Legacy of the Sea
By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos Courtesy Levardo Talbot
Whether you are a resident or tourist, there is no one better to spend time out on the water with than an “authentic” Turks & Caicos native. Besides safely piloting the boat through gleaming turquoise seas, you will be introduced to the best snorkeling, fishing and beachcombing spots, plus hear countless tales of a life spent by the sea. And when your captain comes from a long line of sea-faring survivalists, all the better! That’s what you can expect when you take a trip with Talbot’s Adventures Fishing & Tour Excursions.
When I arrived for an interview with Levardo Talbot, the owner of Talbot’s Adventures, I met instead a spry, slightly weathered senior who was peering into an i-Pad at pictures of iguanas. A big grin and strong handshake later, and I was introduced to Oscar Talbot Sr., Levardo’s 76-year-old father, and the source of his son’s extensive skills in the sea. Hours flew by as the senior Talbot carefully detailed with pride his family’s long history of boatbuilding, salt raking, fishing, and, surprisingly, tourism, dating back over 100 years in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
The story began with Levardo’s grandfather Norman Theophilus Talbot, who was born on March 19, 1904 and came from Bermuda to work in the salt industry then thriving on Salt Cay. Besides harvesting salt from the extensive salinas, Norman Talbot was a master shipwright who built the ferryboats that moved bagged salt from both Grand Turk and Salt Cay docks to the larger vessels sailing to Canada. The father of fourteen children with his wife Susan, Norman was out of necessity a skilled fisherman, and made it a priority to pass along his knowledge to his sons. Oscar Talbot’s creased face grew pensive as he recalled his father’s lessons. “My father taught us to build boats. We used timber from North and Middle Caicos. But I especially remember how passionate he was about teaching us to fish. We went out on the boat and there was no joking around, he was stern and no-nonsense. To him, we were trainees in survival. He used to say, ‘You’re gonna need all this for the future, when you get there.’ He always quizzed us, ‘Are you listening? What did I say?’ and we’d get a lick if we didn’t answer properly.”
Norman taught the boys how to handle the boat, where to find prime fishing grounds, when it was the best time to fish and the skills of catching conch, lobster and scalefish. In those days, there were no motors, so Oscar learned to both scull and row the small fishing boats across the ocean. The tide, currents and moon phases played an important role. (Fish feed more on a young moon and flood tide; when the wind is light and the seas are calm, fish congregate in the shade.)
In those days, conch were collected on the shallow waters of the Caicos Bank using a long, hooked staff, the conch carefully flipped into a box and pulled to the surface. Lobster were scouted using a spyglass (glass-bottomed bucket) from the ocean’s surface and harvested from their rocky homes using a “tickler” to push out the animals and a “bully net” (dip net) to capture them. They were also speared using a trident-like “grains.” Sea turtles have always been a part of the Island diet, and with a gleam in his eye, Oscar Talbot describes learning to “jump turtle,” grabbing onto their shells and wrestling them into the boat when they tired. His father also used a fifty-foot turtle net with eight-inch mesh, capturing as many as half a dozen turtles at a time. And fish? They were caught using either “fishpots” or a handline (still a most exciting way to fish), with the elusive gray snapper baited with a “stinkin’” conch slop/tobacco blend that, Oscar claims, “gets the fish drunk.”
Like most Island men, both Oscar and his father would often spend weeks out on the banks collecting and drying conch, then sailing to nearby Haiti to sell or trade for goods not available at home. Folks from the more-fertile Caicos Islands would supply them by boat with corn, potatoes, fruits and vegetables for their on-board larder. Because there was no refrigeration, everything had to be preserved (or “pickled”) with salt for storage. Oscar recalls that fish were filleted, scorched (hash-marked) and “corned” with salt. Lobster didn’t preserve well, which explains why it was not such a popular foodstuff.
Oscar Talbot did not start diving with a mask and snorkel until he was twenty years old. He remembers that visiting treasure hunter Lew Black introduced him to the apparatus. “At first I was not comfortable and I swallowed a lot of water. But I had that macho spirit, and when I saw the fish come around, I liked that so much I forgot about my fear.” Oscar soon shot his first “Gillen beau” with sling and spear, eventually diving to 100 feet over the wall, holding his breath for long minutes.
