Diving and Swimming with Whales in Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos with Salt Cay Divers

I had been wanting to visit Turks and Caicos for quite a few years now, especially after I learned that it is well known for its diving. At the end of February and into March 2022, I finally had the chance to go. I did a lot of research on possibly dive adventures in Turks and Caicos as I had planned to take an entire week to properly dive. There are many live-aboard options which I think can be nice and offer good value. There are also plenty of dive shops/ excursions from the main island of Providenciales. But upon further reading I came across a blog post that referenced one of their favorite dives was at Salt Cay and the wall dives there. I also then learned that indeed Salt Cay wall diving is ranked amongst the top wall dives in the world. Through this I came upon the only dive shop on the tiny island of Salt Cay, Salt Cay Divers. I reached out and began planning my trip from there.

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Absolutely fantastic trip and incredible diving. I also got to snorkel with mother and calf North Atlantic Humpback Whales in the open ocean, this was simply an unreal, magical and beautiful experience I’ll cherish forever. Few places allow you to get in the water and get this close with the whales in their habitat. vI am so glad I did my homework and chose to spend a full week in Salt Cay to take full advantage of the diving, whale watching and beautiful unspoiled beaches. It is the perfect place to disconnect, recharge and be one with nature. The Salt Cay team is comprised of some of the nicest people on Earth and they really want to ensure you know what you are getting yourself into and once there, that you enjoy yourself to the fullest. The island itself is stunning, fully of history, and very much off the beaten path of not only Turks and Caicos but of the Caribbean. This was by far my favorite Caribbean experience to date.

In total I spent 9 days in Turks and Caicos. I spent 1 night in Grand Turk and had just under 24 hours on the island to explore, and then spent the remaining 8 nights in Salt Cay.

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Important Things to Know and Getting to Salt Cay

Salt Cay is not for everyone. Salt Cay Divers’ website details the logistics of getting here as well as what to expect on the island. When you reach out to inquire about booking, or if booking accommodation through AirBnB (though they prefer direct bookings for a few reasons), owner and manager Karen will reach out to you to have a chat in order to set and manage expectations. She really wants you to be absolutely sure it is the right fit for you so that you will enjoy yourself and not be disappointed.

Setting Expectations

Why is it not for everyone? First, the unpredictable and occasionally stressful logistics and journey to get here, which Ill cover in a bit. Further, the island is tiny, with a local population of around 100 people at any given time. There is but 2-3 restaurants that operate/open when they want, there is 1-2 general stores that also open when they want, there are no luxury hotels. In fact, there really are only rental homes, and I think 1 or 2 official hotels. There is no nightlife, shopping, spa, or any pampering of sorts here. That all said, Salt Cay Diver accommodations are all very comfortable, homey, have very well equipped kitchens and come with WiFi, most have air conditioning, some have TV too. There is electricity and water, so dont worry. Laundry can be done at an added cost. Residents here are so friendly and laidback. You get around by foot or renting a golf cart (~$100/day). Once here, you’ll realize that you do not need the nightlife, spa, luxury features, restaurants…etc. to have an enjoyable, relaxing getaway. It was the perfect vacation.

Cash only. Salt Cay Divers accepts payment through PayPal. But everything else on the island is cash only. Thankfully Turks and Caicos accepts USD.

Food

As mentioned the local offerings are limited, and most open/operate on the owner’s own schedue. Thought Coral Reef Bar ($20 for a meal) and Oceanaire Bistro ($30+ for a meal) seem to have had reliable operating hours. But the menus are based off of whats available, and can get repetitive. If staying with Salt Cay Diver accommodations, they can arrange to purchase groceries for you and have it ready when you arrive in your house, all at no additional cost. If staying elsewhere, or if you prefer, you can get groceries at Grand Turk or Providenciales and bring it to Salt Cay. You can even bring necessities from home (including meat products) as the Turks and Caicos customs dont really care and are used to it. I asked Salt Cay to help with groceries and they send you a PDF ordering form. My meals were mostly cooked at the rental, but a handful of lunches and dinners were had mainly at Coral Reef Bar, but also at Oceanaire Bistro.

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Getting There

Getting to and from Salt Cay is probably the component that requires the most managing expectations, flexibility, patience and open mind.

