Treasures on the Reef

The TCI’s dive sites are a cornucopia of opportunity.

By Kelly Currington

Bags packed . . . dive gear checked . . . underwater camera ready to go . . . and you’re off! No matter where your dive destination may be, there is undoubtedly a list of dive sites and locations for you to plan your best diving. But there is often much, much more to a dive site than any map can show you. 

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, our dive sites have so much to offer in topography and interesting creatures and features . . . it’s like having an underwater amusement park at our disposal! As a dive professional here since 2013, I’ve logged thousands of dives on these sites, and each one has its own personality and vibe.

I would love to tell you about my “favorite” dive site but as you will see, they are all my favorites for different reasons. When you spend time on these sites, you start to notice all the quirky and interesting characteristics that make them special and they all hold their own hidden riches. Let me take you on a treasure hunt . . .

Providenciales north

Divers love the area off French Cay for the large number of Caribbean reef sharks that call it home.

We’ll start on the north side of Providenciales where the backdrop is world-famous Grace Bay Beach. The sites along Grace Bay mostly share a common topography and layout. It’s the shallowness of the sites east of the break in the barrier reef that makes them different from other sites in the country. Here, Pinnacles, Cathedral, Piranha Cove and Coral Gables hold many surprises for divers. The sunlight streams through the water and bounces off the sugar-white sand reflecting like a disco ball in a night-club. The abundance of nutrients here contributes to the wealth of reef fish. One thing I love most about diving Provo’s north side are the hard-to-find I always find here.  But you must slow down and forget about all the big stuff in order to find them! 

The layout of these sites are spur and groove formations of sand chutes and coral ridges running from south to north—where a mini wall drops off to a mere 100 feet, which is shallow for the Turks & Caicos. I love milling around in the sand, trying to focus on each grain to see if it’s actually sand or a tiny creature impostering as sand. Anyone can see a shark cruising by or a turtle meandering along the reef, but to find something like a netted olive pushing a path below the surface of the sand is quite an accomplishment, or maybe you’ll see the tip of its whorl as it drills into the sand—either way it’s a special find on any dive. 

You might even see a magic carpet suddenly lift off the sand and glide towards the coral. What is this creature? Why, it’s a peacock flounder. It blends in so perfectly with the sand that only a sharp and attentive eye will see it before it moves. As it drifts from the sand to coral, the magic continues as stunning violet circles suddenly appear and the previous white carpet is now a beautiful tapestry of color.

Next, your eyes are drawn to a slit pore sea rod. Why? Because you know there’s another jewel that lives on these soft corals and is relatively rare in these waters. These little gems are small marine gastropod mollusks, and their mantle resembles a human fingerprint in deep yellow and black striations. The only crime these fingerprints are used for is stealing time while you admire them.

Providenciales northwest

Graceful sea turtles are another common sight across the waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Let’s head around to the northwest side of Providenciales where there’s a whole new landscape waiting to be explored. The reef is deeper here and the wall drops off to staggering depths. Eel Garden, The Dome and Amphitheatre, among others, hold opportunities for encounters with incredible marine life and will broaden your knowledge of the creatures that call this place home. Caribbean reef sharks are regulars here, making appearances nearly every dive, so you can spend your time looking for more inconspicuous critters without feeling like you’re missing the sharks!

One of the more comical creatures I have encountered here are banded clinging crabs, which live in the shelter of different types of sea anemones. They look like little dancing Ewoks! Fuzzy faces and a little side shuffle as they play hide-and-seek in the tentacles of their host will have you giggling, and probably flooding your mask. 

Another obscure resident found along this stretch of reef is the yellowhead jawfish, a bottom-dwelling, burrowing little fish that is so adorable you may think it isn’t real. As they float or hover above their burrows, they resemble tiny ghosts doing a not-so-synchronized dance—sort of a Casper chorus line. They appear to be all white, but if you take your time and approach slowly, you will see their heads are pale yellow and their eyes are blue. If you approach too quickly, they will vanish into their burrows in the blink of an eye. If you are lucky, you might see a male with a mouth full of eggs, and if you’re extra lucky, you will get to witness the male spitting those little babies out, aerating them and sucking them back in a split second—without losing a single egg!

As you comb over the terrain looking for movement and color, you may suddenly see something that resembles coral, but you feel it may be watching you. If you stay very still and be patient, that piece of coral will start to move and change shape, color and texture. It turns out to be a cheeky little octopus hiding from you in plain sight! It will keep its eyes on you as it reaches each tentacle into crevices in search of a snack. Seeing one of these intelligent invertebrates out during the day is a treat because they normally hunt at night. Along North West Point, they are seen regularly out during daylight; do you have a sharp enough eye to find them?

