Biting is OK, but nails only, says Mark Ellen...

THE LOW DRONE OF A TWIN-PROPELLER AIRCRAFT hauling its heavy frame over the Bahamas. Below us the endless archipelago, a mosaic of tiny islands in pools of turquoise fringed with a surf-stained reef. Beyond it, the dark ocean drops to a distant seabed.
You look at their names on the map - Crooked Island, Ragged Island, Rum Cay, Deadmans Cay - and wonder whatever happened to those stubbly buccaneers who used to patrol them. And it doesnt take long to discover that they now run dive centres.
An old school bus painted with sharks and sting rays is soon bumping its way down a white dust road on the south coast of Providenciales, the largest of the Turks & Caicos Islands. We rumble past the palm trees, splash through pools of warm rainwater, and arrive at a pontoon where todays sun-scorched Pirates Of The Caribbean are loading up the boat.
Dive instructors the world over seem to have a certain look - orange skin, earrings, back-to-front baseball cap and shades, bandana, speedos with girls in bikinis on them - and Scott and Christian of Dive Provo have it in spades. And you know that patter they all deliver, the cool and breezy briefing up you get before you all tip in These boys knock it out by the metre.
All right, guys, welcome to Dive Provo. Before we toss you back in, heres where were headed. Were dropping down 45ft to the Driveway - stretch of sand big enough to park three Volvos side by side. Head out along the Driveway and youll come to the wall.
Remember we are guests here - no touching or fondling of our fellow sea creatures. But if you see a lobster, make sure you eat the whole thing.
Youve got your turtles, youve got your rays, youve got some nurse sharks and big old reef sharks down there. Saw a baby tiger the other day in 10m vis. Dont know who was more surprised.
Read its markings like a barcode as it drifted past, a barcode that read: Warning, bloody great tiger shark, leave immediately!
I want to see 500psi when you surface, people - thats 500 each, not for the whole group. And if anyone blocks the toilet, Ill be using your snorkel to clear it, which might make your second dive slightly less enjoyable. Alrighty guys, the pools open, so lets get wet!
And what a pool it is. Ive got 82 dives under my weightbelt - the Caymans, Turkey, Australia, Channel Isles, Croatia - but this trip put them all in the shade.
Turks & Caicos is a little different from Nassau (more later) but theyre both spectacular in their own extraordinary ways. There are 45 dive sites off the Turks islands, and Dive Provo proudly avoids orchestrated animal encounters. Most are in marine parks where fishing is banned and the dropping of even a slice of orange peel overboard is considered - quite rightly - an act of desecration.
Dolphins shoot across our bow off the 12-mile Grace Bay, turtles bob in our wake, and the fish population is high but its not being manipulated. When you see a 2m reef shark twitching its way towards you, its unmistakably a wild animal and youre the intruder.
The main selling-point for Dive Provo are the wall dives. Pinnacle Reef, Piranha Bay, Eel Garden and Shark Hotel all offer the chance to drift off the coral-coated plateau and sink into the void.
Below the boat is a cloud of sergeant-majorfish. Tap your mask with a fingernail and they mob you like youre David Beckham. A riot of colour awaits on the great plains beneath, corals and sponges of every shape and size - barrels, valves, fans and tubes, corals like broken machinery, sponges like bouquets of snapped pipes ribboned with weed like abandoned knitting.
There are the blue-green Venus sea fans, bright pink-capped pinnacles like a forest of mushrooms, sponges with lilac veins like sprouting broccoli.
Purple and green parrotfish float past with their strange up-flapping fins and eyes like huge swivelling buttons. Holes under ledges hide nurse sharks, morays and spiny lobsters. At one point a 4ft barracuda drifts so close you can see its needle-sharp teeth and its mournful jutting lower lip, like a sulky teenager.
But its the smaller species that never let you down. Its hard to beat the sight of a spotted pufferfish mooching among the coral-heads, or tiny yellow-headed jawfish shrinking back into their burrows. Or the queen triggerfish - known around here as old ladyfish, because their blue-and-yellow eye patterns look like over-applied mascara.
At one point Christian pulls an arrowcrab from a crack in the rock, a cross between a daddy long-legs and a painted shrimp.
And I never get tired of the shoals of fairy basslet, little slivers of purple and yellow, a violent explosion of colour.
Mercifully none of the rare stuff appears on the menus when youre back on the surface (not always the case: in Croatia divers moan about the absence of barracuda yet its routinely dish of the day).
Provo is small - just bigger than Guernsey - but expanding and fast becoming fashionable (Keith Richards and Bruce Willis have houses on Parrot Cay; Demi Moore enrolled at Dive Provo once but never made the final exam because of a hangover).
The island still has the romantic charm of the old Caribbean. Aqua Restaurant on the wooden decking above Dive Provo is exactly how I imagined Ian Flemings Goldeneye, the house where he wrote several of his Bond novels.
A soft wind rustles through the palms, rattling the masts of the big game boats as you tuck into the blackened grouper, grilled mahi-mahi, coconut-crusted conch and spicy shrimp chowder.
Theres a conch farm nearby, so the giant snails are ever available - hence our post-lunch sun-bathing motto: Creamed up, conched out!

