Turks and Caicos Explorer II Liveaboard Oct 28 – Nov 4, 2023

We were due for our annual dive trip and have had Turks and Caicos on our bucket list for a while. Claudine found a sale on the Turks and Caicos Explorer II boat for this particular week, so we jumped on it. We’ve sailed with the Explorer Adventures company before and had a fabulous time. While the previous boat (Carribean Explorer) was older, we were told then that the one in the Turks was fantastic. Our experience on Aggressor in Belize was great but not awesome. The thing is, we really like liveaboards. But we love liveaboards that aren’t full, and this one was perfect. The boat itself can house 20 guests, but there were only 7 of us—Alex, Claudine, and I. Simon, Stan, who were both singles, and Curtis and Katie.

We needed to dive, and there’s no better way than a liveaboard. Wake up, roll out of bed, have breakfast, dive, snack, dive, lunch, dive, snack, dive, dinner, night dive, sleep, repeat. That’s literally the agenda every single day from Sunday to Thursday.

Friday, weather permitting, you get to squeeze in two dives (a dawn dive), then breakfast followed by the last dive. Diving stops about 10 am so that everyone can get in enough surface interval before flying home on Saturday.

While I participated in all 27 dives, you don’t have too. If you need a nap, take a nap and skip a dive. Don’t want to night dive? Then don’t. Stay up top and enjoy a beverage or 2.

We had a fabulous crew:
Captain JF
Jo, Tristan, Allison (Purser and Dive Masters)
Miguel – Fabulous Chef
Mark – Engineer
Vardo – Night Watch and diver in training

Our trip also covered Halloween, and we partied a bit. But don’t let that fool you. Jo always had an outfit that somehow highlighted or emphasized the critters we were looking for. She brought a lot of energy and fun to the entire trip.

In addition to the Halloween gig, we also had Tu-Tu Tuesday and Pirate Wednesday, and yes, we dove in those outfits, but there are no photos of me in a Tu-Tu.

There are 3 things that can make or break a liveaboard; The boat itself, the crew, and of course the weather.

Our weather was almost perfect. Calm seas for the most part. We had periods of rain, and it was a bit windy and choppy on the last day. The boat itself is larger than most and has stabilizers that take out some of the pitching. We’re fortunate, none of us get sea sick, and honestly we like a little more boat roll than the Explorer II provided. Sleeping on a boat is the best sleep there is in my book and we actually look forward to the motion of the ocean.

Even with the stabilizers, which everyone else wants more than we do, the boat itself is fantastic.

The boat is a little bit older, but it’s extremely well maintained.

The Explorer II was initially a transport delivery vessel for gulf oil rigs, but was purchased by the Explorer Ventures company and rebuilt from the ground up as a liveaboard. It is extremely well thought out. The rooms are large enough, and each has an ensuite bathroom and shower, as well as its own thermostat and air conditioning.  By contrast, the Carribean Explorer, while it had air conditioning all you could really control was the vent, no thermostat. 

The rooms were also larger, probably 20% larger than the Carribean explorer and larger with more accommodating bathrooms than the Belize Aggressor.  There was never a shortage of hot water, but the vacuum flush took some getting used to.  The entire system is one, and you might push the button to flush and your request would go in the queue. So it didn’t always flush immediately. Nothing wrong with it, just took some getting used to.

The dive deck is spacious and easy to get around on. Plenty of table space for cameras, and a huge soak tank for equipment. There were also two dunk tanks on either side of the boat filled with simple green solution to quickly rinse your gear.  Our first two liveaboards were during Covid times and there weren’t any ‘community’ dunk or soak tanks on any of the boats so that made things a bit interesting at times.

To get in the water you have two options:

Off the side which is a reasonable drop to the water as the dive deck is on an upper level.  Not ideal if you’re getting in with a camera.  But fear not, just swim to the dive platform and they’ll hand it to you. 

