RICHARD BRANSON IS NO FOOL. When it came to buying a private holiday place, he chose to buy Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Part of the necklace of Leeward Islands that separates the Caribbean from the Atlantic, BVI sits equidistant from the burgeoning, bustling, over-subscribed islands of Puerto Rico and Antigua.
BVI is a group of beautiful volcanic mountains towering out of the sea, with channels such as Drakes Passage between them. They have become famous with yachtsmen, and they offer some pretty good diving, too.
I was part of a group of diving journalists invited over by BVI Tourism to spend a week sampling different hotels and dive operations. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

IT WAS ALSO AN EYE-OPENER, in that some operators understood that it was a unique opportunity to showcase their wares, while others seemed inflexible and insistent on enforcing the rules that they applied to the sort of infrequent and unfit divers they might meet from cruise ships.
Lets draw a veil over the dive-centre owners who ridiculed my kit, were disinclined to allow anyone in the water without direct supervision (including an underwater photographer from National Geographic), and declared that the 20m dive would have a duration of 25 minutes only, and that we would all go down and come up together. The diving we were doing, I might add, was not difficult. It was akin to swimming in a rather deep municipal pool.
Instead, Ill recommend Colin at BVI Scuba on Jost Van Dyke, Mike at Sail Caribbean Divers (despite a less-than-memorable company name) and Scott, the acting captain of the giant trimaran liveaboard Cuan Law, all of whom were so laid-back that they were virtually horizontal.
Thanks, too, for a hand-picked crew throughout of strong, talented and intelligent young ladies who were inclined to wear the very smallest of bikinis in the BVI sunshine. They surely made an old man happy.
The whole lot allowed the circumstances for us all to get some good pictures under water.
As we were invited out with the aim of promoting next years Wreck Week, I was also surprised that we dived so few of the wrecks. I dont quite know how they are going to make Wreck Week special either, because you can dive any of the wrecks at any time.
There is a programme of sinking vessels as artificial reefs, and we visited three of these small wrecks. If youve dived the Stanegarth in Stoney Cove, youll know the sort of vessels to expect, and it doesnt take long to visit every part of them. These will be colonised in time for the event, and already I met a few very large Southern sting rays out on the sand nearby.
However, we also paid several visits to the famous wreck of the Rhone, the location used for filming Jacqueline Bissett, Robert Shaw and Nick Nolte in the adaptation of Peter Benchleys The Deep.
The master of this Royal Mail steam sailing ship, Captain Wooley, was caught out by a storm that turned into a hurricane during a routine visit to BVI in 1867. The Rhone had been launched in 1865, and was massively built in iron, with a powerful engine fed by huge boilers and a new-fangled propeller that would eventually replace the paddle-wheels popular at the time.
Confident that his modern marvel could outrun the storm, Captain Wooley was proved fatally wrong. A great majority of the passengers and crew died when the vessel struck rocks near Salt Island, and the inrush of colder water caused the super-heated boilers to explode.
The vessel was literally torn in two. The passengers had been tied into their bunks to stop them getting in the way during the stormy passage. Only a couple of the crew survived.
Later, the cargo was salvaged, and the part of the wreck deemed to be a hazard to shipping dynamited. Apart from the bow, the wreck is just a mighty heap of scrap iron now. The bronze propeller is still there, and you can see the propshaft and what remains of one intact boiler.
The propeller is so huge that many divers pass it without recognising what it is. However, the wreckage has become a refuge and a haven for masses of marine life, and its for this that you dive the Rhone.
Ironically, the Rhone sank on the leeward side of Salt Island, so the remains are almost always easily dived. The dive requires several hours under water - and not the 25 minutes offered by that one unnamed operator.
My first dive on the Rhone was at night. I saw plenty of parrotfish and big turtles snoozing, safely tucked away.
I photographed a bold slipper lobster out in the open. The wreckage is alive with spiny lobsters at night, and I made several attempts to catch one large specimen out in the open.
It would march out, and I would home in with my camera, but as soon as I turned on a light to focus, the animal would quickly retreat into the shelter afforded by fallen sheets of iron.
I persevered, pulling back while the animal regained confidence to make an appearance, but it continually retreated smartly as soon as I switched on a light. After 25 minutes or so of toing and froing,
I got the shot and turned to swim away - only to be confronted by Lobzilla.
Lobzilla is a well-known character on the Rhone, a lobster that must be 100 years old. Its not shy. It simply marched across an open space and allowed me to take close-ups of it. It returned my attention with a body language that said: What are you going to do about it You want to take me on
Lobzilla is a lobster like any other, except that its body is more than a metre long. Thats some lobster! Its the first time Ive been able to photograph a lobster and clearly record the highlights in its eye - and no macro lens needed!
