Monday, October 18, 2010

Smith's Reef

I well remember while hoping that you don't that in our last post I said I was going to start making smaller posts more frequently. And it was my intention. But as some wise old Scotsman named Burns once wrote, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley." And that's what happened this time. I can't speak for the mice. We suddenly had to travel off island which shot a week of planning, and, well.. it went agley. But hopefully it's un-agleyed now. Re-agleyed? My Burns is rusty. Along with a lot of other things.(My Burns is rusty? Wow. Sounds like either a medical condition or a thinly veiled pickup line for the literate...)

Hopefully to my credit I had already picked a topic for the next post two weeks ago. This was pre-agley. And although it's a bit later than I intended, finally we have gotten back to it. But first (needing a quick and admittedly transparent change of topic) another sunrise photo for your perusal:

With the sun coming up a little later every morning these days we once again find ourselves usually up before it gets around to our side of the planet. In the  winter we get the sunrises and sunsets right over the ocean. Makes for generally nicer photos.

The main subject of this post is Smith's Reef.  I am hoping this will be of some interest, and possibly even some use, for snorkelers.   Everyone who reads up on the Turks and Caicos Islands will find out that the diving and snorkeling here is just about as good as it ever gets. Anywhere.  This is pretty much undisputed even among serious divers.  But Smith's Reef is not just for serious divers.  That's part of the beauty of it.  Accessibility for everyone.

Visibility of a hundred feet or so is a pretty normal day in my experience and these islands are surrounded by  coral reefs that are practically untouched. If desired,  you could find reef  here that has never before been seen by human eyes underwater.  And lots of it. The water is warm, and getting out to deep water only takes fifteen minutes. And there are a number of boating and excursion companies here that will gladly take the hard core divers out to 'the wall' or to some coral gardens or to the Endymion wreck site. If you have access to a private boat you literally have hundreds of miles of unexplored reefs all to yourself. And they are all spectacular.

But what about those visitors who are not trained SCUBA divers? Or visiting families with children who want to introduce them to snorkeling gradually in a safe spot? Or exceptionally cheap or asocial people like me who don't especially want to spend several hundred dollars to get committed for the day on a charter with dozens of strangers?

Well, Smith's Reef just might be the option you are looking for. It's right off the beach near Turtle Cove here on the north side of Provo. All you need is your bathing suit, faceplate, snorkel and flippers. And it's free.

Located just north of Smith's Reef Road, it's real easy to find:

We went out there yesterday morning to take these photos. We parked in the open lot there at the west end of Coconut Road instead of on Smith's Reef road.  On this recent  sunny Saturday morning, there was only one other vehicle there.

You can see La Gringa walking down the trail to the right and it's easy going. You do need to watch out for the sand spurs in a few places but they are obvious. Those are the little sharp 'stickers' that are basically just well-armed grass with an attitude. Or you could just wear shoes, come to think of it. We rarely do.

When you get to the water just turn right and keep walking. The path is well-travelled, and this is a good thing. It means someone else's kids' feet have already picked up all the sand spurs! Sort of like a Disney version of mine clearance for civilians.

Our visit was at low tide, which was probably a little bit sooner than the ideal time to be there. The best time is on the incoming tide. Clean ocean water is displacing the stirred up water near shore. It's clearer water without all the little bits of sand and particulates that come off the shore line and out of the canals and inlets when the tide is going out.
It was a flat calm day on the ocean Saturday. This is also a good thing. At high tide those rocks are submerged and getting through them barefooted while getting waveslapped around could be a bit much for smaller or clumsy ones. Ask me how I know. (Here's a hint: I am not a smaller one.)

Even though the beach is fairly well-travelled, there is still a good chance to see pretty shells. This one is clean and unbroken.   We left it there for you, by the way.   Just look over by the rock.

This one is still there, too, I bet.  Maybe because it's  about 25,000 years old and solidly embedded. I saw a number of fellow fossils on this trip.  Both plants and animals. They are there if you stop and look for them.

I didn't notice if there was a sign pointing out where the official kick off point for Smith's Reef is located. There well might be one on the nearest trail through the bush but since we came in from a different direction we wouldn't have seen it. You'll know when you are at the right place when you see this clear sand trail down from the beach through the rocks:

It's pretty obvious.  Just look for the best place to wade barefooted through the rocks. And that's where you want to walk if you are an unshod tenderfoot. Trust me.

My camera was already in its underwater housing, so the photos I took above water are not the greatest. But you can see there were three or four other people out snorkeling over the nearest part of the reefs. Not crowded at all, on this perfect day.   We get a lot of perfect days.

