IT'S NOT THE SIZE, it's what you do with it. The saying has sprung to mind many times in my past several months of diving.
As a fairly experienced underwater photographer, I look for particular things when choosing a dive centre.
I want the flexibility needed to be able to dive with a camera, with staff willing and able to help me fulfil my needs, while at the same time not wishing to be given precedence over other clients.
Providenciales (Provo) in the Turks & Caicos Islands has been my guilty pleasure since my first visit in the summer of 2002. I fell in love with the island and its diving while I was still relatively inexperienced.
Foregoing the better-known capital island Grand Turk, known for its walls plunging from 10 to 2300m, I always gravitate to what I consider its more beautiful sister.
I visited both islands in 2002. Grand Turk has changed vastly since then. Though home to the TCI government it was little more than a locals' island with a couple of small diving guest-houses, a few shops and offices and the prison. Now there are many more hotels, commercial developments and even a cruise-ship terminal.
Provo was always the tourist hub, with much better infrastructure funded by Canadian and US investment. With its huge beach-front holiday villas and condos concentrated mainly in the Grace Bay area, the island delighted by having a small, vibrant area of luxury shops and restaurants but plenty of places to escape the hustle and bustle, and the most untouched, beautiful beaches I have seen.
Today this remains the case, with the small amount of building development since my first visit carried out sympathetically and tastefully. My real guilty pleasure, however, comes with the diving.
On each of my five visits I have been astounded by the crystal waters, rarely dipping below 25°C; the mostly easy conditions, with little or no current; and the consistently healthy reefs and fish populations. Reef sharks seems to be ever-present on the dives, and eagle rays are a frequent sight. Large groups of fish school over the reef, and lobster and conch are abundant everywhere.
Dolphins are often seen between dives and sometimes even allow in-water interactions. And during the first part of the year, Provo is also on the humpback whale migratory route.
Little has changed over the years, despite the odd hurricane hit. Marine life and coral growth seem undepleted.
The fight against lionfish invasion seems to be succeeding too, with far fewer sightings in recent years.

I HAVE USED MANY PROVO dive centres, which is what led me to my reflections about size.
When I first visited with only 50 dives under my belt, I used one of the larger companies, Big Blue Unlimited. Based at Leeward Marina, it had easier access to dive-sites than the windward centres, and remains the only one to cover all five main dive-site areas regularly.
Founded in 1997, Big Blue has developed into a full eco-adventure centre offering all forms of water sports. Back then, it was only a dive/snorkel centre, with a large, well-equipped boat. It prided itself on diving in small groups, which seemed to mean many divers on the boat, but several divemasters to lead them in groups.
Over 10 days, I dived with Big Blue five times. It was friendly but fiercely safety-conscious, and the boat and dive-briefings were incredibly in-depth, as the crew catered for vastly different experience levels.
Having booked my five days' diving in advance, I was told that Big Blue would aim never to revisit a site in that time, so I would experience a variety of diving.
In the event we redived three sites, but as they were all very pretty I didn't mind too much.
At the island's north-west point, Amphitheatre offered a wall dive with a huge indentation that gave it the name, and I was amazed by the 50m-plus visibility and volume of fish.
There was no current, and schools of snapper and bigeye jack swam lazily around. All the soft corals and sponges made for a colourful scene.
Ascending over the top of the wall, the white-sand gullies interspersed by coral boulders had trail tracks where conch had been grazing. Painted lobsters seemed to be under every overhang, venturing out onto the sand sometimes.
Grouper Hall, in front of Grace Bay, could then be reached from the shore by snorkelling, though hurricane damage has since broken up much of the site. Though not as vibrant as Amphitheatre, it made for a very pleasing, shallow second dive where I saw my first shark – a large nurse sleeping on a sandy spit.
Big Blue also had access to Pine Cay, now a second home to the rich and famous, including film-stars and music-industry moguls. Development had yet to start in 2002 – it had untouched white-sand beaches and turquoise water so vivid it reflected the colour off the base of cumulus clouds.
It was a delight to giant-stride into the water in just rash-vest and board-shorts.
Football Field, just offshore at Pine Cay, is a spur-and-groove site with multitudes of French angelfish, crab, lobster and schools of fish, and vis even better than at Amphitheatre.
