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THE TURKS AND CAICOS - ISLANDS THAT ARE BEING LOVED TO DEATH

(Disappearing Reefs and Running Aground!)

The Turks and Caicos Islands, TCI for short, consists of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands, in the far southern Bahamas, just north of Hispaniola. They are renown primarily for tourism, conchs, and as an offshore financial center. The first time we flew over the Southern Bahamas was in the early 1990's. We had traveled there to dive and marveled at the beautiful turquoise waters as we approached the main island of Provo. We made the trip again to dive in 1994. This year's venture was our third trip there.


Diving Itinerary

Low and scrubby, the TCI of the early 1990's were covered in marshlands and salt ponds. The islands were laid back (the Old Bahamas), and most of us just went there for the diving. Few hotels dotted the beaches, and one could walk for miles with just scattered houses visible near the beach. Shacks posing as restaurants dotted the beach, where great food was available for very modest prices. One or two dive shops offered trips out of Grace Bay to the island of West Caicos. The only liveaboard dive boat at the time was the T&C Aggressor, a 120' former oil tender that could handle up to 16 divers. That boat would dive the Northwest Point of Provo, then head south to West Caicos, and further south, weather permitting, to French Cay. We found the walls started in around 50-70 feet of water, and were quite beautiful, covered in sea fans, sponges, corals with lots of good sized fish. We even flew in a tiny plane over to Grand Turk, where we stayed in a modest hotel and dove with Oasis Divers. We experienced even richer reefs over there. It was an island even more laid back than Provo, where cars were few and bicycles were the norm. The salt ponds supported huge flocks of flamingos.

Jump forward to 2015... the population on Provo is now around 33,000. The total population of all the islands is around 49,000, but there are over 1 million visitors a year, mostly from cruise ships coming into the Grand Turk Cruise Terminal. The airport is much bigger now. Huge hotels and resorts cover most of the beach on Grace Bay, with even more inland. Most of the tourists come to these resorts to relax, parasail, snorkel, maybe dive since the island doesn't have much else to offer in the way of nature. When we arrived, we were whisked straight to the Aggressor dive boat. Because of the shallow near island waters and the full moon tides, the boat needed to leave at high tide, and we barely were able to board the boat before we cast off. Once past the reef in Grace Bay, we were astounded to see the amount of development that occurred over the last 20+ years.

NW Point - Disappointment

As we motored to NW Point off the main island for a checkout dive, we were looking forward to the diving. When we arrived at the dive site, I grabbed my cameras, and we jumped in. We were stunned at the sight before us. It looked like a moonscape. No more sea fans, very few corals, and those that were there were bleached or damaged. There were very few fish. Huge expanses of sand lay before us. The visibility was not good, and there was a green tinge to the water. Where we had seen schools of durgeons, parrotfish, butterflyfish and large grouper, we now saw one or two lonely fish of these species. I started crying. I always knew that the island of Provo had the least beautiful reefs, it was the most populated, but this was truly an eye opener. Overfishing, too many people putting too much waste in the water, ocean warming, insufficient moorings for the boats, and boat anchors and boat groundings damaging the reef have taken a huge toll on this once beautiful place. Normally, when I dive, my camera shutter is constantly clicking. I think I may have taken a half dozen photos on those first dives. I had trouble finding subjects.

West Caicos - Not Much Better

Next, we were scheduled to go to West Caicos, a 2 hour run. I was hopeful things may be better there, since that island is uninhabited, and more difficult to get to. Sadly, it was not much better. The only saving grace was there were sharks, lots of sharks. Mostly blacktipped reef sharks circling in and out of the gloom, literally swimming through your legs. I love sharks. But my first question was "What are they eating?" This ecosystem felt out of sync. We spent several more days diving here along this island.

  • Tender at sunset
  • purple sponges
  • Coral head
  • Shark
  • Shark
  • 2 sharks
  • Shark
  • Shark and diver
  • Dead reef by wall
  • Jawfish with eggs
  • Shark and divers
  • Dead coral head
  • School of goatfish
  • Dead star coral
  • Spotted moray
  • Slipper lobster
  • Hermit crab
  • Hermit crab closeup
  • Hermit crab closeup

French Cay

The weather improved and we could chance making the several hour run to French Cay. It is southeast of West Caicos, out in the middle of the ocean. A small spit of an island with no protection, wind can really ruin your day. The reef wall is actually quite a distance from the island and is too shallow for many boats to get close. We jumped in and were pleased to see some sea fans and corals along the walls. It was not pristine, you could see damage, there were fewer flora and fauna than there used to be, but it was certainly better than anything we had seen on this trip. Lots of sharks followed us and circled, turtles were seen, and a few more fish were visible on the walls. Due to incoming weather, we were only able to stay there a day before we headed back to West Caicos,. We made 5 more dives on West Caicos, coming up from our last night dive around 9 PM to warm towels and hot chocolate. The Captain had told us he wanted to make the 2 hour crossing to NW Point on Provo and anchor for the night there. Then we could make the 6AM morning dive and head into the marina later in the morning to take advantage of the high tide.

