Text and Photography by Walt Stearns
The dive site was called Double Ds. One thing was certain, the Ds didnt stand for Dud. The deeper part of the reef dropped from a starting depth of 70 feet to a short shelf at roughly 150. Out beyond the shelf, the bottom was something I could only envision in my imagination.
As I began to compose a shot of Sea Dancers photo pro, Michael Boyer, a moderate sized reef shark quickly made its way in our direction, following the face of the wall. Caught by surprise at its sudden arrival, I nearly missed an almost equally large Eagle Ray coming from the opposite direction. Things were definitely on fire. Elsewhere, divers were encountering still more Eagle Rays and sharks, as well as a couple of small, friendly Nassau Groupers, Spadefish and one Hawksbill Turtle.
Some argue the Turks and Caicos no longer have anything to offer divers seeking the wild, raw and unpredictable. I think they do; a large portion of these islands is relatively unexplored and untouched.
Viewed from an altitude of 10,000 feet, these are sparsely inhabited, low-lying parcels of land, thrown about like pieces of a curious jigsaw puzzle. They create a spectacular, vibrant tapestry of blue tinted whites, greens, browns and turquoise, surrounded by wide stretches of deep cobalt waters. Divided into two separate banks the Grand Turk Group, the smallest and the Caicos Group, the largest both feature broad stretches of shallows or banks that range from as little as three inches to depths rarely exceeding 30 feet.
The naming of the Turks Islands is believed to have originated from the pirates of Constantinople, who apparently resembled Turkish sailors. They are said to have taken control of the islands from the Spanish settlements around the 1600s. The name Caicos comes from the early Lucayan Indian words Caya Hico, meaning string of Islands.
Bordering the outer edge of the Caicos Bank like a crescent, the chain of islands (beginning in a clockwise direction) include West Caicos (in the lower west corner), Provo (short for Providenciales), North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos and South Caicos, eventually ending near the Ambergris Cays in the southeast corner.
The topographical similarity to The Bahamas, to the northwest, is a result of their geological origin extensive tectonic uplifts that formed huge subsea plateaus around a billion years ago. From the middle grounds of the Caicos Banks all the way to the edge, where they meet with the regions fringing reefs and shoals, these large shallow expanses play host to a diverse number of marine creatures. Prowling this prolific biological replenishment zone, the cast of characters includes large predators such as sharks, Spotted Eagle, Southern Stingray and Manta Rays, groupers, snappers and sea turtles of every kind, and even marine mammals such as Spotted and Bottlenose Dolphins. I was put through the torture of watching a video shot two weeks before my arrival by one of the Sea Dancers crew members of a Whale Shark encounter experienced near West Caicos. I hate when that happens!
Coming into service in 1986 following her conversion from a Gulf of Mexico oil platform crew boat, the Sea Dancer performs her mission as a floating hotel and dive platform expertly. On board accommodations (for 18 divers) are divided among three master staterooms (with queen sized bed, private head/shower and picture window) and one deluxe twin (one twin upper and lower with private head/shower) on the main deck, with three deluxe (one double lower and one twin upper with private head/shower) and two twin staterooms (each with two twin upper/ lower bunks) sharing one semi-private head/shower. Sea Dancers on board, 3,000 gallon a day watermakers provide plenty of fresh, hot water for daily showers.
In the Peter Hughes tradition, you can expect plush bathrobes in your cabin, warm towels on the deck after each dive, evening dinners served in casual elegance and morning steward service bringing hot coffee to your cabin. In addition to the morning coffee, services include daily cabin clean up with fresh towels and nightly turn down, complete with a chocolate on the pillow.
The aft third of the main deck is set up with a two tier (ten by five foot) carpeted camera table, rinse barrels, wetsuit hanging racks, with tank rack/bench seats lining both port and starboard sides. There is also a head, drinking fountain and mask defog station. The onboard photo center features daily E-6 processing. Rental equipment includes regulators, BCs, dive lights and computers, with complimentary tanks, weights and weightbelts.
While she may be the oldest live-aboard in the Dancer Fleet, the Sea Dancer is very much up to date. Even the air station underwent an update last December, with the installation of a nitrox membrane system. With that, guests now have the option of diving EAN 32 and 36. The Sea Dancer offers four dives per day (with a maximum depth of 130 feet for the first dive), plus one night dive (every night but Friday). If you are not already nitrox certified, one of Sea Dancers instructors can run you through a TDI (Technical Diving International) four hour course.
Departing from Provo, the 110 foot vessel sets out on a week-long adventure with five and one-half days of diving starting off the southern tip of West Caicos, hitting parts of Provo and the outer reefs around French Cay. When the winds are favorable for exploring the Caicos eastern territory, the itinerary will change to include South Caicos. A briefing is provided upon arrival to each site, complete with an illustration of its profile and characteristic highlights. With five dives scheduled most days, packing a two to three millimeter wetsuit is a good idea for preserving body heat, particularly during winter months when water temperatures can reach the mid 70s(ºF).
In addition to the comforts of the boat, the guests reap the rewards of being able to play in the more isolated regions from Provos Northwest Point, down past West Caicos to French Cay near the bottom end of the Caicos Banks. The walls vary distinctly from one site to the next. With starting depths of 60 to 70 feet, their profiles change constantly, from steep slopes featuring one or two large buttresses of coral, to short, vertical embankments. Dropping to depths of 130 to 150 feet, they stop at a narrow before commencing again in their journey straight down.
Along stretches of these short vertical precipices, at sites such as Stairway and Mystery (a.k.a. Shark Hotel), are deep undercuts sizable enough to shade a large bus. Underneath, thickets of rope and tube sponges and wire corals grow several feet long. Also hanging from their ceiling are medium to large bushy trees of black coral. Elsewhere, at sites such as Sand Spit and G-Spot near French Cay, the scalloped faces of these deep drops sustain numerous stands of tube and Orange Elephant Ear Sponges. Large Deep Water Seafans form long fence-like partitions down the reefs steep face.
To be sure, the Turks & Caicos have plenty of the good ol sharp, vertical faces plunging to unreachable depths. Midway between the south end of Provo and West Caicos, Land of the Giants transforms from a low profile spur and groove reef formation at a depth of 40 feet, to a sudden vertical wall plunging into the void. In addition to the beauty of the wall, the drop-off is a favored hub for passing Eagle Rays and sharks, the basis for its moniker.
Like the walls and slopes of the deeper part of the reef, the mid-depth areas in the 35 to 60 foot range are equally stunning. Venturing over their stark white, sand bottoms and scattered coral heads, is a montage of surprises. Small, colorful reef fish, invertebrates and easily approachable groupers attend numerous cleaning stations scattered about, creating a wealth of photo opportunities. For wide angle shots, some of the shallows finer treasures is its collection of Pillar Corals. These are some of tallest stands I have witnessed anywhere, towering to heights of 14 and 15 feet. In the clearness of the water, exceeding 100 feet, their monolithic proportions are inspiring.
For more information about charters on the Sea Dancer, contact Peter Hughes Diving, Inc., 1390 S. Dixie Highway., Suite 1109, Coral Gables, FL 33146; (800) 9-DANCER (800-932-6237). Or check out the Web site at www.peterhughes.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.