At just over 30m, deco time has to be watched carefully, and it's all too easy to forget how deep you are.
Greatly hyped by the boat captain, we visited French Cay, a small uninhabited island 50-minutes’ boat-ride south of Provo, reachable only when the weather is right. It's on the whale migratory route from January to March, but full of pelagics year-round.
Many people think G-Spot is named for the orgasmic thrill of the dive, but it is actually named after a G-shaped cut in the wall edge.
This was my first “proper” wall dive because, located at the south of the Caicos Banks barrier reef, it tops out at 12m and drops to more than 2000.
Caribbean reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and schools of barracuda were on patrol, and in the spectacular visibility it felt like the very edge of the underwater world.
Double D (I feel a theme going on here!) is named for two large mounds sprouting from the sandy bottom – full of soft corals and multitudes of fish, especially different species of parrotfish, grouper and smooth and scribbled trunkfish, and a giant barracuda that stealthily followed me around.

MY SECOND VISIT TO PROVO was at Christmas six years later.
I opted for Caicos Adventures, another large outfit but located on the windward side at Cooper Jack Marina. Started in 1988 by French owner Philippe (Fifi) Kunz, it is one of the oldest dive centres and very slick and professional. Everything ran smoothly, from timely hotel pick-ups to drop-offs after diving.
Fifi accompanied us every day, either as captain or dive-guide. Charismatic and eccentric, he gave a very thorough but funny briefing before each dive.
Having two catamarans, one taking 20 and the other 8-10 divers, Caicos Adventures could cater for different types of groups and sites. Most of my dives were from the larger cat, very comfortable with its large deck space and good facilities, but brimful of divers.
West Caicos is located around 40 minutes west of Cooper Jack, though there are many similar dive-sites in the area. Having a comparatively deep depth of 15-18m at the mooring buoys, deco limit was usually reached before our air ran out, making for slightly shorter but very beautiful dives.
Brandy Wine and Riviera, with its swim-through, were very beautiful and easy, with incredible visibility and lavish marine life, though having only a small reef wall, there were fewer pelagics.
We were however stalked by several Caribbean reef sharks and a giant barracuda and saw quite a few southern sting rays in the sand or out foraging.
I had been told that Caicos Adventure went out most of the time, even if the weather was iffy, but a storm kept the boat in for two days. When we headed out on a scheduled day-trip to French Cay there were still quite large surface swells, and I was glad to be on the bigger cat.
The boat was nearly full, but a couple of people were seasick, and with no protected area for mooring the day would prove uncomfortable for them.
I had taken my seasickness tablets, so delighted in revisiting G-Spot and the aptly named for that day Rock & Roll! There was no current, and visibility remained a reasonable 20-25m.
A giant barracuda again followed me, and I wondered if it was the same one.
Diving time, as with Big Blue, was strictly limited to 40-45 minutes – a pity, because at such easy sites air would last far longer than that, but larger operators with many divers to pick up and drop off have to maintain their schedule.
Sea conditions worsening again, only the hardy ventured out next day on the smaller cat to the semi-protected Aquarium site at Northwest Point followed by Dead Man’s Bones. Vis was down to 15m and there was a lot of surge, but I saw several hawksbill turtles, a large trumpetfish and a school of chevron barracuda.
Feeling distinctly nauseous however, despite the tablets, I wished I had stayed on dry land.

ANOTHER SIX YEARS PASSED before I had the chance to return. Seeking a small local dive-centre closer to where I was staying near Turtle Cove,
I chose Ocean Vibes. In late September, outside the American and Canadian season, the island was very quiet.
I had booked a couple of dive-days well ahead of my visit, so was surprised to receive an email the evening before my first dive to say that Ocean Vibes had only one other diver booked, so would transfer us to a larger centre. This was a downside to going small.
When questioned, the centre told me that it needed at least four divers on its eight-diver boat to make a trip worthwhile, and this despite it advertising “small groups only”.
So instead of walking across the street, I had to be picked up by a minibus an hour earlier than planned.
Standing outside my hotel, I wasn’t happy to be collected 20 minutes late by none other than Caicos Adventures!
