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Liveaboard Review:
Turks & Caicos Explorer II

When you really want to see and dive with sharks

by Conrad Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton, August 2009

Above is an aerial view of the Caribbean islands of Providenciales and West Caicos, both part of the Turks & Caicos Islands, which are located about 150 miles north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This is where Explorer Ventures' vessel Turks & Caicos Explorer II offers liveaboard dive vacations. Imagine: seven days on a spacious ship specifically built for diving, and as many as five terrific dives every day!

Location: Starts from Caicos Marina on Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands

Overall: The Turks & Caicos Explorer II is a spacious, almost 130-foot long liveaboard vessel providing all-inclusive liveaboard dive vacations. Trips start and end at the Caicos Marina on Providenciales, which is part of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Dive locations vary, but usually include dives off the Northwest point of Providenciales, West Caicos, and French Cay.

The ship has 10 staterooms for a maximum of 20 passengers and usually a crew of about seven, including three divemasters. Each room has its own bathroom/shower, the diningroom/salon is nicely sized and comfortable, there are two upper lounging and observation decks, and guests can do up to five dives per day.

Being on a liveaboard is the easiest and most relaxing way to dive because you never have to carry your gear around, and booking a trip on the large, comfortable and spacious Turks & Caicos Explorer II is the perfect way to get in some serious, yet relaxing diving.

Arrival/customs: On your flight you fill out customs documents (three forms on our August 2009 trip). Upon arrival at the small and homey Provo airport, immigration and customs are quick and hassle-free. Watch out for time-share and real estate sharks pouncing on you. Outside the airport, things are well organized. A uniformed transportation guy asked where we wanted to go and led us to the proper line. Another handled our luggage. Beware: cab costs are very high and large tips are expected. Negotiate the fare before getting onboard!

If you arrive the day the TC Explorer leaves port (Saturday), Explorer Ventures will likely pick you up right at the airport. If you arrive the night before, as we did, you have to arrange for a hotel to stay. Explorer Ventures will call you at your hotel and arrange for the pickup on Saturday. We stayed at the Turtle Cove Inn and were charged US$16/person + tip to get there from the airport, and US$12/person + tip from the hotel to the Caicos Marina. We wish Explorer Ventures would pick up transfers.

Getting to the Marina: The Turks and Caicos Explorer II docks at the remote and rather industrial Caicos Marina instead of the much nicer and more centrally located Turtle Cove Marina. This is a longish cab or van ride over a pretty rough dirt road.

General: For serious divers, the Turks and Caicos Explorer II offers five terrific dives every day, excellent food, lots of space to relax and enjoy the scenery, countless wonderful little touches (like freshly baked cookies or hot chocolate when returning from dives), comfortable cabins and a large, comfortable lounge. All staff was friendly and helpful, and it often felt more like hanging out with friends intent on showing their guests a really great time.

Below you can see how we're unloading and then boarding the TC Explorer II.

And here are some of the first impressions. Big flatscreen TV in the lounge, very cool spiral staircase and a little library on the upper deck.

Room: The TC Explorer II has ten staterooms on three decks. The two "VIP" cabins on the boat deck (upper deck) have queensize beds, the five cabins on the main deck have two twin beds that can be moved together to form one large bed, and the three lower deck cabins have doubledecker beds. We stayed in stateroom 7 opposite to the galley (kitchen), so we always had a pretty good idea what was cooking. The cabins are small, but serviceable. Ours had a small desk. There is an adequate number of American-style 110 Volt outlets for electronic gear.

Below is a look down the main corridor, a look into one of the staterooms on the main deck, and an idea what the bathrooms look like.

Each cabin has its own bathroom with toilet, sink and shower. They are small but adequate. Everything worked fine and there was plenty of hot water with good water pressure. It's okay to drink the water as it comes from the boat's own onboard reverse osmosis systems. The bathroom has soap, shampoo and conditioner, but no hair dryer. There is no minibar or safe (neither are needed as you can always get what you want from the fridge/bar, and everything is totally safe).

