Christopher Columbus is credited with many discoveries during his ocean voyages one of which is the string of islands known as Turks and Caicos which occurred during his famed 1492 expedition. The islands were already inhabited and had been for approximately 700 years by the Lucayan and Taino Indians. Grand Turk Island and the four island chain of North, Middle, East and South Caicos are the basis for the naming. The word Turks refers the turk head cactus which is found on the islands while the word Caicos comes from the Lucayan words "caya hico" which means string of islands. Numerous other islands and cays are included as a part of Turks and Caicos for a grand total of 40 of which only eight are inhabited. The reefs there cover 1000 square mile making it the third largest in the world. It is no wonder that this has become a prime destination for snorkeling. Tourism began in the 1980's on the island of Providenciales which is located just west of North Caicos. The reefs, beaches and turquoise water of "Provo", as it is more commonly referred to, have been explored by snorkelers from all parts of the globe. Our article is going to tell you the best snorkeling in Provo, Turks & Caicos, and what you will see underwater.
As tourism increased, it was quickly realized that protection of the reefs and surrounding habitat would be needed to ensure it's continued beauty and sustainability and 1992 marked the designation of over 6530 coastal and marine acres as Princess Alexandra Land and Sea National Park. Parts of the park are set aside as animal refuges but the majority is open for visitors to enjoy for recreation. As with any National park there are rules and regulations that must be observed. It is illegal to take any natural or historical artifacts which is inclusive of sea shells, plants, animals, flowers and corals. For the safety and enjoyment of all visitors, no open fires or loud music is permitted. Fishing and the collection of conch on park property is illegal and is punishable with fines and/or imprisonment as is littering and vandalism. Though there is a 15 mile per hour speed limit for power vessels in the park, many boaters flagrantly ignore this rule which has resulted in some accidents because of this recklessness. Snorkelers are advised to utilize the buddy system and to be cautious of boat traffic in the areas being snorkeled. Many of the top snorkeling spots lie within the park area along it's 13 miles of beach and we have highlighted a few for you to consider. There are resorts along the beach which are within walking distance from the water but with this much shoreline to explore, renting a car is probably a good idea. That way you can grab your snorkeling gear and go.GRACE BAY BEACH
Situated along the northeast coast of this beautiful island, this award winning beach is a must for all snorkelers. The three mile long stretch of beach is in pristine condition with free parking near any one of it's nine public access entry points.The reef area here is not as close to the shoreline as may be found in other locations so knowing your limitations is an important consideration. The area between the shore and reef is mostly a sand bottom so more fish and marine life will be spotted the closer you are to the reef system. Waters in this area can be rough at times which, again stresses the importance of knowing your limitations. The area along the western shore of the beach has proven a very favorable spot for your snorkeling.BIGHT REEF
This reef system is an excellent choice as it begins a mere 350 feet from the shore. Access is from the stretch of beach right in front of the Coral Gardens Resort (aka White House). Ample free parking is available at the Children's park entrance area which is also considered to be the best section of the beach. Sea Grass beds begin about 75 feet from the shoreline and are prime locations for spotting turtles, eagles rays and barracuda. About 50 percent of the of the reef itself is in waters that are less than 5 feet in depth. Care should be exercised with respect to fin kicking to avoid damage to the reef. There is a designated "Reef Conservation Exclusion Zone" which is a large roped off area of the reef that is considered off limits to everyone. The reason is to ensure the growth and the health of the reef system and it's inhabitants. While this area may be tempting, please respect this area so as not to disrupt this delicate ecosystem contained therein. In addition to this area snorkelers and swimmers are advised to stay within the designated swim and snorkel zone which is defined by the use of white buoys for safety against motorboat traffic. The wide variety of marine life found on the accessible portions of the reef include starfish, trumpetfish, angelfish, blue tangs, stingray and parrotfish. Identification cards have been erected under water to help identify the various corals that you will see along your journey.SMITH'S REEF
Smiths Reef is located in the Turtle Cove area and is popular with the snorkelers but because it is close to the marina, please be particularly careful of boat traffic. This area is fantastic for all levels of snorkeling whether it is your first time or your hundredth. There are three beach access points in this area which is located on the western most stretch of beach within the National Park. Areas of this reef system a closer to shore than is found at other locations and it's crevasses and overhangs are home to a variety of residents. Tube worms and anemones dot the reef while yellow stripes, grouper, grunts and tangs dart about it. This reef is one that you want to take your time to explore as there is so much to see. Majestic eagle rays have been spotted gliding gracefully over the sea grass beds that are prolific in this beautiful underwater terrain. Many snorkeling visitors to Provo have spent a goodly part of their vacation exploring this reef alone. If you thought it was beautiful by day then make sure you grab your flashlight and return for some night snorkeling. You will be amazed at the reef at night as a host of other marine life make their appearance. Lobster and crab come out of their hiding spots to feed and the corals open their tendrils to catch the tiny morsels floating by. You may spot some of the day shift nestled into the reef sleeping after their exhausting day on the reef. You might even catch a glimpse of a Parrotfish wrapped up in it's night time cocoon.This is also a time to spot the occasional octopus and squid.
If your vacation to Turks and Caicos has you staying on Provo at one of the many resorts, remember that this is just one the islands that make up the whole. Be sure to explore the snorkeling adventures available on the other islands as well. Your resort may have information on snorkeling boat tours that will expand your snorkeling even further.
By Roy Jamason
Written February 12, 2015