Your other option is to suit up (without fins) and exit from the rear dive platform. It’s 5 or 6 steps down, but the rear deck is literally 5 inches above the water. It’s a little more cumbersome to make that trek. The Belize Aggressor is similar, however they stored your fins on that lower deck and put them on you which was helpful.

Exiting is easy via two large spacious ladders. There are also two hang lines for safety stops if you need them.  And you often needed them as this boat ‘sailed’ a lot while on the mooring. Not just the normal swing you’d expect but it would sail across the mooring, turn around and sort of drift in a figure 8.  They cover this in the dive briefings and are very clear about you targeting the front of the boat or you’ll miss it if she swings.  Given the size of the boat this round trip could take 10-15 minutes which can be initially concerning as you navigate back to where the boat should be and it’s not there.  Fear not, just be patient and wait and she’ll come back to you. We only had one dive where the boat moved opposite of where we entered and stayed there.  Given the length of the boat, mooring line, etc, it could be 80 yards from where you expected it to be.

The Salon area is air conditioned and dry which is significantly better than the Carribean Explorer. It’s also the gateway to the rooms on the main and lower decks.  Being a dry area means you need to be ‘dry’ before you can come in.  We had the two VIP rooms on the top of the boat, which meant we could enter the upper hallway and get into our room while being a little wetter than others which was helpful.

In terms of room size though, they aren’t really that much bigger. The other advantages include not being underneath or across the hall from the kitchen.  There also isn’t any movable furniture in the deck above so for all intents it was quiet up there.

Let’s just say, of the 3 boats we’ve been on, this one was my favorite. Super comfortable all the way around.

As for the staff… Simply amazing.

While I think overall, it’s hard to get a bad crew, in all our liveaboard adventures the crew has been great. If I had to score them on a scale from 1-10; Caribbean Explorer Crew was a clear 10. They made that trip amazing, and they had a lot to overcome from a weather/Covid stand point.  The crew on the Belize Aggressor was more like an 8. They didn’t do anything wrong, they just weren’t as personable, but were clearly accommodating. They also had a full boat to deal with which means you get less time with the crew. On this trip it was once again a small boat, so we got to know the crew better than you will on your average trip. On a 10 scale this crew was certainly a 10.

The standouts included all three dive masters. Jo who’s been doing this for 20 plus years was outstanding! Extremely skilled and extremely knowledgeable. She went above and beyond to not only entertain but enlighten us.

While every dive includes a briefing about where you’re about to dive and what you might see. Jo was extremely animated and had specific ‘fun’ signs for the different types of wild life she’d see to point out on every dive she led.  Tristan was a little greener, but a very skilled diver. He’s still learning what’s available on each dive or reef but was outstanding at finding the big stuff.  Allison who was technically our purser was in the water about half the time and always willing to help.  She buddied up with our son which permitted Claudine and I to maximize our bottom time often eclipsing an hour which was fantastic.

The Chef…  Miguel, you are the man. Our son has some specific dietary needs. We contacted Explorer Ventures up front, confirming they could accommodate.  They were familiar and assured us there would be plenty of food for him, but advised we should bring plenty of snacks just in case.  It turned out none of that was needed. Miguel made sure there was something for Alex, and when a meal didn’t fit his needs, he proactively had options for him. We were thrilled. All of the meals were outstanding.

Kudos to the Captain too, who did the grilling for the steaks and burgers!

Captain JF was certainly fun to hang around with. He wasn’t super visible as he was struggling with a cold and didn’t want to pass it on to any of us. He still made sure to give us daily weather and trip updates. In fact, due to requests of passengers who’d been on the boat before we hit some of the rarer spots and headed to French Cay first to make sure we got there.

Mark was around but since nothing broke we didn’t see him much, and we only bumped into Vardo in the evenings or early mornings, and he was very helpful. He’s also a new diver and did dive with us several times.

