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December 2013

The Turks and Caicos Islands offer plenty of scuba diving opportunities

By Scuba diving

Through Brian E. Clark, Special to Journal Sentinel

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos – Sixty feet below the surface of the aquamarine Caribbean Sea off the Turks and Caicos Islands, my 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, glided gently along the coral with her arms folded in a calm, meditation-like meditation. ‘a buddha.

In the near distance to the left, where the sea has dropped hundreds of feet, a black tip reef shark has cruised ominously. Closer up, a curious parrotfish, shoal of yellow-striped growls, and an insect-eyed squirrelfish swam at arm’s length, perhaps hoping to receive a handout from our party of six divers and guide. .

Just below us, a hawksbill turtle gnawed at a piece of coral, oblivious to our presence. I moved to photograph her smooth head and she didn’t move an inch.

Not far from the turtle, the spikes of the pink sea anemones fluttered in the gentle current, and a bright orange tubular sponge seemed to spring from the surrounding coral.

Visibility was over 80 feet and we could see other divers from our Beaches Resort boat swimming nearby.

This was a far cry from a recent outing we had at Devil’s Lake in southern Wisconsin, about 30 miles from our home in Madison. There, “visibility” – as divers call it – in the murky freshwater lake was only 5 feet, if so.

It wasn’t until last summer that Maddie, a sixth-grade student, got her open water diving certification. While diving in the Great Lakes can offer excellent visibility – often well above 60 feet – and plenty of wrecks to explore, it cannot compare to the reefs and marine life in the pleasantly warm Caribbean.

Returning to the surface after her first saltwater dive, Maddie’s excitement was palpable.

“It’s good!” she said as my wife, Kathleen, and I helped her change tanks for the next run.

“I never thought I would see a shark right away. And this turtle was totally cool. Thank you so much for bringing me here,” she said.

Fifty minutes later, after munching on sandwiches and fruit and letting the dissolved nitrogen gas escape our bloodstream, we were ready for another attempt.

Maddie took a giant step into the water, followed by her mother, me and the rest of the crew.

We slowly fell to the bottom, swam through a coral tunnel, and came across a colorful lionfish. Known to scientists as the pterois and native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, this eerie creature has red, white, and black stripes, fan-shaped fins that resemble a lion’s mane, and – here’s the kicker – poisonous spiny fin rays.

We were told not to touch anything in the underwater reserve we were diving into, but for this soccer-sized fish, that was especially true. Its venom, which comes from a set of 18 needle-shaped dorsal fins, is painful and can cause breathing problems.

Fortunately, this is rarely fatal.

Unlike other endangered aquatic creatures, the lionfish is anything but endangered. In fact, they are troublemakers – an invasive species – in this part of the world, because they are fierce eaters without predators. This is why the locals were encouraged to capture them and eat them.

But with their poisonous thorns, it was a bit of a hard sell. Still, fish is a delicacy in Asia, and some restaurants here and in the Bahamas, just to the northwest, serve it.

Further on, we found a pair of brightly colored golden nudibranchs – a sort of marine snail – perched on an outstretched arm of fan coral. Nearby, a pair of lobsters crouched in a small cave, doing their best to avoid our attention.

Here we go. Over the next few days we saw more sharks, lots of four-eyed butterflyfish, blue tangs, starfish, box-shaped prickly jesters, beards, moray eels, and even pipefish. narrow.

Bryant Lum, a California ophthalmologist who dived with his two sons, said he was making his third visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands for their reefs and the abundance of marine life.

“We especially enjoyed the shelves,” he told me later. (Damn, we missed them.)

Family resort

Lum said he chose the Beaches Resort for its unlimited diving for himself and his sons, ages 12 and 15, and the other options for his wife and daughter, who did not dive.

Lum, who has dived along the west coast and across the Pacific, including Fiji and Tahiti, said the all-inclusive beaches appealed to his family because of its kids and teens programs, restaurants, aquatic park, with its many swimming pools and swimming pools. bars.

“We may be heading to the Australian Great Barrier Reef for our next dive trip, but the Turks and Caicos Beaches Resort is the one place our kids said they wanted to come back,” he said. .

The resort has worked well for my family too.

While Kathleen, Maddie and I went diving, Anders, our 11 year old, tended to the Kids Club with a friend he met from New York. They also took a “Bubbles” diving course, where they learned the basics of pool diving. And we also went snorkeling together, right by the beach.

Beaches also offers windsurfing, night scuba diving, ten kilometers of white sand beach, paddle boarding, trips to the outer islets, sailing and other activities.

Lots to explore

One day, I decided to break free from the all-inclusive cocoon. I hopped in a cab and headed a few miles to Leeward, where I met Big Blue sea kayaking guide Ben Zirin.

We paddled in shallow crystal clear waters between mangroves, where we caught a sleepy lemon shark that fled as we were almost overhead.

As we paddled warm, soft rain fell on our backs.

Zirin explained the difference between black mangrove and the dominant red mangrove plant, which sends roots above the waterline.

He also brought a conch shell, along with its inhabitant.

But the best find was a slimy mangrove jellyfish that he placed in my hand. Fortunately, it didn’t sting.

As we paddled towards a cul-de-sac in the mangrove swamps, a nurse shark pulled under our kayaks, heading for the open water.

Returning to Big Blue headquarters, Guide Services co-owner Mark Parrish said his company offers everything from mountain biking and kites to caving and eco-trips that explore 200-year-old plantations. years in remote sections of the islands, as well as scuba diving. outings on peripheral reefs.

Parrish, a trained marine scientist, said he came to the islands from his native England to work on a conch farm in 1997 and found a home.

“It’s a bit difficult to get from one island to another,” he said. “But that just means there is so much to discover here, especially if you want to learn more about the flora, fauna and geography of the islands, let alone explore and have fun.”

Nature intervenes

Back in Beaches, the onset of a big storm forced us to wait a day for one more dive before heading back to Wisconsin.

But the Caribbean was still angry. Even in the coral, 50 feet below the surface, the climb was steep. Worse, I felt like I was skiing in a whiteout because of the poor visibility.

I grabbed Maddie’s hand so she wouldn’t be taken to Cuba, and we kicked hard to stay with our group.

On the surface, once again, I told him that we would be back on the road later, when the sea is calm again.

IF YOU ARE GOING TO

For more information on diving and other activities in the Turks and Caicos Islands, visit the Turks and Caicos Islands Tourism Board website at turksandcaicostourism.com.

To learn more about the all-inclusive Beaches Resort, see beaches.com/destinations/turks-and-caicos.cfm.

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