Turks and Caicos Islands DIVING

Where When How - Turks & Caicos Islands - November / December 2015 magazine cover.Where When How Turks & Caicos Islands November / December 2015

Adventure in Our
Crystal Clear Seas

Story By Mark Parrish

Despite the many years that I have been diving in the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) I still feel an excitement when I dump the air from my BC and start the descent. Free falling, parachutist style through the water column, the sense of adventure and anticipation is palpable. It is the intensity of the blue that draws me in; the darker water below beckons, and the expectancy of the dive ahead builds and delivers tingles to my stomach. Time to shut out the world above, and discover who will grace us with their presence today.

To say that the Turks & Caicos has clear water would be an understatement. A fish will glide past your mask and you’ll wonder what it’s swimming in; it could be air it’s sometimes that clear. Looking down the wall, it is not uncommon to see a ledge 100ft or more beneath you.

A photograph of a Diver with Gorgonians in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Diver with Gorgonians. Photo by Dave Volkert of Provo Turtle Divers.

The wall is why most of the divers are here. It surrounds the entire archipelago and like a bucket, holds the interior sands in check. The depth and incline of the wall varies. The classically steep walls are most distinctive on the western coastlines of Provo, West Caicos, Grand Turk and Salt Cay with the exception of South Caicos where it lies along the eastern coast and French Cay where the wall runs east-west. Along the north shore - in Grace Bay and up the coast to Pine Cay and beyond - a mini-wall descends from approximately 40ft, to between 100ft and 140ft before plunging into the Atlantic 600ft further offshore. The diving here is no less spectacular. The relatively shallow spur and groove coral formations on top of the wall provide a landscape, which promotes growth and diversity. It is also one of the most exceptional and convenient areas for night dives, which are not to be missed if you have the opportunity.

A photograph of a Diver and Wrecked Boat in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Diver and Wrecked Boat. Photo by Dave Volkert of Provo Turtle Divers.

Where is the best day diving in the TCI? That’s clearly a matter of opinion. While Provo based divers might be jealous of the convenience of the deep walls near Grand Turk and Salt Cay, the simple truth is that the diving can be excellent everywhere that dive operators frequent. Any operator worth his or her salt will know where and when to take their divers which can often be based on the sustained sea conditions and the direction and velocity of the tidal flow.

Any given day can result in a very different dive experience and dive sites will mean something different to every diver. Some revel in the micro, and get their kicks finding Fingerprint Cyphomas on the Gorgonian corals or observing Painted Tunicates thriving underneath the coral lips. Others may prefer the topography of a site and delight in the sheer enormity of the walls, buttresses and archways as they glide past like an eagle ray or perform whooping somersaults while suspended over the abyss. But everyone should keep at least one eye open for the pelagics of course. Turtles, reef sharks and rays attest to the health of the eco-system but the occasional large hammerhead or even whale shark will really get the adrenaline pumping.

A photograph of a Snorkelling between dives in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Snorkelling between dives. Photo by Dave Volkert of Provo Turtle Divers.

The coral reef habitat is so diverse that it takes many dives and some topside education to understand and appreciate the interactions and functions of the different organisms. The hundreds of different reef fish for example, have evolved to occupy every niche and conceivable design, body shape, colouration, feeding tactic, toxicity, and reproductive strategy. Corals are the building blocks of the reef and they live harmoniously with symbiotic algal partners that allow both organisms to flourish. Lowly sponges are not only a valuable filtration system on the reef but provide a habitat for some organisms and a food source for others. And the countless other invertebrates including the worms, crustaceans, molluscs and the various echinoderms make these reefs a wonder to behold. Coral reefs are generally considered the most diverse ecosystem on the planet after the Tropical Rain Forests.

A photograph of a South Caicos Coral Head in the Turks and Caicos Islands. South Caicos Coral Head. Photo by LisaAdaraPhoto.com

Some of the marine life we see in the Turks and Caicos is migratory. The most impressive must be the North Atlantic Humpback Whales that pass through from January to April. Less obvious is the disappearance of various fish from the scene during their annual spawning events. Some grouper and snapper species are a good example. There are also the daily migrations of plankton up through the water column at dusk. Next time you are out night diving, particularly on a really dark night, hang near the crest of the wall and shine your light out into the black. Alien life forms that make even the comb jellies look tame will invade your vision. It’s easy to imagine where James Cameron and his Hollywood design team get their ideas. Some years ago, whilst doing some technical diving off Grace Bay, I discovered that the marginally dangerous four cornered jellyfish known as ‘Sea Wasps’, that are often found near the surface at night, spend their days in the 220ft to 240ft depth zone. It was sure fun to swim through that layer, and I was grateful for my full wetsuit and hoodie.