NASSAU IS A DIFFERENT KETTLE OF PARROTFISH, a perfect contrast, as we had three days in each place. Turks feels remote and self-contained and still has room to evolve, but practically every square inch of Nassau has a hurricane-proof house on it (they dont build here, they pour).
Its not far off the coast of Florida but the pace is still deliciously Bahamian. The coffee shop on the high street is called the Daily Grind, and nobody ever seems to get out of second gear.
There has been a touch of Hollywood about Stuart Coves Dive Centre from its beginning. Chosen as the location for the Flipper movie in 94, the film crew built a pontoon of wooden huts that the centre then converted into equipment stores, water-sports rental, cafes and
a high-tech video and photo boutique for screening the DVDs and stills they take of your trip below the surface. There are more than 30 sites and nine dive-boats.
The diving, too, plays hard on the theatrical. Steel Forest has three shipwrecks artfully sunk in close proximity. James Bond features the fake Vulcan bomber used in Thunderball, its canvas coating long since eaten by the tide, and its metal ribcage a thicket of coral and sponges.
Theres a cargo boat with quivering eels between the rusting plates of its superstructure and a walkway in the side of its cabin: you can swim a half-circle between its weed-clogged hand-rails beneath the trapped quicksilver ceiling of your exhaled air.
Nari Nari has the tangled remains of the Cessna aircraft used in Jaws 4. You cant imagine the power of the 120mph hurricane that rearranged these wrecks 30m below the surface five years ago.
The highlights come thick and fast.
A series of subaqua squeaks from my buddy on Runway Wall tells me that Ive just missed a sting ray, a vast pentagon of skin and cartilage shuffled beneath the sediment so effectively it has lumps of broken coral on its fins.
All thats visible are its eyes and the thin trickles of sand-filled water filtering through its gills. Its like a steam engine idling gently in neutral and, sure enough, it leaps a foot off the seabed and bolts out of view.
Late one night I run into Ned and Anna DeLoach at a party on a liveaboard off Paradise Island - a major scoop for DIVER, Im saying, as theyre the authors of every fish reference book on our boat.
The 31m Aquacat had just returned from the Exumas, where their 20-strong, five-tank-a-day survey group managed to log - and mostly photograph - 222 species of fish in 5.5 days. Theyre a wonderful bunch, the worlds crack squad of major-league fish-spotters.
We used to call ourselves fish nerds, Anna told me, but weve now hit on fishyonados! We all take underwater logs with us and tick off anything we see - trumpetfish, honeycomb cowfish, puddingwives, saucereye porgies - and then file it all in our database back on deck. The rarest this week was a line sole, which looks like a tiny brown leaf on the bottom.
There are fantastic stories of their end-of-survey party. First they ran a negative-descent current dive, flying over the coral for more than two miles at three knots, trailing a marker buoy for the following boat.
Weak and injured fish get swept up in the stream and platoons of predators arrive for the plunder.
Second, they slung in a frozen ball of fish guts on a rope - a chumsicle - and sat back and watched. Anyone can have a bite - black grouper, big reef sharks, its a three-ring circus!
But then we had a little circus of our own. The last days shark dive is one I wont forget. Our leader, Barry, is a Nassau native and claims he is the only one onboard whos safe: They dont like chocolate, he shrugs.
Marc the shark-wrangler and Gemma the photographer fasten chain-mail armour head-to-toe over their wetsuits and we drop 10m and take up positions kneeling around a purpose-built stone circle, our hands pressed tightly into our armpits.
The show has begun even before the food arrives. A 1.2m, 140kg goliath grouper trolls past me, rolling its mournful eyes like a spaniel.
My snorkel is suddenly rammed into my neck and my mask seal broken as a vast, silent, rubbery 2.5m grey reef shark drifts over my head. Another floats past my face and Im relieved to see that it has no teeth - until I remember that theyre retractable, like tigers claws, and come out only when it strikes.
Seeing sharks this close radically changes your feelings about the big game boats. Some of their wounds are mating scars, but others betray the massive disadvantage of living outside
a marine park. One six-footer has a badly rusted hook in its mouth, another a fresh one trailing 5m of orange trace, another a thick circular gash round its gills like a bicycle tyre, where it must have fought its way out of some netting.
God, theyre close, centimetres away: you can see right into the thin black irises of their vicious, cat-like eyes.
You wonder why they dont attack - Do wetsuits taste funny My aftershave - but their narrow minds are solely tuned to the fish-heads being speared out of the cage in the centre of the circle.
You can imagine dolphins, in human form, winning accolades for ballet or translating ancient texts into Chinese.
Sharks, you suspect, would be slack-jawed Millwall supporters chewing cheeseburgers and collecting ASBOs.
More than 40 of these big bastards roll up for the feast, twisting, shaking and mutilating the bait, stirring up the sediment and leaving the odd tooth in the sand (we found several, one of which had clearly found its way through the armoured gloves of our shark-feeder, who was dripping blood when he surfaced. Just a nip, he grinned.
Eight stitches is a shark-bite. Any less doesnt count.)

