Features

Islands of Time

lobdivStory and Photos by Matt and Angela Weedon

We are perched atop a stone seawall sipping British tea.
The old colonial buildings behind us on Front Street,
dating back to the 1800s, begin to turn a magical golden glow
as the sun heads toward the horizon.
Several local people pass us by on rusty bicycles.
Only half a day removed from our hectic city life and we seem to have traveled back in time.

We are in Grand Turk, the capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands. While Providenciales, the current center of population and tourist activity, has seen tremendous growth in recent years, Grand Turk and its neighbor Salt Cay surprisingly remain the same, frozen in time, visited by relatively few.

Assured by our friendly taxi driver Jack Williams that our luggage would make it over later that evening, we decided to take a walk along Front Street past the many Bermudian style buildings gracing the waterfront. Large cannons perch in front of the post office. Each building seems to hold some unique charm. With the decline in the 1960s of a once-thriving salt industry and the reduction in direct flights to Grand Turk from the U.S., the island does not reflect the changes brought by development that are so apparent on Providenciales.
As the seat of government, many Grand Turk residents have some sort of government job. Others are involved with the small-scale diving-based tourism here. We pass old Bermudian private residences, once owned by wealthy shipwrights. Several, including the Salt Raker Inn and Turks Head Hotel, have been converted into small guesthouses.

We are greeted everywhere we go by friendly people on their way home. At the end of our walk, we come upon Brian Riggs, Manager of the Turks & Caicos National Museum, pulling down the flag out front. He invites us in to see an amazing discovery recently finished for display. The Lucayan canoe paddle (date ca. AD 900) found in North Creek on Grand Turk had just completed its preservation process and was ready for display. If you are a history buff, this is the right place for you.

Having actually lived in the Turks & Caicos for several years in the mid-1990s, my biggest fear upon our return was becoming one of those people who say, “Well, if you think it’s good now, you should have seen this reef before.” I keep my fingers crossed as I plunge over the side of the small skiff on our first dive at a site called Finbar’s Reef.

We were not to be disappointed. Dropping into the water, we were immediately met with the sight of lush, purple sea plumes and sea fans swaying gently in the minimal current. Healthy boulder and star coral formations covered the bottom. On nearly every sea fan we encountered intricately patterned flamingo tongue cowries. Intermittent patches of sand held vast colonies of garden eels and the occasional yellow head jawfish. We found conch moving slowly across the sand. Schools of French, white, and blue-striped grunts hovered around the coral heads. This was all on top of the wall!

Most of the walls in Grand Turk start in as little as 25–30 feet, plunging vertically into a blue abyss of 7,000 feet. On the vertical surface of the wall we encountered huge black coral trees and dark-hued deep-water gorgonians (revealed with our flashes to be a rich crimson color). Each crevasse seemed to hold some fascinating creature. We found huge lobsters and dinner plate-sized crabs. Every once in a while, we took a look out into the blue in hopes of catching a glimpse of “Mr. Big.”

This time we got lucky. Coming back up over the wall, something big caught my attention in the sand about 50 feet away. As I gyrated to get my wife’s attention, I was struck with amazement! Four huge bottlenose dolphins were playing around, rubbing their bellies on the sand and nosing about. We had experienced many encounters with dolphins from a boat or while snorkeling, but never had them stick around while on scuba! We went in hot pursuit and were able to stay with them for a minute or so, but they kept their distance. After the dive, we learned that the dolphins had also visited the couple doing their first open- water checkout dive right under the boat. What a way to start your diving career. They’ll be spoiled for life!

Being less than ten minutes away, we jetted back to shore between dives, pulling right up on the white sand beach. As the divers animatedly exchanged stories of the morning’s events, we quickly changed film in eager anticipation of our next dive.

With a “You should have been here last week” grin, Sea Eye Diving’s Cecil Ingham informed us that just three days before our arrival a whaleshark had made an appearance. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, it had stayed around the whole day, spending time with each of the three dive operators. We were sure jealous.

Armed with cameras and ready to roll, we headed out for our next dive to a site called Coral Gardens. Here we encountered an extremely verdant reef teeming with life. There was a nice mix of hard and soft corals and a friendly resident Nassau Grouper. It seemed as if every coral head we peeked under had a spotted moray guarding it. We craned our necks out toward the blue periodically in hopes that the whaleshark would make a return visit. No such luck, but we were fortunate to hear the faint singing of passing humpback whales on their annual migration to their mating grounds north of the Dominican Republic.

We’d made two dives, played with dolphins, heard whales, and it’s only lunchtime . . . ah, the beauty of Grand Turk diving! After a brief siesta, we grabbed a couple of rental bikes and headed off around the island. The light was perfect as we burned through our film. Our first day ended with dinner on the water, a green flash sunset, and a performance by Mitch Rolling, the “rock star that never was.” Playing guitar and singing every Wednesday and Sunday night at the Salt Raker Inn for the last 18 years, Mitch, the owner of Blue Water Divers, puts on a show that no trip to Grand Turk would be complete without.

stngryOver the next several days we do more of the same fantastic diving at sites called Amphitheater, Tunnels, Black Forest and Gorgonian Wall. One highlight was an afternoon trip to Gibbs Cay. This beautiful sand-ringed island just southeast of Grand Turk has turned into a mini version of Cayman’s Stingray City. Upon pulling up to the beach we were immediately met by a half dozen hungry Southern stingrays. Over the next several hours we hung out, feasted on a well-hosted beach barbecue, and interacted one on one with the big, hungry rays. They swam all around us, brushing their velvety wings against our legs. Several lemon sharks and a big barracuda also made an appearance in the waist-deep water. Eventually the rays got so full they couldn’t take any more (how we felt after the barbecue) and we piled into the boat for the 20 minute run back to Grand Turk.