Things had changed. Caicos Adventures now had its own dock and purpose-built dive centre and retail outlet next to Cooper Jack Marina. Business must have been good.
Beside the centre were a couple of shark cages. Bull- or tiger-shark dives?
I asked, but was told that they were only for show.
On the packed large cat, I was grouped with seven other divers. I had told both Ocean Vibes and then Caicos Adventures that I would be taking underwater photographs. In fact,
I had discussed at length via email with Ocean Vibes why I was keen to dive in a small group, and it had assured me that this would be relayed to Caicos Adventure, but whatever transpired there was no camera bucket on board.
When I politely requested one, a small dustbin (which turned out to have a hole in it) was reluctantly found.
Not having been told otherwise, most people used it to rinse their masks, or to dump small cameras and GoPros unceremoniously on top of mine.
Diving twice at deeper West Caicos, most divers were back on the boat within 35 minutes. Our dive-guide, with seven fairly inexperienced divers in tow, obviously wanted to show us as much reef as possible in a short time, which was hardly ideal for me.
Another day’s diving was booked with Ocean Vibes, but when the same thing happened again I cancelled it, not wanting to be herded like a sheep.
At a dive show later I spoke to Provo Divers but was put off when asking about small-group diving and underwater photography to be told that it packed “as many divers onto the boat as possible – we’re in business to make money, after all!”

I paid another short visit to Provo last November, determined to try a smaller dive centre.
After thorough research I chose Aqua TCI, which British founders Steph and Bill Wallwork advertised as having great diving practices, the freedom offered by taking small groups of certified divers and higher levels of personal service and professionalism.
Emailing ahead to say I was an underwater photographer, a reply came almost straight away to confirm that this wasn’t a problem. I was told that Aqua TCI had one well-equipped and very comfortable 10m Island Hopper custom-built dive-boat that would take 10 divers, but that the number was capped at eight by choice.
Steph and Bill had worked for Dive Provo for eight years before setting up their own company 18 months earlier.
I was promised the best underwater photography experience possible in Provo.
On their boat at Cooper Jack Marina I found Bill head-first in the engine compartment and Steph on the phone looking a bit frazzled. The engine had broken down the night before and Bill had spent all night trying to fix it.
He had got it started but wasn’t happy enough with the way it was running to risk taking us out diving.
So Steph had arranged with friends Jayne and Mikey of Flamingo Divers to take us out on their boat.

THIS FRIENDLY AND HELPFUL COUPLE had a similar small set-up to Steph and Bill and made us feel very welcome. The centre was just reopening after a couple of months’ closure while Mikey underwent back surgery, and with its boat also docked at Cooper Jack it was easy to transfer dive-gear to the small eight-diver boat.
We headed towards West Caicos for two dives at Amphitheatre and Chimney. Steph, on board as our guide, was very apologetic, but promised us as good a diving experience as we would have had on Aqua TCI’s boat. The three Aqua TCI divers would dive with her and three from Flamingo would dive with Jayne.
Steph gave an in-depth and interesting dive-briefing, which included a stern warning that no one should use the large camera-bucket Bill had provided for anything other than cameras, and that if they weren’t very careful of each other’s cameras, they might have a nasty experience with a lionfish!
I found out later that Steph wrote the PADI Lionfish speciality for tracking and culling the invasive species in the Caribbean.
As good as her word, the diving was incredible – relaxed, enjoyable and tailor-made for underwater photography. Steph led us slowly around the reef pointing out interesting marine life, and seeking out further subjects to show the other divers while I took my time photographing queen, grey and French angelfish, filefish, triggerfish and several scorpionfish.
With the 50m-plus visibility it was easy to stay in visual contact with the group, though after the first dive Steph, aware of my qualifications, said she was happy for me to dive solo if I wanted.
I couldn’t have been happier, though in fact I followed the group for the first quarter of the next dive and spent the rest of the dive within view of the boat. Seeing two dolphins swim past in the distance, I rejoiced in this private moment.
We had planned another day’s diving with Steph and Bill, but although their boat was now fixed, the weather defeated this plan.
