Features

Sifting Through The Sands of Time

sand1Story by Marsha Pardee Woodring

There is something elemental in the act of wriggling one’s naked toes into sun-baked sand. It’s as if those zillions of grains of sand somehow illicit a very simple and basic joy.

Maybe the magic comes from its millions of years in the making. Like the hourglass that marks time, sand has dribbled down through the millennia and has been deposited in some of the most breathtaking places on earth.

Ever contemplate the creation of a single grain of sand?
What is known about the origin of our Islands?
How is it that some shores are graced with a lovely lace-like trim? What are the driving forces and benefits of sand as it sifts through the hourglass of time?

FROM A SINGLE GRAIN OF SAND
The hourglass, that simple device so cleverly designed for marking time, is also somewhat symbolic of the origin of sand. Sand is created a few grains at a time, mostly by a slow whittling away. Many different types of sand are purely a physical eroding process, where wind and water whittle rocks into fine grains. Most beaches on continental shores are composed of particles swept down from the adjacent mountain ranges through the rivers bound to the sea. In dry islands with a paucity of freshwater runoff, much of the physical processing of sand is limited to wave action and storm abrasion whittling away at the reefs.

Biological processes also aid in the formation of different types of sand. Millions of marine creatures donate their remaining skeletons for our pleasure on a beach. Diatoms, minute algal beings, are a major contributing factor with their siliceous, glass-like bodies. Sea shells can also break into particles over time. Several larger marine algae specimens are composed partly of calcareous materials that eventually break down to help form sand. In our area of the world, parrotfish and other marine creatures feed on the coral reefs and calcareous algae and through the process of digestion, excrete the beautiful sand of our beaches.

In this warm-weather region, we also have chemical processes that create sand. Here, the exceptionally warm, clear waters on the shallow banks cause calcium carbonate to become supersaturated in seawater and thus precipitate out, somewhat like the water evaporates on the salt pan. The precipitation usually occurs around a nucleus of a fragment of shell or other object, resulting in a perfect little spherical sand grain.
In the Turks & Caicos, the majority of our sand is calcium carbonate-based, i.e., most of it comes directly from the sea. Even the runoff from land during our limited rainy times is limestone based, originally an artifact of the sea. If it’s the result of biological breakdown, such as processed by parrotfish or other parts of the coral reef, then the sand is typically known as aragonite. The chemically born bits are known as ooliths, derived from the Greek oion, meaning egg, and lith for rock. Beaches fringing the “Bank” are primarily composed of ooliths, as the shallow water bank is perfect breeding grounds for this round sphere of sand. The irregular shaped aragonite sands are more commonly found adjacent to the fringing reefs.

sand2The color of sand can also tell a lot about its origins. On the continents, sand is often multicolored and a composite of various types of rocks from which it has eroded over the distances and years. In the Caribbean, beaches also vary in shades of color. Volcanically formed islands have the same runoff/erosion process as the continents and the sands can be derived from whatever rocks are the basis of the land mass. Many islands, like Dominica, have ebony colored beaches from the black lava sand. Some places have beaches of pearly pink, possibly a result of red coralline algae reefs or communities nearby. The beaches of Middle Caicos boast a few pearly pinks. Most of the sands though, found here in the Turks & Caicos Islands, are glittering white and are the result of the surrounding marine world.

GENESIS OF AN ISLAND

Like the book of Genesis, the story of sand goes back to the earliest of beginnings. But we will start relatively recently, with the formation of the Bahamas Platform, a region that includes the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Turks & Caicos Islands. The islands of the Bahamas Platform are believed to have emerged from the sea in the Miocene Period some 11 to 25 million years ago.

In reality, sand is the genesis of these island chains. Many organisms living in the warm, clear waters of long-ago contributed their skeletons to make up carbonate sediments. Evaporation caused the deposits to be formed out of these billions of sand particles. Millions of years later, with the help of a few rises and falls of sea levels and more evaporation, the islands started changing into the form we know today.

