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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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September 1999 Vol. 25, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving the Wild West Caicos

going the extra distance with Fifi

from the September, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Divers:

Convenience isn’t everything in diving, but I do need a good reason to stay on one island and take an hour’s boat ride to dive off another. However, if you’re serious about your diving, then diving West Caicos, located in the Turks and Caicos Islands about 600 miles southeast of Miami, is worth the effort of making the trip from Providenciales and its beautiful beaches and tourist comforts. Since West Caicos is an uninhabited national park and nature preserve, staying there is not an option.

While West Caicos’ Atlantic ocean exposure makes it one of the better places for pelagics in the Caribbean, it’s beyond the range of most Provo operators, who only take short boat rides to Provo’s many reefs for what amounts to quite decent Caribbean diving. While some operators offer occasional trips to West Caicos, Fifi Kunz, who operates Caicos Adventures, makes a career out of it.

Fifi’s a jovial, feisty little Frenchman who’s both the spirit of the operation and “the man” on his boat. He thrives on a nickname most men would have shunned, and he takes equal pride in his business. My group of nine New Yorkers arranged to dive West Caicos from his Melissa K., a 36-foot Lorequin Marinedesign boat with a new John Deere 300 hp engine and a 20-24 knot cruise speed. Like the slightly larger, slightly slower Melissa 2, it’s a comfortable vessel with head, freshwater shower, sturdy ladder, and plenty of shade. Both could easily accommodate 12-14 divers, and both have a full complement of safety gear, including safety bars and hang tanks at 15'. While it would be hard for anyone on board to move out of Fifi’s shadow, the divemaster who drove the boat, Gordon Smith, was capable and helpful and told enough funny stories to keep Fifi on his toes. Their anecdotes and music kept us from getting restless on the smooth hour crossing. A cache of snacks and fresh water also kept our stomachs from complaining.

Our first day the wind was up, rendering the better sites inaccessible. At our alternate site at Sponge Gardens, I took a giant stride into the 80° water and was met by a large spotted eagle ray. The garden atmosphere of barrel and tube sponges and great corals hardly seemed secondrate. The reef teemed with rainbow runners, cowfish, puffers, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and damsels. Lobsters galore, plus an eel or turtle here and there, rounded out the dive.

Each day we spent our first surface interval on the boat, sunning ourselves, talking, and nibbling on fruit, then went for our second 45- minute to one-hour morning dive, lunching on the boat afterwards. The sandwiches, salads of some variety, fruit, and cookies weren’t culinary marvels, but they held their own. After lunch we’d head to one of the fringing, white-sand beaches that scallop this small, coral-reef island for a rest and swim, then move to another site for our third dive. On our return trip to Provo there’d be chips and salsa or cheese and crackers for our boatload of snoozy, satisfied divers. Once the boat docked at the Turtle Cove Marina, Fifi would give us a lift to our hotel.

Though Provo’s a flat, arid island, it’s the glitzy number in the Turks and Caicos group. It’s home to Club Med and a bevy of restaurants and resorts, and its white-sand beaches dotted with half-naked Europeans rank among the best in the Caribbean. Several good dive operations have been around for some time, but the diving, as I discovered on my last trip, is ho-hum at best. My log book from that trip tells the story: a turtle at Pine Cay, pretty coral at Santo Domingo, other sites in the Pine Cay and Grace Bay areas unremarkable. Visibility was low, sites over-dived--nothing to write home about.

As a resort getaway, though, Provo’s hardly mediocre. I chose The Sands at Grace Bay, a well-maintained, up-market, three-story condominium on the beach, with a luxurious, Mediterranean feel and a lovely pool. There’s a restaurant called Hemingway’s on the property, golf and tennis nearby. Accommodations vary from garden studios to three-bedroom suites, all with screened-in porches, kitchens, washer/dryers, telephones, and satellite television. My one-bedroom oceanview suite had a bath and a half, a comfortable mix of rattan furniture in the living room, and king bed in the bedroom. It was more like a comfortable apartment than a hotel, but the front desk supplied a full range of hotel services from daily maid service to restaurant, cab, and golf and tennis arrangements. For dinner I sampled a selection of Provo’s restaurants, but I breakfasted at Hemingway’s each morning. The food was good but the service so slow that I had to get there when they opened the door to be ready for Fifi’s 8:15 pickup.

