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August 1997 Vol. 12, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dancing in a Sea of Diversity

Aboard the Sea Dancer in the Turks & Caicos

from the August, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Something told me to turn away from the wall and look into the blue. Sure enough, the "fish" I saw approaching sprouted wings and morphed into a manta ray, complete with twin remoras. Just then, another diver trying to get a video blasted towards the manta, scaring it away.

That manta was among the widest range of diversity I've encountered anywhere in the Caribbean in my 20 years of diving. Later, I added a sperm whale to my life list of sea creatures when Captain Harry piloted the Sea Dancer close enough for pictures without frightening the leviathan into a premature dive. Talk about paparazzi!

Peter Hughes's Sea Dancer is a 110-foot boat that sleeps 18 guests and 6 crew members. It sails for six-day cruises from Providenciales Island in Turks and Caicos, 550 air miles from Miami. Although Sea Dancer shows its age as the oldest boat of the Dancer Fleet, it serves its purpose well. And the best way to visit the primo dive sites throughout West Caicos, South Caicos, Grand Turk, and other small islands, is via live-aboard.

Don't forget your camera. Given the 75-foot visibility, it was hard to resist shooting postcard scenes of coneys, parrots, and grunts. Photogenic reefs, walls, and canyons off West Caicos, French Cay, and West Sand Spit offer great views. I shot a squadron of Atlantic spadefish, then captured a whitespotted filefish flashing its full repertoire of disguises. Giant sponges, black coral bushes, and distinctive corals accented the reefs.


Sea Dancer in the Turks & Caicos

Turks & Caicos

The crew knew what we wanted. Briefings included a map detailing terrain, current, depth and expected fish. I felt like a typical tourist snapping shots of the enormous goblet-shaped barrel sponge on Brandy Wine off West Caicos. Nearby, on Driveway, guardian queen and French angels watched over me as I navigated around the coralmound median strip. Decorated with flamingo tongues atop sea plumes and fans, this oasis separates two expanses of sand that "chute" to the depths.

Nonmoving "best of show" photo op goes to the 100-square-foot elephant-ear sponge in Elephant Ear Canyon. The crew says it's at least 200 years old. While you're there, check out the black coral bushes. And you cannot overlook Fred, a puppy turned Nassau grouper, who instantly becomes your new dive buddy. He's a ham. Rub Fred's chin and he'll roll over on his back.

Nearly every dive ended with a safety stop that was party to overgrown bar and black jacks, yellowtail and/or mahogany snappers, and a barracuda. On my way to the hang bar on a dive off French Cay, I noticed a four-foot barracuda acting peculiarly. It was stalking my partner, who was concentrating on burning up the last of his film. Worrying that the 'cuda was going for my buddy's butt, I gestured frantically. He failed to notice me. The barracuda poised. In a flash, it zeroed in on its kill -- the shiny regulator's first stage. The barracuda hit hard, suddenly and unexpectedly; the impact shoved my partner sideways and nearly knocked the camera from his hands. Then, after a wild, erratic circle at warp speed, the 'cuda zipped past us into the blue. Hungry jacks and snappers swooped in for leftovers, which probably only amounted to a couple of barracuda teeth. All that 'cuda caught was a new respect for divers.

Afterwards, some of the 17 other divers reported that the same barracuda had displayed a zealous interest in their dive gear while they did the safety stop. Unfortunately, the videophiles near the hang bar failed to capture the barracuda attack. And those with still cameras seemed to like taking pictures only when they could kick coral or grab sponges. The crew did its best to urge photographers not to contact the reef. Not too many photographers listened.

Other than that, it was a congenial group. We had great fun exchanging slang or colloquialisms with divers from other continents. Don't talk about "Free Willy" with a Brit. The title elicits guffaws. And if a Brit asks, "How did you get on?" Don't say, "The ladder." They won't get it and will wonder why you're laughing.

Speaking of getting on, the Sea Dancer's dive platform -- they allow only two divers at a time -- is equipped with twin ladders. A divemaster assists with gear and steadies divers for their giant stride. Sea Dancer in the Turks & CaicosDivers must surface with 500 psi after a three-minute safety stop at the hang bar, where a spare tank/ regulator hangs. On the dive platform, females doff their tank/BC rig; males climb a second ladder to the dive deck before ditching equipment. Call it sexist if you like. Nobody complained.

Tanks are refilled within minutes of completing the dives. An enormous camera table dominates the dive deck, and there are freshwater barrels for gear and camera rinsing. Divers stow gear under benches and hang wet skins/suits in a central location.

My computer allowed me to squeeze in five dives daily. Divers kept track of their own profiles -- no policing. At least one of Sea Dancer's divemasters that week joined every dive. No babysitting, but they kept a distant eye on us while pointing out interesting critters and vistas. The divemasters were also helpful in identifying critters. If they didn't know the name of what we described, they referred us to the fish ID books. The crew also photographed us both above and below water throughout the cruise. After the weekly slide show, we got to keep slides of ourselves, gratis.

But all is never perfect aboard a ship, and while the crew made me comfortable, I can't say the same for my cramped stateroom, No. D1. I tried to take advantage of the Sea Dancer's rock-bottom $999/week deal for rooms T7 or T9. They're on the Dolphin deck, no window, share a head. This bargain sells out quickly, so I upgraded to my only other affordable option -- Cabin D1 on the main deck, at $1,049. I got an enlarged closet for a room. I could stand up or lie down. At least it had windows and a private head.

