Diving in Turks and Caicos

Missing altogether from many maps and lost in the necklace of the Bahamian island chain on others, the Turks and Caicos Islands are overshadowed as a dive destination by the Bahamas to the north and the Caymans to the west beyond Cuba. The relative obscurity, along with an aggressive ecosystem protection plan, gives real credence to overused words like unspoiled and pristine, which can be easily applied to the diving here in this, one of the last sandy bits of the crumbled British empire. The 49 islands of the Turks and Caicos lie on the same limestone plateau as the Bahamas. Only nine of the islands are inhabited; the rest are a mix of solidified sandbars and rocks covered with scrub-and-mangrove forests. The and of the name connects two distinct island groups, the larger Caicos Islands to the west and the tiny Turks to the east, separated by the 7,000-foot-deep Turks Island Passage.

What really makes these remote islands 575 miles southeast of Miami a highlight reel of Caribbean diving are the local inhabitants: sea turtles paddling along reef tops, eagle rays gliding in the blue beside steep coral walls, migrating humpback whales filling the entire water column with their soulful songs, and even a neighborly dolphin.

The center of tourism is Providenciales, better known as "Provo." Residents pronounce the island's nickname pravo, while everyone else rhymes it with mojo. There are 300 miles of beach in this chain, and the 12 miles of powdery white sand lining Provo's Grace Bay have been named one of the world's top beaches. The ocean lapping at the shore is so clear that it reflects blue when lighted by only a pale moon. A short walk away from the resorts that line the bay is prime stargazing territory.

Provo's Protected Waters

Grace Bay dive sites begin with large, high-profile spurs of coral separated by sandy grooves. The broad lines of reef converge at 30 feet to form a solid wall that drops abruptly to 80 feet. Caribbean reef sharks patrol at a distance off the wall, while scores of grouper hold the high ground. Green and hawksbill turtle sightings are common on daytime dives, while night divers find huge schools of bar jacks surrounding the dive boats.

Grace Bay lies within the protective arm of Princess Alexandria National Park — just one of more than 30 nature reserves on the islands — where fishing and collecting are prohibited. The protection has allowed food fish such as grouper and lobster to inhabit the reefs in numbers not normally seen around a Caribbean island. Turks and Caicos dive operators also discourage divers from feeding fish to prevent the swarms of yellowtails and sergeant majors that infest other destinations as a diver-nibbling hassle. The ban also allows divers to see fish exhibiting more natural behavior.

No mention of Grace Bay's resident animals is complete without Provo's mascot, JoJo. This male Atlantic bottlenose dolphin prefers, for some unfathomable reason, the company of humans to his own kind. Pamphlets and posters around the island tell his story and list the rules of protocol for anyone encountering him in the water. The rules protect the dolphin as well as the swimmers and divers. Many visitors and residents have had fascinating and enjoyable encounters with JoJo, a rare opportunity to see a wild bottlenose up close. The operative word for JoJo, however, is wild, and local divemasters remind you not to touch him, especially around the eyes and blowhole, not to let him lead you away from the beach, and to make sure you hang on to your bathing suit.

Continued In: Diving in Turks and Caicos - Part 2

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