Your only options to get here are to fly on one of 2 -3 weekly flights from Grand Turk, or take a 45 min to 1 hour ferry. International flights arrive in Providenciales and from there you have to connect to a domestic flight to Grand Turk, which there are many flights a day, but whether they all fly or are on time is anyone’s guess. There is a 1-3 weekly ferry service from Grand Turk and you can also coordinate with Salt Cay to charter a ferry (if you have a large group, its cost effective when split as its around $350 to charter the ferry), or have them stop by Grand Turk during a whale watching excursion to pick you up or drop you off. This all sounds easy and doable. Doable, yes. Easy, no.

Turks and Caicos domestic flights are operated by 2 airlines, Caicos Express ($75 for PLS-GDT) and InterCaribbean Airways ($45-$60 tickets). The flight from Providenciales to Grand Turk is about 20 minutes and the flight from Grand Turk to Salt Cay is about 5-10 minutes. The PLS domestic departure lounge is depressingly small and basic, broken benches, no restroom post-security and a broken vending machine. If you have a longer connection, I highly recommend you just have a bite, or beer and chill at Gilley’s Bar at the airport check-in hall ($27 for 2 beers and a cracked conch). The domestic flight network here is full of delays, inefficiencies, illogical operations and scheduling, as such despite short flight times, between the waiting and transfers it ends up being a full day of travel. Caicos Express is more reliable even though they are smaller and more expensive than InterCaribbean. I had a terrible experience with InterCaribbean, of the 3 flights I booked with them, 2 were heavily delayed and one was cancelled all without explanation or communication, more details on this at the end of the post. All this to say your flight will likely be delayed or could very well get cancelled on any part of the journey, be it from PLS to Grand Turk or from Grand Turk to Salt Cay. Ok, flight to Salt Cay cancelled, easy enough, I can take the ferry. Think again.

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Turks Head beer, they have hilarious names, the Lager is called ” I ain Ga Lie”, read: I aint gonna lie
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National Dish: cracked Conch
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Turks Head Amber Ale

The ferry, be it chartered or scheduled only operates if weather or sea conditions allow, as the boat is not a large ship/actual ferry. So you are at the mercy of mother nature.

As such, be sure to either be flexible or build in 1-2 buffer days before and after your time at Salt Cay as you may need them if you get stuck on either Salt Cay or Grand Turk due to transportation challenges.

But dont worry too much, if things go south, and they likely will in some way, Karen and the Salt Cay team are a phone call away and will spring into action to assist you, they are also very flexible with rebooking/cancel policies.

Salt Cay Experience

Daily schedule during Whale watching season (etiquette and notes detailed throughout the post below) which runs from January to April with Salt Cay Divers is essentially morning dive and afternoon whale watch. Occasionally afternoon dives are offered as well. If you do not dive. Whale watching is also offered in the morning. In the afternoon there are at times other excursions besides whale watching such as going to nearby islands or a bay full of sting rays. All sea excursions are weather dependent. If you dont want to pay for any of the scheduled excursions, you can use the complimentary glass bottom kayaks, paddle boards or go snorkeling. If water activities are not your thing, then there is hiking, laying on the many beautiful and unoccupied beaches, exploring the island and its history, or just reading a book in your house on the porch.

5 tank dive package, with all equipment rented is ~$72/dive. Whale Watching is around $180/excursion.

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Salt Cay Divers is is run by a fantastic team. Mainly co-owner and manager, Karen. With dive master and whale whisperer, Richard alongside dive master Elliot and Ollie. I most dove with Elliot and Richard. Richard is the main one who heads out on the Whale Watching excursions as well.

The main communal/ hangout spot on the island during the day is right around the dive shop and Coral Reef Bar which is right next to the shop.

My first 2 nights I stayed at The Twilight Cottage, a charming and full of character, fully restored historic Salt Raker house. My last 5 nights were in Harbourside 1 house ($195/night), a 1 bedroom house right behind the dive shop with unobstructed ocean and sunset views. While not as unique or full of charm as Twilight, it is much more modern and well appointed, also has A/C.

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Twilight
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Twilights living room and kitchen
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Twilight bedroom
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Harbourside 1 & 2
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Harbourside 1 bedroom
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Harbourside 1 living room and kitchen

Coral Reef Bar lets you have an open tab during your entire stay that you can close out, with cash only, at the end of your stay. My 4 meals and many beers/cocktails/and a bottle of wine totaled USD$135 without tip.

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Day 1:

Evening arrival due to InterCaribbean airways induced debacle. Settled into my accommodations followed by an introduction to the island and life on the island by Karen. And dinner at Coral Reef Bar.

Another hilarious name, “I Soon Reach” after the concept of Island Time around the Caribbean
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Rum punch, grilled pork chop, rice n peas, plantains, cole slaw
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Day 2:

Started off the day with 2 tank morning dive, and it was beautiful, seemingly each dive I did on the trip got better and better. The dives here are calm and relatively easy with incredibly healthy and thriving corals and fish, sharks, sea turtles, crabs, lobsters, eels and many more.

Afternoon was spent on a whale watching excursion wherein we did not see any whales up close. Saw a few breaches from afar. Whale Watching NOTES:  for whale watching, bring snacks, water and lots and lots of patience, there is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll see or be able to get in with any.

Dinner at Oceanaire Bistro, grilled red snapper, cole slaw, rice and pea
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Day 3:

Another 2 tank dive morning.

In the afternoon, prayers were answered, a fruitful whale watching excursion wherein we got in the water 5 times.

Whale Watching Etiquette: The way it works is the captain spots the whales and will determine if its safe for the humans as well as whales and if the boat is able to approach safely and quietly to the whales to let us in. You need to slide in and make as little noise and splash as possible so as not to disturb or startle the whales. Swim on your side and DO NOT TOUCH or swim from BEHIND or in FRONT of the whales.

It was an absolutely unreal experience. They are these gentle giant rocks that float in the water but when they swim or breach its quite a dance and show. I saw 2 sets of mother and calf. The second calf was extremely playful and gave us quite a show. We also encountered a calf as it was feeding, which I was told is rare to see.

More donkeys and cows on the island than humans.
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Day 4:

No diving or whale watching for me on this day.

In the morning, I opted to take a kayak out to sea and kayak to South Beach. You cant really kayak all the way there as the sea gets really rough and its quite rocky. Instead I kayaked to the power plant beach and walked from there, past the island’s garbage dump, which is a sad eye sore for everyone to see, towards south beach. I was alone in the world, it was magnificent.

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Island garbage dump
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The kayak journey to the beach was easy, the journey back to harbour was so hard, had to fight the current and make sure I didnt float away

The afternoon was spent exploring the island and its history in Balfour Town. 
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The main Salt Cay Salinas, Salt Cay and much of Turks & Caicos was the main salt producer of the Americas for many years, while most other Caribbean Colonies was sugar and wheat, Turks & Caicos was uniquely salt. This Salinas has one of the last remaining windmills that used to play a key role in controlling the flow of water through the various phases of salt drying.

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The historic and famous White House, still owned by the same family. It is the largest exampled of Colonial Bermudan architecture outside of Bermuda

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Northwest point is a short hike from the dive shop and offers phenomenal panoramic views of the island and Grand Turk.

North Beach, by far my favorite beach on the island. Total and utter seclusion, the sand was super soft, the beach itself is long and stretches for miles.

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Minced fish, fries, macaroni salad, plantain and sweet potato at Coral Reef Bar
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House made chili vinegar
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Day 5

Another 2 tank dive morning. And saw a fairly large sea turtle!
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The afternoon was spent exploring the island a bit more, including walking to the east side of the island to see another Salinas as well as walk past the airport.
Beautiful sunset from Northwest Point
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Day 6

Stormy night and morning meant no diving or any sea excursions as the currents were too rough. I also spent most of this day inside or on my porch due to the rain showers.

In the afternoon, I walked into Balfour town to visit Salt Cay Salt Works. While the island no longer mass produces salt, this small locally run company still produces salts from the island (bath, food salts, of variety of flavors including a butter popcorn one). They do ship to mainland U.S. and you can order from their website. The salts are delicious. I particularly enjoy using the lemongrass salt for cooking.

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Day 7

Finaly morning of 2 tank diving, bless Richard for squeezing this in. As the days progressed my dive group size kept shrinking as people left the island, to the point that this dive trip was just me and Richard and the entire blue ocean to ourselves.

The remainder of the day was spent packing and relaxing on North beach.