Located directly behind the pilothouse, D1 is a dreary little affair. Dark bedspreads, walls, and carpeting added to the gloom. Heavy dust on the exhaust-fan grill reminded me of coral with its polyps out. And I wish I could've earned Peter Hughes points toward my next trip for every time I banged my head on theb unk supports, ceiling, or slanted wall above the head. On the Sea Dancer, you get what you pay for. Deluxe staterooms D5, D6, and D8 on the lowest (Dolphin) deck at $1,299/diver/ week, as well as Master staterooms M2, M3, and M4 on the main deck for $1,399/diver/ week, are roomier and more comfortable.

The uppermost (Lido) deck, where we ate and relaxed, featured an open canopy with plastic roll-up windows. Expect the greenhouse effect during the day, al fresco dining and a no-see-um/mosquito convention at night. The sun deck portion wasn't large enough to accommodate all of us at once; there weren't enough deck chairs to go around, anyway.

And when will I learn not to book a dive trip this far north in December? Despite daily air temps in the 80s, steady winds and 78 ° water made necessary a quarter-inch shorty over my full 1.5 mil wetsuit. By the end of the week, other divers had joined the double-suit-and-lycra-hood club, shivering our way to either of the two hot-water deck showers. We dried ourselves with warm beach towels, heated and ready after every dive. Each cabin also comes equipped with plush bathrobes. After awhile, I started bringing mine to the dive deck.

Another way I warmed up was by drinking fresh-brewed coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Chef Stan, who has been with the boat as long as it has been in the Turks & Caicos, treated us to freshly baked apres-dive cookies, cakes, and snack bars. We helped ourselves to soft drinks, milk, fruit juice, and fresh fruit. For breakfast I could choose omelets, eggs, French toast, etc. Cold cereal, melon, and sweet rolls or toast were also available. Buffet lunches consisted of soup, assorted sandwiches, and/or casseroles. Tablecloths and wine glasses appeared for the large evening meal.

Most of the time we had no choice of entrée, but two nights we chose between fish or meat: Cornish hens, pork, chicken, steaks grilled to order. Fish selections included mahi mahi, snapper, grouper, and conch, complete with traditional island sauces. Assorted vegetables, potatoes, and rice complemented each main course. Mention special vegetarian or food allergies to your travel agent so the chef can oblige.

The best desserts were Stan's homemade cakes and fruit/pastry combos. Grocery store frozen pies, cheesecakes, and ice cream didn't measure up. At the discretion of the captain, alcohol consumption can signal the end of further dives that day. Ask before you quaff that beer at lunch or have a glass of wine or a cocktail with dinner.

If you opt for a night dive instead of a drink, prepare yourself for the enormous channel clinging crabs. One sported a dinner-plate-sized carapace and 18-inch legs. I'd hate to arm wrestle that guy, even without its fist-sized claws. Other night-dive acquaintances included octopus, nurse and reef sharks, greater soapfish, and slumbering parrots tucked into mucous cocoons. Twice I discovered those delicate, reclusive orange-ball corallimorphs. Paradoxically, finding this visual treat also causes it to disappear; like an imploding pyrotechnic, it folds into itself under artificial light.

Despite the diversity, incredible healthiness, and uncrowded dive sites, the Great Decorator forgot to use technicolor encrusting sponge wallpaper. Muted greens, mustard, browns, and faint purples rule. Blue rope sponges, bright red wire coral, and occasional azure vase sponges break the trend, but if it's color you want, look at the critters.

Critters! I watched a battle royale when a queen trigger used its spire to flip over a queen conch. The snail thwarted the attack with its operculum -- an oversized fingernail that conch use for protection and locomotion. When the trigger finally gave up, I took pity on the conch and righted it.

Speaking of conch, you can't swing a dead catfish here without hitting one. Look for those signature tire tracks in the sand. They lead to humongous examples of Earth's largest snail. And in case you haven't heard, Providenciales boasts the world's only conch farm. Go figure. Then go take a tour of the conch farm when you dock early afternoon on Friday. But only after you work your way into the bowels of the Dolphin deck to settle your bill and leave a tip. Somewhat like going to confession after a week of great fun.

Spend the rest of Friday touring or relaxing. At night, the crew treats you to a restaurant dinner. Get back and pack up. Divers must be off theS ea Dancer by 9 a.m. Saturday so the crew can get ready for new arrivals. Since you don't take off until 3 p.m., Peter Hughes carts guests to the Turtle Cove Resort for beaching and sun. You'll share one room to store luggage, rinse off the salt water, and change before heading back to the airport. Everyone is on the same time schedule -- only one flight in and out of Providenciales daily. You'll split from the people you've been diving with in Miami.

They say word-of-mouth advertising is the most reliable. It persuaded me to give these islands a try. I'd return to the Turks and Caicos in a heartbeat. If I couldn't enjoy these reefs, I'd get out of the water.

Diver's Compass: Peter Hughes Diving, Inc., books its own trips, including air, if requested (800-9-DANCER, fax 305-669-9475). Airfare from the Midwest is $350. Departure tax is $15. Flights leave Provo late Saturday afternoon. Some homeward-bound divers must overnight in Miami. Official language: English. Currency: U.S. dollars. Passport or proof of citizenship and picture ID required for U.S. visitors. Board the Sea Dancer Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Dock Friday after the morning dives. Plan island tours Friday afternoon or early Saturday. The crew treats passengers to a restaurant dinner Friday night. Sea Dancer is the oldest boat of the Dancer fleet. Staterooms run from $999 to $1,399 per person, double occupancy. Lowest-priced rooms share a head and shower. Expect summer water temps in the 80s; in winter it drops to mid-70s. Wall diving starts at 70 feet. Check the Internet for specials: E-mail:

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