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Trip Report: Turks & Caicos Explorer II, June-July 2019

Discussion in 'Greater Caribbean and Bermuda' started by Ironborn, Jul 27, 2019.

  1. Ironborn

    Ironborn Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, New York
    This trip on the Turks & Caicos Explorer II (TCE2) was my first visit to the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) and my first experience with Explorer Ventures (EV). It left me with a positive impression of both the TCI and EV and a desire for more of both. The boat and its crew were excellent, lived up to their well-deserved reputations, and left a more consistently positive impression on me than Aggressor Fleet. Also well-deserved is the TCI's reputation for an abundance of sharks, which were the highlight of the trip, but we also saw many other, medium-sized animals and large schools of fish. The conditions of the reefs varied from one place to another, as some hurricane damage, bleaching, and other problems were evident in some spots. With the exception of the greater average depths of most dives, the diving conditions were good and relatively easy, despite some significant winds that week. The greater average depths (but not necessarily greater maximum depths) turned out to be less of an issue than I had anticipated, with the major exception of unexplained DCS that another guest experienced. Even that unfortunate incident nonetheless failed to detract significantly from what was ultimately a very satisfying trip, as the crew handled the incident impeccably and with minimal disruption to other guests. This trip fueled my interest in future travel to other shark-heavy destinations and persuaded me to step my game up for more wide-angle photography of big(ger) animals. Most of the hyperlinks in the text of this report lead to photos on my Instagram profile that illustrate what I have written here.

    Why I Went There

    The TCI in general and the TCE2 in particular had been on my “to do” list for some time. Key factors included the solid reputation of the TCE2 among Caribbean liveaboards and the TCI's reputation for many sharks and other, medium-sized animals. I had originally hoped that my first liveaboard trip would be on the TCE2, but I put it on the back burner because of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Favorable reviews and trip reports from 2018 persuaded me that I should make the TCI a priority again for 2019, and a competitive EV discount for one of my target weeks (the 4th of July holiday) sealed the deal. I briefly considered land-based TCI alternatives but did not pursue them very far because: a) the prevailing view seems to be that a liveaboard is the most cost-effective and convenient way to explore the TCI; and b) the terrestrial environment appeared to be both very expensive and conspicuously lacking in other, non-diving points of interest (to me, at least). I did not consider the competing Turks & Caicos Aggressor because the TCE2 seems to be the more popular and highly-regarded of the two, and my mixed results on previous Aggressor trips persuaded me that I should try a different company.

    How I Went There

    Another advantage of the TCI is their relative ease of access for me, i.e. a 3.5 hour direct flight from New York area airports on JetBlue, Delta, or United. The cost of round-trip airfare seems to fluctuate between relatively cheap ($300-400) and quite expensive ($800-1000); it is rarely or never between those two extreme price ranges, and with no apparent rhyme or reason as to why one week is cheap and another week is expensive. The captain of the TCE2 that week was a fellow New Yorker and had similar observations. I flew on Delta, which was the cheapest for that week, and I had no problems.

    The Boat and the Crew

    The TCE2 and its crew lived up to their positive reputations and were consistent with what I had read in prior reviews and trip reports. The boat provided a reasonable degree of comfort, comparable to that of Aggressor vessels, except that there was no hot tub, which I would prefer not to have onboard, as it can be a DCS risk. I had booked a berth in a double cabin with bunks, but the crew gave me a free upgrade to a cabin with one large bed that is evidently meant for couples, as the boat was at only about half its passenger capacity that week. As a caveat, the small number of passengers that week probably influenced my perceptions of the boat, the diving, and the overall experience, but I think that I would have still had a similarly good experience even with a full(er) boat. The food was good, but not as good as some of the finer cuisine on Aggressor vessels. I am not aware of any malfunctions or other engineering problems during the trip, except a small pipe leak that the engineer fixed promptly.

    My only gripe would be that the dive deck might have been a bit small for the boat's full passenger capacity, but it was more than adequate for the smaller number of guests that week. The camera table and the camera rinse tank were quite spacious and would be more than adequate for several large rigs.