Jerk chicken, cole slaw, beans, rice. Last dinner at Coral Reef and on the island.
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Day 8

Woke up, tracked InterCaribbean Airways and found that my flight from Salt Cay to Grand Turk would be severely delayed, risking my connection to Caicos Express to Providenciales and my connection to my U.S. bound flight. In a morning of scrambling, Karen and Rich managed to get the boat ready and me and a few others leaving the island that day but also affected by the delayed flight were off on the 1 hour ferry to Grand Turk.

Turns out my Caicos Express flight was also delayed but it was still ahead and more efficient than InterCaribbean that day. They even called me that morning to confirm I’d show up for the flight, where as the other airline had 0 communication for anything.

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Boarding Caicos Express at Grand Turk
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Approach into PLS airport

Grand Turk

For my first night on the trip I overnighted in Grand Turk, the capital city of the country, and stayed at the Turks Head Inne; $187 (with tax), breakfast included. It is a historic property that was once the governor’s residence. It is one of the more affordable options. Further Grand Turk hotels tend to book out fast due to cruise ship passengers.

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My basic room at the Turks Head Inne in Grand Turk.

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Dinner at the Secret Garden restaurant inside the SaltRaker Inn
National drink: Rum Punch, just like the Bahamas

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Garlic shrimp with rice n peas + 3 drinks (beer, rum punch, wine): $48.72

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Next morning was spent exploring the island.
Beautiful Duke Street, lined with historic colonial houses (mostly now bed and breakfasts)
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Rum Cake at Bohio Dive Resort, which is another solid option for a dive vacation as they offer a variety of dive packages.

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Turks & Caicos national museum
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I learned that John Glen’s orbital spacecraft splashed down on Earth near Grand Turk, as did many other space missions, not the Bahamas. They even pay homage to this at the Grand Turk airport.

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Sandbar Restaurant. Highly recommended for the food and atmosphere. I learned later that it was recently torched and the community came together to rebuild it as it is a beloved spot, some of the beams have people’s names on it, they were the ones who helped rebuild. ~$40 for cracked Conch, beer, rum punch + tip.

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Conclusion

I hope this is helpful if you are considering going to Salt Cay and Diving or Whale Watching with Salt Cay Divers. Or at the very least, put Salt Cay on your radar for your consideration. It really is all worth the logistics and annoyances of dealing with the domestic flight operations in Turks and Caicos. It is a truly magical and special place. An escape from reality. I hope you get to experience it for yourself.

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Cheers!
TheGastronomicTraveler

InterCaribbean Airways. What an airline. It is not great when even the locals know this is a completely unreliable airline. On my first day, my PLS to Grand Turk flight was delayed, at first by 1 hour, without any explanation and I only found out at check-in. The domestic departure hall is sad and basic and doesnt even have a toilet post-security. No announcement or communication of any sort was made. The delay ended up being narly 2.5 hours, again no explanation, and we kept being told 5-10 more minutes which turned into nearly an hour. I was told my locals that the airline often will wait to fill up every last seat or randomly change schedules to accommodate government officials. Then, the next day, my 10 minute flight from Grand Turk to Salt Cay was cancelled just after I checked-in at the airport, the airline worked with Salt Cay Divers to arrange a ferry transfer. The airline told the Richard, Salt Cay Diver team member, that there were only 4 passengers, when it was 5. I waited per the airline’s instructions, when they called me up to the counter 2 hours later when the taxi arrived, the taxi driver was shocked and confused. I got in but she panicked and called Richard many times, she finally got hold of him, they had barely just left port. We got to the port as the boat was just returning and I managed to get on. I almost didnt make it! Thankfully, the airline paid for the ferry charter as it was their cancellation that caused this. And finally, on my departure, the flight from Salt Cay to Grand Turk was delayed, and I only found out because I tracked the aircraft on FlightRadar, the airline never communicated and the Salt Cay airline employee didnt even know in the morning. Most of us leaving the island that day had connections in PLS to the U.S., so, Salt Cay to the rescue in chartering a ferry, thankfully even though there were storms the days before, the sea had calmed down enough for Richard to deem it safe to a crossing. I complained on instagram and tagged the airline, they responded and asked I reach out to the customer service line, which I did, days later I received a shallow apology without explanation and certainly no offer of refund or compensation of any sort. Probably the worst airline I have ever experienced.

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