A Paradise Reserved for Divers

by Bill Harrigan

The Turks and Caicos Islands are an archipelago of eight islands and 40 small cays on two plateaus, separated by a deep trench called the Columbus Passage. The Caicos occupy the larger plateau, forming a loose horseshoe around the perimeter, with a shallow bank in the middle. The Turks – two major islands – take their name from the Turks head cactus and sit atop the smaller plateau. The T & C are a British Crown Colony, with a governor appointed by the Queen of England and a self-government run by elected ministers and a legislative council. The total population of the Turks and Caicos is around 15,000 and more than half of that number live on Providenciales.

The Diving: The spectacular and easily accessible walls in the Turks and Caicos get the most attention but there is much more diversity to diving here than just the walls. Of course, the walls are truly amazing. What can compare to gliding over the edge of a coral cliff in water so clear it almost doesn’t seem to exist?

The Turks and Caicos also have a variety of shallow reefs that provide excellent diving and snorkeling, all packed with marine life. And, chances are good for a variety of interesting animal encounters, especially with turtles, sharks and rays. Mantas are often seen along the tops of the walls during the spring, summer and fall. The chance of a topside sighting of marine mammals is also excellent. Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins are in these waters all the time and Humpback Whales migrate through the islands every winter.

Diving conditions are excellent year-round. Visibility on the big walls usually exceeds 100 feet and can often be in the 150 foot range. Water temperatures in the spring, summer and fall are normally 80 to 82°F, dropping only a few degrees to the high 70s during the winter. Strong currents are not generally present but a mild current along the wall is not unusual.

Providenciales: On Provo, as the island is usually called, there are two main diving areas. Grace Bay is the crescent formed by the north coast of the island and is the area closest to most of the dive operators and hotels. The bay is outlined by nearly 12 miles of glorious beach on one side and a long, shallow coral reef on the other. Seaward of the reef crest a series of coral covered ridges slopes gently down from near the surface to about 30 feet before dropping steeply to 90 or 100 feet. This combination of shallow reef and ‘mini-wall’ is typical of Grace Bay dive sites such as the Pinnacles. Schools of Blue Chromis and Creole Wrasse swarm along the lip of the drop-off and Queen Angelfish, Schoolmasters and Trumpet-fish swim among the corals. Green Morays and Nassau Groupers are seen on most dives. Grace Bay is also the home of Jo-Jo the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, who has been entertaining snorkelers here for years.

Northwest Point also offers excellent diving. The wall is carved with interesting formations, from the deeply undercut lens at Amphitheater to the cascading tiers of Plate Coral at Coral Stairway. One hundred feet down at Shark Hotel, a chimney cuts diagonally through the reef, exiting at about 130 feet on the face of the wall. At Eel Garden, named for its Brown Garden Eels, the side of the wall is covered with sheets of Plate Coral. Several species of Black Coral grow in profusion along the Northwest Point wall.

Pine Cay: Pine Cay is one of a series of small islands that extend from Northwest Point on Provo to the tip of North Caicos. New Jack City, named for the schools of jacks frequently seen here, is one of several dive sites along this strip. The bottom is a series of long valleys with varying slopes. The coral cover is a mix of soft and hard corals. Giant Barrel Sponges and Leathery Barrel Sponges are found in the deeper sections.

West Caicos: This large, uninhabited island is about ten miles southwest of Provo. The Lake Catherine bird reserve here is home to almost 100 species, including great blue herons, ospreys and pink flamingoes.

The wall at West Caicos is truly world-class. Elephant Ear Canyon is named for the enormous Orange Elephant Ear Sponge between two coral ridges about 90 feet down the wall. Driveway takes its name from two well defined sand channels that run from shallow water to the top of the wall. This is an exceptional dive above and below the lip of the wall. The top of the wall offers big boulders of Star and Brain Coral. As the wall begins to curve downward, the Star Corals change from boulders to knobs. On the vertical wall face, they change shape again, taking on a more advantageous plate form. Even below 100 feet, the reef seems to have a lot of color, owing to the green, purple and pink of tube sponges and Black Corals.

The Gullies are named for the bottom formations but the best features are the groupers. Three or four Nassau Groupers seem to enjoy encounters with divers. Below 60 or 70 feet Black Corals and rope sponges become more numerous on the wall. Highway to Heaven is one of those West Caicos dive sites where you have to watch your depth carefully because the visibility is incredible and the coral extends far below 130 feet.

