The Incredible Reefs of the Turks and Caicos!
The Turks and Caicos have two features that define local diving: the third largest barrier reef in the world, and excellent sheer walls.
The Turks and Caicos is situated on an expansive underwater plateau that rises 7000 feet (2100 m) from the ocean floor, with most of the islands being located directly on the north edge of this plateau. The transitions from the 40-50 foot (12-15 m) flat sandy ocean bottoms near land to the vertical walls of the plateau vary, and make for countless interesting dive sites. The north edges of the plateau tend to have distinctive spur and groove formations and the west and south edges offer impressive wall diving sites. Sand chutes, canyons, and cracks are found at many sites and make for excellent swim-throughs
The reefs around the country support large numbers of Caribbean reef fish and small sea creatures, and vibrant corals and sponges abound as well.
Most of the sharks sighted around the islands are Caribbean reef sharks or lemon sharks, yet hammerheads, nurse sharks, and bull sharks are sometimes sighted. Southern brown stingrays and spotted eagle rays are common as well.
An entire spectrum of reef fish can be found in the Turks and Caicos. Stoplight parrotfish are one of the most common species, and largely account for our incredible beaches. There are French, gray and queen angelfish, snappers and groupers of many types, queen triggerfish, black durgons, filefish, damselfish, trumpetfish, blue tangs, wrasse, jacks, and butterflyfish, just to name a few types.
There’s also a menagerie of unusual and smaller creatures, which can often be seen if you look carefully. In crevices and hidden under overhangs are eels, banded coral shrimp, spiny lobsters, slipper lobsters, channel clinging crabs, mollusks, anemones, fascinating worms, urchins, and starfish. For the best diving experience, take your time and look around!
Humpback Whales migrate past the Turks and Caicos during the winter months of January, February, March, and April. Salt Cay tends to be the best for whale watching, but they can also be seen in the deeper water off the other main islands.
Nearly all popular dive sites in the country are located in protected nature reserves and national parks.
How the Diving Varies Across the Turks and Caicos
The dive companies, facilities and underwater sights vary according to the island. Before deciding on which of our islands to vacation on, there are several factors to consider.
All-inclusive dive and accommodation packages are available on every main island. Unlimited shore dives are often included with such deals on Grand Turk and Salt Cay.
The Reefs and Wildlife
First and foremost is what you’ll see underwater. Marine life is vibrant throughout the Turks and Caicos, yet topography differs a bit.
The eastern Turks and Caicos reefs near Grand Turk and Salt Cay support a high density and variety of fish and sea creatures, yet the underwater terrain and coral reef features of the Caicos Islands tend to be more impressive.
The majestic and sheer wall sites of the western Caicos Banks are only accessed from Providenciales and in our opinion are the finest sites in the country.
The Boat Trip Out
Grand Turk and Salt Cay feature great sites that are often only minutes from shore. Consequently, smaller open vessels are often the choice.
Providenciales is within access of a tremendous range of dive sites, yet some of the better locations, such as French Cay, West Caicos and Northwest Point, may be as much as an hour’s boat ride out. Due to the longer amount of time spent on the water, large dive boats are the common boats and usually have some dry cabin space and restrooms.
The Social Atmosphere
The vast majority of tourism to Grand Turk is by cruise ship, which results in a drastic change in island activity depending on whether a ship is in port. During the day you’ll see visitors and tour activities across the island, yet at night the experience becomes much quieter.
The tiny island of Salt Cay only sees a dozen or two guests at any one time, so groups are close-knit, and you’ll likely see the same guests and people every day at one of the few restaurants or stores.
Providenciales sees nearly all overnight stays in the Turks and Caicos, much of which is in luxury accommodations. The island exhibits much more of a tourism atmosphere associated with other popular destinations.
If you’re considering the other activities and attractions available, the situation’s quite simple. Providenciales offers much of the water sports, dining, golf, and spa options, and Grand Turk and Salt Cay have little more than exquisite coastlines and some lightweight historical sights (which may be a good thing!).
Shore and Beach Diving
The Turks and Caicos generally doesn’t excel at shore diving. Grand Turk offers the best conditions, with some acceptable sites fronting a few of the dive shops at Cockburn Town Beach and Pillory Beach. The hotels and resorts of Providenciales are too far from the viable dive sites for shore diving.
South Caicos features one resort that offers diving packages. Several interesting sites are found near South Caicos, including a Convair CV-440 airplane wreck and quite a few sites with fascinating reef architecture, including deep crevasses in the barrier reef and small coral caves and grottoes.
The School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies is located on South Caicos and students regularly dive during their study and research.
Other than whales and to a lesser degree the larger sharks, all of the common sea animals can be seen year-round. Generally, late summer tends to have the calmest weather and greatest visibility, but this period is also the hurricane season and a big storm can obviously cause major disruptions! Water temperature is generally consistent, reaching a low of about 75° F (24° C) in late January and a high of about 86° F (30° C) in July and August.
