Diving the Grand Turk

I hang suspended, hovering, 30 feet high.  Although the temperature is warm, in the 80s, the ground looks as if it’s covered in snow.

Descending to the sea floor, we find a sandy bottom.   You’ve heard of white sand beaches?  Ever wonder what happens to those beaches when they go underwater? They’re still white. But do they look the same?

Light loses its warmer colors as you go deeper, and algae or silt can change colors.  In the Pacific Northwest, when we get an algae bloom the sea turns emerald.

But in the land of the Grand Turk, the waters are nearly clear and the ocean is blue, in all its brilliant shades. In the shallows, the sand picks up a slight turquoise tint.

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So who is this Grand Turk, and where does he hang his hat?

It’s not a guy, it’s a place, and it’s nowhere near Turkey.  In fact, it’s in the Caribbean Sea.  Part of the Turks and Caicos, the island of Grand Turk sits east of Cuba and north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

They didn’t name it for a sultan, or a large bird that gains fame around Thanksgiving, or the leader of a rebellious young gang with political leanings.  Grand Turk is named after a local cactus that wears a fez.

We were in Grand Turk for a week, with 6 days of diving.  Normally we did two dives in the morning, leaving the rest of the day free. There were variations, but ultimately I did ten morning dives and one night dive.

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Whenever they happened, they all followed the same pattern.  Motor from the resort, following the shallows 1000 yards offshore to a drop off – a wall, a place where the bottom could hit 7000 feet.  From there we’d head north or south to various dive sites. We’d drop in, in 30-35 feet of water, and once everyone was at the bottom we’d head to the wall.

Speaking of the bottom, where did we leave off?

Ah yes, floating in a column of clear warm water, just above a white sandy bottom, 30 feet deep.  A light blue tinge infuses the view as you look off into the distance over the sand, but warmer colors are more defined close up. Garden eels poke their heads out of the sand, waving in a liquid breeze that only they feel.  Stingrays patrolled the underwater beach. Here and there, reefs mushroom from the sea bottom, providing homes for various corals, which in turn provide lodging for various small fish.

But this was just a starting point. The wall was the goal.  In places the entry was spectacular.

Following our white carpet, we’d approach the wall. Along the edge were fringing reefs, sometimes with gaps framing the open ocean.  Looking off into the void within those gaps, that slight tinge of blue in the water became deep blue; intense, going from an electric azure to pure blue to cobalt blue, providing a stunning offset against the white sea bottom. We’d swim through the gap, drop over the side and head further down.

Once on the wall the white sand was gone, reducing the reflected light.  But because of the clarity of the water light remained ample, even as we descended to 80-100 feet.

The wall was steep, a 70-80 degree angle heading down. Even with the good visibility, the light eventually petered out below us, hiding unknown depths.

What we’d find on the wall would vary from site to site. Corals and sponge, some of significant size.  In some places the coral looked great, in others not so much.  There were fish here and there, but no vast schools.   The occasional shark would swim by, cruising along in the blue, sometimes more than one.  If we were lucky, we’d see a sea turtle, a tank of the underwater world, nibbling away at this and that.

While we’d start the wall at 80-100 feet deep, we’d gradually work our way up, and once our tanks hit the halfway empty mark we’d head back to shallower waters.  We’d then meander back to the boat, lounging on our underwater beach and getting in a swim at the same time.  Because air lasts much longer in 30 feet of water than in 80, we’d have plenty left in the tank when we got back.  I was getting 50-60 minute dives, and could have stayed longer if the dive master had allowed it.

Then we’d head back to resort, sometimes for an interval before the next dive, sometimes for lunch.   Afternoons were ours.  (But that’s another story.)

Evenings would be a time to break out the camera, to capture sunsets.

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Sometimes we’d have company.

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But they would enjoy it in their own ways.

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The resort had a sailboat.  I meant to try it, but afternoons were often breezy or taken up with other things, and I haven’t sailed a catamaran style boat- only more conventional sloops.

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Maybe, if there’s a next time…

One night, I did indulge in “next time” – a night dive. It’s been years since I’ve gone on one. They’re a whole different trip.