There were plenty of towels. Towels are separated into inside and outside towels, and they are not to be mixed. You never wear shoes inside the ship (they are deposited in a large box when you first board the ship). There is some drawer and closet space, but it's best to have the crew stow away your luggage and bags in central storage.

The beds were exceptionally comfortable. Maybe it's because you sleep well after four or five dives, but I have hardly slept better. You get two pillows each. The crew (yes, the divemasters are doing double-duty here) makes up your bed while you have breakfast, and in the evening they even put a chocolate candy on your pillow.

Crew: On our trip, we had Captain Ken, purser Sandie, engineer Doug, chef Stan, and dive masters Nissa, Joe and Dave. They were all friendly, helpful and very competent. The atmosphere was always informal, with the entire crew doing whatever needed to be done, be that helping with service, making beds, answering questions or just hanging out with us. They all made us feel like we were pampered guests on a friend's boat. No language barrier either.

Lounge and entertainment: A liveaboard is not a cruise ship, so don't expect shopping, hot tubs or night clubs. The emphasis here is on diving, and there's so much diving that you'll likely be too tired to do anything but hit the sack! However, the TC Explorer II's comfy, air-conditioned lounge has a flatscreen TV, two DVD players, and a Sony sound system. There are also books and magazines as well as board and card games. One of the guests brought a Wii and hooked it up to the flatscreen TV.

The TC Explorer is plenty large enough to spread out. The two upper decks are perfect for sunbathing or just hanging out. There are plenty of lounge chairs on the boat deck and the covered flybridge has comfortable sectional seating around a table. Don't miss stargazing at night; it's incredible, and you never have to worry about mosquitoes or other bugs. There aren't any.

Food/Dining: Eating on the Turks and Caicos Explorer II is buffet style in the dining room/lounge. When we were there, there were three tables with six chairs each. The dining room/salon was much larger than I expected and I never felt cramped at all. All food is prepared on board by chef Stan, a local from Salt Cay.

For breakfast, we had items like ham and eggs cooked to order, toast, English muffins, yogurt and cereal, jams and preserves, waffles, pancakes and sausage, omelette, Egg McMuffins, French Toast, etc.

For lunch, we saw curry soup and cold cuts for sandwiches; chicken and beef Fajitas; pasta Alfredo and marinara; cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese casserole and fruit salad; turkey soup, etc.

For dinner, there was pork tenderloin, mixed vegetables and salad; excellent steaks and baked potatoes, vegetables and salad, all topped off with berry pie and ice cream; fish/chicken, potatoes au gratin, asparagus, salad; lasagne, caesar salad, cheesecake; barbequed ribs and chicken with corn on the cob and slaw, lemon meringue pie; and finally a a full Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner with dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie.

Snacks included chocolate chip cookies, cheese and crackers, banana bread, scones and jam, brownies, etc. Food was consistently excellent. Stan's the man!

Bar/beverages: The vessel has two refrigerators (one on the top deck and one in the dining room) that are always fully stocked with soda, beer, milk, lemon slices, and other things. Of soda, it's primarily Coke and Diet Coke, also some Sprite and Bitter Lemon for mixers. There is red and white wine, which I suppose varies. We had Merlot. There is a variety of beers, including Coors Light and some local brews (Turks Head). The liquor cabinet next to the fridge is well stocked also, with the usual variety of hard liquor. Our gang of 12 wasn't particularly hard drinkers, so I don't know if the beer and liquor ever run out.

Suitability as a dive boat: The idea of a liveaboard is to make diving as easy as possible. This includes all the logistics of getting to dive sites, prepping gear, and getting in and out of the water as quickly and easily as possible. The Turks & Caicos Explorer II admirably succeeds in most areas.

The covered dive deck is right outside of the lounge, with your tank/BC secured in a bracket and with a bungie cord. There's room to put fins and other items under the bench. You never have to move your gear during the entire trip. There is a place for cameras and you can hang your wetsuit on a rack in the center of the deck where it dries quickly. There's an adequate supply of spare parts, tools, batteries and other necessities.

