Get Glowing in Turks & Caicos

Posted by Toronto Sun

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks & Caicos -- Who'd have thought worms could be a tourist attraction? Sounds crazy. But that's how it is on Providenciales (or Provo for short), where visitors happily pay for a chance to go on an excursion to see the odontosyllis enopla.

Then again, these are no ordinary critters. They're glow worms, and during mating season they put on an extraordinary display.

When our catamaran departs Leeward Marina at dusk for the tidal flats where the worms gather, the air is warm and the water calm. I'm gazing at the black velvet star-filled sky, when Captain James Deane (aka Capt. Pringle) pipes up: "One piece of advice -- please try not to use your camera flash while the worms are, how should I say, enjoying themselves."

 This, the amiable captain explains, could disrupt their amorous behaviour and cause them to have problems reproducing.

The 30 or so passengers participating in the excursion with Silver Deep are already lined up along the railing, looking down into the water for signs of life. Within minutes of leaving the dock, we see the first flash of light, then another and another, many of them just metres away from the boat. The green light they emit seems to be about the size of a pin head, and the flash is brief, lasting only about a second, but they pop up here, there and everywhere.

After the initial novelty wears off, I'm left with one question. What exactly is going on here? Just then, Capt. Deane, who must be reading my mind, offers an answer. It seems the female, while swimming in circles just below the surface of the water, releases a luminescent egg mass. The male then responds by emitting short light pulses of his own, while doing a little nuptial dance until he encounters the eggs, and releases his gametes into the water. And voila, several eggs are fertilized! All we see though, are the flashing lights.

The tours are popular, not only because the sight is an unusual one, but also because it's something that can't be seen every day. The sparkling mating ritual is at its height for only two to five days after a full moon, so visitors who happen to be on the island on these days feel privileged and compelled to take advantage of their good timing. The whole display starts about one hour after sunset and only lasts from 10 to 30 minutes.

Since the worms' spawning cycle is governed by lunar and solar patterns, what you see may vary depending on when you go. Silver Deep's Paola Deane says displays are typically better in the summer and on the third and fourth nights after the full moon.

The captain and crew of our boat have another theory.

"The more rum you drink, the more glow worms you see," jokes Ali, one of the deck hands, who's been serving us pizza, cookies, fresh fruit and rum punch.

Dolphin fun

If you miss the glow worms, there's always a chance you may see Jo Jo, the friendly wild dolphin who sometimes communes with humans and has become somewhat of an island mascot.

"I was in the water and a lady said, 'he's coming towards you,' " said Barbara Ward, a visitor from Littleton, Mass. "He (Jo Jo) swam right up to me. He was very docile and tame. We saw him a few days ago, too, but not that close."

In two days, I'd met at least half a dozen people who'd seen the animal and in every case the sighting was in the morning around 8 a.m. on Grace Bay beach near my hotel, Ocean Club West, distinguished by its pink beach umbrellas.

Grace Bay is the place to be on Provo and reason enough to come to the island. Aside from a visit to the Conch Farm and a snorkelling excursion to the local cays, I spent most of my time along this 8-km long stretch of white sand and turquoise waters.

I also have some memorable meals here. Among them: Ocean Club's plump, scrumptious conch burgers, which won first place in the specialty category in the Turks + Caicos 2009 Conch Festival; the lobster tail with an eye-popping presentation at Opus; and the blackened mahi at Coco Bistro with its jungle-like setting (the Bistro is across the street from the beach).

After dinner, it's worth checking out the elegant new "Infiniti Bar" at Anacaona, billed as the longest bar (it's 27-metres) in the Caribbean. But for the most unique and refreshing beverage head to nearby Ocean Club (east) for its beetroot mojito, which won an award at the recent Conch Festival.

Everywhere I go along Grace Bay, I scan the waters looking for Jo Jo. I never do see him, but it's good to know he's still out there.

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