Travel

Watery wonder in Turks and Caicos

TravelDivingScienceHurricane Sandy (2012)SportsCanoeing and KayakingMark Parrish

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands — Sixty feet below the surface of the aquamarine western Atlantic, my 12-year-old daughter, Maddie, glided gently along the reef, her arms crossed in Buddha-like meditation.

To the left, where the sea dropped off hundreds of feet, a black-tipped shark cruised ominously in the distance. A curious parrot fish, a school of yellow-striped grunts and a bug-eyed squirrel fish swam an arm's length away, perhaps hoping for a handout from our group of six divers and our guide.

Directly below us, a green sea turtle chomped on a chunk of coral, oblivious to our presence. I moved in to photograph its sleek head. It didn't move an inch.

Not far from the turtle, the tips of sea anemones fluttered in the mild current, and a bright orange tube sponge seemed to jump out from the surrounding coral. The visibility was more than 80 feet, and we could see other divers from our Beaches resort boat swimming nearby.

In late October, my family and I came to the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory about an hour south of Miami and 130 miles northeast of Cuba. Named after the Turk's Cap cactus, this group of 40 islands and cays is famous for its white sand beaches and abundant marine life. Moreover, Scuba Diving Magazine consistently ranks its reefs among the best in the world.

It was a far cry from a recent outing we'd had to Devil's Lake in southern Wisconsin, about 30 miles from our home in Madison. There, the "viz" — as divers call it — in the murky freshwater lake was a mere 5 feet, if that.

Last summer, Maddie, a sixth-grader, got her open-water scuba certification. Though diving in the Great Lakes can offer great visibility — often well over 60 feet, with numerous wrecks to explore — it can't compare with the reefs and sea life in the pleasantly warm Atlantic.

Back on the surface after her first saltwater dive, Maddie exclaimed, "This is great!" as her mother, Kathleen, and I helped her switch out her tank for the next descent.

"I never thought I'd see a shark right away," Maddie said. "And that turtle was totally cool. Thank you so much for bringing me here."

Fifty minutes later, after we'd munched on sandwiches and fruit and let dissolved nitrogen gas escape from our bloodstream, we were ready for another go. Maddie did a giant stride into the water, followed by her mother and the rest of the crew.

We dropped to the bottom, swam through a coral tunnel and came upon a colorful lionfish. Known to scientists as the Pterois and native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, this outlandish critter has red, white and black bands, fan fins that look like a lion's mane and — here's the kicker — poisonous spiky fin rays.

We'd been instructed not to touch anything in the underwater preserve where we were diving, but for this football-sized fish, it was especially true. Its venom, delivered from an array of up to 18 needle-like dorsal fins, is painful and can even cause breathing problems. Fortunately, it's seldom fatal.

Unlike certain other aquatic creatures, lionfish are anything but endangered. Rather, they are troublemakers — an invasive species — in this part of the world because they are ferocious eaters with no predators themselves. That's why locals have been encouraged to capture and eat them.

That's been a bit of a hard sell because of their poisonous spines. Still, the fish are a delicacy in Asia, and some restaurants here and in the Bahamas serve them.

Farther on, we found a pair of brightly colored golden nudibranchs — soft-bodied marine gastropod mollusks — perched on an outstretched arm of fan coral. Nearby, a pair of lobsters hunkered down in a small cave, trying to avoid our attention.

And on it went. Over the next few days, we saw more sharks, plenty of four-eyed butterfly fish, blue tangs, starfish, box-like spiny puffers, goatfish, moray eels and even some pipefish.

Bryant Lum, a Ventura ophthalmologist who was diving with his two sons, was making his third visit to the Turks and Caicos.

Lum, who has dived up and down the West Coast and all over the Pacific, including Fiji and Tahiti, said he chose the Beaches resort on Providenciales, the most developed of the Turks and Caicos Islands, for its unlimited diving for him and his sons, ages 12 and 15, and other options for his wife and daughter, who were not diving.

"We may be headed to Australia's Great Barrier Reef for our next dive trip, but the Turks and Caicos Beaches resort is the only place our kids have said they wanted to return," he said. The all-inclusive destination appeals to families with its kids and teen programs, water park and numerous pools.

The only downside was that, unlike a five-hour flight to Hawaii, getting to the Turks and Caicos required a full day of travel and a connecting flight on the East Coast.

The resort worked well for my family too. While Kathleen, Maddie and I dived, Anders, our 10-year-old, kept busy at the Kids Club with a buddy he met from New York. They also took a "Bubbles" scuba course, in which they learned the basics in a pool. And we snorkeled together too, just off the beach.

Beaches also offers windsurfing, night scuba diving trips, a dozen miles of white sand beach, paddle boarding, trips to outer islets, sailing and other activities.

But one day, I decided to break free from the all-inclusive cocoon. I hopped in a cab and headed a few miles away to the Leeward marina, where I met Big Blue sea kayaking guide Ben Zirin.

We headed out into the shallow, crystal-clear waters between the mangroves, where we startled a snoozing lemon shark that bolted when we were nearly on top of it. As we paddled on, a warm and gentle rain fell on our backs.

Zirin explained the difference between the black mangrove and the dominant red mangrove plant, the latter of which sends out roots from above the waterline. He also brought up a conch shell, complete with its inhabitant. But the best discovery was a slimy mangrove jellyfish that he placed in my hand. Fortunately, it did not sting.

As we paddled toward a cul-de-sac in the mangrove, a nurse shark shot under our kayaks, zipping out toward open water.

Back at Big Blue headquarters, co-owner Mark Parrish, a marine scientist by training, said he came to the islands from his native England to work on a conch farm in 1997 and found a home.

"It's a little tricky getting from island to island," he said. "But that just means there is so much to discover here, especially if you are interested in learning about the islands' flora, fauna and geography, to say nothing of exploring and having fun."

Back at Beaches, we hunkered down for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, which later morphed into Superstorm Sandy and caused much destruction along the East Coast.

After Sandy moved north — it sideswiped the Turks and Caicos Islands — we waited a day and then decided to try one more dive.

But the Caribbean was still angry. Even down in the coral, 50 feet below the surface, the surge was strong. Worse, I felt as if I were skiing in a whiteout because of the low visibility.

I grabbed Maddie's hand so she wouldn't be swept off to Cuba, and we kicked hard to stay with our group. On the surface, I told her we'd visit again some year down the road, when the seas were calm once more.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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