Bouncing over the waves on the open sea near Grand Turk Island, the bow of the small powerboat caught one wave flush and dumped it on my head. This may not seem like the opening salvo of a happily memorable excursion, but it was.
In Diving the Grand Turk I mentioned we did our dives in the morning, the afternoons were free. In There Be Whales we spent one of those afternoons hanging out with Humpbacks, a Mother and her calf. The goal this day was a small island east of Grand Turk called Gibb’s Cay.
While it’s fun to just cruise around in a boat on a nice day when the skies are blue and the water is bluer, Gibb’s Cay had something extra to offer.
A nice beach? Yes, it had one of those. But we already had a nice beach back at the resort, no need to go out of our way for another one.
A nice snack on said beach? Yes, we enjoyed that too – more about that soon. But that’s not what gave the Cay its watery cadence.
What put the Ooh into the Cay were the stingrays. Pancakes with tails. Wet blankets, swimming around, undulating through the water. Stingrays frequented the shallow waters off the beach, where they’d trained the tourists to feed them.
This is why we bounced over the waves, hanging onto hats in the breeze, wiping away splashes of saltwater from sunglasses and stinging eyes; then after pounding into another wave doing it again. We did it for a chance to snorkel with stingrays.
But before we got to the Cay, we stopped out in the middle of the ocean, seemingly at random. The water here was a lighter shade of blue than the deep navy blue we’d been transiting; it was closer to turquoise. Still, we were a good half mile from the nearest land. The Captain suggested this would be a good place for free diving.
Um, no. This isn’t what I signed up for. Didn’t even know it was on the agenda. But the Captain had his own reasons. It was one of his crew that was to walk the plank, for us swimming was optional.
This was not retribution for mutiny, what the Captain wanted was conch (pronounced “conk”) for our snack. And in this spot, 20 feet down on the ocean floor, conch there be. So overboard the crewman went, free diving, scouring the ocean floor, and more often than not coming up with a big queen conch shell in hand.
Did I mention our captain was named Captain Meat?
Nicknames were common for the islanders. I’m not certain of how the Captain came up with his, I’d assume it was from a history of fishing and gathering conch. Whatever the case, Captain Meat had had enough success to have his own boat and Captain’s license, and enough interest in the young people of the island to teach them the ways of the ocean. Our free diver had been with him for several months, but his second crew was a newbie. At this point, the newbie was learning to drive a boat.
Once crewman #1 picked up four or five conches we headed over to Gibb’s Cay to meet up with the stingrays. However, when we got there another group was there – we had to wait for them to leave. Meanwhile, we learned how to get the meat out of a conch shell.
The tools of the trade? A rock hammer and a butter knife.
They use the hammer to whack a hole in the shell, on the backside from the opening, towards the top.
There they slide the knife in, severing the foot from its foothold. Then the innards slid out easily.
The section in the middle was what we were interested in. The rest was food for stingrays.
I understand the rest is eatable, but is a tough chew and needs a pounding to soften. In our case, the Captain took two or three of the “steaks” and diced them up, adding them to a marinade to make a ceviche. While the acids in the ceviche were “cooking” the meat, it was our turn to hang out with the stingrays.
I almost forgot to mention a conch part not seen in these pictures. It’s called the pistol, and looks like a strand of transparent long spaghetti. Captain Meat tells us it’s well known in the Caribbean as an aphrodisiac. You eat it raw, when you’re getting the meat from the conch. The Captain slurped down a couple, so I had to try one too.
It’s a bit slimy, with an al dente texture and a slightly salty taste. Not bad, actually. The other tourists in our group (my wife and a couple ladies from New York) were squeamish about the idea and didn’t try it.
On to the stingrays. I started off simply wading in, to get a picture from above. The sand was stirred up, it was tough to get a clear shot. Setting the camera aside, I grabbed a mask and snorkel and got closer.
It was still murky. In part from others wading around, and in part from a challenge the captain gave to the newbie: pick up a stingray.
I’m not 100% sure this is a real thing. I’ve heard tales that suggest it is, and Captain Meat said he’s done it. But it could be a snipe hunt.
In any case, the newbie was game, and he spent much of our time at the beach trying to pick up a stingray.
He never did succeed.
And while the stingrays would come near enough that I could touch them, I never got close enough for anything more than fingertips on wings edge. Perhaps they were spooked, from this kid trying to pick them up.
Stingrays, by the way, have soft skin.
After a half hour or so of snorkeling, it was time to try the ceviche. And its chaser.
Every Caribbean dive resort I’ve been to has always had the same welcome drink – a rum punch. They vary in quality and size. This time around, the quality was good and the size was potent. Even one had us feeling a buzz.
When the captain broke out the ceviche, he also broke out a gallon jug, full of the resort’s rum punch.
Just for we four tourists. For the math challenged, that’s a quart of potent punch each.
Do my eyes have a glazed look? I had to protect my wife from overdoing it, she’s petite. 😉
The ceviche was excellent. Lime forward, it looked to have onions and bell peppers as ingredients, and likely a more potent pepper to provide spiciness. Conch, if you haven’t tasted it (I hadn’t), tastes somewhat like squid.
We snacked on ceviche, slurped on rum punch, and hung out on the beach on a beautiful 80-degree day. At one point we climbed a hill that formed the high point of the island and took in the view of the other side.
But all good things must end, and after 3-4 hours it was time to head back. The wind was behind us this time so splashing waves were not such a pain – or maybe we just weren’t feeling any pain. And back at the resort, we finished the jug.
So by day’s end, we were feeling the glow. The glow of a beautiful day, out on the water, out on the beach. The glow from hanging out with stingrays and trying a delicious new food. The glow from sharing drinks and conversation with new friends.
And the glow of the sun going down, giving a warm goodbye to A Grand Day Out.