In the Turks & Caicos

Text and Photography by Michael Patrick O'Neil

Man, look at that water. Just look at that water...I keep whispering to myself over and over again as the Sky King turbo-prop turns sharply towards Grand Turk. "Buckle your seatbelts in preparation for landing" is completely ignored as the water below gets my undivided attention. Purple turns to blue, turns to turquoise and finally to a blur of beach, bungalows, dry grass and runway.

Later that afternoon, a bike ride along the waterfront carries me past islanders going to church, children playing in the street and fishermen cleaning their catch on the beach. They say the downtown area around Front Street still looks pretty much the same way it did 300 years ago. Whoever "they" are, I believe them. For all practical purposes, our bikes and a stray donkey are the traffic. This funky little island is the capital of the Turks & Caicos, and thankfully, like the rest of this British colony, it remains quiet, easy-going and undeveloped. And authentic.

Island time breeds inertia, and I see myself falling into a relaxed, carefree pace sooner than later and abandoning everyday worries and hitherto sacred habits. The next day I meet a diver who has done exactly that. This chap, a Briton, "went native" and has been staying with a local family for several months. As he helped the divemaster tie the skiff to the mooring, he confided that in the first two weeks he lost track of time and of the days of the week. Reportedly, the only schedule he still obeys is the dive charter's. I feel a pang of jealousy.

A backroll and a few kicks puts me face-to-face with a troupe of Garden Eels dancing to the rhythm of the current. Like little cobras, they sway back and forth, pecking at minute organisms drifting by. The sandy bottom, intermittently decorated with coral heads and fans, gradually slopes towards the drop-off, which parallels a good bit of the western coastline and extends all the way to Salt Cay in the south. I pick a random canyon and ride it downward, carefully squeezing through a gallery of orange sponges and rock and ending up in a cathedral of black coral at 120 feet.

At this point, the wall is inverted and bottomless, and all around me several species of stony corals compete fiercely for space and available light. Intertwined and at times indistinguishable, they are engaged in nature's version of pro wrestling, but I guess the main differences here are that matches last hundreds of years and no chairs are thrown. Blackcap Basslets hover upside down along overhangs, feeding on plankton, while keeping an eye out for marauding jacks, and delicate Longsnout Butterflyfish nibble on tiny snacks.

I level off at a reasonable depth, head south and completely forget about life for the next hour-an easy feat considering the 82 degrees F water, 150-foot visibility and exclusive use of this underwater playground on this sunny morning. Creole Wrasse, Coneys, Princess Parrotfish and Royal Grammas color my path with purples, reds, greens and yellows. Along the way, Brown Tube Sponges shaped like witches' hands reach out, beckoning me closer.

Back on board, we hear the trademark sound of dolphins exhaling after a long dive. "Bottlenose Dolphins at three o'clock," says the divemaster, but surprisingly, we don't even have to follow them because they soon join us for a tete-a-tete in the high seas. We slow to a crawl, and the small pod glides in the aquamarine water inches below the bow, playing with sargassum weed. Mother, juvenile and escorts drape long strands of the marine plant on their rostrums and flukes and swim about with a "look at me" kind of attitude. Their ballet, unrehearsed and free flowing, makes Baryshnikov look like a klutz.

At sunset, we watch island life wrap up the day's activities. A man brings his colt and dog to the beach and lets the animals enter the calm sea for a quick dip. While he watches his charges from a decrepit pier, a divemaster cleans and secures several skiffs. In the distance, a live-aboard settles down for the evening. I can see the guests socializing on the deck, no doubt telling stories and lies about past trips and incredible dives. Dinner plans are easy to make, after all, fewer than a handful of restaurants dot the neighborhood.

Our choice tonight still keeps my toes in the sand, as our table is only 20 feet from the surf. The full moon rises and moves a ways through the starry night before we finish several coconut-rum drinks, grilled fish and dessert.

Salt Cay, just a short hop from Grand Turk, remains as if in a time capsule since its glory days as a salt mining and whaling center. Visitors make the seven-mile crossing by boat or plane to experience the tranquility and genuine hometown feeling found in the tidy community of only 100 people. Bicycles and golf carts are the vehicles of choice. There's no police, because there's no crime, plain and simple.

