St. Thomas, Virgin Islands — Chin down, I pressed my mask to my face, stepped with flippered foot over a rolling wave, and sank with a ``kerploop'' followed by quiet fizz. Engulfed by the sudden, amplified rhythm of my own breathing, I slithered downward into the deaf-and-dumb world of yellow brain coral, stoplight parrotfish, and peacock-hued sea fans. Not only does scuba diving (acronym for self-contained-underwater breathing apparatus) trade the noise of wind and surf for the sounds of silence, it exchanges the limitations of terrestrial locomotion for a three-dimensional world traversed as simply as a mermaid's kick. Not to mention mountains and prairies of alien vegetation or the ugly mugs of multi-colored grouper fish with names like French grunt (Haemu-lon flavolineatum) or banded butterfly.
Despite the stories we all hear, including statistics that scuba is one of the most dangerous sports going, I was reminded recently how shamelessly, embarrassingly easy it can be. This is so especially if done under the watchful eye of a class organization like the St. Thomas Diving Club (STDC), largest club in the United States Virgin Islands.
Leave all those ``minor'' details up to them -- mask, fins, snorkels, tanks, vests, and extra ``O'' rings -- not to mention knowledge of the local submarine terrain and a way to get there, and you leave the major hassles of scuba diving behind you.
The rest, stepping off a boat and breathing through a regulator, is easy. If you are one of those armchair Lloyd Bridges with the urge to submerge, but haven't yet taken the plunge, consider this: You don't even need to know how to swim.
``Hollywood we can always thank for the bad rap about scuba diving,'' says STDC head Paul Doumeng. ``You know, you're not afraid of `Jaws' on the ski slope. Basically people are looking for a very family-oriented sport and they don't realize that scuba diving is very, very safe.''
He even deigns to make a comparison with scuba's ever popular cousin, snorkeling. ``In skin diving you tend to look a little deeper than the snorkel is tall. In scuba all you have to do is push a little button and you have all the air you need, right there.''
Most of the problems that occur in scuba diving occur at the surface, where winds, waves, and swells can knock a mask off and create panic. Once beneath the waves, all the cumbersomeness of tanks and unwieldy weight belts is neutralized by a buoyancy so delicate that just breathing in and out can lift and lower you over the ocean floor's terrain.
My newfound inclination to take up the scuba cause owes to the way my four recent dives were handled here. I had only dived in the area about a half-dozen times before -- lugging tanks, belts, etc., in and out of dinghies and sailboats and on and off coral beaches.
Looking for the right outfit (among dozens available on St. Thomas) to let do the dirty work, I met a New York couple, Elaine and Mark Dinowitz. They told me they had dived in Bonair, Cozumel, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, and Aruba. And they said for overall diving, pricing, care, professionalism, and variety of dive spots, STDC was the best place they'd ever been. Checking elsewhere on the island seemed to confirm that STDC -- owing to its large size, number of qualified staff, and good equipment -- had the best reputation.
Following directions to STDC's sequestered home, called Villa Olga, on the tip of a small peninsula next to St. Thomas harbor, I met the owner's son, Paul, who heads the staff of about 22 PADI-trained (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) instructors. He told me that due to such movies as ``The Deep,'' there's been a surge of interest in scuba over recent years.
``For a long time, most of the people who came down were hard-core. Now we're finding that it's about 50-50, from total novice to life long divers,'' he said.
One of the pluses of diving in an island chain as opposed to coastal waters is that no matter what the weather, there is a protected side away from wind and currents. Beyond that, says Doumeng, what defines diving in the Virgin Islands over other places in the world is variety.
``There are many places that can offer you crystal-clear water,'' he says. ``The Virgin Islands has both reefs and wrecks, tunnels and caves, good shallow as well as deep diving -- and lots that come out at night.'' All this under calm seas, he added, owing to the placement of islands, which makes the Virgin Islands one of the world's prime sailing spots as well.
With some previous experience exploring the reefs off various Virgin Islands, I decided it was time to see a wreck. There are over 200 in St. Thomas harbor alone, owing to an earthquake in the late 1800s that first sucked the water out and then returned it in tidal wave proportions. STDC regularly dives four of the most popular wrecks in the islands, including the HMS Rhone, the famous mail steamship that sunk off Peter Island Nov. 23, 1867, and was later used in ``The Deep.'' Rhone outings are one of STDC's specially priced full-day trips ($90).
However, the day I arrived for the four-hour Rhone trip into the British Virgins, ocean swells were six-feet high. A hurricane had been sighted 300 miles away -- one reminder that scuba outings are subject to the vagaries of weather. Choppy water not only can stir up sediment, it breaks up sunlight which takes away colors.
Since about six of us were determined to go out, Paul said we'd dive instead to the Cartanser, a 90-foot World War I steel freighter sunk in about 70 feet of water in a protected cay off Little Buck Island -- a half hour by boat south from the harbor.
Abandoned in St. Thomas harbor, the ship was sunk in 1979 and later destined to be exploded for shrapnel. A local controversy ensued, ending with local divers diving to the wreck on its scheduled day of obliteration so that explosives couldn't be detonated. Ending a long controversy, the whole ship was towed to its present location.
After motoring out under brilliant sun, we eventually anchored the STDC's 68-foot Mohawk II, a custom-built, dive charter boat that sleeps 25 and carries its own air compressors. Just beneath us, easily visible just 20 feet below the surface, was the hull of the Cartanser.
For about 35 minutes, six of us explored the decks, inside the engine room, various cabins and bathrooms. No matter how prepared I was for the clich'ed eeriness of wreck diving, the real thing was surprisingly macabre. I ran a gloved finger along the barnacled hull that housed thousands of goggle-eyed fish, bobbing counterclockwise with the swell.
I swam in and out of portholes, pulled myself along by rusty cables and decayed railing. Once inside an enclosed room, it's easy to forget the ship is stuck in the sea bottom at a 45-degree angle. The only thing that lets you know which way is up is to watch your own bubbles.
Eventually following those bubbles back to the surface and the Mohawk II, we allowed time for decompression, dropped anchor at a nearby reef and spent another 45 minutes or so scavenging the marine flora and fauna. Paul said later that the average depth visibility in the Virgin Islands is about 80 feet, but on a clear day and calm conditions, you can see 200 feet.
Back on land, Paul told me how the company has expanded to include monthly, one-week charter trips year- round and begun to cater to families as well. Once-a-week, snorkels-only trips head to The Baths, one of the prime protected reefs in the world on the island of Virgin Gorda.
``We take them over there, and that way, you know, the wife can come and the kids and grandma and whoever else happens to be down with the traveling diver. We don't want to cater just to the hard-cores -- we want to cater to everybody.''
For more information on rates and packages, call or write Peter Martin Associates, 770 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021, (212) 838-3050, or St. Thomas Diving Club, Villa Olga, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, (809) 774-1376.