I wanted to check out Aqua TCI again, however, and the opportunity arose for a longer trip just months later, in March this year. I arranged four days’ diving by email, and my prayers for better weather were answered by calm seas and blue skies for the duration.
Getting a big welcome hug from Steph and Bill, it was clear that much of their business comes from repeat customers, attracted by their friendliness and professionalism.
Four of the six other divers on board had dived with them before and, encouraged by our hosts, everyone was happy, friendly and chatty, something I had missed on the bigger dive-boats.
Mother and daughter Lauren and Carly were completing nitrox courses with Matthew, a former Caicos Adventures instructor.
We had been asked where we would like to go, and as the weather was perfect we decided on French Cay. Bill had seen a humpback next to the boat the previous week while Steph was leading a group of divers, and as it was whale season we had hopes of another sighting.
Told I could do my own thing if I wanted, I elected to follow Steph again for a while before heading back towards the boat to take photographs on the sandy bottom.

GIANT-STRIDING from the platform, I was enveloped in 26° water, and felt as if I could see for miles as we dived G-Spot, happy that the site seemed much the same as when I had dived it years ago.
As we swam along, doleful whale song filled our ears. It was the first time I had heard a whale under water.
Completing my safety stop below the boat, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bill had hung a safety-stop bar and emergency air regs below the boat for the comfort of divers.
And between dives we were treated to a smorgasbord of snacks and homemade banana bread – the best surface-interval food I have ever had!
In the distance a humpback whale was breaching repeatedly. Heading slowly towards it, we managed to get within 300m before it signalled its departure by raising its tail fluke.
At Double D, sure enough, a giant barracuda was stalking me, and I was convinced that it was the same one I first saw in 2002.
I dived some amazing sites with Aqua TCI. Anchoring at Sanborn Channel, diveable only at high tide, I was so happy to have chosen a smaller dive operator with all the freedom of times and locations that allowed.
Checking that everyone was happy to leave and return slightly later to the dock to coincide with high tide meant that we could complete two 50-minute dives with a one-hour interval at what turned out to be my favourite Provo dive-site.
Starting at 12m on a sandy bottom under the mooring, we swam down the sloping wall to around 25m. So beautiful and full of life, the reef looked incredibly healthy.
Grey reef sharks patrolled the wall edge; eagle rays passed in the blue. A large school of Atlantic spadefish allowed me to get very close, more than I could say about an enormous giant barracuda resting on the sandy bottom.
Mahogany snapper and horse-eyed jack grouped over the purple vase sponges and large gorgonians.
Between dives, Bill spotted a group of spinner dolphin. Steph raised the anchor and he sped over and performed figures of eight with the boat. We watched amazed as a big pod played in the wake.
Eventually, Bill killed the engine. The relaxed-looking dolphins stayed next to the boat, so Steph told us to don snorkels and masks. For more than 10 minutes they played and swam near to us, before heading off to deeper water. This could have happened only with the flexibility allowed by a small dive-boat‚ and the willingness of Bill and Steph.
Clearly large operators have their benefits – bigger, more powerful boats, more clients, less prone to cancellation. But for me the smaller operators have the edge, and quality trumps quantity!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Flights to Providenciales are available with BA with a short stop in Nassau or Antigua, or via gateway US cities including New York, Miami, Charlotte and Atlanta with American Airlines, US Airways or Delta.
DIVING Larger centres on Provo include Big Blue Unlimited (www.bigblueunlimited.com), Caicos Adventures (www.caicosadventures.com) and Dive Provo (www.diveprovo.com). Smaller centres include Ocean Vibes (www.oceanvibes.com), Flamingo Divers (www.flamingodivers.com), Aqua TCI (www.aquatci.com).
ACCOMMODATION The dive centres are often linked to hotels or can recommend them, and a wide range of resorts and villas are listed on the tourist board website (below)
WHEN TO GO TCI can be visited and dived year-round, but be aware of hurricane season from June to November. Rain can hit in short bursts at any time. Water temperatures range from 23-26° in winter and 28-29° in summer. Whale season is January-March.
CURRENCY US dollars.
PRICES Flight and resort packages for a week (two sharing) start from around £1100. A two-tank boat dive typically costs $130-$150.
VISITOR INFORMATION www.turksandcaicostourism.com