As for the diving itself:  The Turks and Caicos Area is amazing.  Very similar to Grand Cayman in my mind. Beautiful reefs, but with greater chances of seeing larger wild life.  We literally had sharks on every dive, both caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks. We also had multiple large turtle encounters and an eagle ray (both larger than I’ve experienced in Cayman) and dolphins!

Wonderfully warm water, I dove in shorts and/or a skin, but no wetsuit was needed from our perspective though some did dive in 2/3mm suits. Completely optional.

Great visibility, often around 100 feet.  No clouds of doom, or sediment issues.

For the most part current was non-existent. Often a little surge but rarely did we encounter any significant current.  We did do a number of live drops expected to be drift dives but did very little ‘drifting’.  I realize it’s not always like this but that was the week we were given and it was splendid.

Sharks on every dive.

The night dives were equally awesome. Because I have the extremely bright lights on my camera rig we somewhat spawned a shark frenzy on the first night. Sadly though, I have no footage of that so you’ll have to take my word for it. That’s the one downside to the sealife smart phone enclosure. If the app crashes during a dive you’re hosed and I was hosed.

The downside to Turk’s night diving is the Black Jacks were a pain. Very aggressive and all over the place. They also have blood worms that are attracted to the heat put out by the lights and every 30 seconds or so you need to kill your light and move away.  Other than that, I enjoyed every dive.

I can’t wait to go back, and I’d revisit this live aboard again without hesitation. 5-Stars all the way around.

All media captured on iPhone 13 Pro Max in and out of the Sealife Sport Diver underwater housing. This dive housing is amazing, and super easy to use once set up. Setup is a bit of a pain though. When I used a regular iPhone 12-Pro (non Max size) I could leave it in a slim case. The Pro-Max has to be removed. Setup on a wet dive boat can be challenging as everything must be DRY. I had multiple set-up failures where it would fail the leak test. I cleaned and lubed the O-Ring multiple times. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not terrible but you do need to plan well ahead of the dive. You need a good 15 minutes in case something goes wrong and you have to repeat the process.

The app is a little dated and can use a face lift. The cameras in the iPhone are simply amazing, the biggest issue can be the auto focus and getting it to focus on exactly what you want. While you can do ‘manual focus’ it’s not intuitive and requires a lot of practice ahead of time. I did find that the 13-Pro-Max in triple camera mode to be the best but it also struggled to focus if there was any back scatter or debris in the water which can sometimes be disappointing because you don’t realize things are out of focus until well after the fact.

2021 January Liveaboard (Caribbean Explorer II)

This January’s trip was supposed to be a week on the Aggressor Liveaboard in the Cayman Islands. Sadly, COVID restrictions in Grand Cayman, requiring you to quarantine for 14 days before doing anything, basically take that off the table. We were informed by Aggressor that our trip was canceled about 45 days prior to departure. We sort of saw this coming when we booked so everything (outside of the liveaboard itself) was refundable. So we pivoted to search for an alternative.

After some research, it appeared St. Maarten was open and doable. We had previously considered Turks and Caicos, but liveaboards weren’t operating during our time windows. They shift to snorkeling with the humpback whales in the Silver bank, off the Dominican Republic.

Entry into St. Maarten only required a negative COVID test 120 hours prior to entry so that, we could do. Next, we started looking for either a Condo to live in on the island to day-dive from but ultimately found the Explorer Ventures Liveaboard aboard the Caribbean Explorer II. This seemed to fit our needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, our trip time (Jan 30th – Feb 6th) had (0) Reservations. Fortunately, the trip was on sale. So I reached out to them to figure out the minimum required to sail and was informed it was 4 people at the regular price or 6 people at the sale price. So we went to work and started inviting friends. Kim and Frank just so happened to be talking about needing a dive trip in January so it worked out. We now had 4 and agreed we’d go full fare if need be. Shortly thereafter Charles and Michelle agreed so it was game on.

We all did our research and made our reservations. We agreed to head in a day early “just in case” we ran into any issues, weather or covid. Charles and Michelle decided to rent a car and tour the French side of the island. We decided to keep a low profile and hang at a hotel near the marina. After some research, we settled on the Holland House Hotel on the boardwalk.