    As others have noted, this boat is more prone to relatively wide and fast swinging on its mooring, which might be somewhat of an issue for those without prior experience with boat swing. The crew provided good guidance on managing this swinging, which may have also attracted large schools of fish to the boat and yielded some of the most interesting safety stops of my diving experience thus far.

    The crew was excellent and delivered a high-quality experience. What I appreciated most was their general attitude and overall atmospherics. I got a different and better vibe from EV, including the home office, than I did from Aggressor Fleet. It struck me as a somewhat lower-key, more authentic, and less corporate culture, and their customer loyalty programs are also more compelling. I sensed a different mentality even in their approach to photography, for example. The TCE2 crew expressed interest in my photography and that of another photographer on board that week, and the home office saw some of my photos on Instagram and asked to feature them in their social media. Featuring guest photos is a good way to give potential guests a more authentic view of the environment and a good opportunity for photographers to share images. I prefer the above to Aggressor Fleet's use of a guide to follow guests around and sneak up on them to shoot them for a DVD to sell guests at the end of the week for an extra fee, rather than showing guests animals that they may want to photograph themselves (which EV did).

    It can be easy to provide a good experience when everything goes right. The true test of a crew or any other organization is their performance when things do not go well. The TCE2 crew demonstrated their ability to handle problems well when another guest, a fellow solo traveler who had become my “instabuddy,” developed skin bends about half way through the trip. Both of us, the other guests, and the guides had been diving together as one group with similar profiles and well within the NDLs, and there was no other obvious explanation for the DCS incident. It appears to have been one of those odd cases that the current theory does not explain, and a relatively mild case with very mild symptoms. We were at the remote French Cay at the time, so the boat returned to Providenciales to drop him off to see a doctor and receive treatment in the hyperbaric chamber. A crew member accompanied him and went into the chamber with him. The boat returned to Providenciales the next day to pick up him and the crew member, even though he would not be diving any more on this trip, so that he could have his food and lodging. He spoke very highly of the support that he received from the crew and remained in surprisingly good spirits, given the circumstances. The crew truly distinguished themselves by taking good care of a guest that needed it with minimal impact on the remaining guests. We missed one dive when the boat returned to Providenciales to drop him off, and we avoided missing any dives when the boat returned to Providenciales again to pick him up by making minor adjustments to the diving schedule for that day. The crew continued to provide the same level of service even when they were missing one crew member for a whole day. Without my instabuddy, I paired up with the guide or another guest whose buddy sat out some dives due to ear issues.

    (to be continued)
    Brodydog, dflaher, kablooey and 6 others like this.
  2. Ironborn

    Ironborn Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, New York
    Diving Conditions

    One of the first things that one often reads or hears about TCI diving is that it is deeper than elsewhere. In retrospect, I think it is more useful to speak in terms of average depth rather than maximum depth, and to say that TCI diving is “less shallow” on average, rather than deeper in terms of maximum depth. I actually had greater maximum depths in Cozumel and the Cayman Islands than the TCI. What makes TCI diving deeper, in terms of average depth, is that the flat shelves behind the walls are “less shallow” than their counterparts in other destinations, such as the Bay Islands or the Cayman Islands, where they might be at 15-30 feet. The shallowest TCI shelf might have been at 40 feet, whereas the deepest one might have been at 60 feet or more. The implication of the “less shallow” shelves behind the walls for multi-level diving is that the first and deeper part of a dive, down along the side of the wall, should be less deep in order to conserve NDL time for the second part of a dive on the flat shelf behind it, which is “less shallow” and thus involves more continued nitrogen absorption than it might elsewhere.

    The TCE2 crew planned dives along these lines to ensure that we could get our maximum 60 minute dives, except for night dives, which were shorter because they were the fifth dive of the day. Surface intervals were also longer (90 minutes) than what I have typically encountered elsewhere (60 minutes or so), giving us more time to off-gas before absorbing more nitrogen again. Given the greater average depths here, Nitrox is essential, and a larger aluminum 100 tank is probably a good idea as well (I used one). The greater average depth in the TCI is a downside, as it requires more conservative planning and was probably a factor in the other guest's otherwise unexplained skin bends. With the exception of that DCS incident, however, it turned out to be less of an obstacle than I had thought it might be. None of these dives were deep enough at their maximum depths for me to feel any narcosis or harder breathing.

