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Turks and Caicos: Snorkeling off Grace Bay Beach

Note: From July 14-21, my mom – who is awesome – took me and my brothers and our wives and families on a resort trip to Turks and Caicos. It was, no question, the best vacation I have ever taken (I don’t count my Germany trip as a vacation, because I was only 19 at the time, and life was still pretty much a vacation. Anyway…) It was a week of totally off-the-grid time – no internet, no cell phone – for relaxing and exploring and playing and eating and just enjoying each others’ company. It was also the first time Jenn and Kelsey have traveled internationally (except, in Jenn’s case, for an overnight visit to Windsor, Canada, just after we got married), and my first time needing a passport since 1990. I hope to post several entries about different aspects of the trip.

I have wanted to go diving or snorkeling near a tropical ocean reef since I was a little kid, and this summer, I finally got the chance.

On our first full day of vacation (Sunday, July 15), my daughter and I took our dive masks (no snorkels or swim fins) out to the big swimming area of the Beaches resort where we were staying. I’d never been in ocean water so clear. The seabed in the shallows was mostly bare sand, but there were patches of growth here and there, and in one of these, I spotted a small, pointed spiral shell maybe a little more than half an inch long. When I picked it up, it turned out to be the home of a tiny blue legged hermit crab like this:

Image: Wikimedia Commons; Author: RevolverOcelot

Kelsey and I took a few minutes holding it in our palms and watching it peek out and take a few steps before shrinking back into its shell a few times, and then she took it back to the plant cluster where we had found it.

A few minutes later, a woman came up to us in the water and recommended that we walk down the beach maybe a quarter-mile (if that – it always seems longer, though, hiking through the soft sand) and swim straight out from a For Sale sign she pointed out as a marker. “Thousands of fish,” she promised. “Just thousands. And there’s supposed to be a barracuda out there, too.”

Well, then! Off we went.

A pelican diving at the water where we were headed was encouraging, as was the dark expanse of sea floor we could see as we approached. As we got closer, we saw the dark patch was actually the innermost portion of a reef, with narrow paths of sand winding through rocks and coral in about four feet of water. At its edge, where the rocks weren’t as closely packed, we put on our masks and submerged.

It was about a half-second before I heard Kelsey break the surface and gasp in surprise. “I swam right into them!” she said, pointing, “Look!”

We were surrounded.

Thousands upon thousands of fish, about a quarter-inch high and 1.5 inches long, were schooling around us in a giant stream, all aligned like iron filings reacting to a magnetic field. And it was as though Kels and I were generating invisible, perfect-circle repulsor fields – reach toward the fish, or take a step in their midst, and the school altered its path, swept just clear of us, and swarmed on.

Once we submerged again and started drifting around and above the coral, we were quickly enthralled by the different corals (I’ve always thought brain coral is cool, and it was here in abundance) and algae – I saw what I later learned was a sea pearl tucked into a rock – and sponges and plants, and we started seeing other fish.

We saw some shiny silver fish the size and shape of fifty-cent coins, with bright yellow tails, and some tiny bright blue and yellow fish that we think were either Basslets –

Photo by Alessandro Dona, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

– or Cherub fish:

Image: Wikimedia Commons; author: Brian Gratwicke

We also saw Blue-headed Wrasse –

Image: Wikimedia Commons; author Tibor Marcinek

and Slippery Dick. (It’s okay to laugh: We did. Because we’re twelve.)

After awhile, we headed back to the resort and told everyone about the reef.

The next day (Monday), after breakfast, my brother Adam joined Kelsey and me on our second outing. This time, we took along swim fins and snorkels.

With three of us out there, we were a little more adventurous and went further out over the reef. We spotted a couple Blue Tang –

Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain (NOAA)

– some Flat Needlefish, and several juvenile Sergeant Major fish –

Image: Wikimedia Commons; author Uxbona

– none bigger than about 1.5 inches, but very distinctive with their black and yellow stripes, which led me to call them “bumblebee fish” until we got home and looked them up.

