The Turks and Caicos Islands, or TCI, lie south east of the Bahamas chain, 145 km north of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and 925 km south east of Miami. About 500 sq km of land is divided between 120 low islands and cays (pronounced keys) situated on shallow banks. The easterly occurring Turks Islands are separated from the Caicos Islands by a deep-water channel. The total area of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is 154,058 km².

 

Only six of the islands are permanently inhabited, with 31,458 (2012) permanent residents: Grand Turk (where the capital and administrative centre – officially Cockburn Town, but normally called Grand Turk – is situated); Salt Cay; South Caicos; Middle Caicos; North Caicos and Providenciales. The last (known as Provo) is where the majority of the tourism development is. There are a number of exclusive hotel developments and holiday homes on smaller cays. Limited rainfall, plus poor soil and a limestone base, restrict the possibilities for agricultural development, although some small-scale subsistence farming takes place, especially on North Caicos. Most food is imported.

Cays off east Providenciales. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Water, Little Water, Donna and Mangrove Cays, the Leeward Wideopens Channel and fringing reef off the eastern end of Providenciales (to right). Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Mouchoir Bank is situated south east of Turks Bank. Together with southern Florida, the Bahamas and northern Cuba, they are part of a platform of rocks formed as limestone depositing in shallow seas as the crust slowly subsided. Virtually all these rocks of the area, to a depth of several thousand metres, are directly of marine origin, except some fossil soils and sand-dune rock (aeolian limestone). The region has always had a marine environment from the time of its formation until the present. The Turks and Caicos Islands are on two shallow banks (Turks Bank and the larger Caicos Bank), with deep ocean between them. The maximum altitude is about 50 m asl. There are further shallow banks (Mouchoir, Silver and Navidad) to the south-east but without islands; some of these banks are within TCI territory, with others claimed by the Dominican Republic.

Barn owl rests during the day on a large strangler fig tree growing through a solution hole in the roof of a cave, Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Barn owl rests during the day on a large strangler fig tree growing through a solution hole in the roof of a cave, Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The Islands themselves are limestone, and have many caves and sinkholes, created as rainwater percolated through the limestone and dissolved the rock. The freshwater lenses held by these caves historically provided the only source of fresh water on the islands. Although not as widely used today, households traditionally used rainwater capture systems. Reverse osmosis facilities, powered by by imported diesel, delivered by ships and trucks, now provide a substantial amount of water to residents on Providenciales and Grand Turk.

 Big-eared bat resting during the day-time in a cave on Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Big-eared bat resting during the day-time in a cave on Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The climate is warm throughout the year but tempered by constant trade winds. The average annual temperature is 27˚C and the rainfall ranges from 21 inches in the eastern islands to 40 inches in the west. Hurricanes can occur from June to November (and occasionally outside this season).

 Reddish and great egret fishing on North Salina, Grand Turk. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Reddish and great egret fishing on North Salina, Grand Turk. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski