Black
Black coral - it comes in a variety of attractive shades.. Photo - John Bantin

PEOPLE GET CONFUSED ABOUT BLACK CORAL. The first I ever saw was a small tree on a dive in Tunisia below 40m, and it was white, which certainly confused me.
In fact black coral comes not only in white but in a range of bright orange, red, green, brown and yellow shades, and only occasionally in black.
The black coral I saw recently at the site called Black Forest off the island of Grand Turk was green - though under a dive light, it looks red!
The black in the name in fact refers to the colour of Antipatharias uniquely spiky skeleton. There are 150 species of Antipatharia, and they can develop as anything from a single coil of coral to a fan or a densely entwined bush.
More familiar shallow-water corals carry the symbiotic algae or zooxanthellae that love sunlight, but because Antipatharia doesnt host these tenants, it couldnt care less about light.
Thats why it is found at depth, in caves and, at Black Forest, under a dramatic overhang on the plunging reef wall. Black corals are classified as endangered species, and whatever colour they may be, they invariably look better under water than draped round someones wrist or neck.
Our guide at Black Forest, Mitch Rolling, had told us to look out for the green/red/black coral. Mitch is a cherubic American dive master, the sort of guy who sees no particular reason to delegate when he can handle pretty much everything himself.
He fills the tanks, drives the 4x4, loads and steers the boat, checks everyones kit, dispenses fast-talking briefings interwoven with home-spun eco-homilies, guides the dive, doles out the refreshments, raises the anchor, takes us home and then starts all over again.
Mitch says he has done more than 10,000 dives, and many must have followed this energetic pattern over his 28 years on Grand Turk.
Its personal service all the way with his PADI Gold Palm 5* centre Blue Water Divers, the sort you remember.
Though in fact Mitch isnt exactly a one-man band, because he has three boats and the assistance of Monica Bouteillier, a Canadian who acts as Blue Water Divers activity co-ordinator.
Mitch often sings to himself under water, and on those evenings when they have barbecues at the Osprey Beach Hotel, a few steps up the road from the dive centre, he entertains visiting divers with his guitar, a strong voice and a surprisingly wide folk-rock repertoire. Shout a request, and theres a good chance that he can play it.
On the occasion we caught his act, he was accompanied by a man called Zeus playing a ripsaw. Its a haunting sound, though to be honest a little musical sawing goes a fair way for me.

MITCH LED GRAND TURKS resident band, High Tide, but another player, a diving instructor called Tyro Talbot, had died shortly before our visit in a freediving accident.
The tragic loss of the 26-year-old had clearly hit the bands leader hard.
Heading out to a dive site one day, Mitch launched into what was clearly a pet theory: Do you realise how many rock stars died aged 27 Jimi Hendrix was 27 when he died, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin was 27, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain... Mitch may be the rock star on Grand Turk, but when he himself hit 28, you imagine, it was with a wry acknowledgement that he had missed the big-time boat.
Six-mile-square Grand Turk, despite the imposing name, is anything but big-time. True, it houses Cockburn Town, capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands, but its a capital with a small c. When two cars pass each other on Front Street, its probably rush hour.
Cannon mark what the island claims as the first landfall of Columbus in 1492. The Portuguese captain seems to have made quite a few first landfalls in the West Indies, and historians place Grand Turks claim about fifth in line behind various islands in the Bahamas, which lie not far to the north.
In terms of diving, Grand Turk is all about healthy coral bursting from walls a few hundred metres from endless white-sand beaches, in generally good visibility of 20-30m.
Mitch can choose from 25 sites in the 1280-acre Columbus Landfall Marine National Park, which runs the length of the west coast. A typical dive starts on a 10m seabed and tips you over the drop-off that extends down to 2000m - the Grand Turk Passage.

OUR FIRST DIVE, at a site called the Amphitheatre, followed this pattern, with the wall reached through a dramatic V-shaped cleft.
I had read a guide to the site that held out the prospect of schools of tropical fish, sting rays, nurse sharks, sharks, whales, mantas, eagle rays and dolphins. Unfortunately, none of these large species had read the guide (certainly whales wouldnt be there in June), and though we had been excited by a pod of dolphins leaping around the boat on arrival, they didnt stop to play.
The fish were solitary here rather than schooling - parrotfish, grouper, sea bream and trumpetfish.
However, what we did find at the Amphitheatre were a succession of hawksbill turtles chomping on sponges, and they were the sort of self-possessed turtles that take being photographed in their stride, treating our presence with calculated indifference. There were also some beautiful soft corals, particularly purple sea fans.
Other sites such as the Aquarium follow the spur-and-groove design. This is the northernmost of the chain Mitch visits. I was trying out a borrowed red-tinted colour-corrective mask and it was an unfamiliar and slightly weird sensation to head west along a sandy groove at more than 20m and appear to be seeing my surroundings in a crude approximation of normal colour.
We moved up onto the first spur, where the corals were lush and the fish more plentiful than they had been at the Amphitheatre.
The mask was rendering snapper, big-eyes, parrotfish and crabs in natural colours that quickly became the new norm, though it could not dig any colour out of an extravagantly sized great barracuda that decided to follow me around for a while.
Towards the end of the dive a big shoal of its smaller silver cousins wound across our path before dipping into the groove.
A dive at a site called the Anchor was more impressive in terms of abundant fish life. The big anchor and chain, bursting out all over with soft corals, lies at 10m and is thought to have come from a 19th century British warship. Photogenic flamingo tongues and arrow crabs have made their home in its flukes.
From the anchor we followed the top of the wall at around 18m, this being a second dive, which was probably why there were so many fish - big, tight schools of grunts, parrotfish, black durgons, pairs of butterfly and angelfish, all against a setting of luxuriant corals and sponges.
We may not have seen any mantas, sharks or dolphins under water, but the bigger stuff were the turtles, middling-sized grouper, solitary barracuda and, particularly at a site called Radar, southern sting rays.
I could see one as I descended onto the sand there and, as I moved over to a coral bommie, a couple of protruding tails revealed the hiding place of a baby and its sizeable mother.
They stayed put for a while until I got too close, then shook off their light sand covering, reversed out and moved off unhurriedly, attracting the attention of other photographers in the process.

