And God Created Turquoise

js-chalk-soundAn historical journey through Chalk Sound National Park.

By Katya Brightwell

“Everybody think it’s artificial, think it’s paint on the bottom there, but it’s not. It’s different from other places. It’s unique, it’s just unique.”

“Impossibly iridescent. It’s a magical place.”

Ask anyone to describe the colour of the water in Chalk Sound National Park in Providenciales and there follows a long pause, a little exclamation and then another pause . . . a concentrated search for the exact words to convey the sense of a colour that is so . . . so . . . indescribable.

Officially designated a National Park almost 20 years ago, this beautiful expanse of water, peppered with little cays and bordered by undulating ridges and valleys of untouched green bush, is certainly one of the most stunning natural areas on Providenciales. Spanning over 5 1/2 square miles, the park is a haven of tranquillity and nature in an island whose main arteries now bustle with the hum of commercialism and development.

This national park is home to hundreds of species of marine life, birds and plants. The shallow lagoon is linked to the ocean via narrow inlets at its southwestern edge and, with its fine white sandy bottom and red, black and white mangrove fringes, it provides a safe nursery ground for — amongst other marine species — barracuda, bonefish and nurse sharks. Hawksbill and green turtles have also been spotted amongst the cays. And, on land, two of the many native plants that flourish are the rare summer orchid Encyclia inaguensis and prime examples of the “dildo” or “old man” cactus. Although many houses and villas do now line some of its once barren shores, the architecture is low-lying and the land not overdeveloped. Real estate is sought after because of the beautiful location and proximity to the ocean and, after almost 20 years, building is booming. The area, says ambassador of the Turks & Caicos Real Estate Association Kathryn Brown, is a high-end location. As well as being popular amongst residents, Chalk Sound is especially prized amongst families visiting the island for short term villa rentals. “People like that it’s a distance away from the centre of town, a little remote,” she says.

A drive through Chalk Sound does feel like visiting an outlying village in Providenciales. But it is a “village” with a rich history and over the centuries it has served, in many different ways, as a hub of activity and played an important role in the survival of island residents. There is evidence that the shores of Chalk Sound were well-populated by the earliest human inhabitants of the Turks & Caicos Islands — the Lucayan Indians. On the northeastern side of the park, there is a small triangle of land, bordering the water, which holds as yet undocumented secrets of these transitory people. Brian Riggs, curator of the National Environmental Centre, discovered this historical site a few years ago along with a colleague. The area, which would have been inhabited as a temporary fishing village sometime between 1100 and 1500 AD, has been noted but no surveys or excavations have yet taken place. “I was just walking and I suppose I know what to look for,” says Riggs. “The most important clue that tells you that it was a habitation site is the remains of bits and pieces made by people, like pieces of pottery and broken up shell material. You can also spot charcoal remains, dark soil, that kind of thing.” To the west of the sound there is another, larger, patch of land where the sound, creek and ocean converge, that, he adds, would also have been an ideal location for the Lucayans to set up home. He suspects that once investigated, this area may actually turn out to be one of the largest Lucayan sites in the country, with possibly several hundred inhabitants.

Current residents who would be able to reveal more about the Lucayans’ presence are some of the sound’s longest-standing populace — the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguanas. Visiting biologists indicated in a comprehensive study of this national park last year that there are over 50 endangered or threatened species in its midst.  One of these is the rock iguana and Chalk Sound is unique in providing a home to the only surviving population on Providenciales. The ironshore cays in the middle of the lagoon are these ancient reptiles’ last safe habitats on Providenciales and one of the reasons why the sound is a protected area. Dr. Glenn Gerber, an iguana specialist based at San Diego Zoo in California, visits the Turks & Caicos Islands regularly to monitor iguana populations around the archipelago. He states that historically, Turks & Caicos Rock Iguanas were found on all of the islands on the Caicos Bank and the Turks Bank but, in the last 30 years alone, at least 15 island populations have gone extinct. “Today they occupy less than 5% of their former range,” Dr. Gerber laments. “The reason iguanas still survive on these tiny islands in Chalk Sound and not on Provo is very simple,” he explains. “Provo has introduced cats and dogs that kill and eat iguanas.” So, although dogs have managed to swim to some of the cays located nearer to the shores of Chalk Sound and destroy any resident populations there, the natural populations on the more remote cays have remained safe. He stresses that the populations in Chalk Sound must remain protected if the species is to escape extinction.

Although the iguana did feature in the diet of Islanders for many years, it never, as far as we know, became a tradable product. But fast-forward to the early 1900s and some of the other creatures of Chalk Sound did feature in a sudden surge of industrial activity on the island. George Silly, a Greek who moved to the Turks & Caicos Islands from Florida, saw potential in Chalk Sound and leased the area in 1910 to establish a number of businesses there. He lived, according to historian H.E. Sadler, “on a barren bluff between the two entrances to Chalk Sound where he had his thatched roofed cottage, a small store and cannery.” The entrepreneur took advantage of the rich marine life in the lagoon to set up export industries involving the raising and canning of spiny lobsters (or crawfish as they are often referred to here), turtles and other fish products, all of which proved successful in trade for the next few years.

silly-creek-spitGoldray Ewing remembers hearing about the lobster canning industry at Chalk Sound from his late grandfather Hamilton Ewing, who was the foreman there prior to the outbreak of the first World War. He estimates that about 1/5 of the island’s population (standing then at around 300) were involved in the business. “The sound was so full of lobsters, that it was like a holding pen for them,” Ewing says. Groups of men would catch the lobsters with ease and ferry them in hand-built canoes to the purpose-built processing plant up on the ridge. “They’d use a wooden furnace to boil the crawfish and they used every part. The tail and stuff would be canned as tails, the legs would be canned as legs, the whips (antennae) would be canned as whips. Some they’d just boil and some they’d season too.” The industry was a success, with Sadler writing that annual shipments reached values of almost $4,000 in these early days. “It was an advanced thing for those times,” says Ewing, proudly. “People don’t usually think that would have been happening here at that time. It was very sophisticated.”

With a ban on any boat travel, World War I disrupted these industries (as it did many avenues of survival for the island), says Ewing, and they were never revived. George Silly died in Providenciales in 1917. The processing plant, built on a ridge at an area called Capron Bight to the east of where the airport is now, still stands, a reminder of these significant times. A couple of years before his death, George Silly also began sponging in Chalk Sound. Sponging was a leading industry in the neighbouring Bahamas and, in the late 1800s, was also set up in various parts of the Turks & Caicos Islands, notably Parrot Cay, Dellis Cay and South Caicos. According to Sadler, Chalk Sound was used by George Silly for the artificial propagation of the animal, with a quarter of a million cuttings of the “reef” type of sponge sown. Although this industry also suffered its demise, the sponges sown and natural ones also present provided a source of income, however small, for many residents of the island for years to come.

James Oswald Rigby was born in Providenciales in December 1916. “Old Zarre,” as he is known to old friends, has lived all of his 90 years in Five Cays. The closest settlement to Chalk Sound, in his youth he and other residents would walk the narrow foot road (whose route followed present-day South Dock Road) or take a boat around through the narrow inlets to the lagoon to make a living “fishinin’ and farmin’.” Mr. Rigby would keep a small sculling boat in the sound and, as well as catching lobster and fish, he remembers doing the sponging there too, although he can’t recall when he started. “That’s a mystery you see, because I start that when I was very young. I start it first with my father. I’d say maybe 30 odd to 40 years all that sponging — from my father’s time to my time and the two put together, I’d say about 40 years. And after that I cut off of that and just tend to the fish and conch.”

Mr. Rigby describes how he would easily spot the sponges through a waterglass and then dive down to tear them or cut them off with a knife. Having loaded the boat, he would scull to the rock and lay the sponges out to dry. “The drying depends on the type of sponge. Chalk Sound sponge would take about four days time before you could place it back in the water when it drained good. You gotta let it die good before you put it back.” The potent smell of the sponge dying, he says, stays with him to this day. A rock crawl, maybe six foot square, would keep the sponges from washing away while they soaked for another day or so, and then they would be carried or transported on the boat back to Five Cays, where the last bits of mud would be beaten out before they were sold. The sponges would be grouped into a “strand” which consisted of 30 normal size or 15 large pieces, says Mr. Rigby. He and other Five Cays residents would sell these on to middle men in the community or, if they had time and transport, would take them direct to South Caicos to sell, where they would be baled and shaped before being shipped to the “big man” in the Bahamas.

For the amount of time and work involved, the benefits were small. Mr. Rigby remembers selling a strand for the equivalent of 8 to 10 cents, depending on the type of sponge (grass, hardhead, reef, velvet, yellow or wool). For this he could buy two quarts of flour. “Everybody just trying to make a living and everyone just getting a bit,” says Mr. Rigby, remembering those hard times. Chalk Sound was also a popular farming area and Mr. Rigby had two fields up on the ridge which he “worked” to raise corn, potatoes, cane, peas and more. Although some people would sell their produce, he says that most would just use and share. “Everybody’s farmin’ here. Everybody. So I’d come up to you and say, ‘You been to field today? You get any okra or beans?’  ‘Yes, I got some, you take what you want.’ Everybody got enough, we don’t have to buy it. There was plenty.”

The iguanas also provided a source of food back in the day and Mr. Rigby remembers them fondly. “It taste like chicken. First time I ate it I was very glad and I liked it and after I get to know what it was I used to go down and get some too,” he recalls, describing how he would catch a dozing reptile. “You can take food, put it on the rock — like bread or rice or anything like cooked food — you get a little bit of that and you cut a noose from some wire on a piece of stick and you stand off and they go enjoying themselves eatin’ and like they’re going to sleep and then they see a shadow around their neck and that’s how you catch them,” he laughs. People would also come from Northside to fish and sponge in Chalk Sound, and continued to do so until recently. Despite a blight that reportedly killed off most of the sponges in the Turks & Caicos Islands in 1938, Kevin “Babar” Harvey remembers sponging continuing in Chalk Sound well into the 1980s, until other sources of income became more readily available on the island. He would accompany his grandfather, an old hand at the business, on the hour-long trek there before he started his studies at high school. “You had no car back then, so you had to wake up at four o’clock in the morning, eat some fried cake and get yourself a big jug of sweet water, if there was sugar on the island, and then you’d walk down to Chalk Sound.”

The work involved for such small rewards amazes Babar now. The cutting, drying and rehydrating process would mean multiple trips back and forth. “The amount of walking you’d have to do for that one boat of sponge!” he exclaims. “The sponge people (from Nassau), they only used to come in twice a year. So you’d be waiting a whole six months just to get paid for that stuff too. And when the guy come you was getting only 50 cents the most for one of those sponge. A dollar was the top price. So like the big big sponge (maybe three foot long), we used to cut them into pieces, tell them it was too big to cut off the bottom like that. So there’d be six pieces and we’d get three dollars for that!” For the last 25 years or so, in comparison to the years before, Chalk Sound has seen little human activity. As a protected area, any forms of fishing and sponging are no longer permitted, although that does not mean, of course, that prohibited activities do not take place there. The lagoon and surrounding bush are open to use for non-polluting recreational activities and residents sometimes spot the odd windsurfer out on the water or a few kayakers venturing out to explore the hundreds small cays. In the last couple of years, the Turks & Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation has brought sailing to the area, using the safe, shallow waters for familiarisation sails for primary schoolchildren to learn about their country’s traditional wooden sloops, which for many years served as the lifeblood of the island by trading with neighbouring nations.

Deputy Director of the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, Michelle Fulford-Gardiner, would like to see Chalk Sound sensitively and carefully developed into an eco-tourism centre. Apart from the odd tourist seen stopping off in a rental car to admire the colour of the water and the view, the area is relatively unknown amongst the majority of visitors. “There have been ideas to use it as a place for rental of the Caicos sloops, with some sort of visitor centre guiding sailing trips, maybe maps for walking trails, that kind of thing,” she says. “A lot of people that come here want to sail and, for not so experienced sailors, Chalk Sound provides a really good area to sail about. I mean it’s so beautiful. You can just grab a picnic basket, go sailing and you have a full day’s activity.” If these ideas were to be realised, they would be taking Chalk Sound back to the mid to late-1970s when, for a while, regattas featured there. Babar and Goldray Ewing remember sailing in Chalk Sound “with a whole day of festivities and the greasy pole too.” There would sometimes be 10 or 12 boats racing, 13 or 14-footers handmade especially for the shallow water of the sound. “Some of them you had to take the wooden keel off, just to get them in the creek,” remembers Babar.

Babar says he would like to build a boat himself for Chalk Sound. He would name it after his daughter: Vana. “To have regattas again there would be great. ’Cos now you’ve got somebody to perform in front of too. Before there was no houses there, no one to watch!” H.E. Ross, Programmes Manager for the Turks & Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation, thinks Chalk Sound and this non-profit preservationist organisation would be a perfect match, especially in this, the Year of the Environment. “That type of ecotourism is what we are encouraging, to use Chalk Sound as an example of how to have an environmentally conscious recreational area. It’s too beautiful to not enjoy as a real treasure, but we have to be so careful that we don’t damage anything about it. That we don’t disturb its delicate balance and beauty.”

And asked what really makes it that amazing colour, even the person responsible for its protection has to admit defeat. “I don’t really know,” says Ms. Fulford-Gardiner. “But possibily . . . it’s an enclosed water body, that connects to the ocean only with small channels, which means there are very little nutrients getting to that area. There is no proliferation of algae in that area and usually it’s the algae that adds the green to the water. Maybe that’s it.” To be lost for words in describing a natural phenomenon, or to be at a loss to explain its natural beauty scientifically must be sacred. Any development of Chalk Sound has to ensure that this remains the case.

Source material from: Turks Islands Landfall – A History of the Turks & Caicos Islands. H.E. Sadler, United Cooperative Printers Ltd., Jamaica, 1997.

1 Comment

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James Daly
Sep 4, 2011 15:02

Interesting read. I have known for sometime that I had an ancestor, George Silly, who was involved in turtle farming. I’m not sure that it was on the Turks Islands but I do know that he died on the 9th of September 1917.
He was not a Greek, he was from Northern Ireland and I believe the name Silly originated in France – the family were Huguenots and had originally escaped from France to South West England.
Would be interested if there is any additional information available.

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