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January 2006 Vol. 21, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands

Unspoiled for another month

from the January, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

During the last week of February, Holland Americas 1848 passenger Noordam will be the first cruise ship to dock at the new Grand Turk Port. Thats close to half the islands population and about ten times more tourists than visit Grand Turk on any given day. The pier, next to where the Arawak Hotel was, is a fiveminute boat ride to town. Officials say that the new complex, with shopping, a 10,000 sq. ft. Margaritaville, and beaches should keep the tourists isolated. But thats unrealistic. On cruise days if you dont have dive reservations or reservations for lunch in the handful of small restaurants, you may not get a seat on either the boat or a bar stool.

Diving on Grand Turk is easy and beautiful. Fish life isnt remarkable, though in winter whales pass close by. A fine wall starts about 500 yards offshore. The 20-plus moored dive sites are far enough apart so you dont bump into other groups, at least not now. The three main dive operations SeaEye Diving, Blue Water Divers, and Oasis pick you up on shore and whisk you to the wall in minutes. Ive dived with them all, but used only Oasis on my November trip. All three are on Front Street within a five-minute walk of each other. They use identical outboard-powered six-passenger Carolina skiffs with canvas covers. I think the only real difference between them is the personnel and they all have their groupies. Mitch Rollins, who has run Blue Water Divers forever, has more than 8000 dives around Grand Turk. And SeaEyes Smitty, an ex cop, is a favorite of many divers.

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos IslandsWith Oasis, I dived mainly with Mackie, a competent, hard-working local, fun to dive with. There were two to five divers on each trip and every dive is similar: swim a couple of minutes to the wall, drop over, go in one direction usually right turn around when someone has 1500 psi, then move up to the shallows at 20-30 feet or so and work your way back to the boat. After Mackie climbed aboard, I stayed down until I decided to get out, an hour at least. First dive was loosely to 100 feet, the last about 60, but just follow your computer. And keep an eye on Mackie he didnt pay much attention to his divers unless you can find your way back without him. If you dont, what the hell, youre only 30 feet from the surface.

The inn of choice is the renovated Osprey Beach, a well-managed, well-kept, nicely furnished two-story 27-room hotel, a dozen steps from waters edge. (I actually saw an osprey fly past). My room had a poster bed, couch and coffee maker and refrigerator, A/C, and TVs with HBO and CNN and three stations with American evangelists like Creflo A. Dollar asking for alms. Lower rooms have small patios; the small decks upstairs are private, with ocean views. Note: I failed to close my deck door at dusk and mosquitoes slipped in. Nosee- ums that focused on feet were active in bars and restaurants.

I also roomed at the venerable Salt Raker Inn, a seafarin place built in the 19th century. Its clean, furnished mid-20th century. One early morning, 4:30 a.m., young drunks staged a drum concert across the street on the beach. Not long ago roosters announced the sunrise and donkeys strolled Front Street, but no more. With the cruise ships coming, nearly all the old and charming houses have been replaced by modern structures, at a big cost to the government. Streets are paved, the halfmile main street downtown has been spruced up, and most donkeys were shipped to Jamaica, or so I was told. Front Street, however, with the hotels and dive operations, retains its charm.

As for the diving, nothings changed well thats not quite true. On my first dive, Mackie toted my BCD from the shop to the boat (its backed into the beach) which is loaded with tanks and gear from previous dives (he carries it back after the final dive, you wash and rinse, and hang in their secure drying room). Five minutes later at Austins Reef, Mackie helped me don my BCD and tank, gave the usual instructions and I and four other divers backrolled in. As I swam across the bottom at 25 feet, a school of goatfish clustered under feathery sea whip branches. At 40 feet, I eased over the top of the wall, past flowing creole wrasses. I swam 20 feet into the blue, then turned. The wall looked like a cauliflower patch, with abundant white plate corals polka-dotting the reefscape. Interesting, but I didnt remember this look. Then, I realized these corals were bleached from an event that occurred throughout much of the Caribbean in late summer, when water temperature headed toward the 90s. About 10 percent of the wall shone white. As I finned along, I watched a small hawksbill turtle rise slowly to the surface to grab a breath of air. A larger hawksbill ripped hunks from a hard sponge, pushing his front flippers against the sponge for leverage. Two queen angels scrounged for leftovers and a black bar jack buddied up with a hogfish. As we headed to the top of the wall hundreds of slender bogia streamed by and a dozen jawfish backed into their holes as I passed. Later Mackie climbed aboard the boat and I dawdled at 25 feet rather than hang on the shot line. When I surfaced, he was ready to take my gear and fins, before I climbed the tiny ladder. One hour, 1000 psi remaining, 80 degrees.

Black Forest is an apt description of a lush wall with frequent black coral bushes among the wire coral, plate and other corals and sponges. A large spider crab clung to the wall and others were secreted in holes. After 30 minutes I rose to see a small nurse shark meandering down a long sand patch, a 3- foot tiger grouper watching. Under the boat a hefty midnight parrot fish shot by, and I poked around, watching a smooth trunk fish flutter along, with enough common tropicals to keep me entertained.