Our journey continued to the tiny island of Salt Cay. It was definitely the shortest plane flight we’d ever had–the cab ride to the airport actually took longer than the flight! Landing just after sunrise, we were greeted at the airport by Nathan Smith, the venerable transport guru of Salt Cay. Operating his cab and a fleet of golf carts to rent to tourists, he definitely has the market sewn up.

scycanWith less than 70 full time residents and only half a dozen vehicles, Salt Cay is a blast from the past. When the salt raking industry “dried up” in the 1960s, time froze here. The rock-wall divided salt ponds still cover most of the center of the island with one of the windmills partially intact. With several guesthouses and small-scale accommodations, Salt Cay appeals to those wanting to get away from it all.

Once again, though, we came to dive. After depositing our stuff at Pirate’s Hideaway, a small bed and breakfast owned by a charismatic Brit named Candy Herwin, we head to the dive shop.

Our first dive was on a site called Powerhouse. As in Grand Turk, the dive sites are a short run from shore with walls starting in as little as 30 feet of water. After a quick boat ride, we tie up and drop in over the side. Immediately we encounter large schools of grunts and schoolmasters, a literal wall of yellow, hanging around under the boat. Angie finds a small nurse shark sleeping under a ledge. The wall is covered in healthy coral growth. With fewer than a 1,000 divers a year, Salt Cay diving is definitely in prime condition.

A huge orange elephant ear sponge on the wall catches my eye. While photographing it, I look up and notice one of the other divers swimming out into the blue in a hurry. Deciding the sponge would be there when we returned, we followed in hot pursuit. Just when we caught up, the diver turned around, shrugged, and swam back toward the reef. Whatever it was out there, we missed it and so did they. (It turns out our dive guide, Karl Tettenborn, had seen a humpback whale mother and calf cruise by.)

Although the seas were too rough for us to make a trip out to the H. M. S. Endymion, when the conditions are calmer, Salt Cay is perfectly positioned to dive this 18th century wreck with its 18 cannons and scattered anchors and chain. (Another nice thing about diving from Salt Cay is that you can also dive Grand Turk walls. It’s like two trips for the price of one!)

After a wonderful island tour that afternoon with Debbie Manos from Salt Cay Divers, we hike to the northwest point of the island and catch an awesome sunset from the cliffs overlooking the Columbus Passage. Our stay is far too short as we return to Providenciales for the last leg of our trip.

While Grand Turk and Salt Cay remain firmly rooted in the past, the 21st century has definitely gripped “Provo.” With rapid resort and real estate growth, the island has progressed remarkably in the last ten years. Every possible amenity is now available and choices are many. Yet, with the collaborative protective efforts of government and the operators, diving remains world-class.

We were fortunate to be able to dive all the “hot spots”–Grace Bay, Northwest Point, West Caicos and French Cay–during our time in Providenciales. Wall diving is the theme once again (except in Grace Bay) and the reefs plummet from 50 feet into oblivion. Luxuriant soft coral growth and hard coral coverage at French Cay greeted us on each of our dives there. At one site, called the G-Spot, we were visited throughout the dive by a patrolling Caribbean reef shark and a huge spotted eagle ray. West Caicos walls were covered in sponge growth and healthy plate corals. Before our dive at Magic Mushroom, a huge humpback whale made a surface appearance several hundred yards from the boat. Searching frantically on the dive, we never were lucky enough to meet up, but did hear his distant and mesmerizing song.

At Northwest Point, we dived one site called the Amphitheater. A large, undercut bowl out of the face of the wall was home to massive black coral trees and deep-water gorgonians. Dipping down over the edge, we encountered a beefy 4 1/2 foot-long barracuda, an elderly chap, with one of his bottom teeth growing straight up through his upper jaw!

In Grace Bay, directly in front of most of the resorts, we dropped in over spur and groove fingers of coral sloping down into the depths. At the Aquarium, non-stop schooling fish passed us by throughout the dive. Groups of horse-eye jacks, barracuda and Atlantic spadefish paraded back and forth. Under one coral head we encountered a pack of lobster stacked upon each other. Even though we were not on a wall, we knew at any time we might see “Mr. Big.”

Walking down the white sand beach lining Grace Bay after our last day of diving, we watched a storm on the horizon moving our way. The sun was setting behind us and an enormous rainbow appeared. Half a roll of film later, it was the perfect ending to a fantastic trip.
Our latest visit to the Turks & Caicos had been every bit as good as our first trip years ago. From Providenciales, all grown up and action-packed, to its siblings Grand Turk and Salt Cay, humble, laid back and quiet, one thing remains the same: the diving!

HUMPBACK WHALES:

From January to March, nearly the entire North Atlantic humpback whale population makes its annual migration to breeding and calving grounds north of the Dominican Republic. It just so happens that their route conveniently takes them right past the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Although most of the whales travel through the deep passage between Grand Turk and South Caicos, we came to learn later on our trip that a few whales like to pay a courtesy visit to Providenciales. We were fortunate to see one from the boat at West Caicos and shortly before our arrival several groups had swam with one at Northwest Point. It all goes to show the unpredictability of the Turks & Caicos Islands. World-class wall diving combined with potential big animal critters will ensure we return again and again.



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Photographer/videographer Gary James, owner/director of Provo Pictures (provopictures.com), originally shot this image for Wymara Resorts and Villas. It perfectly captures the natural “social distancing” available on the Turks & Caicos Islands’ beautiful—and uncrowded—beaches.

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