FOR MANY YEARS, the Turks & Caicos Islands’ own slogan was “Where on Earth is the Turks & Caicos” But in a relatively short time they have gained a reputation as one of the top dive destinations in the Caribbean, known for offering some of the world’s best wall-diving.
Despite being mostly rocky, semi-barren and covered in cacti and thorny acacia trees, the islands are lined with more than 200 miles of powder-sugar sand beaches, terraces and shallow turquoise/emerald waters.
The Turks are separated from the Caicos by a 22-mile wide, 1.3-mile-deep channel, which brings large pelagics and underwater travellers into the shallower water.
My last visit to the islands was back in 2002, when I covered Tanya Streeter’s 160m No Limits freedive, a women’s world record that still stands. I didn’t dive around some of the other islands, but the few wall dives I managed to get in were breath-taking, with almost unlimited visibility and many shark encounters.
Tanya put the islands on the map, and she was treated like royalty by the locals, with her face even appearing on the local stamps alongside that of HM the Queen.
My visit this year took me first to the western end of the archipelago and the idyllic island of Providenciales. There I boarded the Turks & Caicos Explorer II, a purpose-designed 20-berth 40m liveaboard.
We were promised an action-packed week with up to five dives a day, and for such a schedule to work, the day had to be timetabled to the minute. Allowing for one-hour dives with 90-minute surface intervals gave us just enough time for meals, snacks and the odd nap.
Our first destination was just two hours’ south, a beautiful uninhabited sandy cay named French Quay.
The island is a wildlife refuge, used by terns during the nesting season and enjoying frequent visits from sea eagles.
In summer the sandy shallow areas around the cay draw in nurse sharks, which use the area for breeding.
Just a mile south of the island, the reef drops off to more than 1800m. This is one of the favourite locations for the only two liveaboards that operate on the island groups – the reefs are rarely visited, and remain quiet and pristine.
There are three main sites to visit, all situated on top of this wall. Our first stop was Double D, presumably named for the two large peaked reefs that lie side by side.
The boat was moored on top of the drop-off in 15m. Beneath it lies a typical Caribbean reef with an array of hard corals and tube sponges, and seafans swaying in the light currents.
Just nearby, large sandy areas are home to foraging sting rays, and a carpet of garden eels.
Our guide Lynn led us down the gradual slope to 27m, where there was a sheer vertical drop-off into the abyss.
A number of grey reef sharks appeared from the blue and, unfazed by the divers, swam in close to us, giving me the perfect opportunity for some classic reef shark photographs.
That afternoon we moved over to the G-Spot, a site reportedly named because “it’s hard to find, but well worth it when you do”! We did three dives there, exploring the various sections of the wall. The top of the reef had a similar layout to Double D, but we required guidance to find the elusive G-Spot.

AS WE SWAM DOWN the wall, it was clear that we had indeed located it. The area was covered with an abundance of spectacular barrel and tubular purple sponges protruding from the wall.
We made our way along the wall with schooling jacks scouting the reef’s tip, and darting into schools of small fry.
Our group drifted along in the slight current, and a large eagle ray swam past us out in the blue. We left the safety of the wall to get a bit closer, but the ray was shy, and with a graceful flip of its wings glided back to the safety of the depths.
The site also had a number of resident nurse sharks, one of which was a tame specimen named Abigail.
She followed us all the way through the dive, swimming close to the reef in search of prey.
We finished our dive in the shallows, and lay on the sands. The friendly shark glided towards my buddy John, and swam beneath him as if taking refuge.
That evening, we revisited G-Spot on a night dive. As we explored its nooks and crevices, I noticed some small white dots scouting the perimeter of our cluster of dive-lights. A flash of a torch revealed the culprit. Grey reef sharks were out looking for stray fish helplessly caught in our torch-beams.
A number of nurse sharks, including Abigail, followed us as we explored the ledges, nosing into the reefs as they searched the crevices to sniff out sleeping prey.
I had brought my macro lens down to get some sleeping fish images. As I was snapping, a frantic commotion of jack hit the reef right in front me.
The blur of fish wriggled frantically under the reef and cornered a solitary squirrelfish. Within seconds it had been torn into small pieces. All that was left were a few floating scales.
The culprits followed the dive team’s torches, looking for more innocent victims who dared to wander out into the open. As a torch-holder, my excitement at seeing the kill was replaced by an uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

MOST OF OUR EVENINGS were taken up with night dives, so after a long day’s diving many people retired early.
A group of us took advantage of the extensive video collection, and particularly enjoyed the black and white world of the cult 1960s TV underwater adventure series Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges as diver Mike Nelson.
The boat cabins were comfortable, fitted with en suite bathrooms and providing ample water for those who enjoy a good soak.
The dive-decks were well designed, with plenty of space for moving about, and kitting up. Photographers and videographers were especially well looked after, with a purpose-designed camera prep table with a compressed airline, a dunk-tank big enough to take a bath in, and a pile of fresh “fluff-free” towels for drying cameras.
In fact the friendly crew supplied fresh towels after each dive, and hot towels after a night dive, accompanied by hot chocolate. Food was what I call “good Southern home cookin’” – large steaks, ribs, chicken, salads, grits and so on – and the very accommodating chef always had special dishes on offer.
Explorer has a membrane system, with banked nitrox of 32%, but can pump up to 50% if required. Tanks were usually filled within two minutes of surfacing.
We headed further north to West Caicos Island, a rocky limestone nature reserve, and made our way to RGI (Rock Garden Interlude), a white-sand seabed leading down to a lush, colourful garden reef of hard coral and sponges. As we dropped down the sloping gully, Lucy the Nassau grouper greeted us.
The 30kg fish came right up to us, and allowed us to stroke her. I took full advantage, working with Lynn to get more images.
Lucy hung around for 40 minutes and made sure she was in all the photos. Not wanting to miss any action, she perched on my shoulder and enjoyed close contact with the dive group. As we left the safety of the reef and headed up, Lucy disappeared back into the depths.

WE MADE A FEW DIVES on the main Providenciales Island on our final day. Day-boats were around with divers and snorkellers, but we saw no more than four.
For an interesting shallow dive, we were taken to the Thunderdome. At only 10m, this is ideal for training students and for photography.
The metal dome structure was put down on the reef in the 1980s for a French TV show.
Contestants would freedive through an opening in the top of the dome to retrieve pearls from mermaids, who would give them air as they collected their tokens. Unfortunately, contestants weren’t briefed about exhaling when surfacing, so a number were reportedly bent, with some even embolising.
The show wasn’t a big hit anyway, and was cancelled shortly afterwards!
Despite its unfortunate history, the Thunderdome is a beautiful site to dive. A hurricane in the 1990s damaged the dome and it now sits broken apart.
The surrounding area is barren sand, but as you swim through the remaining pieces of the structure it’s clear that they offer refuge to schools of yellowtails and other fish.
Sunbeams shine down through the holes in the dome quarters, and dance on the rippling white seabed below.
I did two dives on the Thunderdome, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the photo opportunities it offered.
These included some species new to me, including the pipehorse, a relative of the seahorse, and the small pea (juvenile trunkfish). I didn’t get a picture of this tiny fish, but next time I’ll be armed with a 200mm macro lens!
Turks & Caicos is a great place to visit, with few boats and postcard beaches.
It’s not a place for wreck-divers, it should be pointed out, and most of the diving is between 12-33m, with no deep stuff allowed.
However, Explorer is considering catering for rebreather diving in the future, which would open up some incredible deep-wall dives.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: British Airways flies into Providenciales. No visa needed for less than 90 days’ stay.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Turks & Caicos Explorer II, www.explorerventures.com.
when to go Year-round.
MONEY: US dollars.
PRICES: The Scuba Place organises a one-week trip for £2259. This includes seven nights’ full-board accommodation (including alcohol), flights from London Heathrow via Miami and air-diving (nitrox extra). Not included is the $150 local tax and online ESTA Travel Authorisation, www.thescubaplace.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.turksandcaicostourism.com