What a Dive!

toc-uwBy Suzanne Gerber
Photos by Barbara Shively

Grand Turk is one of the last great “undiscovered” dive gems of the Caribbean. And the 8,000 or so annual visitors would like to keep it that way.

It’s a sleepy little island, ringed by the famously gorgeous turquoise waters of the Turks & Caicos chain. The architecture is handsome Bermudan Colonial, though some of the buildings are crying out for a facelift. Neoprene-clad divers parade along the main drag, Duke Street, occasionally trailed by a free-range local horse or two. From the distance you hear the braying of donkeys and cackling of roosters, and bougainvillea blows through the street like tropical tumbleweed.

Grand Turk is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, and their dogs follow you home. Though just 7 miles long by 1.5 miles across (at its widest), it was the first island in the chain to be settled by Europeans and has claimed the governmental seat for the past 400 years

Legend has it that Grand Turk’s first tourist was a certain Italian fellow named Christopher Columbus (who logged a reference to the “bean-shaped island”), but today’s visitors are mostly North Americans brandishing scuba C-cards. They come to dive the calm, clear waters and explore the pristine reefs, but they stay for the relaxed and friendly vibe that’s becoming harder to find in the Caribbean than a five-foot Nassau grouper.

During a typical week-long stay, you will dive a majority of the sites, eat at practically every restaurant, meet the notable locals and half that week’s divers — and hear local rock icon/divemaster Mitch Rolling and his band High Tide perform at least once, if not a few times. If you take a tour of the island on foot or bike or by scooter or car, you will easily see all the sights and do pretty much everything there is to do.

If this were almost any other island, you could scratch the name off your destination list, turn to your dive buddy and say, “Been there, done that, on to something new.” But with Grand Turk, you’re more likely to have the opposite reaction: Been there, did it all, how quickly can we get back?

Most of the people we met during our visit were GT veterans, and each had his own version of the same story: “Came on a lark three (or six, or ten) years ago, and have been back every year since.” Or: “We went to some other places but after Grand Turk we’re always disappointed, so we just save ourselves the frustration and come back here.” There were a few other rookies, but by the end of the week, every last one of us was scheming to return as soon as possible.

Dive right in

It’s mostly divers who frequent this quaint island, but if you’re a nondiver whose idea of a culture-packed vacation is reading a book at the beach, petting a donkey and maybe seeing an artifact or two, you’ll have nearly as much fun. But when divers hit on the right combination of excellent diving, siren-song beaches, laid-back lifestyle, friendly locals, quality cuisine and a proliferation of cold beer and hot weather, they tend to talk in language not unlike that of a religious zealot. Hence the apotheosis of Grand Turk as a shallow-diving mecca, and nothing short of heaven for underwater photographers.

mother-natures-aquariumGrand Turk is for divers who like long, easy dives and whose computers don’t lock up after 99 minutes of bottom time. (I did say long.) The three dive shops on the island follow essentially the same routine. No need to rush breakfast: no one’s going out before 9 AM — which in reality is closer to 9:30 and can even be, as we once experienced, as late as 11.

Most of the divers here are pretty competent, but even so, divemasters don’t just throw you in the water and leave you to your own devices. (Unless you insist on it, of course.) Once the DMs have checked you out, you’re welcome to dive your own profile. My dives averaged 70 minutes, and I never came up with less than 750 psi. This is the easiest yet most exciting you’re likely to do anywhere.

The DMs are there to serve, so if you’re on the lookout for something special, normally all it takes is one request to score you that photo, or at least a log page full of exclamation marks. Looking for frogfish? Batfish? Flying gurnards? Maybe a newborn, still- yellow spotted drummer the size of a cat whisker? Seen any quill-fin blennies lately? How about a trunkfish so tiny it looks like a pair of dice had a baby? Yeah, whatever: on Grand Turk, that’s just another ho-hum day of diving.

turtle-and-diverThe diving takes place off of Grand Turk’s western (leeward) shore, along a fantastic wall that runs parallel to the island. There are some two dozen marked sights and, if you ask real nice, you might get taken to one not on the map. A typical dive starts out by following the wall at 60 to 90 feet. You’re welcome to drop down deeper, but the joint’s not exactly jumping much below 60 feet. I went below the 90-foot mark only twice, and for me to stay shallow and be happy is saying something.

