April, 2008 - Greetings Divers!
As you know, Team Manta recently fled the cold March snow of Wisconsin to the sunny Caribbean leisure of Grand Turk. It was the perfect get away for this time of the year and the accommodations and diving exceeded my expectations.
Grand Turk, the capital of the British Crown Colony of the Turks and Caicos Islands, is a sleepy Caribbean oasis. Situated just north of Dominican Republic, it is only 6.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. We had to fly from Chicago to Dallas, to Providenciales, and finally to Grand Turk, that final leg in a 19 seat flying bus. One bad thing, though, our travel agent neglected to tell us that they only allow 44lbs. of luggage per person! Needless to say, not all of our luggage went on the plane with us and we had to pay extra for our excess weight. The remaining pieces came on the next flight and everything was ok.
In spite of the fact that there is a Margaritaville on the island expressly for cruise ship passengers; the remainder of the island is untouched by blatant commercialism. In fact, when reading up on what to expect from my experience there, every review mentioned the extreme slowness of service on the island. I usually take these internet comments with a grain of salt, but since it seemed to be a prevailing sentiment, I prepared for the worst. I was not disappointed. It was not uncommon to sit for 20minutes waiting for a bottle of water. When dining in a group the first few times, we would try to wait politely before starting to eat until all persons at the table were served. This proved impractical, however, if you wanted to eat your meal while it was still hot. Fortunately, we caught on quickly accepted that we were not about to change this long tradition, and budgeted more time than we previously thought necessary to eat. Isn’t this what vacation is supposed to be? We first tried Michaels, the restaurant in the Osprey Atrium building. Not only did it take an extreme amount of time to get breakfast, they were not aware that eggs could be prepared with the yolks firm. In addition, in spite of the fact that the restaurant charged for each cup of coffee, it was near impossible to get a second cup! We ventured down the street to the Secret Garden in the Salt Raker Inn for lunch. This was a lovely outdoor eating establishment that served terrific conch fritters and cracked conch. (Think conch fingers). Again, we hurried Americans had to just take a deep breath and relax, talk diving or whatever, and be patient until the food was served. The best restaurant, though, was in the Turks Head Mansion. This inn offered both indoor and outdoor seating, and a bar. They usually open at 8am, but Darrin, the manager was nice enough to open earlier for us so we could eat there and make it to the dive boat by 9am. They were also able to make eggs in whatever style you ordered. Their dinner menu was varied and everything delicious. To spice up the offerings, they had “Brazilian Night” with a selection of Brazilian dishes. We were surprised to find out that when lobster season ends, restaurants are not only forbidden to serve lobster, they cannot even have it in their freezers. This discourages unlawful harvesting of lobster and ultimately protects future lobstering. Luckily for us this end of the season purging of lobster supplies occurred while we were on the island, so we were treated to an evening of lobster prepared in many different ways. Different restaurants could be found at each inn along the road running in front of the Osprey hotel, where we stayed and Oasis Divers, the dive operation we used. We were always only a leisurely walk away from our next meal.
We stayed at the Osprey hotel. This establishment consists of two buildings. The Beach Hotel has beach side rooms with patios or balconies facing the ocean. These rooms, while more expensive, did come with a full or mini kitchen. The other building, the atrium, is just across a narrow lane and not right on the water, although you were allowed full use of the pool or beach across the lane. I found the atrium rooms were very spacious, with air conditioning, ceiling fan, and a small refrigerator. There was a balcony that all the second floor rooms shared, that over looked the lane. We sat out there each night, enjoying a gentle breeze, looking at our pictures from the days’ dives, talking about our dives, surfing the internet (there was free wireless available) or watching the occasional group of cows meander by. If you were considering a trip to Grand Turk, I would also recommend staying at the Turks Head Mansion. As mentioned, we really enjoyed the food there, as well as all the laughs we had with the inn’s manager, but in addition, this colonial home has 5 double occupancy rooms for rent. Staying there would give a greater sense of living in the Caribbean rather than visiting it. Don’t be scared away from places with out a beach as with an island as small as Grand Turk, a beach is only a short walk from wherever you are!
As mentioned, we dove with Oasis Divers. We had a two boat dive per day and unlimited shore diving deal, but truthfully, the shore diving was a bust! The surf was really tough and it was a really long swim out to the reef from the beach. We tried one shore dive and we would have been willing to try again, but the weather would not cooperate. I just wouldn’t count on shore diving there. We had a great boat, though. We had it all to our group of ten and our 3 dive staff. I was so relieved we weren’t assigned to one of the skiffs I saw some groups in. Our Jamaican dive staff, Max, Rich and Lazarus, was very helpful and accommodated those with challenges getting back into the boat with gear on. We were allowed to have hour long dives, as long as we returned to the boat with 850psi. Since the water was a bit cool, 79°, most of us wore 5mm suits and dive beanies. We were all very comfortable. The visibility was about 60-70ft., worse of course, the day we had a bit of weather. We saw an enormous green moray at McDonalds, a site with great arched coral formations, squids and wild bioluminescent displays on our night dive, and played with an octopus, but the highlight for me was the Deep Diver Specialty class. This is a class to help divers get used to deeper dives and to see the effect that depth has divers as well as inanimate objects. We looked the effect of depth on color swatches, a plastic bottle, and several types of neoprene, marshmallow peeps and goldfish crackers. The exercises led to many lively discussions around the dinner table and on the balcony at night, but most vexing, was the question of the effect of depth on a raw egg. Our friend from Turks Head was nice enough to donate a couple of eggs, so we set out the next day to find out. Our dive guides, always willing to pitch in in the name if science, took us to English Point which had a deep sand channel perfect for our experiment. Each member had their assignment. Pete Grundberg agreed to be the videographer, Barry Cartwright and Tina NiemiJohnson were the egg crackers and I was taking still photos. Mike and the other divers would position themselves a bit shallower to observe. We carefully transported our eggs to 100ft, established ourselves neutrally buoyant, and got everyone in position. I have to give big props to Pete, who at 100ft. was narced (another effect of depth on divers!), but fought to stay focused on the egg. At one point Barry had to shove him away because he had drifted into him, but for the most part he did a great job and safely ascended to clearer thinking when we were done. It was a great experiment and hilarious! I’m not sure, however, if it was funny because it was funny, or because we were at 100ft.!
As it was humpback whale migration season, we did make one excusion to look for whales. This 4 hour trip was well worth the $65 a piece we paid. We were lucky enough to see several whales, including a mom and calf. As there were whale researchers on board with us, we were able to actually hear the whale songs on a microphone they had under the boat. Cool!
All in all, I couldn’t have had a better time. Our group was very compatible and we sure and a lot of laughs, and after all that’s what I look for in a vacation. If you are looking for a place to enjoy diving and unwind from the usual crazy pace of your life, Grand Turk is the spot for you.