I couldn’t talk about this area without mentioning the best game of peek-a-boo ever! We have these adorable little eels called garden eels, because they look like a “garden of eels.” They are cute members of the conger eel family and like a mirage, the closer you get they start to vanish! It’s quite a challenge to slowly approach and see if you can get close enough to see their smiles. You always want to make sure you are not laying on the bottom and that your fins aren’t digging into the sand because you could be unknowingly causing damage to their burrows or other macro life.

Peacock flounders blend so perfectly with the sand that only a sharp and attentive eye will seem them before they move.

No visit to the northwest side would be complete without talking about The Dome. The remnants of an early 1990s game show have now transformed into an artificial reef. Although the structure itself is a huge draw for divers, it’s the marine life who use it as shelter that are the real attraction. This structure is quite a sight to behold, and the story behind it is almost too outlandish to be true (but it is), however, the remains have become a much more valuable part of the reef than its original purpose. 

This will be the best “Easter Egg” hunt you could go on. Hundreds of tiny creatures have made the frame of the dome their home, but can you find them? Secretary and spinyhead blennies use as homes the deserted tubeworm holes or the pores of sponges and they cover the entire structure. Freshly hatched fry fill the nooks and crannies of the frame, and bearded fireworms move around inconspicuously. 

In and around the main structure you will often see huge channel clinging crabs, green morays and juvenile hairy clinging crabs using the artificial tube sponge inside the main structure as a hiding place. They are usually accompanied by a spotted moray laying the length of the tubes. Don’t overlook the white sand fields and coral ridges surrounding this artificial reef; they are full of life and surprises! One of the little trinkets here are stareye hermit crabs shuffling across the sand. They are full of personality and their beautiful blue eyes will hypnotize you. They will duck inside their shells at first sight and then slowly peek those baby blues out and see if you are still there. When comfortable, they will carry on with sand sifting and scuttling and amuse you with their comical antics. 

Before you leave this structure, take a very slow and careful look on the frame for patches of purple. These beautiful iridescent patches are tiny sargent major eggs. They’ll be guarded by a male who’s normally white color will now be a bright violet as a warning to you. Keep your distance and watch him as he carefully fans his young to keep them clean and picks algae from them. They are tiny pearls of life . . . look but never touch.

West Caicos

West Caicos is currently an uninhabited island with a unique history and some of the most dramatic walls for diving in the Turks & Caicos. The great thing here is the diversity of site layouts, covering almost every type of preference. Starting at the north end of the island you have Elephant Ear Canyon, and you can dive all the way to the southernmost site at Spanish Anchor, covering a wide variety of topography.

In the massive sectors of white sand at northern sites, there is a wealth of macro life to be experienced by the eagle-eyed diver. One of the coolest visuals is dropping in, looking down and seeing the extensive maze of trails laid out by all the conch—called “conch highways.” The fun starts with trying to figure out which way they are traveling and following the path and finding the driver. Conchs are fascinating creatures who can entertain a diver for an entire dive.

Stareye hermit crabs shuffle across the sand carrying their house.

If you like smaller subjects to search for, one of the little trinkets you will find in the sand here during the Spring are flapping dingbats. (No, I’m not talking about your dive buddy.) They are tiny sea slugs with wings that wrap up around their bodies and if they are disturbed, those wings flap like crazy—all housed within a creature the size of a grain of rice! You will need perfect buoyancy, patience and a keen eye to find these jewels. 

Let’s not forget some inconspicuous fauna here. Just like we see animal shapes in clouds as they float past, there are some interesting images that appear in coral. For instance, there is a green sponge that looks like the face of a frog. Once you see it, the personality appears, and you may find yourself talking to this “frog”—it makes me giggle every time. There’s also a coral head that resembles an old, bent witch. She sits alone in the sand waiting for her next unsuspecting diver.

As you move further south along the reef, the topography changes from open sand flats to a more concentrated coral coverage with isolated rubbly areas. But fear not, these sites hold some serious gifts of their own. Horizontal swim-throughs, an entire network of hidey-holes for creatures and an old Spanish anchor are just some of the ingredients that make West Caicos a definite favorite among divers. 

