|Dramatic walls mark the interface between the islands' shallow reefs and the abyssal depths of the Turks Island Passage. Photography by Stephen Frink|
It's my standard cocktail party response to the oft-asked question: "Where do you like to dive?"
"Turks & Caicos."
I always get that squint, followed by the befuddled look.
To some people, especially nondivers, the name of this Atlantic archipelago sounds more like an exotic appetizer than one of the region's premier wall-diving destinations. Nonetheless, it's one of my personal favorites, and though I'm reluctant to share my secret, I offer a 30-second geography lesson:
"British Crown Colony, sits just southeast of the Bahamas chain and north of Hispaniola. Fly into Providenciales ..."
"Provo for short. Then you can puddle-jump to other great islands, including Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay."
Then I try to match the person I'm talking to with one of the islands in the Turks & Caicos. Finding the right tropical destination is never easy, and Provo, Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay make it even more difficult. The four major dive islands in the Turks & Caicos have distinctly different personalities and each offers unique vacation experiences.
Provo is the most developed of the four islands, followed by the capital Grand Turk, where you'll find mules roaming the streets, then there's ghostly quiet South Caicos and Salt Cay, with golf cart mass transit and a population of about five or six dozen people. No matter which island you choose, you'll find warm, transparent water, colorful marine life, service-oriented dive operators and resorts, and some of the most dramatic wall diving in the hemisphere.
A more in-depth look at the geography of the islands reveals why divers flock here. The islands can be divided into two chains--the Turks Islands and the Caicos Islands--each of which sits atop a shallow bank. The two island groups are separated by an abyssal channel called the Turks Island Passage. Offshore, the depths approach more than two and a quarter miles. This interface of deep and shallow translates into steep walls, huge sponges, healthy corals, dense concentrations of life, and the occasional pelagic encounter.
|No matter where you dive in the Turks and Caicos, you'll find acres of healthy reefs. Photography by Stephen Frink|
The first stop on any Turks & Caicos dive vacation is Provo, the economic and social hub of the colony. Don't expect the tourism buzz of a Cancun or Nassau, but compared to the other islands in the Turks & Caicos, Provo is bustling. Here, upscale resorts hug beautiful, luxurious beaches and fine restaurants serve a variety of cuisines.
Typically, Provo attracts visitors who are looking for a solid mix of diving and topside activities. If you're looking for great wall diving, beaches, a little bit of nightlife and the experience offered by larger resorts, then Provo might be your island.
The most popular Provo dive sites are concentrated around the island's Northwest Point and uninhabited West Caicos, where the walls are coated with a thick armor of barrel and tube sponges and are home to reef fish of every size and color. The boat ride to the dive sites off West Caicos takes about an hour, but often pays off with unexpected surprises, including reef sharks and spotted eagle rays.
There are plenty of diving options on Provo, land-based and live-aboard. A handful of dive operators work directly with the resorts that line Grace Bay to offer weeklong packages. Fast, modern boats shuttle divers from resort docks to the sites of West Caicos and Northwest Point in 45 minutes to an hour. Weather permitting, you can take advantage of trips to more remote French Cay. Live-aboards depart Turtle Cove Marina every Saturday for weeklong itineraries around the islands.
|A Nassau grouper poses off Grand Turk. Photography by Walt Stearns|
American political pundits would have a field day with the image: jackasses wandering the streets of the seat of government. But for some reason, it works in Grand Turk's Cockburn Town, capital of the Turks & Caicos.
Chances are if you're here, you're here to dive. Many divers who choose this island over Provo cite the shorter boat rides to the sites--at most, five to 15 minutes from beach to dive--as the main reason.
The entire west coast of the paramecium-shaped island is a marine park, with coral arches and sandy chutes leading to sheer, dramatic drop-offs smothered with life. The Turks & Caicos are serious about preserving this incredible environment, and almost one-third of the land and water here is protected by park and preserve status.
You've got three dive operator choices on Grand Turk, and you can't go wrong with any one of them. There are no cattle boats here, as operators run 24- to 28-foot skiffs to dive sites that are just a suiting-up and mask-defogging away.
|In ideal water conditions off Provo, healthy populations of gorgonians blanket outcroppings and ledges. Photography by Stephen Frink|
Salt Cay is a world apart, another notch down the quiet scale even from tranquil Grand Turk. This triangle of dry land a 10-minute puddle jump south of Grand Turk is a little slice of solitude and relaxation, where the most pressing question of the day is likely to be "Should we spend the afternoon on the hammock or in the water?"
As with Grand Turk, all of Salt Cay's regularly visited dive sites are scattered along the island's protected lee, except for the wreck of the HMS Endymion, an hour's skiff ride south. Visit here between January and May, and there's a good chance of seeing migrating humpbacks. Off the western shore of Salt Cay, a gently tumbling wall bristling with sea rods and barrel sponges starts in about 35 feet of water.
On this island, dive operators are small and hotels are intimate. In fact, the term "hotel" doesn't quite seem to fit the accommodations here, as they are actually small guesthouses and inns. Rather than being picked up by a bus or van at the airport, you'll be greeted by a golf cart, and your meals will be taken in a dining room with other guests and, more than likely, with the owner or caretaker of the inn.
|The white sand beaches of the Turks and Caicos--which total 230 miles--are among the prettiest and most pristine in the world. Photography by Walt Stearns|
Once the buzzing hive of the Turks & Caicos' thriving drug trade, South Caicos has cleaned up its act. Despite a population of nearly a thousand souls, it seems more like a ghost town.
