2000-08 The Essence of Turk and Caicos Diving
The Turks and Caicos Banks, two relatively flat-topped mountains rising from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean thousands of feet below, support spike, bump and mushroom shapes that break the water’s surface to form eight major islands and numerous cays.
Alternating sandstone and off-white sand beaches ring the islands and cays, tapering into green, shallow water. From there, signature aquamarine blues darken with depth to a dark blue over the deep water walls. Diving starts in the shallows, typically following spur and groove formations and continuing to the edge and down the wall. You can’t miss the spiritual visual found dropping off the edge and looking back to the surface.
On the way down, divers see the full spectrum of marine life. From the smallest creatures in the crevices to the biggest out in the blue. The fish are singular and in schools; the corals are in forests and stalks, wispy and solid; browns, reds, greens and purples predominate. It’s all here.
TURKS & CAICOS CAPITAL
Many Grand Turk–based divers can open the back door of their hotel room, walk down the beach to the water’s edge, step aboard a 22- to 25-foot boat and go diving. Utter simplicity.
The wall is only minutes from the beach. The boat crew snags an unoccupied mooring line, gives a site briefing, and divers do a back roll off the boat— dropping to the bottom and making their way to the edge of the wall.
A favorite dive site here is Black Forest, named for the profusion of black coral on the wall. Black coral isn’t harvested here, so it grows in abundance.
Friendly groupers vie for a handout at Coral Gardens. The fish aren’t fed by the dive operators, but I suspect they were in the past. A mask-to-grouper-lips encounter initiated by the fish may not be everyone’s idea of love, but judging from most divers’ reactions, it can’t be far removed.
At McDonald’s, there is a nice arch (you knew that, right?) and a resident seahorse just over the edge of the wall at about 50 feet. Like many T & C sites, daylight encounters with Hawksbill Turtles are likely here.
Most Grand Turk operators will also arrange special trips to seldom-dived sites at South Caicos and the wreck of the H.M.S. Endymion near Salt Cay. Calm seas and good weather are prerequisites for these trips, and the operators will use their larger boats to make the longer ride more comfortable.
An educational diversion in sleepy Grand Turk is the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Front Street. The museum has an impressive collection of artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck, the oldest known European shipwreck in the Americas.
PROVO—THE NYC OF
THE TURKS & CAICOS
Diving encompasses three main venues in Provo. Closest is Grace Bay, a short ride from many of the docks. Look for spur and groove formations with mini-walls. Alan Jardine, one of Provo’s dive operators, was candid in his description of Grace Bay diving, “It can be some of the best diving you’ll ever do, or it can be the worst.” I experienced both. We had a low-vis, bad weather day on Grace Bay, while the vis was 100-plus feet on the Northwest Wall. Two days later, the pendulum swung and Grace Bay’s Pinnacles and Cathedral dive sites showed me some great diving with Hawksbill Turtles and several friendly Nassau Groupers.
Forty-five minutes up-island at Northwest Point we’re back to the typical Turks & Caicos wall site. At the Amphitheater, I swam off the wall a bit and looked back. It felt like I was seated in the orchestra and the program was about to begin. Not far from the Amphitheater is The Crack. This site offers a swim-through that delivers divers into the blue water off the wall. The Hole In The Wall is similar and equally exhilarating.
Another nice thing about Northwest Point is the surface interval at Northwest Point Beach. The tiki-hut–lined beach gives the area a South Pacific feel. Adjacent coves with calm, clear aquamarine water dare you to stay dry, and the walls beg for an exciting jump into the deep end.
Excursion or safari diving is another offering common to Provo. Boats leave the dock carrying water, three tanks for each diver and lunch. On a nice day, it is tough to beat this mini-expedition to seldom-dived sites.
SALT CAY—SALT HISTORY
Salt Cay is positioned best for diving the H.M.S. Endymion. The ship was traveling along the Turks Bank in 1790 and made a course correction to port when it should have stayed straight. It encountered the reeftop, opening its innards to the sea and sank.
The remaining debris field of anchors, anchor chain and 18 cannon paint a powerful picture. If you’re lucky, you’ll find where a wooden box of musketballs settled on the bottom. Coral grew around the box, the wood rotted away, and now there is a perfectly rectangular coral hole filled with the marble-sized projectiles.
Sand Cay lies between Endymion Reef and Salt Cay, making it an interesting site for a surface interval. Uninhabited except for resident osprey, iguana and other desert species, the limestone and sand cay has a desolate beauty and great appeal to the explorer. A shallow cove on its east side is reputed to be a Nurse Shark mating ground in mid-summer.
Other diving from Salt Cay is along the west side and at the northwest corner. Black Coral Canyon, as the name infers, features growths of black coral along with tube and rope sponges. Northwest Drop-Off plummets to around 6,000 feet. Tube and barrel sponges share the wall face with black coral. Divers will find pillar coral as they make their ascent and move to the top of the wall and back toward the mooring.
SOUTH CAICOS—THE OUTBACK
While some South Caicos diving is done from live-aboards or a special trip from Grand Turk, there is enough good diving here that you’ll feel cheated if you only make a couple of dives. From shore, the wall sites are under 10 minutes from the docks.
The Point is a good site for seeing sharks and Eagle Rays, and it’s one of the closest sites to the dive dock. At The Plane, the wings and fuselage of a wrecked Convair F29A rest in 45 feet of water and provide a home for a long list of marine life. The night dive here results in one great find after another. My personal favorite was the juvenile drum. I found one under the trailing edge of the left wing near the fuselage.
I’d heard about the leviathan-sized (but, gentle and approachable) stingrays, and sure enough, one of them was waiting for me in the sand at the Spanish Chain site. A few diver-lengths away were the two small coral heads called Twin Peaks. The rays rest their wingtips on the two peaks and use the place as a cleaning station. If that doesn’t sound unusual, consider the peaks are about seven feet apart.
Back on land, forget about going to the mall. For entertainment, check out the scorpion by the cactus near the corner of Butterfield and West Streets, watch the supply ship unload during its every-other-week visit, have dinner at Mae’s three-room B & B and watch for the green flash at sunset from Ocean Haven’s pool deck. It’s like Mallory Square in Key West—without the crowds.
ON A LIVE-ABOARD BOAT
Live-aboards are good platforms for maximizing the number of dives in an altogether too short dive vacation. John Drawbert, an orthopedic surgeon from Wisconsin and group leader of 13 doctor-divers, summed up his group’s feeling about live-aboard diving in T & C, “In our five days of diving, we logged over 20 nitrox dives in the Grand Turk/Salt Cay/South Caicos triangle—including the Endymion and a walking exploration of Sand Cay. We saw tail-and-fin-slapping Humpback Whales near Sand Cay and Pilot Whales near Salt Cay! We liked being able to wake up, take 20 steps to breakfast and another 20 steps to the water.” Drawbert’s live-aboard was homeported in Grand Turk. Two other live-aboards sail from Provo and spend most of their time diving the Provo/West Caicos/North Caicos areas.
THE RETURN DILEMMA
The dilemma for planning a return visit to Turks & Caicos is deciding which venue will be first. Live-aboard? Which one? Out of Provo or Grand Turk? Land-based? Starting on which island?
I want to be objective about all this, so I’m cutting up some small pieces of paper and putting them into a hat.