The hotel itself was great, right on the beach and boardwalk in Philipsburg. The place was a ghost town, we might have been the only actual overnight guests that evening. There were a handful of people in the bar and restaurant, but I didn’t see anyone else checking in on Saturday. If we weren’t the only ones there weren’t more than a few other people. It was pretty sad considering this is really part of their high season. Because of Covid, there are no cruises or cruise ships, and the island was eerily quiet. We have absolutely no problem keeping away from others “social distancing”. I won’t spend a lot of time on the hotel, it was more than adequate. I could stay there for a few days. Wouldn’t really want to be there if the island was hopping. We just don’t like crowds that much.

Saturday morning came pretty quickly, we had a late checkout and couldn’t board the boat until 3pm. Claudine and I walked about town, saddened by the closures and lingering devastation still apparent from Hurricane Irma in 2017. We had previously visited St. Maarten twice both from cruise ships. It was really moving to overhear conversations of the economic devastation that Covid has, and continues to have to the island without cruise and ease of regular travel. They make nothing there, there are no exports, travel is the economy.

Enough about the sadness. Onto the boat.

Boarding was simple, the crew took our luggage and fogged them following COVID protocol. We were shown to our cabin, then unloaded our dive gear into our dive spots. Since we were first to the boat we got to choose the spots closest to the entry points.

Frank and Kim followed shortly afterwards and received the same welcoming treatment.

The crew did their jobs both following COVID protocols as well as the safety briefings and tour of the boat, so we were all aware of at least two exits at any given time.

Let’s talk about the boat for a minute.

The boat specifications are listed on the Explorer Ventures Website here. It’s certainly an older boat but it’s well maintained and overall great condition. While this was our first dive liveaboard it’s certainly not our first boat trip.

The layout and rooms.

It’s a dive boat, the main deck is devoted to diving, with 4 cabin rooms. We arrived first and took cabin 1, which had a double bed but no bunk. All rooms had their own bathrooms and showers. The showers were surprisingly larger than expected, but still phone booth sized.

The other couples were in room 2 & 3, both with queen beds and an twin bunk. Frank and Kim used the upper bunk for storage (luggage). There was plenty of room under our bed for our luggage.

The lower deck… Rooms 5 and 6 were certainly larger and if I had it to do over again might choose one of those. The downside is that the stairs up/down from the main and lower deck were more of a ladder than stairs. I didn’t want to deal with that. If you’re not in your room or on the dive deck, all other time is spent up top in the dining room or sun deck. I honestly cannot imagine how busy that is with 18 guests. Having only 6 on board it was awesome and roomy.

The reality with up to 5 dives a day it is literally diving, eat, sleep, repeat. We only had one down day where visibility was so bad that diving wasn’t really possible so we played cards. No other entertainment was required for the rest of the week. During surface intervals, there’s still plenty of time to get some sun, read a book or take a nap in your room. Again, with 18 guests, I probably would have spent more time in my room as I’m ultimately an introvert.

The dive deck was clean and organized. You didn’t swap tanks, they simply refilled your tanks where they sat which was cool. The boat also had their own Nitrox generator. You need Nitrox on a liveaboard with 5 dives a day. The Nitrox routine was simple. Check your percentages (yourself with a meter they provided), log your percentages and tank fill before each dive. To be prepared I bought a Nitrox gauge prior to the trip. I didn’t know how many people would be on board but couldn’t imagine trying to share a meter with 18 people and we’ve all been on those boats where the DM says “We checked it for you this morning it’s 32”. I prefer to check and verify myself, thanks. That wasn’t the case here, they made you do it yourself which I appreciated.

COVID of course changes things, the only community rinse tanks were for camera gear. Again, with only 6 on board, rinsing with the hose was fine when we returned. With 18? not so sure. They were also picky about where you charged your gear (cameras and cell phones, etc.) and had a designated charging area with fire suppression just for it. You could charge in your cabin, only if you were in your cabin. Again, attention to safety and detail was top notch.