If you're a Turks & Caicos veteran, it might be time to check out South Caicos. Don't expect nightlife and gourmet restaurants. But do expect wall and reef diving and a good chance to see big animals, including eagle rays, blacktip reef sharks and humpbacks in the spring.
Most of South Caicos' dive sites are within a 15-minute boat ride of the dock, and the entire eastern shore of the island is protected by a marine park to a depth of 300 feet. Chances are you won't encounter another dive boat during a weeklong stay.
9 Must-Dive Sites
>Convair 29A, South Caicos. The wreckage of a Convair 29A airplane lies in about 60 feet of water and makes an excellent dive, day or night. The fuselage is stuffed with snapper, jacks and permit, with schools spilling out of the wreck and beneath the left wing.
>Coral Gardens, Grand Turk. A Grand Turk classic, this site offers dramatic canyons, a big drop-off and fields of undulating gorgonians. Bring the fish ID guide, because you'll find loads of tropical fish and big, fat groupers.
>Coral Stairway, Northwest Point. A patch reef gently tumbles to a sheer wall, coated in plate corals and clouded by tons of fish. Be on the lookout for Atlantic spadefish, lobster and the occasional spotted eagle ray.
>G-Spot, French Cay. If the weather's cooperating, you might be lucky enough to hop on a boat making the hour-and-a-half ride to French Cay. Here, enormous tube and elephant ear sponges and black coral strands hang off an almost vertical wall. Keep an eye on the deep blue, where you might see jacks, barracuda and a reef shark or two.
>HMS Endymion, Salt Cay. A 45-minute boat ride south of Salt Cay pays off with the Turks & Caicos's finest historic wreck in just 15 to 35 feet of water. While the ship is no longer intact, you'll have a blast diving among cannons, ballast, anchors and bronze pins, all that's left of the 140-foot wooden-hulled British warship.
>Kelly's Folly, Salt Cay. A gradually sloping wall accented by pillar corals and gorgonians starts in 30 feet of water at Salt Cay's southern tip. Expect groupers and grunts and, if you're lucky, a turtle and nurse sharks.
>McDonald's, Grand Turk. There are no Big Macs on this island, but you will find a McDonald's offshore. Swim through the huge coral arch covered with a thick coat of macro critters to find yourself on a sponge-splattered wall at 70 feet, where groupers prowl for happy meals.
>Shark Hotel, West Caicos. This dive site offers a little bit of everything, from pillar coral gardens in the shallows to a chimney that starts in 100 feet of water and leads you through an opening on the wall at 130 feet. As the name suggests, you've got a good chance of seeing a reef shark or a blacktip, and a large school of jacks often hangs out here.
>Tunnels, Grand Turk. Coral arches lead from sandy flats out over a sheer wall face. Keep your eyes peeled for stingrays, flying gurnards and peacock flounder.
Top T&C Snorkel Sites
Here are six of the best snorkel sites in the Turks & Caicos Islands:
Grace Bay, Provo: Grace Bay is a perfect shore diving and snorkeling site that will let you sample the country's signature reefs along with the local tropical fish population.
French Cay: It's an hour boat ride from the boat docks in Provo to remote, pristine French Cay. Explore elkhorn coral gardens just offshore this small island at the southern lip of the shallow Caicos Bank.
The Old Pier, Grand Turk: Adjacent to the newer commercial dock, the old pier was built in the 1960s when a U.S. missile tracking station was installed on the island. Now it's home to seahorses, octopuses, morays, gurnards and frogfish.
Gibbs Cay: If you're staying on Grand Turk, you'll undoubtedly visit Gibbs Cay at least once for a beach barbecue. This is the Stingray City of the Turks & Caicos. Simply stroll into the warm, shallow water from the beach here to feed Southern stingers that are hungry for a hand-out.
Point Pleasant, Salt Cay: This spot off the Northwest Point of Salt Cay is never deeper than 25 feet. It's shallow enough for you to free dive down to the pillar and elkhorn corals and clear enough for easy viewing of the marine life.
HMS Endymion: This 18th-century British warship, an hour south of Salt Cay, is one of the best wrecks in the Caribbean that snorkelers are able to see. The bottom is no deeper than 40 feet, and you can easily dive down to the anchor and cannons strewn around the colorful bottom.
Water Temperatures: In summer, in the low to mid-80s; in winter, the mid-70s.
Average Visibility: On average, expect anywhere from 50 to 150 feet of vis on the most popular sites of the main islands.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens will need proof of citizenship--like a passport or birth certificate.
Tourism: Turks & Caicos Tourism Board, (800) 241-0824; turksandcaicostourism.com.
Dive Operators: Providenciales: Big Blue Unlimited, www.bigblue.tc; Dive Provo, www.diveprovo.com; Flamingo Divers, www.flamingodivers.com; Ocean Vibes Scuba & Watersports, www.oceanvibes.com; Provo Turtle Divers, www.provoturtledivers.com. Grand Turk: Blue Water Divers, www.grandturkscuba.com; Cecil Ingham's Sea Eye Diving, www.seaeyediving.com; Oasis Divers, www.oasisdivers.com. Salt Cay: Salt Cay Divers, www.saltcaydivers.tc. South Caicos: South Caicos Ocean Haven, www.oceanhaven.tc.