Windmills, salt ponds and remnants of the whaling industry at Taylor's Hill still remind travelers of the islet's heritage. Today, divers trek to this UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site to dive the H.M. Endymion, an eighteenth-century English ship complete with 18 cannons and anchors resting on an exquisite reef at 40 feet, and to seek chance encounters with migrating Humpbacks and mating Nurse Sharks, during the appropriate seasons. Eagle Rays, mantas, stingrays, morays, groupers, Lemon Sharks and turtles reside at Shark Point, Powerhouse, Turtle Gardens and Kelly's Follie and surprise divers around the clock. In fact, the night dive cognoscenti claim it just doesn't get any better, anywhere.

Across the Columbus Passage and the Caicos Bank is Providenciales.

Despite going through a fair amount of development over the last 30 years, this 38-square-mile island still holds on to its identity. Its north coast contains several resorts and developments strategically located along a mouth-watering, 14-mile stretch of pure white beach washed by the bluest of oceans. Down the road in Turtle Cove, the diving and boating crowd gathers in colorful watering holes to trade war stories well into the night. A network of paved and gravel roads criss-crosses the cutlet-shaped island, connecting modern enclaves to quaint, Caribbean-style villages.

The marine park protecting Grace Bay and most of the Turks & Caicos dive sites gives divers the opportunity to see typically skittish animals up close. Spiny Lobsters walk up and down the reef, unconcerned about becoming somebody's dinner, and beefy Nassau

Groupers let their curious personalities shine, managing to show up at every gathering and in every photograph. The Horse-eye Jacks, Spadefish, Cubera Snappers and Barracuda found on the local reefs are somewhat more reserved. One Tiger Grouper living at the Aquarium immerses itself in thick schools of Bluestriped Grunts and uses the smaller fish as a blind from which to launch lightning fast attacks on Blue Chromis and damsels. The Trumpetfish follow a similar strategy but are more cunning. They change color to mimic their prey, and when they are close enough, lunge forward, snatching clueless tropicals. As I watch this dog-eat-dog, or better yet, fish-eat-fish world unfold before me, a tiny Saddled Blenny jumps around the coral, oblivious to the danger.

The seamounts off Pine Cay contain fingers that reach out towards deep water. Picturesque chasms bottom out at 130 feet or so and give divers plenty of ground to admire Sea Plumes, Orange Elephant Ear Sponges and brain corals crowding the slanted wall. Clouds of Caesar Grunts and Bermuda Chub gather near the summits and mob cleaning stations, overwhelming hard-working juvenile wrasse, Hogfish and angels. A lone Hawksbill Turtle swims from one finger to the next, occasionally burying its head in the reef and plucking sponges with its sharp beak.

After diving, we get a ride back to the hotel in a dusty pickup that has seen better days. It beats walking and the radio works well-the driver tells me it was expensive. We pull up to a strip mall containing a 7-Eleven, an offshore bank, a law firm and a gas station, a peculiar local combination. He buys us a few beers, and we sit in the back of the truck shooting the breeze. People drive by and wave, and in the parking lot, a pack of dogs plays keep-away with a stick.

The mass tourism machine that bulldozed many Caribbean destinations certainly missed the Turks & Caicos. Gradual development spared the islands' environment and ambience, and there's no indication the pace will accelerate, a refreshing sign in a time when hotel fatades, neon lights and franchises of every stripe rise overnight in the most unlikely places. The impressive diving is likely to be around for some time, too. The locals recognize the importance of a healthy marine habitat and don't joke around when it comes to protecting it. In other words, their laws have teeth, big ones. In fact, officials recently fined a mega-yacht U.S. $32,000 for causing anchor damage in the marine park.

I just returned from my trip, and already I miss the islands. Last week, bottom time, air supply and whether to turn left or right on the wall were my only concerns. Unfortunately, I can't say the same right now. But my consolation is that I know such a place exists, and that I can return and escape a world that seems to be spinning ever faster by the day.