A Tale of Whales (and Donkeys and Potcakes)

Day-tripping to Salt Cay is always an adventure.

Story & Photos By Ramona Settle

There is a tiny island in Turks & Caicos with the tag line, “The Land That Time Forgot.” Did I say tiny?  Only 3 square miles from tip to tip. Small in size, but filled to the brim with charm, personality and colorful characters . . . along with whales and donkeys and potcakes, too. I’m talking about Salt Cay, tucked away along the Columbus Passage, southwest of TCI’s capital of Grand Turk.

Humpback whale passing Salt Cay

In the early months of the year, Salt Cay is the “front porch” for passing humpback whales on their annual migration.

From the end of January through April, Northern Atlantic Humpback whales migrate along Salt Cay’s shores as they travel from their feeding grounds to their breeding grounds in the Silver Banks through the Columbus Passage. In fact, these waters had so many whales passing by that, for a short time in the late 1800s, they supported a thriving whale industry out of Whale House Bay. Combined with the salinas that provided salt to outposts around the world, Salt Cay was considered a very successful island. With advancements in fishing and awareness of the need for protection, the whale industry died off in the early 1900s. As late as the 1930s, before a combination of competition, costs, mismanagement and the lack of a deepwater harbor brought the salt industry to an end, as many as half a dozen sailing ships at a time would be anchored off Salt Cay awaiting cargo. With resources drying up to make a living, the population diminished ten-fold from 1,100 to just around 100 these days. And for awhile, Salt Cay was all but forgotten.

Now there’s a better reason to go see this island’s riches—whale watching. In January 2012, they were spotted every day. Salt Cay is witness to one of the biggest migrations for whales in the world.

For years I’ve heard stories of seeing whales so close you could touch them. Snorkelers would put on masks and swim with them. While, of course, this is not guaranteed, I still wanted to see whales up close and in nature. Unfortunately, I had never traveled to Turks & Caicos during whale season. Last March I finally had a quick four-day getaway to Providenciales planned and saw my chance. With my tight schedule, I could only day-trip from Provo. Was that too involved, would I see whales, was it worth it?

Fortunately, Caicos Express Airways offers return flights, three days/week, making it possible on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to hop over to Salt Cay for the day. (In 2012/13, they added a fourth trip back and forth on Saturdays from December 10 to April 28.) For the less traveled (or those who like help making adventure arrangements) Debbie Manos of Salt Cay Divers or Tim Dunn of Crystal Sea Adventures can help with arrangements; anything from tours to lunch to flights from Provo. Years ago I had gone with Tim from Grand Turk to swim with stingrays. Since he knows these waters well, I figured if Tim can’t find a whale, no one can.

I flew by myself, since my husband is a nervous flyer and there was no way I could get him in one of those small planes. It held nine other passengers doing the same thing I was, taking a day trip to whale watch. We flew low over the Caicos Islands and even got a bird’s eye view of the eerie Blue Hole. The flight, as reported to my husband later, was completely uneventful and totally scenic.

After we arrived at Salt Cay’s tiny, charming airport and were ferried to Deane’s Dock via golf cart (the preferred mode of transport here), we stepped aboard Crystal Sea Adventure’s comfortable 27′ ProKat. Whale watching came first. We spent about four hours combing the seas. In the first 1/2 hour we spotted our first whale! Then the whale did his whale “tricks” for us, which I learned were termed “breeching” (leaping out of the water), “spy-hopping” (rising and holding its head above the water) and “lob-tailing” (slapping its tail on the water). We were all giddy! Fifteen minutes later, we saw two more whales swimming together, their arches looking graceful out of the water. You could feel everyone’s excitement on the boat. We kept trolling, and, soon, three whales were so close, we put on our snorkel masks and jumped in. Unfortunately the whales were faster than we were, and I didn’t get to see them underwater. It became almost a contest, who would spot them first. I’m lucky to say that one was spotted by me. I was so proud of my moment.

We decided to stop in the waters surrounding Big Sand Cay, which, of course, lives up to its name. One side of the cay is cliffs and archways, the other side is a huge mound of sand. The water in front of this cay is mind boggling, the brightest turquoise water in God’s creation, it seemed. I learned that the cay has been the “emergency room” to many expecting humpback whales over the year. We swam around the boat for a bit, then it was time to head back to Salt Cay.