The weather...

Claudine and I don’t get sea sick, the other couples used countermeasures. We had some pretty rough weather at times (sea wise), with 10-12 foot swells which really can move a boat like this around. Captain Nelson did a fabulous job hiding us from the weather when possible but during the crossing and some of the movement from dive site to dive site the motion was significant. Not significant from a sea sickness perspective, but significant from a “You better be holding on to something as you move around the boat” perspective. Hence the ladder/stairway of doom to the lower level would have potentially been unpleasant.

The weather also kept us out of a number of dive sites where a larger boat like this cannot use the smaller mooring lines. We ended up executing a few live drops which were ideal vs getting beaten up on the granny line to the mooring line on top of the water. As much as we didn’t like swimming to the front in rough seas, we get it. It’s all about safety.

The crew was Outstanding:
– Captain Nelson A+
– Purser Sarah A+ (also dove with us)
– Chef Julian A+ (Food was amazing)
– Engineer Terrance A+
– Dive Staff: Kirsten, Gabe, and Dale A++

The staff overall was amazing. We were very fortunate there were only 6 guests on a boat that can house or service 18 so we had extra attention. It was really great to eat with the crew, talk to them and get to know them. You don’t get that same opportunity if there are 18 guests.

We had dives led by Capt. Nelson, Sarah, Kirsten, Dale, and Gabe. All were awesome in their attention to detail and safety. All covered the site, navigation, flow, and wildlife we were likely to see. Gabe went the extra mile with “Science with Gabe” where he talked to us about Fish, mating, feeding, coral, colors, symbiosis, etc, etc. He was outstanding. Terrance and Chef Julian didn’t get in the water with us. Diving’s not for Terrance, and Julian was busy cooking 😉 though was an accomplished captain and diver in former careers. It was really great to get to know the staff.

Mad props to Explorer Ventures for dealing with COVID rules, regulations, and travel restrictions. One of our biggest fears became reality when, with less than 10 days from our trip, the US declared you must have a negative COVID test before being allowed to return. This sent everyone scrambling. How or where do you get a test? How much is it? St. Maarten is on island time which means people get to it when they get to it. Punctuality isn’t in their vocabulary. Venture Explorers stepped up and coordinated exit tests that met the criteria for us. We weren’t that concerned about a positive test, we all were negative 120 hours prior to travel, the boat was clean the crew was clean and they kept us safe. Not to mention we were living in saltwater for 5 hours a day. But you never know. Turning up positive would have meant quarantining in St. Maarten for 10 to 14 days prior to coming home. While not devastating for us, could be for other people. Getting stuck was certainly something to be concerned about and they did everything they could to minimize that.

The Diving…

As much as we love diving, we’re still somewhat new to it with around 100 dives behind us. We started with our PADI Open Water certification but added Advanced Open Water on our last trip. Advanced means we don’t really need to be ushered around by a divemaster. We should be able to complete these dives on our own and make it back to the boat without assistance (ability to navigate underwater). We can also go deeper (100ft vs the Open water 60ft floor). But we all know how that goes.

Our favorite place to dive is still Cayman Islands. For us visibility has always been outstanding, with little current overall. That caribbean blue dive water, makes it like diving in an aquarium. We were told all caribbean diving is well, caribbean diving. That hasn’t been our experience but OK. We were told diving St. Maarten, Saba, St. Kitts would be very similar to Cayman. In some ways it was, other ways not-so-much.

The weather played the biggest factor so certainly you could say, the same can happen in Cayman. We just haven’t experience that, and/or with 200+ dive sites to choose from there’s always one that’s ‘open’. Not the same around Saba. Again, our choices of sites were kind of limited by where the boat could moore.