My dive buddy observed that the Grand Turk wall is the only place where you turn around at 45 minutes. It’s true. Gradually you make your way up to the top of the wall, in the 20 to 30-foot range, and this is where things get really cool. It reminded me of my first train ride through the Swiss Alps: 360 degrees of scenery so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, I didn’t know which way to look.

The variety and health of the hard and soft coral is heartening. With increasing frequency, we cringe to find whole reef systems in the Caribbean dying or being bleached out. Yet Grand Turk seems to have been smiled on by Providence. (There’s that religious talk again.) Competing for your attention with every fin kick are glorious brain, pillar, branching, lace, staghorn and colorful plate corals; social feather dusters; elephant ear sponges; lilting gorgonians and so much more. Do linger and peek: tiny hamlets, gobies, blennies and harlequin bass inhabit these mounds — and an Argus-eyed diver may be rewarded with an inch-long pygmy scrawled filefish camouflaged in a gorgonian.

Another ho-hum day of diving

At the top of the wall, marine life proliferates. Shall we name names? Trunkfish, cowfish, filefish and parrotfish galore. Squirrel- and cardinalfish stare bug-eyed from inside every other ledge. Trumpetfish, clever hunters that they are, change color before your eyes to blend in with the scenery. Mitch Rolling, who has an eye for tiny, rare critters, pointed out a pike-throated blenny, about an inch and a quarter long, that I could have spent the entire dive watching. Refocus your eyes and take in floating battalions of yellowtail snapper, grouper sized S to XL, shy rock beauties, brazen eels, horse-eye and blue jacks that school up and swarm you. Barracuda aren’t lone rangers here; for some reason, you tend to spot them in foursomes. Angelfish, triggerfish, puffers galore, squid in squadron, rays in rows, hawksbills one after another — it’s almost military in its precision.

grouper-and-diverWe did most of our diving with Oasis Divers. DMs Macky and Ty went to great lengths to honor all critter requests. One place that left a lasting impression was Coral Garden. This site, about dead-center of the island, is home to three Nassau groupers who deserve a reality-TV show all their own. Alexander (the big, friendly fella), Pretty Boy (with bites on his nose) and Actor (the baby) come right up to you and, like agreeable children, allow you to hug them, pose with them for photos and, if you’re so inclined, kiss them.

Fish Pond (one of the sites not on the map) is aptly named. We liked this spot so much, we went back the next day. You can’t actually get a headcount, but my logbook makes reference to “gazillions of obviously happy, colorful reef fish and particularly huge schools of Creole wrasse, tang and jacks.” A juvenile indigo hamlet held a tableau long enough for me to get a postcard-like shot. And a French angelfish got so close I couldn’t even shoot it. Nurse sharks and hawksbill turtles swam by, seemingly unaware of our presence. A four-and-a-half-foot green moray was out hunting with his buddy, a grouper, while two cowfish turned luminous silver-blue as they circled each other in a warp-speed mating dance.

The next day, we spied a large porcupine fish with doe eyes, an elusive scorpionfish and five turtles, including one grass-munching youngster who seemed to actually like the camera. We joked that Grand Turk must have the cleanest fish, as we saw cleaning stations around every corner.

I think most dive destinations have a site called Aquarium or Amphitheater, and for some reason, they never fail to impress. At Grand Turk’s Aquarium, we found a rare quill-fin blenny, which struck me as the offspring of a lizardfish and a golden eel with a tall dorsal fin.

It’s impossible to pit one site against another — like trying to pick a favorite child from among your brood — but under threat of not being allowed back, I would have to go with The Pits. This 100-minute-plus dive was like a fish identification course unto itself. Smitty, of Sea Eye Diving, has made this a claim to fame. The dive runs along the old South End pier, but its days as a viable site are numbered. With a big pier being built to accommodate the cruise ships that will be coming in on a near-daily basis in 2005, this one will go the way of free airline food. In water never deeper than 20 feet, you will see — if you’re observant and persistent — everything from octopi and batfish to 50-pound bags of rice and men’s underwear. Because it’s a nonsaturation dive, it makes for a perfect last dive of a trip.

queen-triggerfishOn my Pits dive, I started out by somehow missing 13 squid — and the dozen divers staring right at them. But I had a good excuse: I was busy trying to photograph a 3/4-inch sharp-nosed puffer and a 1/2-inch pygmy scrawled filefish in the grass. Next photo op: an octopus coiled inside a conch shell. Just as the last shutter stopped, Barbara Shively, whose stunning photographs accompany this story, treated us to an extraordinary sight. A tiny, unfamiliar fish had swum into her camera housing and was showing no interest in leaving. (It wasn’t until she got home that this veteran underwater photographer was able to identify it as a blackfin cardinalfish. So it wasn’t Nemo after all!)