Salt Cay Divers

Salt Cay Divers and the Coral Reef Bar & Grill flank Salt Cay’s western shore and the Columbus Passage, through which the whales pass.

Lunch was ready for us at the Coral Reef Bar and Grill. It’s a colorful deck on the sand, and the combination of excitement and scenery made lunch even more delicious! We all sat together sharing our tales of who spotted the most whales (of course Tim did!) and agreed that no one had ever seen prettier water than that surrounding Big Sand Cay.

After lunch, there was still time to explore tiny Salt Cay. Most had rented bikes to get around, some walked, I decided to get a golf cart. (Am I too lazy? Had I already had too much adventure? Or is it just fun?)

My first stop was stunning North Beach. This beach lines three miles of coastline with views of Grand Turk. The water here is just as turquoise and stunning as that around Big Sand Cay. Gazing across the water towards Grand Turk I could see a gigantic cruise ship parked at the dock. I thought it quite ironic that here I was, such a short distance way, with the prettiest beach in Turks & Caicos all to myself.

I continued on to explore a cemetery of pirates. They had created tombstones out of big rocks. Funny how these once-dreaded men all seem so short to us now.

I also stopped by Island Thyme Bistro, home to Salt Cay’s most colorful characters and lively entertainment, to say hello to its proprietors, Porter and his wife Haidee. They had just built a rooftop lounge with views of the salt ponds. I promised to stay longer in Salt Cay next time to eat one of their delicious dinners. Haidee uses the organic sea salt formed naturally on Salt Cay to make bath salts, culinary salts and cooking salts, which are sold from her gift shop as mementos of a visit to Salt Cay.

Salt Cay's White House

The White House is an iconic symbol of Salt Cay. Built in 1835 by salt baron Alexander Harriot, it stands sentinel over the now abandoned salinas.

I walked down Victoria Street; you can’t really get lost here. I ran into some of my new whale watching friends. They had convinced Tim, who is a third-generation Salt Cay resident, to give us a tour of the White House, owned by his family. It was built in 1835 by the Harriotts, wealthy salt proprietors, in classic Bermudan style with upper living quarters and salt storage underneath. Some of the original furniture has been preserved, with the most interesting piece being the original medicine cabinet from a ship with bottles still in it.

After the tour, while taking care not to hit roaming donkeys (other ancestors of the salt industry), I took a quick golf cart ride through the small streets and salt flats. I stopped to say hello to another friend, Candy Herwin, who runs Pirate’s Hideaway guesthouse. I drove to view the Government House (a.k.a. Old Commissioner’s House and Government Guest House). The house and surrounding property is currently owned through a 99-year lease by the Turks & Caicos National Trust which has taken on the restoration of this extraordinary national asset as one of their ongoing projects. (See www.saltcaypreservation.org.) Although it was in poor shape after Hurricane Ike in 2008, I’m happy to say that restoration is well underway.

Life on Salt Cay

Each picturesque snapshot of life on charming Salt Cay brings a yearning for more time to spend exploring.

I was curious to see all the homes were lined with walls containing conch shells embedded at the top. Tropical décor? Actually, meant to keep the roaming donkeys (ancestors of donkeys who pulled wooden carts loaded with salt from the salinas to the docks) from tearing up the yards. I also noticed a plethora of potcakes roaming the streets. What’s that? “Potcake” is the moniker for an island dog of mixed breeding, deriving its name from eating the “cake” (dried grits or rice) left in the bottom of the pot.

Before I knew it, it was time to return to civilization. Again I had to climb up on the wing to get inside the airplane. In 30 minutes I was back in bustling Providenciales; seemingly a world away. I already missed Salt Cay’s Bermudan architecture; its sleepy, quiet and colorful lifestyle; whales, donkeys and the occasional cow; friends for life—my next stop to tiny Salt Cay will be for longer. Today’s journey will never be forgotten.

In her quest for the world’s best beach, Ramona Settle settled on Provo for a retirement home. Her passion for bright turquoise water led to writing for Fodor’s travel guides, and selling photos to Fodor’s, Alamy.com, and numerous magazines.

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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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