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January 1997 Vol. 12, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Club Carib, South Caicos

Diving on the edge beyond the big-name resorts

from the January, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

South Caicos was a budding hot spot for divers during the '70s and early '80s, but tourism dried up after a gunfight on the airport tarmac between rival drug gangs sent scuba tourists dirt diving. I dropped in on South Caicos about nine years ago from the dive deck of the Sea Dancer and found squadrons of 25 to 30 eagle rays cruising the blue off its deep walls, along with large bull sharks, motorcycle-sized jewfish, and numerous other pelagics. I took a skiff ashore one evening and sat in the bar owned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The airplane registration numbers were still on the wall behind the bar where the DEA agent had written them to keep track of the Caicos' small-plane traffic during their sting operation. Barely a hotel and no dive operation on the island made live-aboards the only access to South Caicos diving then. Now a land-based operation has set up on the island and a few intrepid divers have checked it out. Here's our report from a correspondent who likes his diving away from it all, out on the edge.

Dear Fellow Diver,

I dropped to the sand flat at 50 feet and swam toward the wall. As I drifted to 70, the sand erupted with a southern sting ray that would have filled a queensized bed. Swimming on, past coral mounds topped with six-foothigh barrel sponges surrounded by schools of yellowtail, I dropped to 130 feet and glided past the deeply cut and undercut, colorencrusted wall. Around a point topped with black coral and gorgonians I exhaled and drifted down one more time. The sound of my bubbles became softer and the light faded. A long, horizontal cave opened in the wall in front of me. Just inside the darkness, a green moray that easily matched my height undulated eerily in the dim light of the cave's mouth. No time to spend at this depth. I ascended to the top of the wall, back to light, and met up once again with the massive ray.

Ditty Bag

The owners assured me by phone that they were up and running: Come on down.
The Club has 24 rooms (four of which are used for staff), but as a practical matter the hotel
would be hard pressed to accommodate more than 20 guests. It's bargain diving at the current rate
of $499 a week, which covers room, all meals, and unlimited boat diving. The reservation
number is 800-581-2582 or 407-381-2323. You can actually get there in one
day by flying Lynx Air out of Fort Lauderdale for $319 round-trip (954-772-9808);
otherwise, it's American into Provo and then Sky King Air over to South.

The diving on South is often spectacular, largely pristine, and primarly deep. Only a few score divers per year have seen these walls since the early '80s. The coral is unbroken, the sponges large and intact, but best of all, you can dive for a week without seeing another group.

Why so few divers? The depth of the dives and strong surface currents coupled with rough seas for much of the year limit the appeal to intermediate and advanced divers, but the major reason has been the lack of facilities. Now there's Club Carib. The hotel had just been remodeled before my summer trip and was presentable in a Motel 8 sort of way -- air-conditioned rooms, even cable TV.

Less presentable on this trip was the food. I know, food is a subjective thing, but my take on it was that it was terrible. Only once in a week did I see a fresh vegetable. Despite being on an island on which the main occupation is fishing, the dinner table never saw a fish. Meat was served in small, poorly prepared portions along with instant mashed potatoes. Breakfast was either stale cornflakes or two scrambled eggs with greasy bacon and toast. Lunch was usually a thin slice of ham or bologna with a slice of American cheese on white bread. "I'm here to dive" was my mantra at the table.

And dive I did. The dive operation at South provided lowkey, personalized service. Each morning we decided when and where we would do our dives. Since the dive sites were usually a 5- to 10-minute boat ride, we returned to the dock between dives. As a group, we did what we wanted on a schedule we chose.

The diving is mainly on the walls at the entrance to Cockburn Harbor in front of the hotel, but there's a good variety of diving and exploration within a 15- minute boat ride of the dock. On a Convair 440 that crashed on approach to the airport, schools of large horse-eye jacks swirled around the wreck and down the deep wall below. Excellent. Just west of the airplane is the Dream, a collection of massive coral heads overgrown with sponges and bursting with small tropicals, the wall below covered by large stands of black coral.

To the east of the harbor mouth are several deep dive spots, including the Grotto, the G Spot, and Eagle's Nest. These are the places to find such pelagics as reef, bull, hammerhead, and tiger sharks or schools of eagle rays swimming in formation. Oldtimers on South speak of schools of 30 or more, but 15 is the largest seen in the last year, and 5 to 10 is more common. Unfortunately, this area has been used occasionally as a dumping ground, and there's some debris on the bottom. Coral bleaching is also evident here because the water is warmer where the shallow Caicos bank meets the open sea.

Some shallow dives can be found along the top of the wall east of the harbor. The Arch, for example, is a large coral arch surrounded by coral heads and teeming with small tropicals, banded shrimp, brittle stars, spotted morays, and juvenile and adult drum. Inside the arch itself, a school of huge horse-eye jacks posed for wide-angle. I've scored two unusual shark sightings here on different trips -- a 14-foot hammerhead and a man-sized mako (lost, no doubt).

I love this funky little island, warts and all. It's a dingy, dirty place with abandoned buildings and litter, but the reward at South is great diving. The risk is the state of the Club Carib at the time you show up. As I was departing, another dispute between owners and dive operator left the two new Carolina 24 dive boats sitting at the new dock Jacques Mayal designed with no divemasters to drive them, the compressor turned off, the E-6 photo processing machine still in its box, and the new rental gear hanging in the dive shop. But that's diving on the edge -- the risk is worth the reward.

Q. C.

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