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May 2001 Vol. 16, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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South Caicos Ocean Haven

a return to yesteryear

from the May, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

On a visit to South Caicos several years ago, I was one unhappy camper. Oh, the diving was especially good for the Caribbean, among the best, but the only hotel on the island, The Club Caribe, ran out of water. Then, it ran out of food, except hotdogs. One of two boats was out of commission. Its advertised recreational gear was nowhere to be seen. And no one could have cared less.

I wasnt the only one who had troubles there. Three years ago Toronto home health care executive and dive shop owner Bob Musselwhite and his significant other, Diane Corrich, a tool and die shop partner and nurse, organized a trip to Club Caribe for 40 divers. Before they left home, Club Caribe went up for sale, potentially leaving the group out of a big deposit. Rather than disappoint their divers, Musselwhite and Corrich got resourceful. They bought the property and began running it themselves. The rest, the old bromide goes, is history.

Six hundred miles southeast of Miami -- an hour plus flight -- sits the Turks and Caicos tourist haven of Providenciales. A 20-minute flight away -- really, a world away -- lies the Big South, hanging from the lip of East Caicos like a backwards 6. Eight square miles, its home to 1,200 mellow belongers. And to the renamed South Caicos Ocean Haven, the only resort and dive-op on the island.

Less than a 10-minute walk from Cockburn Harbour, the unkempt primary township that remains sleepy even at the height of commercial activity and frenetic piglet crossings, the resort has 22 rooms on two floors. South Caicos Ocean HavenThe upper floor has a large deck with patio furniture and a small covered area. Avoid the town-view units and reserve an upper-ocean-front unit, which, in the wee hours, will mercifully distance you from the choir of barking dogs, crowing roosters and partying islanders. Nonetheless, all rooms were clean with A/C and ceiling fans, and no phones, TVs or radio. I had a comfortable queen-size bed, though friends -- I organized a group trip -- complained of singles with hard mattresses. Fortunately, there were few flying insects, as my window was not sealed around the A/C unit. The cheesy Venetian blinds only afforded partial privacy. There was plenty of hot cistern-collected rainwater, generating gratifying lathers after a long day of diving. The building itself needs paint and occasional pieces of lumber need replacing.

You have to travel some to reach the nearest beach, an isolated and picturesque stretch of fine white sand, but Ocean Haven does have a small saltwater pool around which patio furniture invites guests to socialize. I engaged in most excellent evening sky gazing from this spot, and was treated to the splendor of the Milky Way and shooting stars. Over the azure bay is Dove Cay to the East and to the West, Long Cay, which has recently become home to hundreds of iguanas transplanted from Ambergris Cay, Belize where development is destroying their habitat. Essentially, Ocean Haven is no romantic venue. You come here to be romanced by the sea.

Diving almost exclusively takes place along the south shore, a protected area where fishing is verboten. There are about 20 sites within a 10- minute boat trip, some with surface moorings, some with subsurface moorings and others where they drop anchor. The obligatory check-out dive takes place in 45-55 feet on the scattered partial remains of a crashed Convair. Inside the fuselage I found a small aggregation of jacks, a few schoolmasters and French grunt, and a lovely lone gray angel. Our merry band of 11 experienced divers, having passed the muster, immediately began to do our own thing, as we agreed with management before we made our booking. While we usually stayed in a loose cluster, some went off by themselves. I usually dropped down the wall to 115 feet, then worked up enjoying the overhangs, crevices and spur and groove reef planted with impressive plate coral and stovepipe sponges. I cannot envision a more hospitable environment for properly trained divers wanting to go deep --warm water (76-78F in March) -- good vis (80 feet, yet still a bit disappointing), easy navigation, and minimal current with no surge below 40 feet. On the first dive of the day, others and I occasionally dropped well below 130 feet, seduced by the 7,000-foot wall of the Turks Island Passage.