Diving the Wild West CaicosMy after-dive excursions were limited to a quick swim, drinks at Hemingway’s, a cab to dinner, and after-dinner drinks on someone’s screened-in terrace before retiring. Provo has a good selection of live music and even a casino, but being on the boat from 9 to 5 each day didn’t leave energy for much else.

That was fine by me, because I came for West Caicos’ stunning, high-voltage diving, its sharks, spotted eagle rays, turtles, large southern stingrays, schools of barracuda, and jacks. The sites’ motley topography commanded my attention, too: Highway to Heaven, for example, began along a bland, sandy slope that ushered the way to a seeminglybottomless wall starting around 30' and plummeting deeper than I could spy from my 130' maximum depth. The site was punctuated with dramatic, yet inviting, pinnacles I headed over to explore, encountering a cluster of half a dozen grey reef sharks en route. Not only did they make me forget about the pinnacles: I became so engrossed in scrutinizing one of the sharks that I nearly collided with another! The photographers in my group were in photo-heaven, while I relished dives that reliably produced sharks in their natural habitat. To my way of thinking, that’s much more interesting than going to a shark feed!

Fifi’s briefings were thorough. He was in the water with us on every dive, pointing out the noteworthy. Divers were free to stay with him or take off with their buddy. Those of us with computers dived our own profiles without restrictions on bottom time. Fifi’s only request was to stay above 130', surface with 500 psi, do a safety stop on the 15' hang bar, and avoid decompression dives.

At Melissa’s Cove I started my dive with Fifi: I wanted to be sure not to miss the gaping undercut in the wall, a craggy, cave-like recess festooned with coral that Fifi had described in his briefing. I dawdled there a while, looking for lobsters and crabs, watching scores of queen angels as they meandered up and down the wall, and glancing occasionally out into the blue, looking for the big stuff. It wasn’t long before I found it: three large spotted eagle rays with 3-6' wingspans cruised down the wall, turned, and made another pass, almost as if they were staging an encore. I moved further down the wall, past an occasional turtle, until a curious gray reef shark came in to check me out.

The scene at Anchor was truly photogenic, an impressive swimthrough where I spotted a whopper of a parrotfish that’s probably the biggest I’ve ever seen. Just before I reached the old, coral-encrusted anchor that gives the site its name, I encountered the dive’s first grey reef shark. Behind it swam a school of grim barracudas. Swimming on, I saw two more grey reef sharks making their way toward me. Still another site, the Fall, produced the most rare sight of my trip: spotted eagle rays mating. Sexy.

While my log book from a ’97 trip to Provo is a quick read, entries from this West Caicos trip go on and on. I saw plenty of the big stuff I came for. I didn’t do a single Provo dive on this trip; West Caicos had everything I was looking for, including walls and corals as spectacular as Little Cayman’s.

Come to Provo, but make the effort to dive West Caicos with Fifi. While the dive days will be longer (he does offer two-tank trips), that long boat ride is a small price to pay for pristine reefs, healthy fish life, big critters seldom seen in the Caribbean, and a chance to dive where there is nary another boat in sight.

— T. C.

Diving the Wild West CaicosDiver’s Compass: Caicos Adventures: phone 800-513-5822, fax/ phone 649-941-3346, e-mail, website Adventures will arrange packages with various Provo resorts...4-night packages at The Sands at Grace Bay/person, double occupancy, start at $537 low season for studio to $1095 high season for one-bedroom oceanfront unit...includes transfers, 3 days of two-tank West Caicos excursions, lunch, all taxes...third tank $38/day...aluminum 80s, 3000+fills...full range of rental gear: Suunto computers $10/day, also camera & video facilities, photo processing, no Nitrox...separate two-tank West Caicos excursions $75 inc. lunch, three-tanks $115...dinners at Geco Grill, The Terrace, and Caicos Cafe were good...Provo offers windsurfing, kayaking, water skiing, sailing, and even parasailing...The Sands at Grace Bay: phone 649-946- 5199....corner rooms (3113, 3114, 3213, 3214, 3313, 3314) are services after 10:30 p.m....Sands reps meet you at the airport, 15 min. away...all credit cards...language English, U.S. dollars, 110 voltage...$15 departure tax...American offers jet service twice daily from Miami, also Bahamas Air service...visibility 80'-120', no strong currents; March air temps 85° day, 75° night; water temps 76-78° winter, 82-84° summer, rains & hurricanes possible May-Nov., few bugs...chamber, emergency medical at MBS Group Medical, phone 649-946-4242.

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