We headed out for the wall as the sun was going down.

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After arriving on site, we geared up and I got a more in-depth briefing.  The dive guide and I entered at twilight.

The underwater world looks different at night, when everything is pitch black except what your flashlight shows.  It’s spooky, but cool at the same time.

Different creatures roam the reef after dark.   It wasn’t long before we found an octopus, the only one I’d seen that trip.  Later, an eel swimming free rather than hunkered down in a hole, and later still, another one.  Lobster sightings were more common.  And on the tail end of the dive, heading back to the boat, I encountered a cuttlefish with an attitude.

Cuttlefish are strange looking critters.  Similar to a squid, they have an oblong body with a nest full of tentacles on the end, and an eyeball you might expect on a space alien.

This one, when I came upon it, rather than making itself scarce in the black waters, faced me down.  About 15 inches long, body facing towards me, tentacles reared up behind it and facing me as well, it looked like Medusa on a bad hair day.  We ogled each other for a minute as I kept him on the edge of my light beam, but once I shifted it off, ZOOM! He was gone like a shot.

But that may not have been the most memorable part of the dive.

Swimming along the wall, in the dark, the senses are focused, attuned to different things. The feel of the water seemed almost warmer.  Colors seemed brighter.  And somehow, way off in the distance, I heard something special.

Sometimes shrieks, sometimes croons, sometimes a sub-harmonic bass you could almost feel more than hear.  There be whale song – the soul of the ocean.

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50 thoughts on “Diving the Grand Turk

  1. Great post, Dave! Sounds like an awesome vacation. You describe everything so vividly and wonderfully. I’ve never been an “ocean person”, but this makes me almost want to tank up and take the plunge.

    I probably never will though. But your great post is the next best thing!

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  2. A beautiful post, Dave. I have never dived underwater for a variety of reasons. My husband and daughters love this experience. It is interesting how the colour of the water can change a great deal. Until now, I have not thought about the beaches underwater.

    The sunset photos are stunning! Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Diving isn’t for everyone. My wife would never do it, she gets nervous snorkeling.

      Frankly, sandy bottoms are usually boring. But since this one had coral reefs and outstanding visibility it really stood out.

      Glad you enjoyed the sunsets. I’m not doing underwater photography anymore (never replaced the u/w film camera), so I figured I needed something to add to the mood.

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  3. Looks like a heavenly place, at least above the water! Will you be showing us any of the photos from underwater? Since I will not do much beyond snorkeling, I’d love to see what you saw down deeper.

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    1. I actually find diving easier than snorkeling, in some ways. The air supply is more reliable (as long as you pay attention to your gauges) – you’re less likely to get a breath full of water. Of course, there are other considerations…

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  4. It sounds like you had quite a few great dives around the Grand Turk, like your daily routine on your trip there. Beautiful sunset shots, and it must be lovely to get to roam around out of the water too. The nighttime dive sounded spontaneous, and lovely to hear you got a glimpse of cuttlefish 🙂

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  5. Oh wow, to hear a whale song, what magic. Soul of the sea indeed. The Caribbean is quite a change from Scotland. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been down that way. And a very long time since I’ve been diving. Last experience in New Caledonia was pretty scary. But I did just go snorkeling in Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Unbelievable. Everyone on that trip said it was the best they’ve ever experienced…and we’d all been around the oceans.

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    1. We heard whale song on several dives, usually it was quite faint. It was slightly louder on the night dive. Still, it was pretty cool, I’d never encountered that before in 30 years of diving. I’ve heard good things about diving in Indonesia, although strangely enough much of it is oriented around “muck diving”, i.e. diving on sandy/muddy bottoms to see the strange life that inhabits that environment.

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    1. Compared to the tentacles on a giant pacific octopus, his were pretty small. But I’d just as soon not have an up close and personal inspection.

      I’m not sure I want to hear what the whales have to say. Probably something like, “what are those surface morons up to now?”

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    1. Thanks, Otto. The beach and the waters were beautiful. Once we got out of the resort the dream isn’t as dreamy. Poverty is an issue, and the landscapes don’t measure up to the seascapes. If you want night life one of the other islands might be a better choice. But the people seem nice, and we enjoyed our stay.