So, this is a good venue for experienced -- and inexperienced -- divers alike, thanks to Bob and Diane, both attractive individuals, inside and out. With an obviously deep affection for each other, they unfailingly sported warm smiles and upbeat attitudes despite long days of hard work. Their positive attitude makes the resort very flexible, indeed. Want to do four dives a day, skip a day, return to the same site, go to another site, night dive, dive before vs. after breakfast or vice-versa? Can do. For tomorrows breakfast do you want bacon or sausage or both, eggs or pancakes? Just say it. Burgers at noon, but if you want a lunch meat and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato, if its there, its yours. Want a type of liquor not present at the modest honor-system bar? Ask and when they have time theyll see if its on the island. Attack of the sweet tooth? Lets see whats left in the fridge.

And speaking of the fridge, the food was basic but well and freshly prepared, rating well compared to similar small-dive resorts. Dinner entrees included lightly blackened grouper, chicken wings in barbecue sauce, tuna casserole, and lets not forget lobster night. One night, Diane made spaghetti and meatballs, and her garlic bread is nothing short of celestial. A green salad accompanied most dinners. Breakfast brought forth bread, bagels, assorted cereals and fruit besides the main offering. For me, dessert was eagerly anticipated and included such delectables as Snickers Bar pie, Key Lime pie, strawberry cheesecake and homemade chocolate brownies. Used to losing a few pounds on a dive trip? Fugeddaboudit.

Ah, but I came to dive. Thirty yards from the resort is their concrete dock housing two aging 24-foot Carolina skiffs in a protected cove. These comfortably hold six divers and two crew, but can hold a couple more without real discomfort. Its an easy back-roll entry; exits were gear-doffed and hauled over side of boat, with someone always present to assist, and a climb up the ladder. South Caicos Ocean HavenThough experience has left me leery of dive boats with just a single engine (here a 75HP Yamaha), both boats typically traveled to sites just minutes from shore. Fortunately, surface conditions off the south side are usually calm, as these skiffs -- which are used on Grand Turk and Salt Cay as well -- are intolerant of much wave activity. A V-hull craft in the upper 20-30-foot range would be a capital addition. The boats are without cover, so I lathered up with sunscreen and donned shades. On board are DAN 02 kits and cell phones. During my visit, Doug, an escapee from the Chicago corporate culture served as divemaster (his wife Cynthia cooked and performed other tasks) but has now left to run their fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin. A British couple will replace them.

Among my favorite sites was The Grotto, a main flight path for spotted eagle rays. At least one appeared on each of several visits here, and schools of as many as 14 have been sighted. Caribbean reef sharks occasionally cruised the wall, and once I observed a group of three. I was uncertain if they were hunting as a team, but it was a distinct possibility. On most wall dives, reef sharks from 5-8 feet in length cruised along and small aggregations of jacks circled.

Spanish Chain typifies many sites along this coast and neighboring Grand Turk, 22 miles due west. Drop to a sand and patch reef bottom at 40 feet, then explore the area or fin out to the wall, which starts at 50-70 feet depending on the site. And what a wall it is. At some points its stepped, at others precipitous, nearly always covered with plate, rope and wire coral, and massive tube sponges. I dropped deep, then looked skyward -- great. As I worked my way back to the shallows, massive southern stingrays rest in the sand. Moving slowly, I could reach out and stroke them, which, if Im not being too anthropomorphic, they generally seemed to enjoy. The shallows corralled all the customary tropicals, and on one dive I observed a large school of blue tang grazing as a pack. Dallying at a small coral head, I was delighted to espy a corkscrew anemone harboring two minuscule Pederson cleaner shrimp lounging while awaiting the next customer. Lower down crouched a pistol shrimp that fired its shot-like bubble jet when too closely approached. What a magnificent place the reef is -- the longer you look, the more you discover. When I hear people say they didnt see much on a living reef dive, I am saddened they have not learned to observe.

