found a number of squid hanging out under the pier. As usual they kept their distance while eyeing us warily. After spending some time with them, a few became curious and came in close. I like this photo as it is an unusual view of a squid. Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 400 • f/8 • 1/160 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Shrimp St Croix Copyright Glenn Ostle Ikelite Underwater Housing

Squat shrimp are notoriously difficult to photograph as they are very small and tend to spend most of their time dipping and bowing deep inside an anemone. I was fortunate to have one venture out where I was able to get this shot. Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 400 • f/18 • 1/160  • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Banded Clinging Crab Fredricksted Pier St Croix Glenn Ostle Ikelite Housing

These small banded clinging crabs can typically be found around the edges of anemones, but they are very shy and hide behind the anemone arms. This crab was quite brave as it came out just far enough for a photo. Nikkor 105mm Macro • ISO 400 • f/16 • 1/125 • Photo © 2021 Glenn Ostle

Glenn currently uses a Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera in a 200DL Underwater Housing, a pair of DS160 strobes and a 180 degree Straight Magnifying Viewfinder. For his photography in St. Croix he mostly used lenses including Nikon 14-30 f/4S, Nikkor 60mm 1:2.8 G ED, and Nikkor 105mm 1:2.8 G ED.

 

Ikelite Ambassador Glenn OstleAmbassador Glenn Ostle has been taking underwater photos for more than 25 years, starting with Nikonos cameras in the 90s. Since switching to housed cameras, he has owned seven Ikelite housings. Before he retired, he spent 30 years in industrial marketing and 10 years as publisher and editorial director of a leading trade magazine. During that time he also contributed articles and photos to a Florida-based travel magazine, which he continues to do today. Glenn and his partner, Pam Hadfield, travel and dive extensively around the world. Besides underwater photography, he is also an avid bird and land photographer. His photos can be viewed at featherandfins.smugmug.com, and he posts photos regularly on Instagram @ostleglennRead more...

 

 

Additional Reading 

Maintaining Your Macro Eye | Using Underwater Techniques on Land

Just Below the Surface | Shooting on Snorkel in Grand Cayman

How To Get the Best Shots When Shooting Wrecks

Cousteau's Aquarium | Sea of Cortez with the Nikon Z6

An Insider's Guide to Diving the Blue Heron Bridge, Florida

COVID-19 Check-In | Ambassadors, Part 1

Protecting the Natural Resources of the Bahamas with Bahamas Girl

Planning a Shore Diving Trip to Bonaire

Nikon Z6 Full Frame Mirrorless Underwater Photos

Nikon Z7 and 8-15mm Fisheye Underwater Photos with Compact 8 inch Dome

How to Shoot Split Shots (Half-In, Half-Out of the Water)

In the Water with the Nikon Z6 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera

First Look Nikon Z6, Z7 Mirrorless Underwater Housing

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