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  6. Thanks for taking us with you to Grand Turk, Dave. I enjoyed your descriptions of the day and night dives, the underwater light, sights, and sounds. Great that you got to see eels and turtles, cuttlefish and especially an octopus. Wonderful to hear a whale song, too.

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    1. I assume you say that because of the night dive, or the depths. I suppose it’s something you work up to, after several hundred dives it’s not so intimidating anymore. You, on the other hand, are raising a teenager…

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  7. Who needs photos when you have these descriptions, Dave? I’m not a good swimmer and, with regards to scuba diving, I’ve got the deep-rooted mistrust that is a byproduct of not living near the sea… but I envy those who don’t have my same mind constraints.

    I loved the part on octopuses and cuttlefishes. I’ve just finished reading “Other Minds”, by Peter Godfrey-Smith, and I now adore them!

    Hearing that bass-thumping must’ve been incredible.

    Fabrizio

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    1. Actually, I’m not a very good swimmer either. For me an idea dive is one where I don’t have to work very hard. I think my Grand Turk dive guide felt that way too; it seemed like he was barely moving, just putzing along, and that’s just the way I like it.

      Diving here in the Northwest, looking for octopus and wolf eels in their dens is one of my main motivations. Octo’s aren’t scary, they’re cool and otherworldly.

      The bass wasn’t really thumping, it was more a barely discernable low tone. Sometimes I wondered if it was my imagination I heard it, or seemed to feel it.

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  8. Wonderful post, Dave. My husband is a diver and we’ve often spoken about a vacation to Grand Turk. From your descriptions and photos, I’m sure we would both enjoy a visit there. I’m like your wife in that I also get nervous snorkeling; maybe because I’m not a good swimmer. I’m fine on boats though, with a life jacket. The sunsets there are glorious. 🙂

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    1. I’m sure your husband would enjoy the diving. There’s not much for night life on Grand Turk, and I think a lot of the shopping is oriented around the cruise ships that drop in – if you’re into that sort of thing. There are a couple excursions to be had (especially at the right time of year), but other than that it’s a hang out and relax sort of place for non-divers.
      BTW, there’s no law against snorkeling with a life jacket. 😉

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  9. Lovely post Dave. You reminded me of an experience in the early 1970s going out with my guide [who decades later set a Guinness record diving at age 90]. We were alone, and he took me across what seemed like a barren stretch of white sand to find a bit of coral the size of a tea cup. Inside was a small colorful fish. When we were back on board, he said he wanted me to see it in order to remind me that even when there were no big fish or corals, I should keep my eyes out for the tiniest of nature’s wonders.

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    1. And those guides are very good at finding those tiny little creatures that we mortals barely notice, even if we’re looking for them. I had a similar experience in the Philippines, out on a sandy bottom, looking for sea horses. The guide must have found a dozen, me, two. One of my first posts tells the story.

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  10. There are so many places that I haven’t heard about. 🙂 I wonder if we’d ever make it to even a quarter of what we read on the internet. The last few shots are my favourite. I could just sit there and dream. Diving sounds like fun. Although, I doubt I’d be any good.

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  11. I long to sail and snorkel is this land of blues (the good kind). I’ve never snorkeled after twilight (and I don’t yet dive) so it is with great interest that I read of your night dive. Sounds like a great trip. Sorry to hear you weren’t;t able to take the CAT out for a spin! Next time

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    1. I suppose we really should have tried the CAT that Sunday we walked into town and discovered they’d rolled up the sidewalks and surrendered it to the ghosts. (The people returned a few days later.) But we were still pretty jet lagged and short on sleep – not quite ready to figure out a new boat.

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  12. Pingback: Getting Close – Plying Through Life

  13. Lovely photos and great story!

    I haven’t been diving for a good 12 years but never did a night dive, should get back into diving but I do enjoy the ease of just jumping off the boat and snorkelling.

    We sailed from the US to Cuba then down the Windward Passage to Haiti and onwards, so missed Turks and Caicos completely – what a shame.

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