Gibbs Cay in Grand Turk is where you can encounter southern sting rays in shallow water

The Turks & Caicos Islands are nowhere near Turkey, lets get that straight from the start. They are inauspicious dots in the Atlantic Ocean. So what do they have to offer us divers I think youll find that the answer is - quite a lot.

It was political expediency rather than geography that separated the islands of the Turks & Caicos from the Bahamas. In fact they lie at the eastern extreme of that archipelago. Settled by salt-rakers from Bermuda and made independent from the Bahamas in the mid-19th century, its peoples might have had common aims, but as far as the scuba-diving goes the islands are split into two very separate groups.

The Caicos islands lie on the shallow Caicos bank which means that, although they have wonderful beaches and clear turquoise water, deeper water for diving is a lengthy boat ride away. Grand Turk, and its little sister Salt Cay, lie to the east and are separated from the Caicos Bank by the deep blue of the Columbus Passage. Spectacular wall-diving can be had within a short swim from the shore.

Grand Turk originally became the natural capital for this tiny nation because of its deepwater harbour but modern air travel has changed all that. The island of Providenciales, or Provo as locals like to call it, one of the islands furthest west in the TCI, has an international airport which has enabled it to attempt to develop a booming tourism business.

There are direct flights from London and many discerning visitors intent on filling them. So Providenciales has become probably the most important island in the chain, with modern hotels and all the razzmatazz that goes with a busy holiday destination. Busy, that is, if you compare it to any of the other islands of TCI.

But dont confuse Provo with the coastline of somewhere like Spain, or anywhere else foreign for that matter. Its so full of expatriate Brits that it will feel like a home-from-home if youre from the UK.

And despite there being a good choice of hotels there are still endless stretches of empty white-sand beaches lapped by a sapphire sea. The downside, as any diver knows, is that a sea that looks so vibrantly blue indicates a sub-tropical sun reflecting back up from the shallow white sand below. So if you want to dive, you will have to take a boat ride.

However the people who dive with outfits such as Dive Provo or any of the other numerous dive centres seem happy enough to ride in their fast Newton boats, and the dive sites they visit provide ideal conditions for those who do not want to be challenged with their diving.

With the enforced logistics of the long rides, it is normal to do either a two-tank dive in the morning to somewhere near French Cay or North Point, or a single-tank dive at a Grace Bay site in the afternoon. Because the boats depart from opposite sides of the narrow island, it will prove difficult to dive both in the morning and the afternoon, unless youre a good sprinter and happy to miss lunch!

Take that boat ride and you will certainly get to deep water. Deep enough to make it worthwhile setting up a technical diving centre here, which is exactly what John Garvin, retired actor and lead from the London musical Buddy, has done with his operation O2 Technical Diving. It provided the safety divers for Tanya Streeters last record-breaking free-dives in TCI, and John is an Inspiration instructor, too.

So theres something to keep the deepwater closed-circuit rebreather divers as happy as those taking their first cautious trip under the water with conventional scuba equipment.

What can you expect to see With clear water and dramatic drop-offs, diving near Provo is fun and easy. You might see an occasional Caribbean reef shark or even JoJo, the famous wild dolphin that has been hanging around the island for the past 18 years or more. What you are guaranteed to see is the full gamut of Caribbean marine life, with colourful corals and sponges, and plenty of fish.

Provo provides a full facility holiday with diving included. There are gourmet restaurants and no shortage of night-life.

If its diving alone that interests you, you might be better off going to Grand Turk. To do that youll need to take a short scheduled flight on a light aircraft from Provo.

If Provo took off with the start ofinternational air travel, Grand Turk was forgotten with the demise of the sailing ship. Until last year, that is, when cruise-ships began including it on their itineraries. Cruise ships have more passengers than Grand Turk has population. Its a mystery what all those passengers do when they come ashore for short visits, unless its to visit the small museum and examine the remains of the Molasses Reef wreck displayed there.

The Spanish explorers of Columbuss time favoured a vessel type known as a caravel. They liked its sea-keeping characteristics. Strangely, not a single record was kept of how these popular vessels were constructed, and the only remains of one to be found lay at Molasses Reef, south of Provo. Its artefacts are now displayed in Grand Turk.

The original timber-frame buildings of Grand Turk are very much as they were at the turn of the last century, and the bars and guest houses are very modest in their dimensions. It really is a one-street island.