Because the Islands are surrounded by protective reefs and walls, it was crucial to be able to pilot small sloops and boats through cuts in the reef to get to open sea. When high winds blow, waves block the cuts, making it treacherous to pass through. Oscar, like Norman before him and Lavardo today, bears the rare ability to “count waves,” advising captains exactly when to set off to safely navigate the cuts near Grand Turk and Salt Cay.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Oscar Talbot Senior married Ophelia Smith, the couple raising fourteen children on Salt Cay. (Oscar attributes his fecundity to his habit of eating three raw conch daily!) He, too, earned a living as a fisherman, yet also manned fishing trips for tourists, advised visiting marine biologists from the Smithsonian Institute, worked with a science lab in Grand Bahama, and continues to free-dive lobster and conch. Oscar has long been an advocate of both protecting the local ecosystem and empowering native fishermen, with strong, cutting edge ideas about both subjects. Early on, he saw the dangers of harvesting undersized conch, lobster and fish and the importance of making sure that Islanders benefited from the fruit of the sea. He spent four years on the Fisheries Advisory Council, and in 2000, was honored for his contribution to the industry. He continues to act as a fisheries consultant overseas. Surprisingly, the senior Talbot has taken to Facebook like a fish to water! After receiving an i-Pad as a gift, he signed up on the social networking site and was quickly “befriended” by his bevy of acquaintances. In fact, over 250 people across the globe wished him a happy birthday this year!
Thirty-five year-old Levardo Talbot sat quietly through the long interview with his father, occasionally nodding his head or interjecting a comment. Father and son agree that Levardo is the sibling that most inherited his father’s love of the sea. Oscar recalls, “Levardo had no fear of the ocean. What I do, he do. We’d go out on the boat from sunrise and not come back until after dark. He took the blame when his mother was angry that we were late coming home.” Levardo also bears Oscar’s conservation-minded gene. He worked for ten years as a Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) Fish and Marine Parks Conservation Officer, amassing extensive training and experience in the finer points of marine ecology and conservation, committed to the sustainability of the fishing industry and ecosystem to which his family depends on for survival. In his spare time, Levardo takes great pleasure in restoring and repairing boats, learning from the great South Caicos mechanic Chubby Cox. During his tenure with the DECR, Levardo gave presentations to local schoolchildren, was a representative during the Trouvadore slave ship wreck excavation, trained with the US Coast Guard and ReefCheck, and, most recently, assessed the reef for damage from an unmoored mega-yacht.
In 2009, Levardo started Talbot’s Adventures. He says, “I’ve long had the vision to do something on my own that contributes to the Turks & Caicos Islands. It took a more mature part of my life to bring it into reality. My roots, understanding and passion all came together in this business.” He adds, “My goal is to empower and educate tourists and locals with our history, culture and fishing traditions. Because of my extensive training, I’m well-qualified to give visitors TRUE INFORMATION about my country and the marine environment. That’s how my tagline ‘Professional Native’ got started.”
With a fleet consisting of: a 38-foot power beach catamaran, 32-foot Boston Whaler Outrage, 30-foot Grady White, 29-foot sportsfish Mako, and 18-foot Well Craft ski boat, Talbot’s Adventures can cater to just about any on-the-water experience. Besides Levardo Talbot, the company is staffed by two other “professional natives”: fifty-year-old Tony Morris and Zachery Rigby, a twenty-four-year-old “youngster” who grew up diving these waters. The most popular tours include bottom and bone fishing, beach cruises to the Caicos Cays and iguana-viewing, and more free-form, “off the beaten path” trips, including day excursions to North and Middle Caicos. All include free pick-up from Grace Bay locations, cocktails, soft drinks and snacks, snorkeling equipment, and lunch on board or a beach barbeque for full day tours or charters. Guests can also enjoy dining on their catch of the day (cleaned and filleted by Talbot’s) at Flamingo Café on Grace Bay Beach, or other native restaurants on-island.
With locations at both the Cultural Market between Club Med and Ocean Club East, and at Walkin Marina at Heaving Down Rock, Talbot’s Adventures is perfectly positioned to access prime bottom, deep sea and bone fishing sites with a short boat ride. His office also serves as a watersports information center. Levardo and crew specialize in planning custom trips that cater to each group’s needs, and enjoy throwing in a secret spot or two! In season, you can try your hand at conch or lobster diving or simply spend the day on a secluded island or cay. Past guests seem overwhelmingly thrilled at the great catches Levardo and his team manage to lead them to. “Captain Levardo! The Reel Professional” is also the only local kiteboarder, offering private boat charters for kiteboarding down-winders to remote kiteboarding spots.
It’s clear that Levardo is staunchly proud of his community and family’s heritage. He says, “Salt Cay was all about survival. It was a small group of logical people who work together as one. My family represents that heritage. I’m proud of our history and culture and I want to share it with the world.”
For more information or to make a reservation, visit talbotsadventures.com.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com