French Cay: The weather has to cooperate for a trip to French Cay but it’s worth the wait. The wall is more of a slope here and the coral is in excellent condition. Beyond French Cay is West Sand Spit, a long slope crowded with coral and surrounded by a profusion of reef fish at every level. Molasses Reef has a well developed spur and groove system that ends abruptly at 45 feet at the edge of the vertical wall.

North, Middle, East and South Caicos: Although these islands account for a major part of the Turks and Caicos land mass, they are sparsely settled. Most diving here is done from Provo or Grand Turk, with some visitation by live-aboards. The South Caicos wall is deeper, generally starting at 60 to 70 feet, and the currents can be stronger. The payoff is potential encounters with large marine life such as Mantas and sharks.

Grand Turk: Standing on the beach at Grand Turk you can see where the water turns dark blue over the wall just a short distance out. Between the beach and the wall there is an extensive shallow reef, with dive sites such as the Library and Coral Garden that are thick with fish, day or night. Big colonies of reef building corals, such as Star and Giant Star Coral, are piled high along the lip of the wall, which varies from 40 to 50 feet deep.

The wall faces the serious deepness of Columbus Passage, dropping straight down into the blue. Black Forest is known for its Black Corals. The Grand Turk wall is also known for its swim-throughs and cuts, particularly at McDonald’s Arch. A series of deeply cut ravines gives the wall an interesting profile at the Tunnels and seems to attract more fish than usual. The white sand beach and shallow reef at Gibb’s Cay make it a great snorkeling spot easily reached from Grand Turk.

Salt Cay: The salt raking industry started on Salt Cay in the 1670s finally came to an abrupt halt in the 1960s but the buildings and ponds still remain untouched. Salt Cay may be a small island, with less than 300 inhabitants, but the underwater landscape is immense. Like the rest of the Turks and Caicos, there is great diving in the 40 to 130 foot range, however, there is even more excellent shallow diving at Salt Cay.

The HMS Endymion is an 18th century warship that lies in only 25 feet of water. The wreck site is undisturbed and includes 18 encrusted cannons and four huge anchors. Great Sand Cay is a favorite place for Nurse Sharks, especially during the summer months when they gather in the shallows to mate. Kelly’s Folly, Turtle Garden and Wandalust are very different dives but all feature a 35 or 40 foot deep reef that drops off into a wall. Black Coral Canyon is a deep dive along a gorge covered with lush Black Corals. A ledge at 130 feet cuts back into the wall, providing a sheltered spot that is frequently used by resting Nurse Sharks.

A series of sand gullies flows down the reef to the top of the wall at Shark Point, where sharks are frequently sighted, along with hundreds of other fish. A sandy chute through the reef nearby is called Conch Highway because so many conch pass through in the winter on their way to deeper water. Point Pleasant is one of Salt Cay’s premier shallow dive and snorkel sites. Only 15 feet deep, it features some exceptionally large corals.

Turks and Caicos Topside: Relaxing on a tranquil beach is one of the favorite topside activities in the Turks and Caicos. If you are looking for nightlife, Provo is the place where you can find casinos and late night entertainment. Other daytime activities on Provo include windsurfing, kayaking and fishing. The Caicos Conch Farm and the rock carvings are also worth a visit. Walking tours of the dramatic limestone caves on Middle Caicos are available for the adventurous and Loyalist plantations from the late 1700s can be toured on North Caicos. On Salt Cay, the salt ponds, windmills, tools and buildings have been preserved for visitors.

A wide variety of restaurants can be found in the Turks and Caicos, especially on Provo.

Travel Information: American Airlines operates two daily nonstop flights to Provo from Miami, with convenient connections to Grand Turk and the other islands on several inter-island commuter airlines. U.S. citizens can travel with either a passport or a certified birth certificate and photo ID. The U.S. dollar is the official currency and the electrical standard is 110 volts/60 cycles. Dress is very casual but bathing suits and bare midriffs should be limited to beaches and boats. A light jacket will come in handy at night in the winter. A multi-lock hyperbaric chamber is available at Menzies Medical Center on Provo.

Accommodations are available on Salt Cay, Middle Caicos and South Caicos but most of the hotels are on either Provo or Grand Turk. Dive operators can be found on Provo, Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Two live-aboard dive boats operate year-round in the Turks and Caicos. Both are based in Provo and cover the whole island chain. The live-aboards offer great diving without long or difficult passages between sites.

For more information about diving in the Turks and Caicos, you can contact the Turks and Caicos Tourist Board at (809) 946-2321.