Cockburn Town, Turks and Caicos - The event always ends tragically: All the males die and sink to the bottom of the sea. But the beginning is filled with light, promise and pitchers of rum punch.
And so, on the fourth day after the full moon of September, I boarded a 52-foot catamaran with several other passengers. We set sail under a cotton-candy sky to watch a spectacle with a Grimm's fairy tale twist - the mating of the glowworms in Turks and Caicos.
As night fell, all eyes, including those rimmed red from too much sun and drink, turned to the calm waters surrounding Providenciales, on the Caicos side of the country. We combed the dark bay for the electric-green sparks that signaled the worms' arrival.
“The more rum you drink, the more worms you'll see,” said Capt. Rock, as crew members refilled empty cups.
Not long into our watch, illuminated splotches started to appear on the water's surface. Each flash represented a condensed love story: Boy worm meets girl worm. They dance, he fertilises, and they split. The male then bids the world farewell. “It's not a bad way to go,” said the captain. “He probably has a smile on his face.”
The coupling ritual, which lasts about 15 minutes, occurs in a specific place - off the northeast tip of Providenciales, or Provo - three to five days after the full moon. Like Odontosyllis enopla, many visitors also stick close to one island. They plant their sun umbrella in Provo, the entry point for all international air passengers, or Grand Turk, the capital and cruise ship port that received more than 900 000 oceangoers last year.
Despite the country's binary name, Turks and Caicos is not a duo like Batman and Robin. The British overseas territory encompasses 40 islands and cays, including eight inhabited isles, that hang like extra links off the Bahamian chain. The Turks Island Passage separates Caicos to the northwest and Turks to the east. Puddle-jumpers bridge the 22-mile-wide divide; ferries ford the shorter passages; and kayaks span the smaller gaps. And on one tiny stretch between Caicos and Long Cay, I nearly hitched a ride from a passing stingray.
The finder of buried gold
A big red bar divides Provo's timeline into Before Club Med and After Club Med. The landmark year was 1984, when the country's first big resort opened, kindling a hotel-building spree and tourist boom.
In B.C.M., the third-largest island was home to about 100 people and one or two modest lodgings. The roads were unpaved, and phone service and electricity were spotty. In A.C.M., nearly 24 000 residents - out of a total population of about 32 000 - inhabit the island with the only international airport. (Caicos plans to add a second facility next year.) More than a dozen hotels, including the families-gone-crazy Beaches, huddle along the 12-mile-long Grace Bay. The Ritz-Carlton is the latest property angling for a spot on the pearly-white-sand strip. If the company succeeds, its 12-story hotel will be the tallest structure in the land, dwarfing the palm trees and stand-up paddlers.
I stayed at Club Med Turkoise, the pioneer of Provo; the all-inclusive's dated decor took me back to the early frontier period. The resort sits on the eastern end of Grace Bay, the Meryl Streep of beaches. (Most recent accolade: TripAdvisor's 2016 Travelers' Choice Awards voted it the best of the world's top 25 beaches.) On my first morning, I stepped onto sand as refined as cake flour and walked barefoot for miles. The overall landscape stayed the same, a pristine spread of ocean and beach. Only the quality of the lounge chairs and the quantity of the aquatic toys varied as I traversed the back yards of the different resorts. I was aiming for Turtle Cove, on the western edge, but turned around two-thirds of the way to rest my tender arches. The following day, I rounded the unexplored bend to meet a modern-love treasure hunter.
On a weekday afternoon, John Galleymore was wading in waist-high water, a few feet from the snorkelling spot. He wore bulky headphones and a long-sleeved T-shirt that read, “Lost Jewellry.” He gripped a metal pole in each gloved hand. Every so often, he would scoop up wet sand and toss the debris onto the beach.
The Provo resident manages Bruce Willis's vacation house on nearby Parrot Cay, but during his downtime, he hauls his metal detector around the island scouring for valuables. His first client was a distraught older woman who had lost a family heirloom while sunbathing. He retrieved from the sand the Star of David charm, which her grandmother had worn through World War II. Since that 2014 discovery, John has recovered dozens of tourists' engagement rings, diamond wedding bands, keys, earrings and necklaces. (He doesn't charge for the service but accepts tips and beer money.) He also uncovered an early 18th-century Spanish silver coin that he will donate to the local museum and an expensive dive watch that he wears on his wrist.