ALL IN ONE PIECE This is Barry, back on the boat. The shows over, hope you enjoyed it. If you leave anything on the boat, check eBay at 6am, where itll be half the price. Watch the missing step on the way up. If you miss the step, watch your language. Thanks for coming out, were here all week!
Theres a downside, of course, to these orchestrated attractions: no-one can work out if they affect the balance of the environment. There is more chance of seeing sharks in Nassau than in TCI, but Turks has the higher populations of all the other species.
Nassaus collection of wrecks provides a safe haven for the shoals but if you attract an above-average population of big fish-eaters to a small area, you wonder what else they consume between free meals, especially when the party keeps snowballing as they go tell a friend. Whatever, Stuart Coves is now funding a tagging programme to help monitor the sharks behaviour.
This was the best weeks diving Ive had. Both destinations are very low-pressure, stress-free and with no great challenges. The deepest I went all week was 36m, and two dives never dipped below 20m. The water is so warm, I even did a couple without a wetsuit, and its crystal clear and magically blue, with rarely much of a current.
The big fish may make the headlines when youre putting away the piña coladas at night, but anyone with an eye for the detail - sensational coral, tiny marine life, and the dizzying thrill of a vertical wall - will find themselves absorbed, tank after tank. As the man said: The pools open, lets get wet!

at the shark feed with Stuart Cove in the Bahamas.
Divernet Divernet
The Thunderball Vulcan bomber has seen better days.
Cargo boat wreck.
This Cessna aircraft originally appeared in Jaws 4.


GETTING THERE: Mark Ellen flew from London Heathrow to Nassau with British Airways ( The connecting 80-minute flights from Nassau to Provo are from Sky King ( or Bahamasair (
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION TCI: Dive Provo Dive Centre ( offers packages including lodging. Mark recommends the Sibonne Hotel and its restaurant ( and also Point Grace restaurant (www. Bahamas: Stuart Coves ( runs a package with Orange Hill, which he describes as a delightful small dive-friendly beachside hotel with a pool and brilliant home cooking (
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Water temperature is 22-27C.
MONEY: US dollar, or linked Bahamian dollar..
PRICES: Dive Provo offers a three-day dive package for US $290, or $490 with lodging, per person for three nights. The Sibonne has standard courtyard rooms from $145 plus taxes per night. Stuart Coves offers four-tank all-day excursions for $150. Flights to Nassau from London start at around 430, and to Provo 480.
FURTHER INFORMATION TCI: 020 8350 1017, www.turksand Bahamas: 01483 448900, Ned & Anna DeLoachs Reef Environmental Education Foundation is at