There is one creature that is so rarely seen divers think he is an urban myth, but I assure you he is real. He is a broadbanded moray who has inhabited a specific coral head along West Caicos for a minimum of 14 years, but he is a master at hiding. We affectionately named him Benny and he’s an oddity for sure. If you are lucky, and he is feeling social, you will catch a glimpse of him peering out from his den, which he has shared with a ruby star and banded coral shrimp for the last 8 years; it’s a house party at Benny’s! Did you bring your invitation?

In the swim-throughs at Gullies and Spanish Anchor, you will initially think that the accomplishment of making it to the exit is the best part, but by now you know I have a different viewpoint on things. The thrill of swimming though a horizontal chute is no doubt fun, but what’s even more exciting is seeing it for more than just a formation to “get through.” Creatures that like to be hidden use these covered spaces as home. Eels, crabs and lobsters, who all hunt under the cover of night, hide here until the sunlight is replaced by moonlight. If you go slow and take time to look in, up and around, you will find life everywhere in this hidden realm. 

There is an old anchor embedded in the side of the swim-through at Spanish Anchor, giving the site its name. The amazing thing is that many divers swim right past and never see it. The effects of being in the sea for many years have transformed the anchor into a colorful ornament that blends so well it can be invisible. Can you find it?

Seahorses are a favorite of almost every diver. They easily move with the ebb and flow of the water.

There are two little residents here that are favorites of almost every diver: the seahorse and the shortnose batfish. Seahorses are skilled in resembling the flora they hold onto and moving with the ebb and flow of the water, making them extremely difficult to find. When this diamond of the sea is found, take care to admire, smile, giggle a little and make mental notes. If using a camera, please keep the flashes and lights to a bare minimum as they are extremely sensitive to light and will seek a new hiding place. The shortnose batfish is just as hard to find, but well worth the hunt. It blends in perfectly with the sea bottom and moves very slowly along the bottom. You may be a little confused at first sight of this strange hodgepodge of features, but nature has no cookie-cutter blueprint for life! This cutie has chicken wing legs, a flat head with protruding lips, a scrawny tail and always looks grumpy. It is not your classic beautifully colored reef fish, but it has much character, and if you discover one you will forget about looking for anything else.

French Cay

When all the stars align and the weather is permittable, you can make your way south to a tiny plot of land called French Cay. This bird sanctuary is the backdrop to breathtaking walls that drop off into the abyss. The most common reason divers love this area is the large number of Caribbean reef and nurse sharks that call this area home, which on its own is reason enough to dive here. The “big stuff” is easy to see and always a thrill, but there is so much more here if you take the time to look. 

There is a fish here who stands out against all the other colors of the landscape, its complexion so brilliant it will stop you in your tracks. When a coney is in its xanthic phase, it is such a bright saturated shade of yellow it appears gold. At closer inspection, you will see blue dots decorating the gold hue. Coneys’ expressions are priceless as they try to keep an eye on you while pretending to retreat, but they are actually moving towards you when you look away; they’re sneaky like that. 

Another creature I have only seen at French Cay is the cherubfish. This bright violet fish with a golden face is also called a pygmy angelfish and lives in holes and crevices in coral heads. Extremely shy and elusive, your patience will be challenged. They are so cute that once you catch a glimpse of one, you will crave another look—or two or three. I have spent an entire dive hovering in one spot waiting for one to come out and see me. Even if you don’t capture a photo or video of this gem, you leave with the memory of a very special encounter. 

I know I said the sharks are easy to see, because they will swim directly at you without a care in the world, but there is a very special shark here that has so much sass and personality that she’s worth finding. She is a juvenile nurse shark whom I’ve had the pleasure of watching grow from a two-foot pup into a juvenile who’s earned her spot on the reef among the big fish. She is easily identified by her dorsal fin—the top has been sheared off so it does not have a point, but rather a straight edge. It is surmised that this happened when she was very small, the cartilage was still soft, and she rammed herself under a coral ridge while hunting. At the time of this article, she is about four feet in length and a definite force to be reckoned with. She sleeps during the day and will tolerate some company as long as her space is not invaded. If you see her napping, please just admire her from a respectable distance, whisper, “Hello FinFin” and let her rest. She will have a busy night of hunting and wreaking havoc when the sun goes down!

Respect the ocean

You can look at a dive site map and find out the depth, direction and basic features of a site, and you should always pay attention to these maps. But also, always dive every site with an investigative eye, compassionate heart and a respect for the environment. 

Remember, it’s not how far you go on your dive, it’s the encounters you have along the way and the knowledge you gain that differentiate a good dive from an epic dive. Slow down, look around and you will find “gold” everywhere. The jewels and treasures that call these waters home are more valuable than any doubloon!

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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