ITS HARD TO KNOW WHICH CABIN CREW was the most nonchalant - the one on the 18-minute seaplane flight from St Thomas to St Croix, or the one on the eight-hour American Airlines flight from Heathrow to Miami.
So before I get down to the fun bit about diving in the US Virgin Islands, Im going to have a rant.
Hasn't anybody from American ever flown with a proper airline Haven't they reasoned that if you're paying full whack for a trans-Atlantic flight, then a free gin and tonic isn't exactly going to send the airline spiralling into bankruptcy? That The Second Best of Chris de Burgh doesn't even begin to meet the criteria for in-flight entertainment? That a bread roll should be a foodstuff, not a building material? That, when it comes to hiring cabin staff, the Golden Girls are acceptable only when they're funny
Still, I suppose I shouldn't complain. I wasn't paying. I was on a familiarisation trip, burdened with the irksome task of assessing the US Virgin Islands as a diving destination.
There were four of us: a photographer, two tour operators and myself, all under the laconic eye of our guide Gary - the first slave on the islands since Emancipation in 1848.
He followed us at a discreet distance, collecting up our wallets, cameras and passports as we flung them gaily into the undergrowth.
During the course of a week, we dived on two of the main islands. The most attractive aspect of the diving was the refreshing variety of sites.
I had dived in the Caribbean a lot: Cuba, Honduras, the Grenadines, right down to the ABCs. Its not that I get bored, exactly, but it can be a tad repetitious.
Coral environments are rich in life: but the corollary of this dense concentration of species is that youll run into most of them on every dive.
Take down the I Spy Book Of Reef Stuff and, after half an hour, you've ticked off most of the boxes. All that's missing are the manta ray and the whale shark - fictitious animals invented by dive guides to create a false sense of expectation among their clients.
But St Thomas is different. It's funny how often an onshore environment is mirrored in the offshore. This island could be a spectacularly pretty place - rolling hills, rainforest, gorgeous coral bays - but it's about to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of abandoned cars.
You can hardly move for decomposing 1983 Chevrolets. You can't turn a corner, pull up to survey a beauty spot or peer into a clearing in the rainforest without coming eyeball to headlamp with a Buick pick-up, hibiscus sprouting from every rusting orifice.
When tourism is your lifeblood, how clever is that? Why can't they just make it illegal to dump your shagged-out wheels at the roadside? It's so simple - you check the reg plate against the tax disc, read off the culprits address, then drag him shrieking from his bed at 3am and force him to eat his discarded vehicle, naked, before a democratically selected audience of his peers. What's the problem, for heavens sake?
But if wrecks are a pain in the arse above the waterline, they make for great diving below. Aitch Liddle, proprietor of Blue Island Divers, reasoned that you and I can experience nice, Caribbean reef diving anywhere from Grand Cayman down to Curacao. So being a Brit with a consuming interest in marine archaeology, he decided to make St Thomas a focus for tropical wreck diving.
He discovered that the historical basis for this enterprise was encouragingly robust. The island was an important naval base in World War 2, and a whole fleet of bizarre marine hybrids pitched up here when hostilities ended.
Some were sunk by the hurricanes that rip through these latitudes. Others finally outlived their usefulness and were towed out into deep water and scuppered.
A good example is the romantically named LST 467. She was built in Vancouver, one of an eccentric breed of long-range landing craft designed for the invasion of the South Pacific islands. LST stood for Landing Ship, Tanks.
She had to be flat-bottomed to allow her to roll up to a beach, yet seaworthy enough to cross the Pacific with a full complement of assault troops and Sherman tanks.
To address these contradictory needs, she was equipped with ballast reservoirs that could be flooded or voided as necessary.
Life aboard the LST 467 must have been hellish. She was hopelessly overloaded, so most of the troops had to doss on deck. And she was woefully underpowered for an ocean crossing. Some wit declared that LST was an acronym for Large, Slow Target.
Yet she survived. She was the subject of two torpedo attacks en route for Okinawa. One hit but didnt explode - the other shot right beneath her hull and sank a support ship behind.
Now she lies in 20m off the southern shore of St Thomas. As always with the wrecks of fighting ships, I was struck by the contrast between the intense drama of her wartime career and the dreamy tranquillity of her final resting place.
Having said that, when, six minutes into my first dive, I came face to face with an 8ft shark, my state of dreamy tranquillity was temporarily suspended. It was only a nurse shark - I could tell by the uniform. But it was still scary. God help me if I ever meet a modern matron shark.

