What color is water? It can be beige, white, mustard, emerald, aquamarine and cobalt - at the same time. To witness this phenomenon, all you need do is visit the Turks & Caicos Islands. Standing on the shore at midday, you can watch sunlight play across water tinted beige by marl banks, bleached white by sandbars, yellowed by shallow coral heads and transformed from emerald to aquamarine to a rich cobalt blue by a bottom that drops abruptly into the abyss.
The abrupt fade to blue hints at the unique underwater topography of the Turks & Caicos, which juxtaposes sheer underwater walls with rich inshore breeding grounds.
North of the island of Hispaniola, a pair of giant sub-sea plateaus rise abruptly from the depths of the tropical Atlantic. Separated by the 7,000-foot deep Columbus Passage, these flat-topped formations culminate in some 300 miles of shallow sand flats and 48 islands.
Caicos, the larger of the two plateaus, was derived from the Lucayan Indian name "Caya Hico" for string of islands. Running clockwise from West Caicos, the string includes Provodenciales, which is the most developed island of the group, along with the more sparsely settled islands of North, Middle, East and South Caicos, which form a pronounced arc across its northern perimeter facing the open Atlantic.
Provo's Northwest Point presents a broad assemblage of sheer drops, cascading slopes and inshore coral gardens that feature some of the region's tallest stands of pillar coral. On the more distant reefs of West Caicos and distant French Cay, sponges and sea fans of extraordinary shapes and sizes flourish on nearly vertical embankments. Across the shallower expanse of the upper plateau, scattered coral heads host a colorful collection of reef fish and invertebrates, along with easily approachable groupers attending cleaning stations.
Some 20 miles to the southeast of the Caicos plateau, a slightly smaller undersea mountain rises to create the islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Low-key and laid back, these islands boast small inns and vintage guesthouses rather than mega-resorts and traffic. The major enticement for divers lies just offshore in the form of sheer walls punctuated by large swim-through tunnels and coral arches. Sites like Black Forest, named for its abundant trees of black coral, and Rolling Hills show that both coral and sponge growth rule, embellishing the marine cliffs with great vigor.
With a wealth of sites close to land, dives are often conducted as one-tank outings in small boats with surface intervals spent on the beach. Few feelings can compare to the sensation of floating along these walls with a living reef to one side and nothing but the blue void of inner space all around.
While divers in the Turks & Caicos always stand a good chance of running into both large stingrays and eagle rays, moderate-sized reef sharks, sea turtles and curious groupers, they may also find themselves face to face with some of the ocean's larger residents.
During the months of January through the beginning of April, humpback whales use the coastline of the Turks & Caicos as a temporary stopping point during their annual migration.
Between late June and mid-July, adult nurse sharks mate in the shallows of both French Cay and Great Sand Cay. In June and July, divers may encounter flocks of as many as 50 eagle rays gliding along the walls of South Caicos.
On Gibb's Cay, dive/snorkel operators from Grand Turk have developed a feeding area similar to Grand Cayman's Stingray City that features well over a dozen large, friendly, female Southern stingrays. During feedings, it is not uncommon to see baby lemon sharks venture in looking for scraps.