Dive briefings are all done on the dive deck. The crew draws maps of the dive site on a white board and uses that to explain the site and the dive plan. One of the three dive masters comes along on each dive. Divers can join the dive master, or they are free to go by themselves.

Short flight of stairs on each side of the dive deck lead down to the spacious dive platform which is just a foot or so above the water. The platform has a small bench for final prep, and two shower heads with hot water for warming up and rinsing off.

The captain's dive policy was maximum depth is 130 feet on air, 110 feet on nitrox. Maximum dive time 70 minutes, and come up with at least 500 psi left. Everyone must have a buddy unless they are solo diver certified (which no one was in our group). The boat has two ladders and also two weighted lines for 15-foot safety stops. Below you can see the dive platform with the stairs coming down from the dive deck the two showers, and the two ladders. On the right you can see what it looks like from underwater.

One peculiarity with the TC Explorer II is that when moored, the boat slowly swings back and forth around the anchor point within maybe a 90+ degree angle. This means that as you get back to the starting point at the end of a dive, you may or may not see the boat, or it may move away and out of sight before you can catch one of the lines. The crew recommended to just wait until it comes back, as it always will. You can also grab the line and go along for the ride, which means you have to hang on to your hat. The ride can be a lot of fun as you're flying through the water, perusing the seascape below, but it can also be a bit disconcerting and time-consuming to locate the boat.

Air: The boat has its own compressor system. Tanks are filled by the crew with compressor hose whips right where they are standing in their retainer brackets after you take the BC/tank off after a dive. You never have to take the BC off or carry the tank around. All tanks are standard 80 cubic-foot aluminum cylinders with US standard Yoke valves. Tanks are in good condition.

32% Nitrox is available on the TC Explorer II. If you use nitrox the entire trip, the flat rate is US$150 per diver. If you use it by the tank, it's US$10 per tank. If you do the maximum number of dives, the flat rate is a great deal. The per tank charge is high considering that most dive shops only charge $4 more per tank of nitrox. A nitrox tester is, of course, available and nitrox users must test and sign for each tank. Nitrox bottles have green valve caps, air bottles red ones.

Weights: Lead weights are available onboard in whatever denomination you need.

Rental equipment: On a liveaboard, divers bring their own gear. The TC Explorer II, however, does have some spare parts and equipment in case someone forgets something or something breaks. My air-integrated dive computer quit halfway through the trip. Fortunately, my dive buddy had brought a non air-integrated spare that she wore on dives as a backup. I switched to that computer and got a pressure gauge rental from the ship, which cost me US$5 per day. Fair enough.

Diving: The Lonely Planet book on Turks & Caicos said, "many experienced divers believe the Turks and Caicos islands offer the best diving in the Caribbean. They certainly offer a world-class diving experience. Excellent visibility, unspoiled reefs, spectacular vertical walls, and an abundance of marine animals both big and small attract divers from around the globe." I can mostly agree with that. What we did get to see during our week on the TC Explorer II was a great mix of reefs, walls and sandy areas. On the plus side, we never ran into other divers and the dive sites were never crowded, there was a great variety of sites, and we saw a good number of pelagics, including a lot of sharks. On the negative side, most areas had apparently suffered quite a bit of hurricane damage that will take some more time to heal.

Below are the dive sites we visited, including my max depths on each.

Sunday: Northwest Point of Providenciales:

  • Eel's Garden (2) (101 and 84 feet)
  • The Crack (70 feet)
  • Thunderdome (2) (36 and 37 feet)
Monday: Northwest Point of Providenciales:
  • Amphitheatre (2) (120 and 82 feet)
  • Stairway (2) (90 and 85 feet)
Tuesday: West Caicos:
  • Brandywine (2) (91 and 102 feet)
  • Gully (2) (92 and 92 feet)
Wednesday: West Caicos:
  • Elephant's Ear (96 feet)
  • Rock Garden (2) (90 and 76 feet)
  • Driveway (92 feet)
Thursday: French Cay:
  • Double-D (2) (91 and 84 feet)
  • G-Spot (102 feet)