This might be a good point to talk about diving and general marine etiquette. We are visitors to this realm. It is imperative that we keep the ocean clean and unharmed. Divers need to avoid causing any physical damage by hands, fins, tanks or trailing gauges. Less obvious is the inadvertent damage caused to small invertebrate life by exhaled bubbles under coral overhangs that can dislodge them from the safety of the reef. The better dive etiquette is to ensure that your bubbles ascend through unobstructed water above. Another mandatory choice in this day and age is biodegradable sun cream, or no sun-cream at all. The chemical damage caused by these lotions washing off the skin of divers and snorkellers degrades water quality and affects the health of coral reefs and other marine life.

A photograph of a Diver with Gorgonians in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Lettuce Sea Slug. Photo by Lynn Robinson, Big Blue Unlimited.

Unlike some other islands in the Caribbean region, there is not much shore diving in the Turks and Caicos. Notable exceptions on Providenciales include Smith’s Reef near the entrance to the Turtle Cove Marina, and the Bight Reef at the Coral Gardens Resort. Neither offers depths greater than about 18 ft. While it is feasible to swim from the beach to the deep walls along Northwest Point on Providenciales, or those at Grand Turk and Salt Cay, they are invariably downwind and therefore NOT recommended. A moderately energetic swim out can turn into a positively dangerous swim back, against the wind.

As a result, almost all scuba diving is conducted from dive vessels in the Turks and Caicos Islands, at established dive sites with permanent boat moorings. Only a select few moorings are suitable for larger boats (i.e. 75ft or longer) and overnight use. Installed for commercial dive operators, private boaters may use them, if they employ appropriate scope. They should report any damage to these moorings to either, the ‘Department of Environmental and Maritime Affairs’ (DEMA) at 649-941-5122 or the TC Reef Fund at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The TC Reef Fund manages the dive and snorkel, mooring programme to preserve and protect the marine environment. Show your support by buying a wristband or dive tag which are available at all dive retails shops, or make a donation at www.tcreef.org. If you break a mooring while using it, please pull all of the broken gear onto your vessel and take it to the nearest dive shop, anywhere in the TCI.

A photograph of a Juvenile Blenny in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Juvenile Blenny. Photo by Lynn Robinson, Big Blue Unlimited.

All dive operators in the Turks and Caicos promote and practice safe diving. The diving is relatively easy with good visibility, warm water (76-84°) and generally straightforward underwater navigation. Typically, only moderate underwater or surface currents are experienced. But divers have a responsibility to both themselves and others to keep safe and be aware of their surroundings. Listen carefully to the dive instructions provided by the guide. Do not take the ocean for granted; it can be unpredictable. I always carry a sound device for above and below the water, an inflatable, bright surface marker, an underwater writing slate and a small flashlight in my BCD or weight belt pouch. You may prefer to rent the bulk of your dive gear when you go on vacation but these are items that you can easily purchase and carry yourself.

A photograph of Reef Sharks are a frequent sight in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reef Sharks are a frequent sight in TCI. Photo by Flamingo Divers.

We are very fortunate to have a well managed recompression chamber at the Associated Medical Practice on Provo. We are equally fortunate to have several knowledgeable and experienced medical doctors trained in Hyperbaric Medicine practicing here. As a diver and a dive Shop operator, this gives me enormous peace of mind. I have helped operate the chamber for many years and I know that, while you do not want to go into the chamber if you can help it, you do want to pay attention to your body. Never, ever hesitate to report potential decompression symptoms or that something doesn’t feel quite right. The quicker you receive treatment, including emergency oxygen on the dive boat, the better off you will be. Period. The longer you delay or deny potential symptoms, the more damage you may inflict on your body, and the more recompression treatments you may ultimately need. Not fun. Other safe diving practices are to stay hydrated and dive conservatively. When you are in the tropics be particularly vigilant. If you are older or in poor physical shape, be even more conservative, and dive with Nitrox. If you are sick or recovering from any illness or injury, please don’t dive, or consult one of the dive doctors on island.

A photograph of Underwater research at South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Underwater research at South Caicos. Photo provided by the School for Field Studies.

There is no substitute for thorough training and practice. You may be a weekend warrior or a once-a-year diver, but you should never stop practicing the skills you learned in your basic training. If it has been a year or more, consider taking a refresher with a certified dive instructor. It does not hurt to re-read your manual before going diving again or to remind yourself about basic dive communication signs, the symptoms of decompression sickness, and what the no-decompression limit number on your dive computer means.

Diving is fun. Diving can be easy. But it should not be taken lightly. It is a serious sport. Treat it as such. There is always more to learn, whether you want to improve your buoyancy and air consumption, learn to dive deeper safely, shoot a camera, or study and appreciate the aquatic life. Exploring the marine world can be challenging, exciting and rewarding. All the dive operators in the TCI offer further training and new experiences. Please remember to dive responsibly and enjoy time underwater in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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