  • French Cay
  • French Cay
  • French Cay wall
  • French Cay wall
  • Barrel sponge
  • Sea fan and diver
  • Sea fan
  • Wall at French cay
  • French Cay wall
  • Dead reef
  • Stoplight Parrotfish
  • French Cay

An Exciting Return Trip

As we went to bed, the boat headed out at full speed for Provo. There was a 3/4 moon and seas were fairly calm. About an hour and half later, around 11:40 PM, I woke up, looked at my watch, and thought "We should be there by now, why are we still going at full speed?" At that moment, it was as if we hit a wall. Loud grinding and crunching sounds were coming from the hull. We had stopped so suddenly that we were thrown out of bed. I knew immediately what happened. We had run aground! There are 3 things you do not want to see or hear as a passenger on a boat. 1. Fire/smoke 2. Water 3. The crew yelling "S***,S***,S***,F***,F***,F***!!!!!" Hearing the tirade above us, we grabbed our passports and IDs, opened the doors to the cabin, to see water pouring into the halls. Well, I thought, "That's two out of three, not a good sign". We climbed up to the top deck, where everyone was gathering. I ran to the rail, looked over and saw massive amounts of turbid water churning around the hull. Looking forward, past the bow, I was astounded to see waves breaking over a reef, and the cliffs of the island straight ahead. The crew was scrambling around trying to assess our damage, and handing out life vests. Mine had a tag that said "Expires in 2007". OOKkaayy... Maydays were sent out, and it appears the only vessel within a couple of hours of us was the T&C Explorer, another liveaboard. While we waited to see what to do, the Captain said he may try and move the boat into shallower water, so if and when it sinks, it will be in shallow water. They had also tried to call the Amanyara Resort, a very high priced exclusive resort that attracts a lot of celebrities. We were about a mile offshore from the resort. No answer from them. I decided to run to the camera table, and retrieve my flash cards from my cameras. If we were going to lose everything, I wanted at least to salvage my pictures!!!

  • Barracuda
  • Shark and diver
  • Large sponge and diver
  • Schoolmaster in sponge
  • Turtle
  • Shark
  • Diver and turtle
  • Turtle eating sponge
  • Two phases of filefish
  • Canyon cut to wall
  • Soft corals by wall
  • Leafy vines on coral heads
  • Anchor
  • Sea whips
  • Boring sponge with zooanthids
  • Crinoid
  • Double rainbow
  • Double rainbow
  • Tube sponges
  • 2 lobsters
  • Diver over reef
  • Nurse Shark
  • Nurse Shark
  • Cubera Snapper
  • Stingray and snapper
  • Garden eels
  • Mating Leeches helmetshield slugs
  • Leech helmutshield slug
  • Female Pearly Razorfish
  • HorseEye Jack
  • Honeycomb Cowfish
  • Shark over wall
  • Basketstar
  • Slipper lobster
  • Brittle star with longhorn nudibranch
  • Channel clinging crab
  • larval shrimp
  • Shipwrecked
  • Grace Bay beach
  • Turtle eating sponge

When the Explorer came, not too close, they did not want to ground on the reef, they anchored probably a half mile away. They offered their tenders. It was decided for everyone to run back to their cabins, gather their things, and also try and pack up all their wet dive gear in their luggage. Stacking everything on the back deck, we were to leave everything behind except a backpack. By now, it was 2 AM. Wearing just shorts, t shirt and soft sole dive booties, we were to take the tenders and have to beach in the water. Using a flashlight, our tender crept toward shore, trying to avoid the coral heads so close to the surface. The 3/4 moon was bright, and it seemed quite peaceful. I commented to my husband "I guess we are getting a romantic, moonlit boat ride". After we jumped in the water and waded to the Amanyara Resort's beach, we expected help to come running our way. The armed guards flashed their lights at us, probably thinking we were refugees from Haiti, but did not come to our aid. It appears they never answered our mayday call. We then had to walk over a very rocky, deep sand beach for more than 20 minutes, then hike for another 20 or so minutes on a rough lime rock road, up the hills, in the dark, with the no-see-um's and mosquitoes eating us alive. Every step was painful on the rocks. We had to climb over the security gates to the road, where the Aggressor office had gotten vans to take us to a hotel. We checked in at 4 a.m. It was hoped that they could somehow get our luggage to us at some point, but right now, all I could think of, was "I don't have a toothbrush!". In our haste to abandon ship, I really was not thinking clearly, and did not bring our personal items. Next time, I will make sure I have shoes, too!

Our luggage came the next day, after lunch and we spent the day and a half there, until our flights out. We tried to dry out our dive gear, because wet, would make our luggage over the 50 lb limit, and cost us several hundred extra dollars. We understood they somehow got the boat off the reef, and limped into the marina later in the morning. This boat has been offering this trip in these islands for over 20+ years. It gives one pause when we think of all the things that can happen on boat that are "acts of God", and those that are not. We were fortunate that no one was hurt, and it brings to the fore the need for being prepared as an individual at all times for every contingency.

Later that day, we did walk down to the beach in Grace Bay, only to be saddened by the development, resorts, tall hotels, and crowds. Gone are the days of sand dunes and sea grasses, palm trees and beautiful waters. I guess you can't go home again.

The photos below were taken in 1994 on slide film...when reefs worldwide were already starting to degrade. What a shocking difference.

  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994
  • Reef 1994

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