    Aside from the greater average depth, diving conditions were quite easy. Water temperatures were in the low 80s, often with a bit of a thermocline at around safety stop depth. The water color and quality and the visibility were excellent, comparable to what one would find in Cozumel or the Cayman Islands, with perhaps 80-90 feet. There might have been one or two times that currents were moderately strong enough to impact a dive, but otherwise currents were not a significant factor. The surface was relatively calm with mild swells, despite some moderately strong winds that week, which had more impact on the boat swing and our ability to remain at the more exposed French Cay.

    I keep making comparisons to Cozumel and the Cayman Islands because certain aspects of the TCI reminded me of those places. The overall environment and easy diving conditions were comparable to those of the Cayman Islands, but with richer marine life, comparable to that of Cozumel drift dives. I liked the marine life in Cozumel, but I was not a fan of the raging current. I appreciated the ease of diving in the Cayman Islands, but I found it lacking in marine life. The TCI seemed to be a happy medium between those two, but with greater average depth. Perhaps I found a good “sweet spot.”

    Where We Went

    Our trip followed what would appear to be a fairly typical itinerary for the TCE2 and its Aggressor counterpart. The captain explained that they tend to stick to these familiar places that they know will probably yield a good experience, rather than doing more exploratory diving elsewhere. We spent the first two diving days at Northwest Point on the main island of Providenciales. It had a good amount of mobile marine life, particularly on the night dives. The reefs were not in the best shape due to some algae growth, localized bleaching, and presumably other anthropogenic factors, given its location on the main island. The most interesting site here was the “artificial reef” of the Thunderdome, the broken-up set of an underwater game show. As is often true of man-made structures, it had denser reef growth than some of the natural reefs and attracted many schools of fish and other critters, like a shipwreck.

    We moved to West Caicos for the third diving day and later returned there for the second half of the fifth diving day and the morning of the sixth and final day of diving. West Caicos was equally interesting in its mobile marine life during the day but quieter at night. The reefs were significantly healthier here, perhaps because of the island's greater distance from human environmental impact.

    I would note that coral/sponge coverage on all three islands in general was typically not as dense or extensive as some other Caribbean destinations, with a lot of exposed substrate and empty sand, so I wonder if that is just a natural characteristic of the environment, rather than a sign of damage. I was more interested in the moving animals anyway, and if anything these conditions may have made it easier to spot and photograph the moving animals, as there were fewer places for them to hide, and it encouraged me to look more out into the deep blue and the white sand. Look at the photos from this trip on my Instagram account and see how much more blue water and white sand there is in the frames, even in some of the macro shots, compared to my other Caribbean trip (to Utila) earlier this year.

    We spent the fourth diving day and the morning of the fifth diving day at French Cay, which was the highlight of the trip. The captain said that they normally visit French Cay toward the end of the trip, in the interest of saving the best for last. He nonetheless moved it up this week because weather conditions would be most favorable for visiting this tiny, remote, highly exposed, and more weather-sensitive island in the middle of that week. The failure of local authorities to replace moorings that Hurricanes Irma and Maria had ripped out further limited access to dive sites there. We nonetheless ended up staying longer than usual, into the morning of the fifth day, due to the logistical implications of having to return to the main island to pick up the guest who had received his hyperbaric chamber treatment. Hurricane damage was obvious here in some areas (it looked like someone had dragged a giant rake through the reefs, leaving deep claw marks of dead coral). Other areas seemed completely unaffected and had the healthiest reefs of all, often with larger proportions of denser soft coral growth. Despite the hurricane damage, French Cay yielded the most rewarding wildlife encounters, particularly with the sharks, which appeared to be both more numerous and more interested in divers there.