After all this intense wall action, my computer would always demand something shallower. Once, Bob dropped us in the sand channel just east of Long Cay, from where we could work our way around to the rear of the cay. Previously unnamed, Im campaigning to dub this dive Docs Drift. (And, this article is part of my campaign! After all, not many sites left in the Caribbean remain unnamed.) Proper navigation leads to Admirals Aquarium, a patch reef at 15 feet exploding with critters ranging from shovel-nosed lobster to spotted moray. After passing the spotted eagle rays and southern stingrays, I entered a long stretch of fine sand bottom with eel grass and tiny, sparsely scattered coral heads. To enjoy this potentially tedious stretch, I looked for fry and other marine life and got close views of yellowfin mojarra, and a posing intermediate phase bucktooth parrotfish. Fry included bluehead, yellowhead wrasse and slippery dick.

The most distant site is The Caves, about a 35-minute boat ride to the East side. Once there, I swam down a long, comely trench with nothing but blue water ahead. Then I entered a cave perhaps 50 yards long that exited in a lovely coral reef -- not for the claustrophobic. Along the way, I spied a budding Pillar Coral that was a breathtaking dark blue in the body and robins egg blue on the tips.

On the ride to one site, I spotted a pair of humpbacks and started yelling and got the boat captain to drop us off as close as we could get, losing sight of the wisdom of getting in where they seemed to be headed rather than where they had been. We spent the next 35 minutes hanging in stark open water, watching each other swim in circles, trying to keep our orientation and breaking out in spasms of wild gesticulation upon sporadically hearing whale singing and pinging. We saw not a thing other than the passing pelagic tunicate and thimble jellies. I left the water feeling a bit of a fool, and I suspect so did some of the others.

I would say the dive operation has room for improvement. This would be an excellent venue for Nitrox, but its not offered. Somewhat vexing was the absence of drinking water or other potables on the boat, and the photo buffs grumbled about the lack of a rinse bucket. At first, aluminum-80s fills were 300 psi light, but improved after mild complaining. While the dive shop is well laid out for storing/drying gear, and harbors a decent bench for quickie repairs, you carry any parts you need. There is only a modest amount of rental gear, and very little for sale. Bring all that you need, plus critical spares. But, Im picking nits. After all, one reason the diving is excellent is because its not developed, not easy to get to, and not fully fished out. Clearly, its one of the top diving destinations in the Caribbean.

Overall, I had an excellent trip. Its definitely for one who needs no stimulation beyond diving. The only tourist activities are a visit to the salinas to see the flamingos or a bone-fishing jaunt on the new 24-foot airboat. My big nights out were hashed lobster at Mama Loves, a restaurant complete with Christmas-themed place mats, Coke Classic and a couple of cold beers on one of the two bar stools at the Eastern Light Inn Bar (aka chicken ranch). South Caicos is the old, undeveloped Caribbean, and with it goes outdated accommodations, few tourists, and pristine reefs .

When you hear older divers talk about the good old days, back in the 70s, visit South Caicos and youll see exactly what they mean.

-- Doc Vikingo

South Caicos Ocean HavenDivers Compass: Fly into Provo on Delta from Atlanta, AA from Miami, TWA from NYC. Rooms start at $749 p/p double, all meals for seven nights and five days of two-tank morning dives. Website shows specials and details (www.oceanhaven.tc). Bring along everything you might need for personal comfort and diving. Peak humpback season is Jan-Mar, although the resort makes no dedicated trips to observe them. Soda $1; beer $2.50; mixed drinks $3.50. If you really want to go on the cheap, Maes B and B, in the Old Governors House, has three non-A/C rooms on the upper floor with commanding views and a shared bathroom. It looks every bit of its reputed 106 years, but somehow exuded the same ineffable trashed and tatty charm that characterizes much of South Caicos. Mae herself was preparing to host a dignitary, and the kitchen was covered with picture perfect quiches. Give her table a go ... Nearest chamber is on Provo.

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