Exploring East Caicos

The turtle story.

By Oshin Whyte, Environmental Scientist, and Amadyne Agenor ~ Photos By Oshin Whyte

East Caicos is the largest uninhabited island in the Turks & Caicos and is valued as a sanctuary for flora and fauna, particularly endemic Turks & Caicos plants and birds.

East Caicos: it is one of the islands that most Turks & Caicos Islanders can point out on a map but have never travelled to or experienced — at least persons belonging to my generation. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have “old folks” in our lives occasionally hear stories about the “olden days” of South Caicos fishermen travelling to East Caicos for wild cow hunting. It was a time before commercialization, widespread refrigeration, and most importantly, supermarkets like IGA.

These cows were remnants of a settlement created in the 1800s known as Jacksonville. The settlement had cattle ranches and sisal plantations, which were relatively successful. Unfortunately, Jacksonville was eventually abandoned but the cows remained and roamed free. Throughout the 1970s and late 1980s, brave men would journey to East Caicos, and using traditional knowledge and know-how, stalk a cow and butcher it. They would proceed to quarter the animal, then make the journey back to South. This endeavor was laborious and sometimes took two days to complete. 

Alas, a steak dinner is not the reason that I, Ms. Amadyne Agenor, and Mr. Timothy Hamilton — affectionately known as Cap’n Tim — journeyed to East Caicos. We were on the prowl for . . . SEA TURTLES. The coastline of East Caicos is a nationally important nesting habitat for threatened green and hawksbill turtles. These beautiful creatures can migrate thousands of miles across our oceans and find their way back to where they themselves hatched decades ago to breed. 

For generations, fisherfolk across the Islands have caught and eaten sea turtles, as a local delicacy. However, the occasional capture of adult turtles was impeding the recovery of the Islands’ genetically distinct but severely depleted breeding populations. Enter the Turks & Caicos Islands Turtle Project (TCITP). Established in 2008, it is a collaborative initiative led by the Marine Conservation Society (based in the UK) and the TCI Government. It strives to enhance the management of the Islands’ traditional marine turtle fishery while respecting the rights of Islanders to responsibly harvest this resource. The TCITP helped change the turtle fishery regulations in 2014 and has conducted extensive turtle satellite tracking research here. It now is partner to a new Darwin Plus-funded project led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the TCI National Trust to develop a local community-driven and locally owned action plan to guide future management and sustainable development of East Caicos. An aspect of this new project is to assess sea turtle nesting habitat and feeding grounds on and around East Caicos. 

To achieve this objective, we embarked on an epic journey to record some of this season’s turtle nesting on the northern shores. There was much apprehension and excitement, as this was Amadyne’s first time visiting East Caicos and my first time camping on the island for an extended period. Cap’n Tim is an expert naturalist and knows the island like the back of his hand, which put our minds at ease. We set out early, as the plan was to walk the entire northern coast of the island — Breezy Point to Lorimers — a total of five miles and record any evidence of nesting turtles, including tracks, nesting pits and emerged nests. 

Sea turtles are one of the oldest creatures on Earth and have been here for over 110 million years. As long as we do the work needed to take care of them and their environment, these turtles will have a fighting chance.

The boat ride from South Caicos to East Caicos had some of the most breath-taking scenery. The shimmer of the sun’s reflection on the emerald water, the basking nurse shark on the banks, the crisp air. It felt surreal and for a moment, like Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877, we too acknowledge the grandeur of God. 

This state of mind was shattered when we got to Breezy Point, East Caicos and started our exploration of the beach. We had experienced a Category 3 hurricane in September, and even though a full lunar cycle had lapsed since the hurricane and the sampling period, the coastline had significant damage and severe erosion. This was the narrative from Breezy Point to Lorimers. The erosion was so significant that in many places a ridge of sand was created that measured as much as three to four feet in some areas. It was as if someone (i.e., Hurricane Fiona) had taken an ice cream scoop and ran it along the coastline, scooping out all the sand. 

So what does this mean for sea turtle nesting? Sadly, we think the erosion made it difficult for sea turtles to crawl up the beach and deposit their eggs. Sea turtle eggs need sand around them to incubate, and exposed eggs will die if inundated by waves. If there were any eggs deposited, they were long gone, washed away by the strong waves that Hurricane Fiona created. Five miles walked, and no nests or signs of turtles. This is a stark contrast to last year’s nesting survey of the area, where significant nesting activity was documented on the northern East Caicos shore for the first time by the TCI Turtle Project. 

Habitat destruction is always a risk, as hurricane season and sea turtle nesting season overlap. However, due to climate change, hurricane frequency and intensity are increasing. Seeing the damage that Hurricane Fiona had done to East Caicos’ coastline signals the urgency in implementing solutions to our climate crisis.

Oshin Whyte (left) and Amadyne Agenor (right) set off to explore sea turtle nesting sites on the north coast of East Caicos.

In the meantime, nature has proven to us time and time again that if we give it a chance, it will recover. Even in its fragile state, East Caicos was incredibly beautiful, and there was much hope as donkeys, piping plovers, brown pelicans, Cuban crows, and curly tail lizards had returned to the coastline. Amadyne put it this way, “The island is extraordinarily beautiful and unique. I want to explore more of its beauty. I feel incredibly proud of myself for making this journey and catching my first fish!”  

Sea turtles are one of the oldest creatures on Earth, having been here for over 110 million years. As long as we do the work needed to take care of them and their environment these turtles will have a fighting chance. We hope this article piques the interest of other young Turks & Caicos Islanders, to know that being an Environmental Scientist is a worthwhile endeavor. It is our duty to be stewards of these “Beautiful by Nature” Islands.

Oshin Whyte is from Providenciales and earned a BSc in Environmental Sciences in Oxford, England. Her prior work as a PADI Divemaster provided her with the opportunity to become an advocate for the marine environment.

Most recently Oshin read a South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) funded Masters by Research on the Coastal Cultural Values (CCV) of the Turks & Caicos Islands at the University of Kent. She is well versed in environmental sustainability, impact assessments, and marine conservation. It is her dream to have a coalition of Islander Environmental Scientists who are wholeheartedly dedicated to keeping TCI beautiful by nature.

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