Big Thrills Right on your Doorstep: Diving and Humpbacks in the TCI

This week we were lucky enough to receive a message from The Humpback Dive Shack telling us that they had some information to share about diving with humpbacks in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We’re always thrilled to get first person information from those at the source, and this is an absolutely breathtaking illustration of top-notch diving.

You look, and they look right back at you. Photo: Humpback Dive Shack

Where Beauty Begins

The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI for short) are part of the Lucayan archipelago, situated in the azure, tropical waters of the North Atlantic Ocean in the British West Indies, just South East of the Bahamas and to the North of Hispaniola, on the sunny latitude of 21oN. Average temperatures hover around 75oF in winter and 85oF in summer. Laid back island life is available all year round, just like the diving.

The islands are divided into two distinct groups, the larger Caicos Islands and the smaller Turks Islands, separated by the Turks Island Passage which is over 7000ft deep. The gateway to the TCI is the Caicos island of Provodenciales and the Turks islands, Grand Turk for example, can be reached easily on one of several daily inter-island, short and scenic flights of about 25 minutes, there’s hardly even time for a nap.

The TCI is a real slice of your imagined Caribbean paradise featuring long golden beaches, swaying coconut trees, crystal clear and warm water with extensive coral reef systems perfectly suited to scuba diving and snorkeling. In fact, the TCI has one of the longest reefs in the world, the famous Grand Turk Wall in the Columbus Landfall National Park on Grand Turk Island, boasting over a mile of stunning drop offs crowned with exceptionally healthy coral reef.

On the UK’s tentative list for a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Turks and Caicos are a biodiversity hotspot with several endemic species of flora and fauna such as the TCI rock iguana and the Caicos dwarf boa constrictor.  The islands are also notable for providing an important resting and breeding habitat for many sea birds including iconic species like the flamingo, pelican, and osprey. The tag line of the TCI tourism industry is “beautiful by nature,” and deservedly so because nature abounds on the land and in the water.

Your cool, shaded journey to clear waters awaits. Photo: Humpback Dive Shack

Excitement Comes Naturally

There are plenty of water sports to keep you entertained in the TCI, including diving of course, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, wind surfing and kite surfing. However, when it’s all said and done, one of the most awe inspiring, mind blowing, adrenaline pumping, truly exhilarating and absolutely breath-taking things that it is actually possible to experience while visiting the TCI is that natural wonder; the Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaeangliae). Every winter from early January to late April, migrating Humpbacks turn the waters of the TCI into an amphitheater for one of the greatest spectacles on the planet, the calving, nursing, courtship and mating rituals of these incredibly powerful yet sublimely graceful marine mammals.

Although whales may be sighted anywhere throughout the entire TCI chain during the season, the Turks islands, comprising Grand Turk and several smaller islands, may be considered a destination hotspot for whale watching. This is due to the fact that two very deep passages run either side of the Turks, the Turks Island Passage to the West and The Mouchoir passage to the East. These passages provide natural corridors of navigation for the whales as they migrate into and through the TCI breeding and nursery grounds. Furthermore, the vast expanses of shallow reef systems surrounding the Turks Islands themselves offer the perfect habitat for a mother whale to just stop, rest and begin nursing her newly born calf in a perfectly protected environment, safe from the hazards of the deep sea.

Best of all, the TCI is one of the very few locations in the world where it is actually possible to swim with humpbacks, other destinations for this unique experience include extremely remote islands in Oceania, the Silver Banks (Dominican Republic) and Australia. However, the TCI has several advantages for the discerning Whale Watcher. The main advantage of the TCI is its relative closeness to North America, Canada and Europe, you don’t have to fly halfway around the globe to get there; Grand Turk is only 600 miles south of Miami, meaning travel costs are significantly lower and you also leave a much smaller carbon footprint when compared with a trip to Oceania! A further notable advantage for Whale Watching in the TCI is that day trips to meet the whales are shore based. This is very convenient when compared to the necessity, expense and constraints of a liveaboard trip to the Silver Bank, the only way to swim with the whales from the Dominican Republic. Finally, the whale watching industry in the TCI is in its infancy, which is why you probably haven’t heard of it up to now. This means that there are only a handful of operators offering the experience, and the feeling of “too many boats” that may be experienced in some other destinations is still very far off in the TCI. Hopefully, with proper management of industry growth in the TCI this uncongested feeling around the whales can be preserved.