The pieces “don't go far, unless there's a storm,” he said. Speaking generally, “If I know where it is, I can find basically anything.”
For his most recent case, John had questioned the New Yorker with the bare finger about his whereabouts the day the ring went missing. The visitor told him it had slipped off between the Bight Reef sign and the buoys marking the snorkelling zone. After a 10-minute search in the water, John returned to shore and held out the basket. I peeked inside and saw a thick titanium wedding band nestled on a bed of sand and seaweed.
Scaling up the fauna
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, but the offseason slows to a one-legged crawl from late August through September, when islanders take their own vacations. There are pros and cons to visiting Turks and Caicos during this period. On the plus side, you will bump into fewer tourists (a 20 to 30 percent drop from high season), pay lower hotel rates (my Club Med stay was half-off) and swim in calmer seas (winter storms can churn up the Atlantic). The downsides include hotel and restaurant closings, shortened business hours, near-deserted islands, the threat of a hurricane and a dearth of kayak buddies to accompany you to Little Water Cay.
Big Blue Unlimited organises eco-tours on Provo and North and Middle Caicos, a pair of bridge-linked islands accessible by ferry. The company had led the only glowworm tour during my September visit (in busier months, several outfitters go out) and arranges guided kayak trips to the iguana sanctuary on Little Water Cay - with a minimum of two people. I signed up in the morning. By late afternoon, they were still down one.
So I set off alone, in a rented kayak. At Blue Haven Marina, a staff member traced the zigzaggy route. I followed her finger past the docks, along the mangroves, around a speck of land and to the nature reserve. I lazily paddled on water the texture of bubble wrap. I tied up and hopped onto a wooden boardwalk leading to the visitors' centre. En route, I heard a loud rustling in the dry brush. I let out a startled scream. An iguana with a mohawk of spikes scurried to the edge of the walkway, pulled his body up and over the edge and crossed to the other side. He carried a large piece of fruit in his mouth. Three more iguanas surfaced, and a chase ensued. This time I cheered.
In the empty visitors' centre, I read about the country's largest indigenous land animal. The scaly head count, I learned, is about 50 000, the most robust population in the Caribbean. My self-education was interrupted by the buzz of a boat motor and the slap of feet on wood. The sanctuary guide greeted me and apologised for his absence: He had popped over to Provo for lunch. He offered to show me a pond out back, where the iguanas often loll in the sun like hung over wedding guests. But then we noticed a curtain of rain unfurling across the sky. Thunder rumbled. We retreated to the hut, where, in the spirit of cultural exchange, I introduced him to Tinder and he explained the meaning of “red-eye” (a jealous person).
The droplets soon eased up, and a clear blue patch materialised through the menacing clouds. I gathered my belongings and jumped into the kayak. On the return, I paddled twice as fast on water that had turned five shades darker.
A seaside worth its salt
I am normally a pepper person but I switched shakers - and risked high blood pressure - to honour the islands' heritage. During dinner at Blu, at the East Bay Resort, the waiter delivered a plate of crusty bread and a small bowl filled with white crystals. The French Canadian server identified the seasoning as fleur de sel from - “France?” I guessed.
“No, Caicos,” he answered.
I crunched down and tasted the Atlantic in Pop Rocks form. That bite also released hundreds of years of history. In the late 1600s, sailors from Bermuda started to arrive on Grand Turk and Salt Cay, both in Turks, and on Caicos. They discovered heaps of salt crusted on the inland ponds and harvested the mineral for the North American markets. The expansion of the cod industry in New England and Nova Scotia increased demand for the food preservative. The Bermudians grew wealthy and established roots on the islands, settling Balfour Town on Salt Cay in 1673, Cockburn Town on Grand Turk in 1766 and Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos in 1840.
“Just as we have two separate island groups, we have two different histories,” said Brian Riggs, a retired curator who lives on Grand Turk and contributed to the museums on Provo and Grand Turk. “Bermudians on the Turks Islands and the Loyalists in the Caicos Islands, in particular Providenciales, North and Middle Caicos.” (The English exiles from the New World established cotton plantations.)
In the mid-20th century, Morton Salt crushed the islands' livelihood. South Caicos folded its saltworks in 1964; Grand Turk and Salt Cay shuttered their businesses a decade later. However, relics of the white gold age still remain. On Salt Cay, the bittiest island of the bunch, a local - known in the past as Belongers - named Gladys offered me a ride from the airport to town. Puttering along in her golf cart, we passed a series of salt ponds sectioned by low stone walls. Wild donkeys, descendants of the original beasts of burden, loitered along the dirt road. The males kicked up their back legs in a display of swagger.