Night diving is an amazing change from daytime diving. Because the longer wavelengths (reds and oranges) of light are filtered out before the shorter wavelengths (blues) in the water, everything appears increasingly blue as you descend during unilluminated daytime diving. During a night dive, what you see is lit up by your dive light and because the light travels only the distance from the light to the subject and back to your eyes, the longer wave colors are still vivid. You’ll see everything as it more naturally appears, with brighter warmer colors.
The enhanced colors are only part of the benefits. Many fascinating sea creatures only commonly come out at night, including prawns, marine worms, and lobsters. Sometimes it seems that the reef is busier at night than during the day!
Several local dive companies offer night dives, but these dives are not regularly scheduled and have to be reserved in advance.
Dive Resorts and Accommodations
The Turks and Caicos offers several dive-oriented accommodations and all-inclusive resorts with dive-centric packages. On Providenciales, the country’s largest all-inclusive resorts, Beaches Resort and Club Med Turkoise, have vacation stays that include unlimited diving trips. These resorts also include a great range of other activities and amenities as well.
The Turks and Caicos has one liveaboard dive operator, the TCI Aggressor II, a 120-foot ship with accommodations for 18 passengers. The TCI Aggressor II departs from Providenciales and visits many sites along the northwest coasts of Providenciales and West Caicos, and the remote south banks near French Cay.
A liveaboard is a great choice for enthusiasts and dive photographers. You’ll be able to get to many of the remote and exquisite Caicos Banks dive sites, and you’ll be among peers which will likely develop your skills.
Learning to Dive
It may sound like a cliché, but diving truly opens up an entirely new underwater world. You’ll experience the unique act of breathing underwater and you’ll be able to see an endless stream of fascinating life below the surface.
If you actively swim or snorkel, scuba diving probably won’t be difficult for you to learn. Obtaining a basic scuba diving certification is generally rather easy, but it’s important to understand the risks and dangers involved.
Training and PADI Certification Course
You will need to have completed a certification course and be in possession of your certification card before you are permitted to dive. The foremost certification agency is PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors).
We recommend that most begin with the PADI Open Water Diver course. Open water means there are no overhead obstructions (such as diving in caves or a wreck), and you can surface at any time. The open water course normally has 2 in-pool/classroom days and 1-2 days of certifying dives in the ocean (or other body of water). Depending on the intensity of the course, these may be shortened by a day, but expect to spend 3 or 4 full days getting certified.
A common approach to getting scuba diving is to do the PADI eLearning course online, which costs $190 and takes about 8 hours of study. You take the online test and when you pass, you will need to complete the theory (classroom) portion of your training. You can usually book the pool training at a local scuba club or dive center, and take the in-pool dives locally. Finally, they give you a referral and you do your final, in the water, qualifying dives whilst on holiday, such as in the Turks and Caicos Islands. This way you don’t spend any of your vacation time in a classroom or pool, and, whilst still part of your training, your first dive you get to start ‘real’ diving. You’ll then be certified to dive to 18 meters (60 feet).
Local Dive Companies and Lessons
There are several 5-star PADI Dive Resorts in the country and a few independent instructors.
Most local dive companies offer basic PADI Open Water Diver certification and Nitrox, and some of the larger businesses also teach more advanced courses as well.
There are two other common dive courses available, the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course and the PADI Scuba Diver course.
The Discover Scuba Diving (also known as a DSD or “resort” course) is basically an introductory course, where you learn about the equipment and dive in a pool or very shallow water. This takes about half a day, and you probably won’t see much at all. The only real point to take this is to get an idea of what scuba could be like.
The PADI Scuba Diver course is similar to the full PADI Open Water Diver course discussed above, but it only covers about 70% of the topics, and you will only be permitted to dive with a PADI Divemaster to depths of 12 meters (40 feet). This means you can complete the course in a shorter amount of time. The Open Water Diver course allows you to dive with just your dive buddy, at depths up to 18 meters (60 feet).
We generally don’t recommend either of these two courses. If you’re interested in diving, you should plan and take PADI Open Water Diver course. These two courses are simply the ‘lite’ version of being a real diver, but you still put in most of the work (and most of the expense).
You can learn more about these courses, and sign-up for eLearning, at the PADI website.
You must be in good average health and reasonably fit (but you don’t need to be an athlete) to dive. You shouldn’t fly for at least 12 hours (24 hours is better) after diving.
Decompression Sickness (DCS), one of two types of Decompression Illness (DCI) occurs because of increased levels of nitrogen absorption into your body. This is why you can only be underwater for a limited time (depending on your depth), and then must return for a ‘surface interval’. Nitrogen narcosis (the bends) is caused by bubbles forming in your tissues.
There is a decompression chamber on Providenciales should you encounter DCI.