Each operation offers dives roughly at 9, 11, and 2 p.m., returning to the shore between dives. While Oasis is only a fiveminute walk from the Osprey, theyll pick you up on the hotel beach if you ask. Id have lunch back at the Osprey, or at one of the two small restaurants on piers nearby. While the Osprey has salads, club sandwiches, and a few entrees for lunch, everyone is in the big hamburger business about $10. The Ospreys restaurant has tables and chairs around a small swimming pool no cleaning dive equipment with tables overlooking the beach (and a too-small bar). For dinner, its romantically lighted, they serve such fare as rack of lamb ($25) or wahoo ($22) and key lime pie, or barbeques on two nights. I also enjoyed meals such as conch fritters and a good conch creole in the courtyard at the Salt Raker. The bar was usually filled with interesting locals ready for hearty conversation.

One afternoon dive was at Finbar, where the murkiness portended a bad dive, but once at the wall we were back to the 80 foot viz. Unexpectedly, my BCD started to inflate. I kicked down to grab a piece of coral and tried to disconnect the inflator, but couldnt with just one hand, so a fellow diver helped. Mackie was out of sight -- an example of how capable divers are on their own. Thats OK, just be forewarned. The wall here is covered with hard and soft corals, some wire coral extending ten feet or more. I spotted a rare quill fin blenny, which disappeared before I could share my find. Below, a large hawksbill turtle finned nonchalantly by, while a pair of tiger groupers hovered on a ledge. Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos IslandsIt was a slow-0moving dive, with creole wrasse in their usual hurry. At the top of the wall, Mackie pointed out a green moray, longer than my outstretched arms from head to tail. And there were tomtates, French angels, a porgy or two, yellowtails, and a nurse shark with her nose in a hole -- until Mackie shook its tail. Interesting to see him swim, more interesting to leave him alone and observe his behavior. Under the boat a large patch of garden eels swayed in the currents.

Amphitheater is a beautiful dive, starting with a large sand patch, then through a cut to the wall, covered in corals and sponges. I traveled along at 100 feet, seeing a pair of queen angels, an ocean trigger, two jacks, and a pair of reef runners scooting past, then back to the flats. The water dropped to 79F. Winter is coming, said Mackie.

Grand Turk remains an excellent destination, easy to get to from the East Coast, friendly, a wall among the best in the Caribbean, and a good range, if not abundance, of fish. And, its still inexpensive. You can find high season seven-day dive packages less than $1000/pp, double occupancy (Salt Raker, with low season rates around $800), or in the Osprey in a deluxe room for $1130 (food additional). December through at least March the water is chilly, the nights can be cool. That said, enjoy your stay.

PS: I started this trip hoping to review a small and unknown dive operation at the Ocean Beach Hotel, on West Caicos, next to the defunct Prospect of Whitby Hotel, which we reviewed favorably many years ago. They were at first uncertain they could come up with four divers the minimum or get their boat fixed, but I got an email two days before I was to depart saying they could accommodate me. While I was in the air, they called my home to change their minds, but I didnt get the message, so I showed up 8:30 a.m. after a brief flight from Provo. Nice people, but Captain Poach had no divers, the hotel had no guests, and it was too windy anyhow. Back to Provo, then off to Grand Turk.

PPS: Oasis Divers is getting new boats to serve the cruise business. Owners Dale Barker and Everett Freites are building a shop near the cruise pier. Dale says That keeps our current diving operation in town the same for all our customers that come to Grand Turk for week-long dive vacations. We will maintain the same small group diving and personal service for the extended stay divers . . . .Cruise passenger divers will experience the first-rate dive spots in Grand Turk. PSSS: On my way home, I had a layover on Provo so I hired a cab for a tour of the island. At Leeward Harbor, a boat pulled up with the captain yelling for help. In the stern a man and a woman were competently administering CPR to a diver, but it was all in vain. It was a tragic event and a sad one to witness. But it reminded me that every dive we make carries risks. Take care of yourself.

Ben Davison

Divers Compass: Nitrox is a pricey $11-$13 extra per tank; and single dives are $45, pricey for the short rides to the reef . . . .Providenciales is about an hour and a half from Miami. . . .All the shops offer night dives, trips to Gibbs Cay, a mini stingray city, or across to Salt Cay, but youll need enough people interested. . . .the Oasis web site (www.oasisdivers.com) features photos and information about most hotels on Grand Turk. . . .What was once the Guanahani Hotel, then the Pillory Beach Hotel, has been renovated and rechristened the Bohio and has its own dive operation. Its a leisurely ten-minute bike ride north of town, on the beach, and its restaurant is considered the best on the island. It has its own dive operation: www.bohioresort.com. Sea Eye Diving: www.seaeyediving.com Blue Water Divers: www.grandturkscuba.com.

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