Tuesday, June 11, 2013



Long Cay is a dumping ground for shells from the conch processing plant in Cockburn Town, South Caicos, or conch heaven as we called it. Yesterday after discovering the shiny pink piles that make up the conch burial ground, George and I climbed to the top of Long Cay. The long limestone island straddles the deep indigo Atlantic on one side and the glowing aquamarine waters of the shallow Caicos Bank on the other. Standing on the lanky body of Long Cay lying supine before me, I was struck by the feeling that even the most beautiful place on earth is meaningless unless you have someone meaningful to share in the experience. Maybe something fundamental inside me has changed since I was last adventuring.
Thousands of discarded conch shells on Long Cay, just south of Cockburn Town in South Caicos.
Swimming in the clear waters of the cut, the thousand foot opening between South Caicos and Long Cay where the waters of the bank and the Atlantic meet, my sense of wonder is renewed. Here the depths shallow from 5,000 to 50 to 10 feet in a flutter of an eye. Teachers from the School for Field Studies call the area, Shark Alley, and say that it is one of the best sites around for underwater wildlife. 
We couldn't resist taking a souvenir and spent hours picking
the perfect shells.

George and I anchor the dinghy, don our fins and snorkels, slip into the crystal clear seawater and swim together toward the opening of the cut against an incoming current. A few minutes pass as I acclimate to breathing through a plastic tube with waves rolling over me and then I see a giant spotted eagle ray whose wing span is as wide as my own and whose head is twice the size of mine. Its dark body flies effortlessly by in dappled glory. I turn to follow it and see two more spotted eagle rays of equal size soaring toward us from behind. I am in their world lucky enough to share this moment in time.

From the gray-blue limits of visibility, a Volkswagen of a creature emerges, round as a pancake, with two huge, deep-set eyes. Its enormous body glides over the bottom and passes beneath me. It is one of the biggest rays I have ever seen. I look for a barb on its tail that would carry poison, but don't see one.

Feeling both outnumbered and too close to the breakers crashing onto Long Cay's sharp limestone shore, we head back to the dinghy. But we are not alone. We are flanked by the long, menacing bodies of giant, open-mouthed barracuda. Their large, round eyes are trained on us - or at least that's how it feels. I know reef sharks are rarely aggressive, but not knowing anything about barracuda, I feel vulnerable in a school of carnivorous creatures as big as I am. We make it back to the boat so I can contend with an even bigger fish that night - Winston.

Long Cay between the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caicos Bank on the right.
In South Caicos nobody believes that George and I aren't together. When I say we aren't married, but just friends, Richard gives a knowing nod and says, "Riiight, you doin' this trip to see if you can get along for the long haul." Suzette agrees, "yeah, you don't always have to get married." Try as I might, the idea of hitchhiking crew doesn't cut it for the islanders.

Still, when it comes to Winston, I appreciate the misunderstanding. Even assuming George and I are romantically involved, Winston waits till George is out of earshot to tell me I'm beautiful and that he can't wait to dance real close with me at the disco. He was the first person I met stepping off the dinghy and onto the hard ground of South Caicos after our 400 mile sail from Culebra. He took one look at my twin star fresh fade and said," You an Indian or somethin'?"

Cockburn Town, South Caicos
The second person we met was the manager of the SeaView Marina and SeaView Market, partner establishments that consist of one rough concrete jetty with three free advertised but undefinable "slips" and a dusty grocery store. The third was the immigration officer who charged us overtime for meeting after hours at the late time she had chosen when George called during regular business hours to make an appointment. The customs officer, who charged a similar fee, was the forth.

George and I get gussied up and head to the local disco, but luck is on my side. The place is empty because the whole town is at a local basketball game. I love dancing, but considering the dark hole of a dance floor and the presence of a known predator, it's just as well. Tomorrow we leave at dawn to navigate the Caicos Bank, an extremely shallow body of water dotted with shoals and reefs, with our fingers crossed that our waypoints will lead us through safely.