    The highlight of the trip was the night dive on French Cay, where we observed a feeding frenzy of nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks that used our lights to hunt – not unlike the tarpons of Bonaire or the blue-spotted stingrays of Lembeh, but on a much larger scale and with much greater intensity and consistency. If French Cay was the highlight of the trip, this dive was the highlight of French Cay and one of my “Top 20” dives anywhere thus far. It is a must-see and another example of my belief that night dives often yield some of the most remarkable experiences. It certainly changes your perspective when a hungry nurse shark swims between your legs and grazes your crotch with its dorsal fin.

    (to be continued)
    drrich2, DawgFan, Esprise Me and 3 others like this.
  3. Ironborn

    Ironborn Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, New York
    What We Saw

    The most rewarding aspect of the wildlife on this trip was the abundance of nurse and Caribbean reef sharks. We saw them on the great majority of dives, but not on every dive, and often repeatedly during a single dive. In most other destinations, a shark sighting would be noteworthy and generate a great deal of tank-banging, pointing, signaling, and other excitement. Shark sightings were such a routine occurrence here that other guests, aside from myself and the other photographer on board, often did not visibly or audibly react. On that note, this trip also impressed upon me the greater difficulty of wide-angle photography of larger, faster animals that typically do not come close enough for a good image and persuaded me of the need to improve my skills and equipment for future trips to shark-heavy places. At French Cay, however, the sharks came closer or at least did not react when we approached.

    The other cartilaginous fishes that we saw frequently were rays – mostly southern stingrays, with a few spotted eagle rays. The southern stingrays were usually in the sand flats or sea grass beds on the shelves behind the walls. They occasionally appeared in pairs or with groups of smaller, bony fishes following them to eat their scraps as they hunted. I have seen that phenomenon elsewhere, but not nearly as frequently as I did here, or with as many bony fish tagging along. The southern stingrays of the TCI were more approachable and photo-friendly than anywhere else I have been, except for the artificial setting of Stingray City on Grand Cayman. The captain was an eagle ray enthusiast and correctly predicted that we would see them at French Cay.

    Other medium-sized fish that we encountered repeatedly were moray eels – specifically, the smaller spotted morays, rather than the larger green morays, of which we only saw one. I found this distribution unusual, as, in my experience elsewhere in the Caribbean, green morays are usually more common than spotted morays. We also encountered a few goldentail moray eels.

    As for other medium-sized animals, we saw many turtles as well, including a whopping three turtles during one night dive. In my experience in the Caribbean thus far, turtles were more common only in Cozumel and maybe at about the same level in the Cayman Islands. The TCI turtles were not only more approachable than elsewhere but also seemed curious about us and approached us.

    Another highlight of the TCI was what seemed to be an above-average fish density (by Caribbean standards). Again, I would say that only Cozumel had more fish in general and larger and more numerous schools of fish in particular. The most common schools of fish were schools of jacks, grunts, and snappers, along with the occasional line of blue creole wrasses, the occasional ravenous horde of blue tangs, and even some batfish. Most interesting to me were the schools of jacks and occasionally snappers that gathered under the boat, the sizes of which increased in proportion to the extent of the boat's swing, as it attracted them from a wider area. I had seen fish and other animals congregating under liveaboards before, but not nearly as much as I did here. This phenomenon yielded some of the most consistently interesting safety stops that I have ever had and some good photo opportunities too. (Photographers – use a higher shutter speed, as the boat swing causes motion blur in still images.)

    All three islands had a decent supply of fairly typical Caribbean macro, but it was clearly not the main attraction, even for someone with a special interest in macro (e.g. me). The most common and most interesting macro subjects were the flamingo tongue cowries, which appeared in greater numbers than I have seen elsewhere in the Caribbean and also far more frequently in pairs or trios. New to me was a different variety of feather duster worms that were less prone to retracting into their tubes whenever I photographed them. Aside from the above, the islands had other typical Caribbean reef critters, such as banded coral shrimp, scorpionfish, juvenile spotted drums, channel clinging crabs, and spiny lobsters. Night dives also yielded some more unusual sightings, such as sea basket stars (a personal favorite of mine), slipper lobsters, and this nudibranch that I still have not identified.