Note that no two liveaboard trips will likely ever be the same as weather and other conditions may determine where the captain will take the boat. We spent two days off the Northwestern shore of Providenciales, which is a little busier as this is where all the smaller diveboats take land-based divers. Then two days off West Caicos, an uninhabited island that's about 10 miles southwest of Provo. It's a rocky, flat 6-mile strip of land that is protected both inland and along its shores where it is a marine park. You can see some old structures on it, and apparently there have been renewed efforts at developing, but they fell victim to the bad economy. Finally, we spent a day and a half off French Cay, which is a 20 mile ride along the shallow Caicos bank from West Caicos. French Cay is a small, uninhabited sandy patch that barely sticks out of the water by a few feet. The water is a bit rougher there, but the dive sites are less disturbed.

The image below shows French Cay. It hardly looks like you find some of the best dive sites in all of Turks & Caicos here.

In terms of critters, some of them are plentiful, others less so. There's the usual Caribbean variety of parrot fish, damsel fish, angel fish, groupers, spiny lobsters, giant crabs, moray eels, French grunts, Southern stingray and spotted rays, etc. You also see the occasional splendid toad fish peeking out from under a rock, an octopus, quite a few turtles, and a good number of the dreaded lionfish.

Lionfish are beautiful but an invasive species and apparently a real menace as they propagate very quickly and have no natural predators. As a result, they take over and decimate the native species. They just kind of hang around in crevices and don't seem to swim around very much. They are clearly related to scorpion fish, though they look much nicer with their colorful feather-like plumes. I can see why people shy away from killing them. Below you can see a couple of those exotic, colorful creatures.

Sharks: I had never seen a shark in the water before, but on this trip I saw plenty. If you want to swim with wild sharks (as opposed to just going on a staged shark tour), Turks & Caicos is the place to go. I saw my first nurse shark at the Thunderdome site, and then a good number of reef sharks both off West Caicos and French Cay. The Gully at West Caicos, especially, was a terrific shark dive. There were six to eight of them right when we got into the water, and they cruised in and out of our field of vision during the entire dives. We also saw reef sharks, nurse sharks on almost every dive at West Caicos and French Cay, and also the occasional black tip and silkie.

After a lifetime of reading about sharks, seeing them in person and diving with them was incredible. It's also clear to me now that while most sharks have common characteristics, the different types of sharks act very differently. The nurse sharks lay in the sand, resting or perhaps sleeping, and then cruise around close to the bottom for brief periods of time. They neither seem afraid of humans nor do they show any interest. Reef sharks, on the other hand, constantly cruise and may come very close. They seem quite interested in divers and sometimes seem on collision course. I am not sure what may trigger one to takea bite or become aggressive. None of the ones I've seen on this trip showed any aggression.

Electricity: Electricity is generated onboard and totally reliable. There were several US standard 110 Volt three-prong outlets in our room. For fire safety reasons you're not supposed to leave stuff plugged in while you're not in the room, which can be a logistics problem when you have a lot of computer and camera gear.

Computers/Internet: There is no internet access on the boat, so while you're underway you're blissfully cut off from the world. When docked at Caicos Marina, we had access to a free, unlocked wireless access point.

Cellphones: Once I arrived on Turks and Caicos, I got a text on my iPhone from AT&T saying calls would cost me US$1.99/minute, and data was something ridiculous like $20/megabyte via a local provider. I never made a call, but later found that AT&T even charged me US$2 for unanswered calls made to my phone, so unless you have an acceptable roaming arrangement, turn the phone off. On the boat, there is no cellphone reception. For a charge you can use the boat's satellite phone, or you can bring your own satellite phone. I tried to use the iPhone as a GPS, but that didn't work.

Security: The Caicos Marina is pretty remote, so everything seems safe even while docked. Once underway, the boat's completely safe. We never even locked our door. I inquired about potential pirate activity. The captain said there was none, and that the area was secured and patrolled.

Vendors: There is no shop onboard, and there isn't one at the Caicos Marina either. If you want to buy souvenirs, you have to do it either before you get to the marina, or during a dinner trip to town on the last evening. The boat did have one "boatique" sales event where you could buy a good variety of T-shirts, shirts, hoodies, sweats, chammyz, etc., with Turks & Caicos and Turks & Caicos Explorer embroidering and printing (at relatively high prices, though).

Cost: The per person list price for a week on the Turks & Caicos Explorer II ranges from US$1,695 for a lower deck room during off-peak season (September 1 through January 31) to US$2,495 for an upper deck VIP stateroom during high season (February 1 through August 31). We also paid a US$95 fuel surcharge per person, US$85 port taxes per person, transportation to and from the marina, etc., so the extras can add up. At least transportation and fuel charges should be included in the overall price. Still, given the amount of diving you get to do and being on what really amounts to a yacht, a very good deal.

Tips: There are no hard recommendations, but the expectation is that you're paying a tip of 10-15% of the total package price (not including flight, obviously) at the end of the trip when you do your final settlement with the purser. That goes into a pot which will then be distributed among all crew. As always, if you're particularly pleased with someone, you can tip them separately.


Bottom Line:
Explorer Ventures' Turks and Caicos Explorer II is a large, spacious (124 feet) liveaboard vessel that offers incredibly easy and enjoyable access to numerous dive sites around the Turks and Caicos Islands. A great crew, excellent food, generously sized facilities and five dives every day (if you're up to it!) make this weeklong trip unforgettable. Pricing is reasonable, dive sites diverse and you even get to see sharks. Compared to its primary competition — the Aggressor — the Explorer Ventures boat is older but is slightly larger, has an extra upper deck, and trips are somewhat less expensive.

Turks & Caicos websites
Explorer Ventures
Turks & Caicos airline info
Temperature/weather
During our stay on the Turks & Caicos Explorer the weather itself was mostly sunny and nice, with temperatures in the mid to high 80s (it's always nice and cool on the boat). Note that July to September is hurricane season, so get trip insurance. Two storms/hurricanes were coming our way in August 2009, both neither ended up affecting Turks & Caicos.
Water Temperature
During our trip in mid-August, the water temperature on the surface and at the bottom was an almost constant 84 degrees Fahrenheit. I generally used my 3-mil wetsuit, and occasional just a bathing suit.
Bugs
After having battled the dreaded "no-see-ums" and hugely annoying mosquitoes in other Caribbean locations, bugs simply were not an issue on our Turks & Caicos trip. We encountered almost none on the island itself, and none at all on the boat. This meant being able to lay on the deck and gaze at stars or just hanging out outside without being lathered in bug spray.
Getting there
While the Turks and Caicos Islands aren't far from Florida, there aren't as many flights and low cost air travel deals as there are to some of the more popular Caribbean locations. In August of 2009, it took us a three leg American Airlines flight from Sacramento to Houston, then to Miami (best avoided) another two and a half hour flight from Miami to Providenciales. American has direct flights from Miami and JFK, Delta from Atlanta, and US Air from Charlotte. For more info check Turks and Caicos Airline and Airport Information.
History of Turks & Caicos
Earliest residents were descendents of South American indians called Lucayans that had migrated to the islands in the 7th century or so. Later, there are claims that Columbus first made landfall on these islands, though that seems unlikely. Still, diseases and slave trade pretty much wiped out the native population in the early 1500s. The next couple hundred years ownership of the islands was a tug-of-war between the Spanish, British and French but not much happened because the islands have no natural resources or particular beauty. For a while there was salt trade and colonists set up cotton plantations. That didn't work well either, and so whaling was tried in the mid 1800s.

The islands became part of the Bahamas in 1799, became self-governing 50 years later, then were annexed by Jamaica in 1872. During WWII, the US built airstrips, which boosted the local economy a bit. Not much happened in the 20th century until wealthy jetsetters began development in the 1970s. In 1973, the islands became a British crown colony, eventually under local government. In 2009, right when we were there, the British decided to yank a supposedly corrupt government and take over again.

Language
The official language is English. We also heard a lot of Spanish and some Creole accents and mixes.
Currency
US dollars are acccepted everywhere and seem the predominant currency.
Turks & Caicos diving
More Turks & Caicos diving