But if youre a diver, things are very different. The deep wall is right there next to the shore and this is where you will find probably the best wall-diving anywhere in the Caribbean area.

Dive! Dive! Dive! Carry your gear out to the boat. Ride for two minutes. Youre there. Fall in the water. Its as simple as that. And because its a marine park, theres always plenty to look at.

The reef is rich in soft corals and sponges. Blue-striped grunts cluster in golden bunches. On a typical dive you will see octopus, batfish, turtles, groupers, jacks, morays, barracuda, horse-eye jacks, angel-fish and rays.

Did I say rays If you want to see rays, take a picnic trip to nearby Gibbs Cay and snorkel in a couple of metres of water with the friendly southern rays. These large, intelligent animals have learnt to befriend anyone with a spare picnic treat.

What is there to do on Grand Turk Each morning youll walk the few paces from your guesthouse or hotel accommodation to one of three or four modest-looking dive centres. Youll come back for lunch and do the same in the afternoon. And in the evening you will do a night dive if you want to and then chew the fat with other divers.

Strange things happen on night dives. Those divers with cameras are dogged by intelligent Nassau groupers which take advantage of the fact that smaller creatures get mesmerised by their bright lights. The bigger fish will stay in the shadow and literally suck them out of the shot.

Are the conditions under water challenging Are there strong currents Big swells They say that if you can walk, youre fit enough to dive at Grand Turk!

Why is the island so called No one seems to know. It may have been named after the Turks Head flower, or after pirates who used to hide here, often called Turks by their contemporaries. Why it was called Grand Turk is a mystery too, because grand it certainly isnt. In fact few people have heard of it, other than those who have boned up on the history of early space exploration.

In 1962 Grand Turk enjoyed two moments of fame. Colonel John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth, splashed down nearby and was transferred to the USAAF airbase (now gone) for debriefing. Months later Scott Carpenter enjoyed the same hospitality, and Grand Turk was the first land he touched after his space mission. After that, it was back to obscurity for the island.

If all this excitement is too much for you, where can you go thats even quieter Salt Cay, of course.

Salt Cay lies to the south, between Grand Turk and Great Sand Cay. It was once owned by a family which devoted all its time and the islands resources to salt-raking. The evidence of their endeavours is still apparent, with most of the island made over to vast salt-pans and great gatherings of feral asses, descendants of those donkeys that pulled the salt carts.

Salt Cay has a tiny population and they all know one anothers business. You soon get to know everyone. They all know Diver, too. There are a couple of diving operations on Salt Cay. The wall runs close to the shore, as it does in Grand Turk, and the diving is almost as conveniently close. Salt Cay is a good place to be based if you want to dive the historic wooden wreck of HMS Endymion.

In August, 1790, the British warship was sailing from Monte Cristo in good weather. This 983 ton fifth-rate ship of the line was 140ft long at the gun deck, with a 38ft beam. She carried 44 guns on two decks and had nearly 300 men aboard. About 18 miles south of Salt Cay, the ship struck rocks.

Today the anchors and chain, piles of hardware that broke through as the vessel tilted, iron ballast, bronze pins, lead hull sheathing, tacks, musket and pistol shot, cannonballs and cannon - all lie scattered where the ships bow struck. Not only that, but Endymion Rocks has claimed another vessel since. You can see the boiler, massive steam engine and crankcase of a ship of a later era too.

Then theres Great Sand Cay. Here you will find water of the most vibrant aquamarine blue and the biggest deep white sandy beaches that go on forever - and absolutely nothing else.

Divernet
Recipe
Recipe for relaxation on Windmill Beach.
John
John Garvin - from the lead in Buddy to being every tekkies buddy
The
The diving in Turks & Caicos is characterised by clear water and colourful vistas

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly BA to Providenciales.
DIVING : A wide range of leisure diving centres on all islands. O2 Technical Diving on Provo (www.o2technical diving.com) offers deeper options.
WHEN TO GO : TCI is sub-tropical with trade winds, with air and water temperatures from 24-31°C. It is warmest July-September, though this is hurricane season.
COST : Barefoot Traveller (020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com) offers 14-night, two-centre diving packages from £1840. Seven nights in Provo, with B&B and five two-tank dives, costs from £1128. Seven nights on Grand Turk, with B&B, six two-tank dives and unlimited shore-diving, costs from £1236 and the equivalent on Salt Cay from £1294.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Turks & Caicos Tourist Office, www.turksandcaicostourism.com