    For Further Discussion

    I enjoyed this trip for both the underwater environment and the operator. One measure of the quality of a trip that I consider is whether or not it inspires me to do more of the same or something similar or related. I understand that the TCE2 has many repeat guests. I would go again, but it would be an easier choice to make if they expanded or added a bit more variety to the itinerary by going to different areas, or if the local authorities finally got around to reinstalling the missing moorings on French Cay. This trip also increased my interest in shark-heavy destinations, such as the Bahamas, which I am tentatively putting on my agenda for next year, before graduating to the “big leagues” off the Pacific coast of Latin America (Socorro, Cocos Island, Malpelo, the Galapagos, etc.) I also look forward to more trips on other EV boats in the future, the first of which might be the Caribbean Explorer on Saba and St. Kitts.

    Below are some questions of mine, the answers to which may also be of interest to other readers:

    • What if any options are there for going beyond what would appear to be the usual Provo-West Caicos-French Cay focus of the two TCI liveaboards, perhaps with land-based operations further east, e.g. Grand Turk?

    • If you have been on both the TCE2 and other EV boats (particularly the Caribbean Explorer), were they similar in terms of the boat, the crew, and the overall operation? Or is there more variation between the different EV boats, as with Aggressor Fleet?

    • If I want to dive Saba, would I be better off with the Caribbean Explorer or a land-based operation? I had been leaning heavily towards the latter before this trip, which has now made the Caribbean Explorer seem more appealing. The big downsides are only spending half of the trip on Saba and the inability of the liveaboard to moor at some of the best sites on Saba.

    • Have you been on, or do you otherwise know of, any liveaboards with a small(er) maximum number of passengers?

    • How would you compare or contrast the underwater environment and wildlife of the TCI to that of the neighboring Bahamas, aside from the greater average depth of the TCI?

    • How do you get good photographs of sharks without feeding or baiting them?

    • Do you know of any other places where one can (safely) dive with sharks at night and observe their feeding behavior(s)?
    BigJimDiver, drrich2, DawgFan and 6 others like this.
  4. chillyinCanada

    chillyinCanada Solo Diver Staff Member

    A wonderful report! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
  5. deeper thoughts

    deeper thoughts Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Fantastic in depth report!
    rongoodman likes this.
  6. JoeFriday

    JoeFriday Photographer

    Some answers from our trips...

    The Saba and T&C boat are operated very similarly - you may meet some crew members on both as they mix things around. I believe these boats are both owned by Clay. Who was your crew for the week?

    For better shark shots just dive T&C more often. You always see sharks, sometimes very close up as they go about their life. No feeding is required here.
  7. JoeFriday

    JoeFriday Photographer

    Your unidentified nudi looks like a White Speckled Nudibranch.

    Did anyone see headshield slugs or pipe horses?
  8. GR8FUL

    GR8FUL Nassau Grouper

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Florida
    Kudos for one of the most detailed trip reports ever!

    I'd be interested from hearing more from you and others speculation on how / why the above DCS incident occurred. What were the symptoms, just a rash or what? Was the diver in any pain or discomfort?
    chillyinCanada likes this.
  9. Redfoot

    Redfoot Regular of the Pub

    # of Dives: 25 - 49
    Location: Detroit, Michigan
    Incredible report- I did the T & C Aggressor in April and had a very similar experience. I loved every minute of it, and the "Nurse Shark Rodeo" as the French Cay night dive was called for us, was the highlight.

    Awesome pictures, thanks very much for sharing and taking the time to put together this report.
  10. Ironborn

    Ironborn Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, New York
    @JoeFriday Our captain was Bob from New York. Dive staff included Vicki, Jay, Hart, and Beau.

    So who is Clay? Is EV like Aggressor Fleet in that the various vessels have different owners, for which the central office serves as a booking agency? Or is more centralized and consistent across the whole company?

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