dividing walls and salt pans in the South Caicos salinas The historical salt salinas on South Caicos.

History and Overview of South Caicos

small-scale fishing boats at Seaview Marina in Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos
Small fishing boats such as these bring in fish, conch and lobster to be processed for international export.

South Caicos is an inhabited island in the Turks and Caicos, and part of the Caicos Islands archipelago. It’s the fourth most populated island in the country, and the seventh largest by land mass, with a collective area of 8.2 square miles (21 sq km).

South Caicos was once very important to the economy of the Turks and Caicos, and during the sea salt industry days, at times produced more salt than all the other islands in the country combined. Today the island is very quiet place and supports a population of only 1,139 (2012 Census).

South Caicos is geographically the last island to the east in the Caicos Islands group. The terrain largely consists of low hills and dry bushland vegetation, with central saline wetlands and flats.

Quick Facts
Population 1,139 (2012 Census)
Area 8.2 mi² (21 km²)
Airport South Caicos Airport (XSC)
Best Beach East Bay
Highest Point 151 feet (46 metres) Valley Bay Hill

Due to being bordered on one side by the uninhabited East Caicos and sparsely populated Middle Caicos, and separated from the Turks Islands by the twenty mile wide Turks Island Passage on the other, South Caicos feels a bit more isolated than the rest of the country. See Where We're Located and History of the Turks and Caicos.

The main settlement on South Caicos is Cockburn Harbour, named in 1840 after an official visit by the then Governor of the Bahamas – Sir Francis Cockburn. Many of the older buildings in Cockburn Harbour reflect the British Colonial heritage of the country, with Bermudian architecture and cut limestone block construction.

Donkeys and horses still roam the island, another remnant of the salt industry days.

South Caicos has some excellent reefs and scuba diving, yet unfortunately doesn’t at this time have any established dive or water sport operators. A dive company did operate out of Cockburn Harbour as of a few years ago, but Hurricane Ike destroyed the business in 2008.

Small-scale Fishing

the pier and crowds at Conch Ground at South Caicos during the South Caicos Regatta in 1968
The South Caicos Regatta in 1968. Photo courtesy of and copyright of U.S. Coast Guard veteran Charles A. Bliley ( www.bliley.net).

Currently, the main economic income for South Caicos comes from the fishing industry. Conch, lobster and fish are caught, processed, packed and shipped to the international market.

Two new luxury resort projects have opened, Sailrock Resort and the East Bay Resort, and there’s now greater interest in residential real estate, so the atmosphere of South Caicos is likely to change.

The luxury development has had the effect of spurring improvements of the South Caicos Airport and the port at Cockburn Harbour.

South Caicos is also home to The School for Field Studies' Center for Marine Resource Studies, which currently occupies the old Admiral’s Arms hotel building.

History

metal gears on a windmill in the South Caicos salinas
A remnant of the past, this windmill used to pump seawater into separate contained salinas to be naturally evaporated into salt.

South Caicos has had a varied history. According to the theory that Columbus first made landfall on Grand Turk (on his historic 1492 voyage to the New World), South Caicos was probably the second island sighted by him. The island subsequently got its heads start from the fact that it has a sheltered natural deep water harbour, something the other islands in the country really don’t naturally offer.

Along with Grand Turk and Salt Cay, South Caicos produced salt by evaporating sea water in shallow ponds. This industry was begun on South Caicos in 1850 when the output from the rest of the country failed to meet global and regional demands. Due to its larger acreage of wetlands, South Caicos eventually came to produce most of the salt exported from the Turks and Caicos. Today, dividing walls, windmills and sluice gates can still be seen in the salinas, along with the Boiling Hole, a unique and natural subterranean tidal passage that was utilised to supply the salinas with sea water for evaporation.

the concrete rainwater catchment field at the South Caicos U.S. Coast Guard LORAN station
The water catchment area at the abandoned United States Coast Guard LORAN Station, South Caicos.

Over the years, several different ventures were started on South Caicos. Sea sponge farming was tried in the 1930s and was initially somewhat successful, yet a fungus blight disease killed off the sponges and put an end to it. A lobster cannery was also tried. In the 1950s, a Canadian businessman started exporting conch shells to the United States for ornamental purposes. None of these attempts lasted long, and South Caicos has generally experienced a downturn over the last few decades.

The United States Government also used to have an interest in South Caicos. In 1944, the US established an anti-submarine base on the island, along with the first airstrip in the country. Later, the U.S. Coast Guard constructed a LORAN station on the north end of South Caicos. This site was completed in 1959 and was part of the low-frequency radio signal navigation system that was eventually replaced largely by satellite GPS. Both bases have long been decommissioned, although much of the LORAN station facilities still exist.

Victorian-era sea salt warehouse at Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos
South Caicos has many historical buildings, such as this old warehouse from the days of salt production.

A thorough history of South Caicos would have to include the unfortunate mention of narcotics smuggling. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Caribbean was plagued by drug runners on the sea and in the air, and the Turks and Caicos was no exception. Because the Turks and Caicos lies about halfway between Colombia and the United States, and due to the seclusion, the island proved to be a popular refuelling stop. Many planes and ships were confiscated by the authorities and it was during this period that South Caicos picked up its nickname of The Big South.

One annual event that temporarily swells the population on the island is the South Caicos Regatta. This Caicos Sloop sailboat race is a tradition that commemorates Queen Elizabeth’s visit to South Caicos on 1966.

The Admiral Cockburn Land and Sea National Park is a designated National Park protecting a large portion of the sea and parts of the coast.

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