I'm mentioning that they were on the near reef for a couple of reasons. I've read some reviews on Trip Advisor and realized that most visitors here probably never get out beyond the first small reef. The people in that photo are bobbing along on the outside of that first reef which is only about 40 yards or so off the beach. If you are not comfortable floating out several hundred yards then this is probably just fine for you. This is also as far as you need to go with smaller children. You can be looking at pretty coral and fishies within about five minutes. And there are tons of colorful things to see even on the close-in portions of Smith's reef.

You'll immediately know you are in the right place when you start seeing some of the small artificial reef habitats, or "reef balls",  that have been placed along the 'trail'. There is one immediately to the left after you go down that sandy trail through the rocks. They look like this:

You'll need to start swimming just a few yards off the beach but it's an easy swim. And relaxing. The warm salt water here is exceptionally buoyant and you can float face down breathing through your snorkel and move along at your own pace. If you're new at snorkeling or not that strong of a swimmer, we used a noodle technique in Mexico that worked great for a newbie snorkler. And the water is a lot softer here than it is in the Sea of Cortez.   There's some mean stuff in their ocean over there in the Pacific.   Not so much here.

About where those other swimmers are located up in those couple photos above, the close in reef looks like this:

Not too bad for being within fifty yards of the beach, is it?

The further out you swim, the clearer the water starts becoming. You will also start to see the fragile corals that are too tall to survive storms in shallower water.  They need more depth to develop to full size.  They can't do that in constant wave action common in shallow water.

Even though the water is only about 8-12 ft deep, you'll start seeing anemones and other sea life. This one was in about 8 ft. of water:

If you continue out past the first small reef, you'll pass over a section where the water gets a bit deeper. I would guess it's maybe 10-15 ft at most. It looks like you have left the reef behind, and it's a sandy bottom covered with sea grass and not that much else to look at.

Unless you count other free swimming denizens of the deep as worth looking at:

If you just follow that guy you will come to the second section of reef. This is about 75-100 yards off the beach. It's a bigger section of reef with slightly more dramatic relief as it goes from 15 ft. deep up to within six feet of the surface.

This is probably as far from shore as you really need to go. The middle section of Smith's Reef has all the coral you will want to see. Brain coral, fire coral, barrel, stag horn.... it's all there. You could spend a happy hour snorkeling here and still be back at the hotel in time for lunch. .

Now if you are an experienced swimmer, and comfortable in the water, we would recommend you continue outward for about another fifty to a hundred yards to the third and outermost reef here. You will be looking down at more sea grass and the fish that live near it.

And then you'll start seeing larger structures such as this brain coral:

Or this Gringo brain coral...

I am thinking you can tell from these photos how clear the water is a couple hundred yards out.

And there's more good news in that the outer edges of Smith's Reef are not deep, either.

None of these photos were taken in water deeper than about ten feet.

We swam out to a green channel buoy which not visible in the photos I took from the beach. I don't have a good way to measure how far out it is, but would guess something on the order of 250-300 or so yards. There are closer buoys, but this is the one we swam to:

And as you can see, it's not too deep here either.

My  background career in one of my earlier lives  including installing oceanographic moorings. I was interested in how they rigged this up. And from the buoy down they did a good job of it. A swivel, a thimble in the nylon line, an eye splice and all of it secured with cable ties. Just the way I would have done it......

Until I looked at the bottom. Whoever put this together with the scrap iron anchor did okay until they got to this part. Not only did they not secure the nice stainless steel screw pin shackle but they attached it to a rusted out remnant of chain that is definitely on its last legs. I could probably have twisted this whole thing loose in about five seconds.

Kinda makes one think of the old adage that a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link, doesn't it? You reckon this buoy will still be here after the next storm?

Oh well. I know I am too critical of this kind of thing. Hard to let it go after all those years of sling links, chain hooks, shackles, torque balanced wire rope, sub surface buoys... never mind. I'm not here to critique the mooring. I'm just here to show you the pretty critters that make up Smith's Reef!

I don't know what any of these animals are. But I sure like to look at them.

It was also a chance to play with the new Olympus Tough camera in underwater photo mode. Some of these were taken with it on "Macro" and....

...some were taken with it on the Wide Angle underwater setting:

This one was with it on another underwater setting, I think it's Underwater Scene or something like that:

We had been in the water for about an hour at this point. We had other things to do or we could have stayed there a big part of the day. We never get tired of looking around on the reefs here.

On the way back to the beach I stopped to try to get a better photo of one of the  reef ball artificial habitats.

I don't know how many of these are in place, but they define a trail out from the beach to the first section of reef, at least. You won't get lost. Especially when the visibility is as good as it is here.

There are plaques on the top of the structures to tell you about the various types of underwater life you will see around them.   And this area is thick with marine life to look at.   I should caution you, if I haven't already, about touching any of it with bare skin. 

The ocean isn't like a lake or river.  Animals in the ocean are a little more serious than the average trout.  The fish are carniverous, of course, but so is just about everything else.  And that which isn't trying to eat something else has gotten very good at defending itself  from those that are actively trying to eat it. In the case of the corals, just about all of them will severely sting unprotected skin.  The fire coral, in particular, will ruin your whole day.    If you don't know what fire coral looks like, there's a photo of some of it out of the water on the shell of a conch in another blog post.    And we've got a photo of a bigger fire coral underwater on the  reef in another one.  It's pretty stuff.  Like coral snakes.  Okay to look, but don't touch. 

If you just keep swimming toward the beach you will find yourself back at the little sand path from dry land down through the rocks..

And if you lift your head up at that point... you'll realize it's time to take the flippers off and walk again.

(I'm not sure, but I believe that path to the left of La Gringa there will take you directly to Smith's Reef road. It's probably a closer walk than the way we usually go.)

Once again, there's the little sandy trail to the right. And I was trying to get a photo of the bouys out where we had just been swimming several hundred yards out but they are not visible in this image. I know it's about two fat thumb widths to the left of the white speck, which is a boat that was cruising around us while we were out there.

Someday I'm going to work our  low level aerial photography issues and get you some nice shots from directly overhead here.    I'm serious.    The helium balloon didn't work out due to the  constant winds here, but I'm thinking a kite might do it.  Use the wind to our advantage instead of fighting it.  What a novel idea. 

Turning back up the beach, you can see about where normal high tide comes up to the top of the band of rocks.

The view across the lower Bight looking toward the Blue Hills portion of Provo where "Da Conch Shack" is located off in the distance:

It had been at least two years since we had been to Smith's Reef. Once we had boats of our own in the water we stopped coming here. And there have been some changes in those two years. One of them is that someone has built some more rental cottages there at the end of Coconut Road. They look quite nice, actually. A block stone exterior, nice porches and hammocks on the ocean side. This one is called the "Ballyhoo". There is another identical one next to it.

Well, that concludes today's tour of Smith's Reef. If anyone is interested in directions or needs any more info, you can email us through the blog and we'll help if we can.

There is another spot on down the beach that we have heard is also a good spot to snorkel from shore, at the Coral Gardens. We will go check that out and take some more photos for another post in the not too distant future. Hopefully.

And because people are often writing us with their interests about various resorts and hotels around the Turks and Caicos, we are planning to post more photos of some of the accomodations available. We can get to the ones on Providenciales fairly easily, North and Middle Caicos takes a little bit of effort. But there is a very nice beach called Malcolm's out by one of the poshier and newer resorts on the island, the Amanyara. We haven't been out that way in a while. We also want to do an update on the changes and improvements at the Meridian Club on Pine Cay.

If anyone has an interest in any other specific hotels or all inclusives here, please drop us an email and we will put it on the list. Sometimes it's nice to see photos of places that were not taken years ago by companies printing travel brochures.

Now, back to more mundane aspects of living here. I'll try to keep it brief.

I know the plants and trees in North America are largely shut down for winter now. Well, one of the aspects of life in the tropics is that the plants never do shut down. Never. We have plants around the house blooming even now, in October. La Gringa took a few photos just last week. Here's a shot of 'springtime' for any gardeners reading this.

What would one of these posts be without a little DIY thrown in at the end? (wait....don't answer that...)

Anyhow, along with the upsides of living in the tropics we also are never far from some of the downsides. We had closed up several of the hurricane shutters over some of our sliding glass doors a couple months ago at the beginning of hurricane season. This week we decided to open them up again, now that September is well behind us and the season is almost over.

Can you believe that this was a chromed aluminum door latch just three years ago?

When I went to brush off some of the aluminum oxide, the top portion of that piece broke off in my hand. Chrome plated something or other.  Whatever it is (was) it couldn't handle this environment.  Shouldn't one be able to expect sliding glass doors to be designed for a beach environment? Sigh. Something else to fix.

Another aspect of life here that we want to  keep in mind is that we don't live on this hilltop alone. While I was whining and blubbering about the corroded up door hardware, La Gringa told me I should stop snivelling and be careful where I was standing. Oh..... yeah. Right. Forgot about those guys....

We've been told that the scorpion stings here are not much worse than a bee sting. Well, that's nice to hear. I think.   But the wasp stings I've had here are the worst I've had anywhere.   I don't want to alarm people with the scorpion photos so I should tell you that the reason we see them is because we totally disrupted their hillside by digging it up for a house.  I would bet that you will never see a scorpion staying in one of the resorts on Grace Bay, for example.     They can't afford the bar tab.

Did you know scorpions glow under ultraviolet light? No kidding.  I read that online, and we tested it for ourselves.   Check this out.

And messing around with the hurricane shutters got me into another situation that needed addressing. These things lock with sliding aluminum rods that are held in place with some simple stainless bolts. The manufacturer ships them like this:

Hard to tell that one is nearly frozen in place by corrosion, isn't it? But it was. I managed to get it loose with pliers, but decided that to put it back weakened and bent would be a mistake. Easy, but wrong.
So I came up with the idea of replacing it with some threaded 1/4-20 stainless rod. I went to two of the local stores that carry stuff like that. Ha. No stainless quarter-twenty rod to be found. So I rummaged through my increasing stash of salvaged hardware, and came up with some stainless bolts with the right thread. But the bolts were wrong. The bent thumbscrew thingy in the top of this photo is the part I am looking to replace.

I could have just cut the threaded part of those bolts off but I really didn't want to ruin all three of them. And I needed to temporarily replace three of the thumbscrews until I can find the right hardware.
So I took a die and made my own threaded rod.

Voila! LOTS of threads:

Then I cut that up into three pieces, and used the nuts off the u-bolts in the other photos to come up with a slightly new way of holding these vertical aluminum locking rods in place:

I went back and put flat washers under the nuts, but basically what's changed is that instead of the end of the thumbscrew now being what holds the rod, it's the nut that holds it. And now if the threaded portion of the stainless gets jammed into the aluminum due to won't matter as much. I can loosen the nut easily with a wrench, and no longer have to worry about twisting the soft stainless thumscrew off. I'll keep an eye on the ones I just converted for a while and if it looks like a solution, I'll convert the rest of the 24 thumbscrews to the new method.

(Yeah, right. Like I've replaced the 22 outside lights damaged two years ago in Hurricane Hanna....but that's another story).

On other fronts.... I am now deep into learning what I need to learn to replace broken PVC irrigation system fittings that were glued in place instead of being taped and threaded in place by some (former) landscapers of ours....

We had that slab poured specifically for the landscaping people to install the valves and plumbing for the irrigation system. I don't know why they glued the valves in place and buried them in the dirt. Don't even get me started on that one. Maybe I'll take a break and go try to figure out what's making the funny noises in the Land Rover's drivetrain instead.

But don't worry 'bout the old Gringo. I'll get it done. I have a plumber's hat around here somewhere. If it hasn't rotted away yet.

You just enjoy the sunset.


Anonymous said...

Ola Los Gringos! Cooler weather starting here in coastal NC so the snorkeling shots are much appreciated. I need one of those cameras. Smith Reef will be on the itinerary come April. Good to be on the downhill side of hurricane season - oops, I probably shouldn't have said that!


Heather said...

During our first trip to Provo in 2004, we couldn't snorkel at Smith's because a very large Bull shark decided to vacation there.

It was all the talk at Turtle Cove as it would come into the marina, swim around for a while and then go back out.

Ashworth said...

As usual, I start reading and can't stop. Smiths Reef is very nice. Why not take a trip to the northwest point and show everyone the DOME left from the old game show that filmed there. I found a real nice Lion fish there on my last trip, it was hanging out under the base frame of the sphere.
My boat is out of the water and my surveyor told me it is totaled from a bad storm that rolled through Jersey a month ago. It still sails nice, but looks terrible with deep scratches, scuff marks, and the loss of the jib sail (shredded). Lil Provo dragged her mooring for 50 yards before another boat blocked her. I'm still trying to figure out what I am going to do.
Jim Ashworth

Anonymous said...

Piratedoc, the camera is working out well. Its the Tough-8010 inside a PT-048 housing. Biggest complaint is that it's really, really slow.

Jim, this stuff about the dome at NW point is news to us! Tell me the story and where to find it, and we'll head up there and get some photos. Maybe this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Hello Heather,
We saw about a six ft. shark swimming around in the murky distance on Saturday, but I didn't get a good enough look to be sure what it was. I convinced myself it was a nurse shark with insomnia, and we proceeded as though that was the case.

Ken said...

The Gringo brain coral is pretty similar to the ken brain coral I think, thanks for the laugh.

And by the way the sunrise photo is spectacular.

See you in summer.

Anonymous said...

Haven't visited your blog in a long while and I'm glad to have come back. Great stuff!!!


Anonymous said...

Yup, we've all been missing you! Thanks for the post.
Great underwater pix!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, y'all. We are pretty happy with the little Olympus. I still carry the Pentax in my pocket, though. It's lighter and 'boots up' faster.

With the Olympus you have to really concentrate on holding the camera steady after you press the shutter button, because of the time lag.

I have also learned that hand held videos underwater are really tricky. I need to figure out some way to stabilize the camera. I am sure it would be better if I wasn't bobbing up and down snorkeling, but was weighted so I stayed in one place in the water column.

It will be fun to try to improve on it all.

Capt. Bob said...

Byron, Batten down the hatches, Crownweather reports that Thomas is heading your way. Thanks for your coverage on the schooner and our ministry. I should be leaving Fla. the third week of Nov. and will look you up on our way thru. I still have space for an experienced crew, stay safe.
Capt. Bob

Anonymous said...

Hello Capt. Bob.
Thanks for writing and the kind words. I actually sent emails to FoxNews, BBC, CNN and a couple others trying to gen up some interest. I did not get any responses yet. I was hoping to get you guys some publicity. Come to think of it, they were all deeply engrossed in the Chilean miner drama around the clock at that time, so perhaps I should try them again now that the human interest angle there in Chile is over. Haiti is back in focus now that this storm is going over them. Maybe I would have better luck writing Sean Penn.

Anonymous said...

Hello Capt. Bob.
Thanks for writing and the kind words. I actually sent emails to FoxNews, BBC, CNN and a couple others trying to gen up some interest. I did not get any responses yet. I was hoping to get you guys some publicity. Come to think of it, they were all deeply engrossed in the Chilean miner drama around the clock at that time, so perhaps I should try them again now that the human interest angle there in Chile is over. Haiti is back in focus now that this storm is going over them. Maybe I would have better luck writing Sean Penn.

TJ said...

Hello and salam to you. Great photos. Anyway, I am a postcards collector and looking for few beautiful postcards from TCI. Can you help me. If that's possible, then message me tjclassic8482 [at] yahoo dot com

My collections :

Best regards,

Miss Footloose said...

I am in awe! Of the beauty, but also of your photographic talents!

I have lived in several exotic foreign countries and grieve for all the missed photographic opportunites I've had because I didn't know what I was doing with my camera.

I'm learning now.

Kudos to you for pulling up stakes and be adventurous! The world is such a fascinating place and once you start really looking around, how can you ever get bored?

Looking forward to your next post.

Joy said...

Boy, I've really been enjoying these more frequent posts! ;-) Actually, I've been meaning to comment on this post for over a month.
Anyway, this was a very helpful and interesting post. Smith's Reef comes up occasionally on the TripAdvisor forum, and for some reason I thought it was very off the beaten path, hard to reach, etc., and now I know it's not! Beautiful corals and love the turtles, too. We'll definitely hit this spot next time, and perhaps save some $ by not doing the boat trip (though we loved the one we took).
Thank you for the info and the beautiful pictures.

Anonymous said...

Ouch!. Yes, I know. Over a month since the last post. I think there is a saying somewhere, and I am not going to look it up but can paraphrase it as 'man makes plans and the gods laugh'. We got called away to the USA again (NJ this time). This makes six trips to the USA since July. And when we get back from a week or so away, things here have progressed without us. Such as weeds. Rust. Corrosion. Vehicles HATE being left idle here. Things freeze up. I have had to replace the brake lines, a universal joint, and am trying to fix the transmission brake on the Land Rover. For example. The cranks on the window louvers are half frozen. Jack in the Beanstalk would feel right at home in our weeds. These things eat up the time available for fun trips. yada yada yada. excuses. But it has been really mundane around here lately.

BUT things are starting to pick up again. We went to see a farm on North Caicos Saturday. Got some photos. The annual Conch Festival is coming up this weekend. AND we have a new kayak on the way, should be here next week. We are back into 'Cruiser' season, with big sailboats headed this way. And no more trips off island planned in the near future. So hopefully we can get back to what we have planned. Which is more frequent posts. Right as winter hits North America.

I'll get right on it.

Michael Bob said...

Just returned from TCI, where my wife and I celebrated our 21st anniversary. We used your post on Smith's Reef to plan our own self-guided tour and had a blast even though the water was a little choppy when we were there. We're very jealous that you are living in such a beautiful place! Thanks much for the info you shared -- you helped make this our best vacation ever!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to write. We're very glad you had a good vacation in the TCI, and that we were able to help in some way. Comments like this really help us when we're deciding whether to keep this blog going or not.

Unknown said...

enjoyed our first snorkle trip on Smiths reef this morning. It is so beautiful. We saw a 10 inch red star fish. Will go back out tomorrow. thanks.