Frantic paparazzi
The Kennedy was a barge attached to the mega-carrier USS Kennedy. Now it rests in a bay overlooked by Shirley MacLaine's daughter's house (I should write for Hello) and is prowled by the worlds most nonchalant hawksbill turtle. It's either blind or mad. It just wanders complacently around the wreck, followed by a thrashing posse of frantic paparazzi. Perhaps it took lessons from Shirley MacLaine.
Then there's the Miss Opportunity.a one-time hospital ship, parked upside-down in 34m. Swim down the outside with the tide, said Aitch. Then enter the wreck and wind back through the decks, so youll be sheltered from the current.
I did the precise opposite. After 20 minutes I had exhausted myself, my air and any credibility I might have accumulated among my fellow-divers.
The best wreck site, as is so often the case, was the most shallow. The Barges once formed a floating barracks for US troops. Now they're lying in 10m of water, a five-minute swim apart.
They reminded me of the fabulous Mulberry harbour sections off Chichester, but architecturally theyre more impressive by far.
With their spindly towers and rotting ribs they suggest some vast, sculptural project by a meglomaniac Giacometti, or Gaudis unfinished submarine cathedral.
We quickly encountered two southern rays, a trio of spotted drums and whole gardens of tiny tunicates in electric blue. Beams of milky sunlight played like searchlights on the encrusting corals that will soon reclaim this fantastic place forever.
St Croix is a better class of island altogether: an AA Three Star tropical paradise. You hop the 40 miles from St Thomas on a seaplane that flies low enough to avoid decompression problems. Communication with the passengers is limited to 16 words, like bullets from a semi-automatic weapon: Thanks for flying with us. Mind your head on the way out. Have a nice day. And they were still more polite than American Airlines.
We stayed in an old wooden hotel by the sea that divided our party into Those With Discerning Tastes And An Appreciation of the Islands Colonial Past (me), and Philistines Who Faint At The Sight of Exposed Wiring And Can't Possibly Share a 40ft Suite With A House Lizard (everybody else). I fell asleep to the sound of waves sloshing on the rocks beneath my balcony.
By way of contrast, at the St Thomas Best Western Hotel I was obliged to pass out to an endless loop of Cagney & Lacey, exclusive programming on what I guess was the Cagney & Lacey Channel.

Emerald landscape
In the morning, I ran along the coast road: pretty, deserted beaches to my right, rainforest to my left, castles of cumulo-nimbus above. I laboured up a hill they called The Beast (theyd painted its name on the tarmac) and surveyed the island from the summit.
I saw a rolling, emerald landscape occasionally broken by the tower of some secluded, sugar barons mansion, and aline of surf 200m off our hotel. The reef was at its best just there - a sheer wall where the pelagic world collided with the coral one.
Neil, our photographer, decided that he - no, we - would buy the hotel from the eccentric, attractive Russian divorcee who struggled to run the place with her student daughter. I sort of wish we had, but Id probably have gone mad living on an island where, apart from drinking, the only evening activity is drinking.
We dived with Dive Experience. Its guides were terrific - bright, funny and knowledgeable. Jay had played Glastonbury and the Albert Hall as the sound engineer for a rock band, and Jo had a degree in oriental languages.
But the outfits proprietors should consider new careers as cabin attendants with American Airlines.
Still, it would take a lot to spoil the experience of diving off St Croix, where arrow crabs, Pedersen shrimps and squat lobsters wrestle to be first into your outstretched hands; where snowflake morays vie for attention with their green cousins and flotillas of nurse sharks doze under ledges created by some prehistoric cataclysm.
As we drove back to our peeling wooden hotel, we should have been in black and white. And Humphrey Bogart should have been at the wheel.
We trundled past a dilapidated tennis court. Vines were insinuating themselves through the asphalt, weaving through the sagging nets. A huge iguana clung, frozen, to the chain link fence.
I do like the Caribbean.


Transfers are by low-flying sea plane - St Thomas is about 40 miles from St Croix

downtown St Thomas

Emerald Beach

nurse shark - you can tell by the uniform

around the prop of the LST 467

The intact wreck of a tugboat

inside LST 467

Andy Blackford seeks out marine life

a flying turtle



GETTING THERE:American Airlines to St Thomas or St Croix via Miami and San Juan from Heathrow. BA and Virgin both fly to Antigua, from where you can connect to St Thomas or St Croix using Liat.
DIVING: St Thomas - Blue Island Divers (www.blueislanddivers.com). St Croix - Dive Experience (www.divexp.com)
ACCOMMODATION : St Thomas - Best Western Hotel (www.bestwestern.com). St Croix - Waves at Cane Bay, (www.thewavesatcanebay.com)
When to go: Hurricane season is from the end of summer to October. Water temperatures are 22-28C
MONEY : US Dollar
COST : Scuba Discovery offers a package including flights with Virgin and Liat via Barbados and seven nights at Best Western in St Thomas, room-only, for£999 per person. A 10-dive pack with Blue Island Divers costs£249. Scuba Discovery can provide prices for a trip to St Croix.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 8994 09782, www.usvitourism.vi