I looked for Rachel, my diminutive dive guide. I wanted her lying next to the lobster for scale, but she was having none of it. So I ended up with good pictures of an upscaled lobster without any visual clue to its enormity.
During daylight dives, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a turtle inside the intact bow section, and photograph schooling grunts and porgies around various standing parts of the wreckage.
It is now so encrusted with corals and sponges that its difficult to make out exactly which part of the ship is which.
Colin took us in his serious-looking dive-boat to explore one of his special sites near the tiny island of Jos Van Dyke, which appears to have more beach bars than population, as well as his very picturesque shack dive-shop.
One dive-site is called Twin Towers, named after two submerged edifice-like rocks. Here I stayed with a baitball of silversides and attempted to photograph the silver-sided tarpon, great prehistoric fish that constantly preyed on them. The silversides shimmered and changed shape continuously, but it was an effect impossible to record in a single moment.
We went to the Playground, too, where I was distracted by a large spotted eagle ray that circled me, but never came close enough for an effective picture.
The best was saved until last. By now we were guests aboard the giant liveaboard Cuan Law, and we went out to dive the wreck of the Chikuzen, lying out in the Atlantic north of Tortola.
She had once been a 75m-long Japanese refrigeration vessel operated in conjunction with a fishing fleet and a transport vessel. She had been more or less abandoned in the harbour at St Maarten when, in 1981, a tropical storm threatened and the harbourmaster insisted that the decrepit vessel be moved so that she wouldnt sink and become a hazard to shipping.
The owners went for the cheapest solution, and sent her out to sea, where they set her on fire. She was allowed to drift, which is how the unmanned ghost ship drifted into the waters of BVI.
After threatening Marina Cay, various salvors attempted to take her in tow, with varying degrees of success and some injuries, but eventually she sank in 24m of water in open ocean.
Not a very exciting vessel when afloat, the wreck of the Chikuzen lies on its port side, with the shallowest part 14m from the surface. Being in an sterile area of sandy seabed, the hulk has become a magnet for life. Huge schools of fish crowd round it. Feeding on these are large amberjacks, great barracuda and kobia, the fish that look like sharks and behave like dolphins.
This is one of the few places in the world where you will see great barracuda schooling, albeit loosely. There is so much food available that they dont find each others presence threatening.

I SWAM ROUND THE HULL, photographing the snapper and grunts that moved in a mercurial way, flowing in a shimmering silver stream before me until the end of the wreck was reached. Here they doubled back on themselves to flow the other way.
Inside the hull, I shot a similar scene amid the pipework. It was only when
I had finished my dive and was hovering at an intermediate stop that I saw two massive jewfish return to their homes on the wreck. My dive plan for the second dive was decided! Hunt the grouper!
I knew they were inside the hulk somewhere. They had to be. I searched every dark hole, and eventually met Scott from Cuan Law coming the other way. He extravagantly indicated where I should go.
There, inside a hold with a floor deep in sand, lay a big old grouper, complete with attendant remoras and looking very much like a farrowing sow. She was so unfazed by my presence that I was able to shoot around 30 pictures of her, retiring from time to time outside the wreck to allow the sediment disturbed above me by my exhaled bubbles to settle out before I returned.
It was only after I later climbed back aboard Cuan Law, which was hanging above the wreck like the Starship Enterprise, that Scott mentioned to me that I had paid my attentions to the smaller of the two fish.
The really large grouper, the male, had been tucked away in the darkness, around the corner from me.
Never mind. I came back from BVI with many great shots.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: LIAT connections from islands served by major airlines (Virgin and BA fly daily to Antigua).
DIVING:BVI Scuba, www.bviscubaco.com; Jost Van Dyke Scuba, www.jostvandykescuba.com; Sail Caribbean Divers www.sailcaribbeandivers.com; Cuan Law liveaboard, www.cuanlaw.com
ACCOMMODATION:Varies according to budget.
WHEN TO GO: January to July. Wreck Week is 12-19 June, 2010. Water temperature is in the 25-30°C range.
MONEY: US dollar and major credit cards.
HEALTH: Malaria-free, and its hoped to have a manned hyperbaric facility in Tortola soon.
PRICE: A seven-day trip including international flights, six nights aboard Cuan Law, full board and three dives per day costs £2490 per person, based on two sharing, www.diveworldwide.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bvidiving.com, www.bvitourism.com