Whether you are a diver, a snorkeler, a history buff or just along for the ride; the 145 year old Wreck of the Rhone is one of the rare treasures of the British Virgin Islands and should not be passed by! The RMS Rhone was built in 1865 and was one of the first iron hulled vessels powered by both sail and steam. She was the 310 foot Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s flagship that carried cargo and passengers between England, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Similar to the Titanic 45 years later, The British Navy deemed her “unsinkable”, a ship that embodied the new marine technology of it’s time.
The Rhone met her demise in October 1867. The ship had just picked up it’s passengers and it was estimated there were around 300 people onboard, she was anchored off of Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands when a dark storm rolled in. Without the technology we have today the captain and crew were quickly caught off guard by a hurricane. They rode out the first half of the storm on their anchor. As the storm grew more fierce the captain was faced with a difficult decision: stay put or head for open seas. The decision was made to run for it as the eye of the storm passed over. This proved to be more difficult then they had anticipated as the anchor had become deeply embedded in the coral. Wasting precious time they struggled to pull up the large anchor and ended up cutting the chain. Finally, they raced for the Salt Island Passage. Valuable time wasted, the storm hit them at full force right as they approached the passage. The waves were estimated to be 70-100 feet tall and pushed them up against the rocks on Salt Island. The rocks pierced the hull of the ship allowing the cool seawater to rush onto the red hot boiler in the bowels of the ship. The unsinkable Rhone exploded into two pieces and found her final resting place on the sea floor. Only 23 people survived the wreck, all of which were crew members.
Today the Rhone is considered one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean. The wreck is best done in two dives, one on the bow, one on the stern. The bow section is 80 ft. deep and still relatively intact. As you drop down the first thing you will notice is the beautifully encrusted bowsprit of the ship. Although most of the wooden decks have rotted away the iron skeleton remains, providing roomy swim-throughs for divers. The stern section ranges from 20-50 ft. deep due to the fact that it is broke up in many pieces and is a great dive as well as snorkel. The stern also provides a great swim-through into the huge propeller shaft.
The iron ship’s frame has become encrusted with all sorts of tube sponges, wire, brain and encrusting coral, anemones and more. You will find all sorts of critters hiding in the cracks and crevices such as crabs, green morays, huge lobsters (one locally known as “lobzilla”) and octopus. The Rhone is also teeming with squirrelfish and legions of snappers that love to hide in the shadows. Angel fish galore and turtles who love to stop and pose for the camera. Along with all of the amazing marine life that flourishes on the Rhone there are still vestiges from the era that can be spotted throughout the wreckage. A canon lies next to the hull, there is the drive shaft and huge brass propeller, a piece of tile from the dance floor, one single remaining brass porthole known as the lucky porthole which you rub for good luck, and finally a silver teaspoon perfectly encrusted in the coral which is said to belong to the captain himself!
In 1967 the Rhone was turned into a National Park and has been beautifully preserved and protected. If you would like a preview of the wreck you can watch the movie The Deep, which was filmed on the Rhone in 1977. So set your heading to Salt Island – it’s safe to say that the Rhone is the single most beautifully decorated wreck in the British Virgin Islands, a masterpiece of 145 years and still in the making.