Traditionally this trip is a one-way from either St. Maarten to Saba to St. Kitts or the reverse. At this time St. Kitts was closed to tourists and to diving off or around the island. So we had to dive Saba for 6 days. That, mixed with the weather made it challenging at times both from a visibility perspective (more on that in a minute) to the weather and currents blowing around the island. Saba is a SMALL island with many great sites, but it’s not the smorgasbord of sites we’re accustomed to in Cayman. Details here at seasaba.com.

Because of the weather, currents, swells, we were forced to stick to the western side of the island. The weather also kicked up the ‘Cloud of Doom’ which instantly dropped visibility to almost 0. Our first dive day Sunday was a complete wash out because of it. The first two dives were 20 minutes total, out and down the mooring line where we couldn’t see farther than 3-6 feet, then back up the line and back on the boat. You can’t control the weather so you just have to deal with it.

Captain Nelson spent the rest of the week searching for sites with visibility and navigable currents to get us in the water. It was frustrating at first, but it all worked out.

The Cloud of Doom

Saba is basically an ancient volcano. I’m sure I’m not explaining this properly as we heard multiple explanations. But basically, the island is surrounded by volcanic silt, and as the currents and wind shifts, it stirs up these clouds, clouds of doom. When this happens, visibility goes from unbelievable to zero or near zero in no time. Charles, who’s been all over the world, has never seen anything like it and neither had we. We’d be on a dive with good visibility (60+ feet) and you could see it coming, in minutes, you could barely seen your hand in front of your face. Time to huddle up with the divemaster and head back to the mooring line. This happened on a few dives. Nothing to be afraid of but be aware. The boats is still right where you left it and worst case, ascend and find it.

On our second dive on day one, heading down the mooring line, Claudine lost a weight pocket knocked loose from the swells and the mooring line, which prevented her from making it down. The divemaster told me to stay put, while she took Claudine back to the boat. Visibility was not good (maybe 7 feet). I found a coral head near the bottom of the mooring line and just watched the wildlife. I looked over to my right and could see Frank. Looked back over a minute later and he wasn’t there. I was told to stay put so I did and just hung out for about ten minutes. Just me, a small coral head, and some fish. After about 10 minutes it was time to ascend, I didn’t have a buddy, and it was time to go. I ascended to my safety stop. Kirsten found me there, chilling at ~15 or so feet, checked on me, and directed me back to the boat. The rest of the day was a wash.

Of course, I would have loved better visibility, and the option to dive St. Kitts but it wasn’t in the cards. I would take the trip again, under the same conditions and visibility.

I dove 22 of the 23 opportunities to dive. I only sat out of one night dive because I wanted a glass of wine more than I wanted a low visibility night dive on Wednesday.

Charles put together a highlight video you can can watch here:

Overall most of the dives were great, well worth it. Some were challenging either due to surge or visibility. Tammy has always said “You learn something on every dive” and that was very clear on this trip. We learned about low visibility, we learned about some crappy conditions. We learned swimming against the current back to the boat when the current changes, sucks, a lot. Just relax, take care of business, enjoy what you can enjoy. I’d leave tomorrow for the same boat, same conditions, including limited visibility.

The night dives were amazing. “The freaks come out at night”. We got to see some amazing stuff. Turtles and Sharks on Every Dive! We got to see a shark hunt and eat Dorry with the help of Charles’s big ass dive lights. “Chip” was Charles’s personal nurse shark for the week. He was everywhere Charles was. It was impressive the area that the shark covered, we spent a lot of time with him.

More Photos

The Food…

We never went hungry and the food was outstanding. Something new every day. Breakfast was great, from the omelets to the pancakes and french toast. Lunch and dinner were even better… Ribs, Lasagna, Burgers, Steak, and always a Salad for no reason. The deserts too. I have no idea how chef Julian did it on an often rocky boat. The ribs were really, really good and I know my ribs. He claims he’s converted more than a few vegetarians and I don’t doubt him for a second.

This was our first liveaboard but certainly won’t be our last.