As the dive continued, we saw peacock flounder, a very photogenic seahorse, a four-inch slip of a balloonfish, soapfish playing dead, lizardfish, rays, not one but two batfish, and a flying gurnard who clearly was an exhibitionist. It was a dive none of us are likely to soon forget.

Apres-dive ain’t too shabby either

Unless you’re a hermit, by your third day on Grand Turk, you’re sure to have made some friends. The residents live up to their super-friendly reputation. Georgia native Dale Barker has run Oasis Divers with her husband Everette Freites, a local, since 1996 and is a font of information about island life. (She’s such a good instructor that she recently taught the governor to dive.) Mitch Rolling is the unofficial ambassador of Grand Turk. As a divemaster, he’s got a keen eye, and in his other life, as a rock ‘n’ roll star of Turks & Caicos, he gets to show off his great voice. Erika Faller, a Swiss-trained hotelier, runs the Salt Raker Inn, a 150-year-old hotel with Old-World charm. She landed here after her friend Lisa Wandres bought and renovated the charming three- bedroom apartment she calls Sea Breeze and was lonely for company from home.

On any given afternoon, any combination of locals might be sharing a cold one at any one of their establishments, and guests are always welcome to pull up a stool and join them. There are only half a dozen places to sleep, and about the same number of places to eat, so you tend to run into the same people, often several times a day.

Your diving done and stomach full, you either hit the beach, where the water’s a fairly consistent 80 degrees, and continue off-gassing, or you can be ambitious and tour the island. It doesn’t take long, but there are actually many sights of interest. The capital, Cockburn Town, is a cluster of Colonial-style buildings. The town may feel almost deserted, but behind the peeling facades of these 200-year-old structures, a brisk off-shore finance business is being run. On your stroll, be sure to visit the Turks & Caicos National Museum, home to old pottery, tools and, most notably, artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck, the oldest-known European shipwreck.

At the north end of the island stands the stately lighthouse. Built in England in 1852 and reconstructed on-island, it’s still in use today. In the last century, salt production was the main industry on Grand Turk, and the evidence is still visible. Abandoned salt ponds (or salinas) occupy much of the island’s interior. Left untended, they have become oases for wildlife, particularly birds. West of the inlet of North Creek you can find pink flamingoes, blue herons, white egrets and osprey.

At Grand Turk’s south end, where the cruise ships will dock, are a number of historic sites, including the Governor’s House (Waterloo) and Governor’s Beach. This gorgeous strand is a great place to take in a sunset. Colonel Murray’s Hill offers great island vistas. You’d never guess it was once home to the space tracking station that monitored astronaut John Glenn’s heart rate during the first orbit of Earth, back in 1962.

If you need a more Club Med kind of experience, you can go horseback riding on the beach, windsurfing, or kayaking in the mangroves along South Creek. But these are such rare sights that people actually put down their beers and zoom in with their cameras to get a better look.

One worthy activity is whale-watching between January and March, when the humpbacks make their annual migration around the island to their breeding grounds further east. Dive operators run trips in the winter, and in good weather year-round, they offer day trips to nearby Gibbs Cay, where you can snorkel and barbecue, and to uninhabited Cotton Cay, to see the wild goats and swim in natural pools along the coral shoreline.

New York-based writer Suzanne Gerber hasn’t had a bad day of diving since first taking the plunge in 1999. You can book your trip to Grand Turk through her at www.worldofdiving.com.

Photographer Barbara Shively became fascinated with the underwater world from her first sight of a stoplight parrotfish in Tobago in the late 1960s. She graduated to scuba in 1988, with her interest in underwater photography becoming a passion to share the beauty of the sea with her family and friends. She currently uses a 20mm wide-angle Sea and Sea lens for her Nikonos SB 105 camera, typically burning through a minimum of one roll of film per dive. She fell in love with Grand Turk in 1997 and has returned one or two times a year ever since.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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