How does this happen? One mechanism is through “concretion” of moist sand to form beach rock. Easily examined samples can be found on the north shore of Little Water Cay. The concretion process is an effect of the fresh water from rain and the drying winds on the sand (evaporation). Sand continues to build up on top of the rock, forming dunes with rock layers beneath. Vegetation then starts to accumulate and helps to hold the sand in place against the weather and sea. Eventually, layer upon layer is formed with successive dune lines pushing further towards the sea with the new vegetation holding the additional sand in place.

Another process involves wind, tides and currents that cause an accumulation of the sand deposits in areas we call shoals. The roots of red mangroves grow and help hold the particles in place. The mangroves then drop more seedlings, which can grow in depths of up to three feet. The roots slowly start to accumulate more sediments, plants and animal debris. This, in turn, further slows the currents, trapping even more organic matter. The mangroves are also home for many marine animals, which increases the load of organic debris. Eventually, the process of land and soil formation continues until the shoal is completely above water and ever-expanding over time.

SHIFTING SANDS

sand3Mother Nature can be merciless when it comes to the shifting sands. This is never more apparent than to homeowners along the beach who have to watch their yards wash away. Shorelines are constantly either eroding or accreting, with few periods of stasis in between. The physical processes of water, wind, waves and currents are typically the culprits, but man-made structures or alterations to the environment can also alter Mother Nature’s plan.

Of the different types of shoreline communities, beaches are one of the most dynamic. Currents always run one way along a beach and are known as longshore currents. As the currents move, they constantly pick up and drop sand as they go. Some areas may erode, while others accrete or add sand to the area. Beaches near inlets are even more dynamic and subject to change as the inlet increases the water movement through the area. Fine sand beaches are typically formed in areas with a slow current, as the fine particles have a chance to fall out more easily. Larger grains of sand are more indicative of areas with a faster current.

Keep in mind that all this shifting is part of Mother Nature’s plan, as she replenishes and prunes the old and the new. Unfortunately for man, it is not always in his best interest. So to impede the natural ebb and flow, structures are added or sands dredged away. But few things can outdo Mother Nature or outlive Father Time and the never-ending war begins.

In our attempts to control where we do and don’t want sand a number of devices have been designed: seawalls for holding sand in, bulkheads for keeping sand out, groins for piling sand on one side or the other. If worse comes to worse, we can always dredge it out and put it where our hearts are content, at least temporarily . . .

Smart strategy attempts to work with the forces of nature, by engineering designs that enhance the natural flow. But just when it seems the battle is over, Mother Nature decides to sweep the slate clean with a raging storm or hurricane. Inlets are altered and beaches blown away as the process starts all over again.

A PRICELESS COMMODITY

Sand is that ucky, sticky stuff that clings to every surface after a wonderful day at the beach. It’s in your hair, down your suit, in the cookies you brought to snack on after a swim around the reef. For visitors, it’s an inadvertent souvenir as it somehow always seems to find a way home in the luggage. What a nuisance it can be!

But for the love of sand, we must give it its due. Without it, there would be no beautiful beach to loll upon–in fact in this island chain, there simply would be no island in the sun. Our great sand beaches are a major portion of the lure to these parts. Tourists spend expansive amounts of money just to lie on these wonderful white sands.
And without sand there would be no way to house the resident population, much less the tourists. Sand is a founding component of the construction process. Like the natural process that built these islands, concretion is necessary for those buildings built to withstand hurricanes. Sand mining is not only a valuable commodity for export, but essential to the Islands’ development.

Now that we know how essential it is to our human presence and survival here, let’s consider some of sand’s other more seemingly benign benefits. If we go back in history a bit, we also note that our great sand beaches provided food for the natives in the form of turtles and their nesting grounds. Iguanas also must nest in the sand as do birds, crabs and numerous other edible species, both above and below the waterline.

But did you know that some of the greatest diversity on earth exists in the sand? In taxonomic terms, it’s even richer than the Amazon rain forest. A single handful of wet sand can contain up to 10,000 small animals, called meiofauna. Meiofauna is a term used for animals that pass through filter sieves with a mesh size of 42 micrometers (.042mm)–mesh finer than a silk stocking. These microscopic creatures play a vital role in the maintenance of our sand, cleaning it as they feed on debris, keeping it oxygenated as they stir up the sand.

Aesthetically speaking, there are few things finer than contemplating miles of glittering white bordered by a turquoise sea. The simplicity of the landscape is mesmerizing. Add in a glorious sunrise or sunset, and it leaves one totally speechless and spellbound.

From a recreational standpoint, the opportunities are unlimited. Beaches are the prime attractant to these islands, where people come to rest and recreate. Sand is the scene for long walks, picnics, parties, moonlit bonfires and barbecues, or just a base on which to loll and read while working on a tan. For the young at heart, a whole new world of activities emerge: building sand castles or sculptures, corn-dogging for the rowdy, or burying your least favorite sibling in the sand. And for a simple pleasure, the pure ecstasy of feeling sand sift between your toes is unmatched.

In today’s world where it seems everything must have a price tag attached, it’s difficult to put a value on sand. A single grain of sand means nothing more than an inert speck to the oversized human world, but to the microscopic meiofauna, it’s earth itself. Gazillions of grains of sand are more within our perspective reach for evaluation, and as human nature would have it, sand becomes a resource to be bought and sold, or used and abused by the highest bidder. Fortunately for us in the TCI, the ocean continues to sire a seemingly endless quantity of sand.

TCI’S PROTECTED BEACHES

The Turks & Caicos Islands are blessed with a number of beaches scattered along the shores of the seven larger islands and numerous small cays. Although each one is spectacular in its own way, it would be next to impossible to protect all of them. Instead, the Turks & Caicos Government has attempted to pinpoint those most vital as a resource and most likely to suffer from human impact. These beaches have been given a protected status, which determines what human activities or development may occur in those areas, with the promise of preserving them.

sand4On Providenciales, the Princess Alexandra National Park is a key resource, encompassing the prize-winning Grace Bay Beach and surrounding lagoon. This park actually extends down to Pine Cay, protecting the northern beaches of Little Water, Pine and Water Cays. Fort George Land and Sea Park, adjacent to Pine Cay, further protects that stretch of shore. North West Point Marine Park, situated on the northwest tip of Providenciales, is another excellent beach area.

These northern beaches are more biologically formed (aragonite) as noted by the irregular shapes of the sand, complete with small fragments of shells. The sand is predominantly an eye-blistering white, which contrasts beautifully with the turquoise sea. The southern shores of Provo are also glittering white, but the grains of sand are mostly chemically formed. These grains are nearly perfect little spheres (ooliths) of a constant shape and size. Beaches near the inlet areas between the island chains often have a mixture of the two as the sand and water are exchanged from the ocean to the bank side.

West of Providenciales lies West Caicos, one of the smaller of the large isles. Beautiful beaches and cliffs grace the western side, where wall diving is at its best. These beaches are protected by the West Caicos Marine National Park. The eastern side is also blessed by miles of undaunted beach, constantly being sculpted by the predominant wind and waves.

Going east along the island chain, several small cays are protected along the northern shores of North Caicos. Although fantastic beaches can be found on North Caicos, and more on Middle and East Caicos, they have not been slated for protection. Instead, a large expanse of the southern mangrove-filled sides of these islands have been set aside as a RAMSAR Wetland Site, to help protect the vital fishery stocks that they provide. Middle Caicos has beaches along its northern shore that vary in shade and size of sand from small white to large pearly pink. East Caicos beaches are uninhabited these days, except for West Indian Whistling Ducks and other feathered friends, mixed in with some donkeys and cows.

South Caicos has East Harbor Lobster and Conch Reserve, which encompasses several stretches of sandy beach located on South Caicos and nearby Dove and Long Cays. Ranging in size from the tiny cove on Dove Cay to miles of uninterrupted sand on Long Cay, a sense of seclusion abounds. East Bay beach is lovely fine-grained sand and the seagrass beds that run the length of the basin are home to many juvenile conch. Long Cay sports a beach on the western side, protected from the swells of the Columbus Passage.

The Columbus Landfall Marine National Park contains an incredible beach, running the length of the western coast of Grand Turk. Sunsets, with the promise of a “green flash,” are priceless here. The beach continues to curve around the southern tip, where many shells can be found. The windward (eastern) side of the island also has a grand stretch of beach that is perfect for those who seek seagoing treasures. The daily blow and currents cough up all kinds of strange debris, along with an assortment of shells.

Another spectacular spot for sand is a place called West Sand Spit. As its name confers, it is simply a large shoal or “spit” near French Cay. There are no trees or vegetation on this little rise of land, merely a joining of sand and sea on the horizon for a mirage-like sensation. But the illusion is real, as you are truly surrounded by miles of water.

One could spend a lifetime exploring and discovering the many beaches of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Nearly every small isle or cay has a sliver of beach somewhere, with its own special blend of sand. Even the tiniest beach can be significant for those creatures that inhabit it. And for us humans, we are graced with the opportunity to add yet another special grain of sand to our own personal hourglass of time.

cleanCLEANUP TCI

Part of the bargain for beautiful beaches utilized by humans is making an effort to keep them clean. It’s amazing how quickly a group of people can literally trash a beach in just a few slovenly moments. Some beaches accumulate litter from afar, blown in and washed up after long journeys at sea. Regardless, garbage is a manmade malady, and we must all take responsibility for curing the disease.

Cleanup TCI is a non-profit organization concerned with ridding the Turks & Caicos of the litter polluting these beautiful isles. Formally the TCI Coastal Cleanup Organization, the Turks & Caicos has participated in the International Coastal Cleanup for the past 10 years. Spearheaded by the Ocean Conservancy’s efforts to deal with marine pollution, over 100 countries and 55 states are participating in annual cleanup events.

Aside from removing trash from our beaches, the programs collect and record key information for analysis. The resultant statistics allow us to make informed decisions and explore solutions for the litter problem. One thing is for certain–people are a major part of the solution.

The motto for the Turks & Caicos is “Beautiful By Nature, Clean By Choice.” This stanza is being shouted by schoolchildren throughout the Islands as Clean-up TCI volunteers make their education rounds. This year, the “Litter Critter” is making its debut. Appropriately costumed in an outfit made of beach debris, the Litter Critter dances to a song with a lively beat while tossing trash to the crowds. “Don’t be a Litter Critter” is the theme of the day, while the song’s refrain reminds children to “get with the plan and put the trash in the garbage can.”

An island competition is being held with all the schools competing for the cleanest yard. Designated teachers and Cleanup TCI volunteers will do weekly evaluations over a period of two months. Children are also being asked to submit tips on the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The best tip from each school will be chosen and broadcast on the various radio stations weekly. It is hoped that the children of the TCI will lead the way in keeping this country clean.

Beach cleanups are regularly scheduled throughout the year. For more information on Cleanup TCI or how you can become part of the solution, contact Michelle Fulford Gardiner at (649) 241-8093 or email whales@tciway.tc.

AD INFINITUM

Fortunately, the lowly grain of sand has the inherent ability to immortalize itself, because it’s doubtful the human populace would be so inclined. But hopefully, we’ll all think more about giving sand its due, once we realize its importance in our daily existence.

Allow me a parting tidbit on the miracle of sand. Ever wonder why our waters are such a beautiful shade of aquamarine? Our bountiful white sands covered by the crystal clear waters act as mirror for the sky, reflecting the colors of the heavens overhead. So once again, we must bow down to the sand, give thanks for this simplest of creations, and pray that the hourglass never runs dry.



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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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