Humpbacks Take the Stage

The Humpback is well known as a gregarious and playful creature. On any given day you may experience numerous aspects of their behaviour. One of the most impressive behaviours to observe must be breaching, when the whale throws its entire body out of the water in a half back flip and then crashes back down in a literal explosion of water. The splash from a 50 tonne adult breaching can be seen for more than twenty miles. The calves also breach, sometimes in unison with their mother, it a really sight to behold. A variation on the breach is the head lunge, when the males thrust the front half of their body up and forward out of the sea before smashing their head back into the water with a loud crack, usually several times in succession, a mating display of sheer power and display of fitness similar to a Gazelle bounding in front of a Cheetah. Tail slapping is another favourite, the whale stands in a vertical position, head down, with the tail raised clear from the sea, it then repeatedly slaps its flukes on the sea surface making loud bangs, this can continue for several minutes and is thought to be a method of communicating location. Pectoral slapping is similar, but in this instance the whale slaps their huge, three meter long pectoral fin on the water’s surface (megaptera means big wing), females in heat will often use pectoral slapping to attract males in the area. If she attracts enough males a very exciting display can ensue, called a heat rush. During a heat rush several males rush, barge, gouge, jostle and fight at high speeds to gain the favour of the female, as the males break the surface during the rush the sea foams and they can be heard to trumpet in excitement. Once the female has selected her mate the two animals then enter into a courtship dance, an underwater ballet that is very rarely seen. During this helical dance the whales dive and then return to the surface on several occasions, sometimes raising their heads clear from the sea in harmony, like synchronised swimmers; it’s a truly magical display. When a whale raises its head from the water it is called a Spyhop, you might go to see them but sometimes they decide to have a peek at you too, raising their head up and peering into the boat.

Aside from visual displays the Humpback is also famous for its distinct and haunting song. A single whale may sing for several hours at a time and the structure of the song is just as complex as a language. The singing is one dimension to this animal that definitely should not be missed on a day out. Choose a tour operator who employs the use of a hydrophone, and underwater microphone that can detect the whales singing so you can hear it out loud on the boat. Have your handy handy and you can grab a pretty unique new ring tone, the live song of a whale.

Of course the ultimate thrill is slipping quietly into the water beside the whales, to observe them in the water while snorkeling. This can only be conducted when the whales allow it, an experienced operator can interpret whale behaviour and know when the time is right, or not. Humpbacks might be big but they are very gentle, timid in disposition and easily spooked, an extremely careful approach is necessary for interactive success. This means a period of experienced observation, a very slow approach if the situation permits and no splashing or sudden movements when actually in the water. If the whale should feel disturbed it will simply swim away, they are not aggressive animals at all. If a whale keeps moving away from a boat then you know it is time to leave it alone. The best case scenario is when the whale comes to you on its own terms, called “a soft encounter”. Talk to your prospective tour operator, ask how the tours are conducted and get a feel if it the ethics sound right for you. Remember, as with any wildlife encounter you get out what you put in and time is really the key here. So choose full day trips rather than half day ones and go multiple days if you can, plan a few free days to allow for bad weather or grumpy whales who might not want to play. Accept that nature is nature and you might just have the experience of a lifetime, something you will never forget, taking a dip with a whale.

The Fine Details

What to bring: A wide brimmed hat, polarized sunglasses, high SPF sunscreen and lip balm, a camera with telephoto lens, spare memory card, your smartphone, underwater housing for your phone, binoculars, motion sickness medication (just in case), your own prescription snorkel mask if you normally wear glasses, a dry bag, a wind and water proof jacket, a spare t-shirt, and a warm sweater, and shrimp for the whales (just joking on that last one).

About TCI

Motto: Beautiful by nature

Currency: USD

Power 110v, 60Hz (US Compatible)

Diving: All year round

Water Visibility: 300ft+

Whale Watching: Jan to Apr

Status: British Overseas Territory

Time Zone: UTC -4

Capital: Cockburn Town, Grand Turk

Avg Temp winter: Air 75F, Water 74-78F

Avg Temp summer: Air 85-95F, Water 82-84F

Main airport: Provodenciales (PLA)

Domestic carrier: Caicos Express or Inter Caribbean Airways

Tipping: Suggested at 15%

Thanks again to The Humpback Dive Shack for contributing this information. Find their Deepblu business page by clicking here and their official website by clicking here.

For more great dives, check out Planet Deepblu!