Relax and breathe!
That could be the mantra for de-stressing everyday life. But here on tiny Grand Turk Island -- part of Turks and Caicos (www.turksandcaicostourism.com) -- where many believe Columbus first made landfall in the New World, the words are PADI dive instructor Hilary Sutton's instructions to my 19-year-old daughter, Melanie, as she prepares to do her first of four open-water dives that will lead to her certification as a scuba diver, joining her dad, brother and me, and some 18 million PADI divers around the world.
We've come to the 16-room Bohio Resort (www.bohioresort.com) so that Mel can complete the course she started online at www.Padi.com. PADI is the largest dive organization in the world. (You have the option of taking the $120 online course and completing it at a resort or signing up for a classroom course -- typically more expensive -- that could also include the confined and even open-water portions of the instruction.)
Over the next four days, Melanie is learning how to manage the scuba gear and get water out of her mask without surfacing. She and classmates practice skills, like sharing air and replacing their mask, and towing another diver in the pool or off the beach.
Like tennis, golf or snow sports, diving is a life sport and one that can be shared with kids (they can get their junior certification at age 10, though you must be 13 to take scuba lessons online and 15 to upgrade to PADI Open Water Diver certification) and adult children. Before committing to the course, try out diving with a brief (less than three hours) resort course to see if it is something you'd like to pursue.
We didn't come seeking fancy digs. In fact, it's just the opposite -- simple rooms painted cheery, bright Caribbean colors, the beach so close you go to sleep and wake up to the sound of waves and a barefoot beachfront bar that offers a can of bug repellent, because you will get bitten, especially at dusk. The restaurant is just as casual (we eat all of our meals here) and the menu includes pizza, lobster quesadillas, fresh grouper and steak. Thanks to South African Chef Jurika Mehnde, it is considered the best on the island.
Scott Flaherty, here from Richmond, Va., with his wife Melissa, explains that divers seek out resorts where the diving is stellar and the dive operation safe. These islands, of course, are surrounded by one of the most extensive coral reef systems in the world (65 miles across and 200 miles long) and under the National Parks Ordinance vast areas have been designated as marine park. Here on Grand Turk, the reef is just 500 yards offshore, which means there are no long boat rides to get there and between dives we can return to the resort for the required surface interval.
Bohio managers Tom and Ginny Allan, Canadians in their 50s, treat us all like family. We make instant friends with the other divers, sharing meals, rum punches and, of course, dives where we are awed by the underwater life along the Grand Turk Wall -- the varieties of coral, the sting rays, the flounder hiding in the sand with just their eyes visible, the octopus on a night dive.
Everyone cheers on the novices. We've just finished the most spectacular dive of the day called "anchor," so named for a 10-foot anchor deep in the water that is probably more than 100 years old. Somehow, I miss seeing the anchor but am awed by the swimming sea turtle, hog fish, huge grouper, an underwater eel garden and all kinds of other big and little fish -- blue and purple, silver and spotted.
"Let me introduce our newest PADI diver," instructor Sutton says when we get back on the small Bohio boat. After six sections of e-learning, two mornings in the resort pool and beach and four dives mastering the equipment and skills, Mel is now a certified diver. We all applaud. She grins.