On South Caicos, the last hop on my four-island skipabout, I biked around large salt ponds inhabited by leggy herons and flocks of flamingos. I veered onto a narrow trail leading to a gazebo and a boiling hole. The natural underwater passage, which links the ocean to the salina, was as still as a glass of tap water.
At East Bay Resort, I signed up for a land tour with Jeremiah Forbes, an islander who mixes local trivia with folksy anecdotes. (Here's one: Of Hurricane Ike, he said, “I spent the whole night trying to keep my air-conditioning unit in.”) He showed me the abandoned White House on the hill, a 19th-century salt storage structure where Queen Elizabeth stayed during her 1966 visit. (“She came for a few days and never came back,” he said.) And the fish factories that process conch and lobster. And the water-collecting shed where locals without running water can fill their buckets three times a week.
I learned that the national music style is rake and scrape, which features a saw, goat skin drums and maracas, and that each island has a national dish. Representing for South Caicos: hash lobster, fried bonefish and grits. Provo claims barbecue chicken and ribs, which Jeremiah derided with “It's made up.” Many of my questions about the wildlife resulted in a culinary observation - or a recipe.
“Some people still eat iguana, but it's hush mouth,” he said of the protected reptiles. “You don't talk about it.”
“Sea turtles nest on East Caicos and Fish Cay,” he said, adding that some islanders whip up turtle-egg protein shakes.
“Flamingo tastes like flamingo,” he responded to my question about the pink bird's flavour.
From Cockburn Harbour, a settlement with crumbling stone homes, Jeremiah drove to the less developed north side. We stopped on a bluff and gazed out at the translucent water. Neither of us said a word. I wondered whether we were sharing the same thought bubble.
“I am thinking about how many lobsters I could be getting,” said Jeremiah, a free-diving fisherman.
Wrong telepathic number.
In the afternoon, I switched to the aquatic portion of my amphibious tour. Ketyn, who occupied the captain's chair, steered the boat to a reef nicknamed the Aquarium. I floated beside flashy angelfish and barracuda as long as broom handles. Catrell, the first mate, motioned for me to follow him. We swam to a coral ledge where a nurse shark often lounges. The boudoir was empty.
Ketyn wasn't giving up on our shark quest. He navigated the boat to Long Cay. A dark shadow - yes, with a fin -appeared a few feet below. We also spied a creature drifting along the ocean floor like a stealth bomber. I pulled on my mask and plunged into the water just as a stingray was coasting by. I hovered a few feet above the fish; we made eye contact.
Before returning to shore, Ketyn swung by Starfish Village, a five-mile underwater corridor of citrus-hued starfish. I took a quick census - 25 within close range - before we had to leave, so that I could catch my flight to Provo. However, after takeoff, I peered through the window at the water below and resumed counting the stars in the sea.
If you go...
Where to stay
East Bay Resort
1 Fourth St., South Caicos
Open since January, the full-service hotel has modern rooms with kitchens, a beachfront pool and water sports, such as kayaking and paddleboarding. The on-site restaurant, Blu, serves lunch and dinner. From $275 (about R4 000), with breakfast. Stay at least five nights and receive the land and snorkel tours free.
Lighthouse Road, Grand Turk
Family-run property with homey suites, a pool and tropical gardens near Cockburn Town. Free bike usage and partially stocked fridge. From $165.
Club Med Turkoise
Grace Bay, Providenciales
The all-inclusive resort is a bit dated but fills all your beach vacations needs: pool, buffet, bar, flying trapeze. From $238, including $60 membership fee.
Where to eat
Sunset Cafe & Bar
Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos
Specialises in fresh-caught fish, lobster and conch dishes. Entrees from $18.
Turks Head Inne
Duke St., Cockburn Town, Grand Turk
The restaurant is housed in a 185-year-old building across the street from the beach. Menu changes frequently. Sample dishes: lobster salad with hearts of palm and shrimp pasta. Entrees from $24.
What to do
Big Blue Unlimited
Several locations, including Saltmills Plaza and Blue Haven Marina, Provo
A wide variety of outdoor adventures, including the glowworm tour ($79) and a guided tour of the iguana sanctuary and Mangrove Cay ($115).