WE ALSO DIVED THE HOUSE REEF of the Bohio Resort one evening. Dive guide Reuben at first puzzled and then impressed us, as he dropped to his knees on the beach and started scrabbling in the sand.
Moments later he stood up to reveal a 3D representation of the dive site sculpted into the beach. Surely the ideal briefing tool - we agreed later that even at night the features shown in his graphic display had been easy to spot.
The boat trip out took only moments, then we continued out to the drop-off and down the wall to our 18m limit. As usual, night-time revealed a new set of critters in the cracks we illuminated as we passed - banded cleaner shrimps were in evidence along with slipper lobsters and the odd parrotfish preparing to get some shuteye.
But the most fun was back up on top, where we could see large squid shuttling above us, like aircraft caught in criss-crossing searchlights, and, on the sand, sting rays employing evasion tactics and a bustling hermit crab.
There were tiny golden-eyed shrimps, and hidden in a cleft, the orange-ball anemone we had been looking out for, the tiny orbs on its tentacles resembling some miniature planetarium.
When we turned off our lights at the end of the dive, the moonlight was more than enough to see by.
And next day, after we had headed north instead of south along this same stretch of wall and Mitch showed us the black coral overhang, we understood why the site we had dived the previous night was called Black Forest.
Well worth a visit on Grand Turk is the Turks & Caicos National Museum. Small-island museums can be folksy, but this is the exception, with a whole floor of displays based on an unidentified Spanish caravel wrecked at Molasses Reef sometime before 1520.
What you see are remains of the oldest European shipwreck ever found in the Western Hemisphere. The site was discovered in the mid-1970s by treasure-hunters who thought it was Columbuss Nina. Archaeologists hurriedly intervened before the ship could be dismantled, but rather than have all the artefacts end up in the USA, the museum was built to provide a permanent home for them.
You can see cannon, fragments of hull and metal rigging fittings, surgical, tailoring and woodworking tools, and much more. Museum director Dr Neal Hitch may even show you how restoration work is carried out in his conservation laboratory. He reckons there are more than 1000 shipwrecks in TCI waters, so theres plenty of raw material out there.
You wont be overwhelmed by non-diving diversions on Grand Turk. A minibus tour takes you past stretches of saltpan to the lighthouse that guards the treacherous north-east reef; or to Fire Hill, where Horatio Nelson failed to recapture the island from the French.
You may want to avoid the tourism village at the southern tip of the island, which caters for inmates on day-release from the cruise liners that put in there.
Above all, Grand Turk is a quiet, friendly place where a visitor can kick back between dives to the soothing sounds of waves, sandpipers, the clinking of Margarita glasses - or maybe the insistent wobbling of a ripsaw.



The
The Osprey Beach hotel, at the end of Grand Turks sleepy main drag.
Mitch
Mitch and Zeus saw up a storm at the end of a days diving.
Hawksbill
Hawksbill turtles are a common sight.
Southern
Southern sting ray on the sand.
Trumpetfish
Trumpetfish and soldierfish.
A
A spotted trunkfish.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to the larger island of Providenciales and connect to Grand Turk.
DIVING: Blue Water Divers, www.grandturkscuba.com; Bohio Resort, www.bohioresort.com. There are three other dive centres, including Oasis Divers, www.oasisdivers.com
ACCOMMODATION: The Osprey Beach Hotel, close to Blue Water Divers, has 27 beachfront rooms, www.ospreybeachhotel.com. There are many places to stay along the front over a wide price range, some in historic buildings. A good place to eat is the Sand Bar. Further north, the Bohio Resort also has a dive centre.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round diving, water temperature 23-26C in winter and 28-29C in summer, visibility 25-30m, cooled by a constant trade wind. Rainfall is light, sunshine most days. Hurricane season is June through November.
MONEY: US dollar, credit cards
PRICES: Seven nights room-only (twin sharing) at the Osprey Beach, including six days diving (two boat dives a day and unlimited tanks for shore diving) starts from 439, flights from 739. Contact Divequest, 01254 826322, www.divequest.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: INFORMATION 020 7222 9024, www.turksandcaicostourism.com