When we caught a glimpse of some significantly bigger fish – these gorgeous Yellowtail Snappers about 12-18 inches long –

Image: Wikimedia Commons, author: Transity

we followed them out just past the innermost barrier of the reef, to where the water was about 9 or 10 feet deep, and the bottom was a flat, sandy plain.

At almost the same instant, as all three of us pointed out a small school of yellowtail to each other, we saw one of these, hanging motionless in the water about a dozen feet away and down near the bottom:

Image: Wikimedia Commons; credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

A barracuda! It was about four feet long, and we all pulled ourselves up short to marvel at it. As we did so, it slowly let its mouth open just a bit, just enough for us to see the teeth.

It. Was. Awesome. In the real, not-just-like-neat-o-or-cool-but-awesome sense of the word.

We took turns surfacing to talk for a few seconds and ducked under a couple more times to look again before deciding that was a good way to end our second visit to the reef.

I got up early Tuesday morning for a long solo swim with the fins and goggles. Didn’t walk to the reef: I just stuck in the relatively shallow water near the resort and scanned the bottom. I found two broken sand dollars not long dead. One was broken completely in two (I found the pieces about six feet apart), and the other was cracked into five or six pieces but still held together by its innards. Both still bore a thin layer of coarse dark green fuzz. I took the completely separated sand dollar up to our balcony, along with a couple other tiny finds:

The sand dollar disappeared from our balcony after awhile. I suspect birds.

On Wednesday, Jenn and I walked the beach early to catch the sunrise, and found this starfish in the shallows:

Later, Kelsey and I walked down the beach in the other direction and snorkeled at the reef again. Saw more of the yellowtail snapper and others we had seen, along with some Rainbow Wrasse. We also saw some dark fish with blue highlights that may have been Black Durgon. We went out past the first barrier again (no barracuda this time) and explored its edge for a bit. Later on in the day, I learned that the resort’s expansive swimming area had actually been seeded with reef material about five years ago, and that the deeper areas (10-12 feet) were good for snorkeling.

Thursday, Jenn and I went out there, and she discovered that by drifting and letting our arms dangle jellyfish-style, we could wiggle our fingers and get the big yellowtails to come within a couple inches of our hands. The reef rocks were generously spaced, but there were enough plants and growth between them to keep things interesting. We saw a stingray with about a 3-foot span swimming near the bottom with a dark fish shadowing its dorsal area, and we followed it for quite aways. Not sure if it was a Caribbean Whiptail –

Image: Wikimedia Commons; author: Dan Hershman

– or a Southern Ray. Either way, it was another amazing moment.

On Friday, we checked out extra masks and snorkels from the resort and got most of the family out in the deeper parts of the swim area. Jenn and Kels and I went out together, and when they went in to shore, I went back out with my mom.

Mom and I saw a foot-long fish on the bottom that reminded me of a catfish, but mottled with a pattern of tan and brown, like large leopard spots. Haven’t found a good ID for that one, but we also saw a beautiful Stoplight Parrotfish about 16-18 inches long –

Image: Wikimedia Commons; GNU Free Documentation License.

– and a striking Queen Triggerfish:

Image: Wikimedia Commons; Clark Anderson/Aquaimages.

After mom was finished, I began holding my breath and diving down to get closer to these. Both the parrotfish and the triggerfish let me get incredibly close.

From the surface, I had also noticed a colorful, bug-eyed fish about 6 inches long that hovered near a rock and darted for cover beneath it if I drifted above. I decided to dive toward its hiding place, and as I got near, with noplace to go, the fish slowly raised a yellow row of spines along its back. Later, I identified it as a Squirrelfish.

Eventually I had to head back in, but I could have stayed out there for hours, and I hope I get the chance to do it again. Even if I don’t, though, it was an unforgettable experience.

(Thanks to for being an invaluable resource in helping me identify most of the fish we saw.)

July 27, 2012 - Posted by | Travel | , , , , , , ,

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