South Caicos, or the “Big South” as it is affectionately called, is best known for its diving. The island is also the undisputed fishing capital of the country. South Caicos’ fishing and diving credentials are the result of an abundance of marine life, the colour and clarity of the water, and the steepness of the ocean wall to the east and south of the island.
South Caicos is located on the southeastern edge of the Caicos Bank, along the Turks and Caicos Passage. The Caicos Bank is comprised of waters that range from 20 feet to 200 feet deep. Where the Caicos Bank meets the ocean the water can change from 20 feet to 7,000 feet in as little as 100 yards. At points the wall has a vertical and even a concave drop into the 7,000 feet abyss of the Turks & Caicos Passage. As the conditions quickly change along the drop to 7,000 feet, the South Caicos ocean wall is rich in marine life, coral formations, and various marine ecosystems. Even for those with limited imaginations, it looks like a fantasy world.
For the novice skin diver, South Caicos also offers a large selection of beautiful coral gardens in waters just 20 to 30 feet deep. The fact that Jacques Mayol, former world record holder in free diving and the star of the movie The Big Blue, lives in South Caicos, says something about the waters around the island.
As is the diving, so is the fishing. At various times in the year one can catch an impressive variety of fish. The fishing menu includes marlin, sailfish, many species of tuna, jack, dolphin, wahoo, and the ever-present barracuda. For bottom fishing there is everything from grouper, yellowtail, snapper, triggerfish and hogfish. On a lucky day one might also catch permit, which can often exceed 20 lbs. South Caicos is also the premier bonefishing destination. Spider Andresen, a writer with Saltwater Magazine, once said that “he had never seen so many bonefish in one place”.
Its marine life has been of immense benefit to the South Caicos economy. The Spiny Lobster and the Queen Conch have been the main exports, while scaled fish are caught in sufficient quantities to satisfy local consumption. Experienced South Caicos fishermen, just a few years ago, would earn as much as US$90,000 a season catching and selling lobster. That good luck has now drastically changed. Lobster has been largely over-fished and ecological concerns have reduced the size of the fisherman’s catch of conch, the other marine export.
South Caicos is historically a salt producing island and, with the finest natural harbour in the country, it was the largest salt producer (from about 1670 to 1964). Since the demise of the salt industry, the salt ponds have been abandoned but they are now teaming with life. There is shrimp, a species of fish that grow to three quarters of an inch, and a large variety of birds. Among the birds are flamingoes, the brown pelican, and the fish hawk (i.e. osprey). The largest pond, located across from the downtown ball park, receives its water directly from an underground source of hot water that is connected to the ocean by a subterranean passage. The hole is referred to locally as the “Boiling Hole”.
The island’s largest pond is home to flocks of birds that nest and roost in a nearby marsh. The ponds of South Caicos, and the Boiling Hole, should be of tremendous interest to nature lovers and bird watchers.
South Caicos’ commercial success with the manufacturing of salt and later with fishing gave it a vibrant community. Cockburn Town is well organised and densely built up. Like Grand Turk, the island has fine examples of Bermudian-style architecture that gives it an old world charm. The best preserved examples of 18th and 19th century buildings are the churches and government offices behind the Regatta Village. The Anglican church in the Parish of St. George the Martyr, for instance, is a fine building that has been holding services since 1799. It is also the oldest church in the country. There is the Residency, a government-owned building that sits atop a hill that overlooks Cockburn Town.
A visit to Highland House, on the 250 acre Highland Estate, gives some indication of what South Caicos once was. The main house of the estate is a good example of classic Bermudian-style architecture. The estate has, however, been abandoned and the owners now live in the United States and are unlikely to return to the island. The estate has three private beaches and the grounds are comprised of rolling hills that hint that the estate was the site of the country’s first golf course (privately owned). The estate also has servants’ quarters and what seems to have been a greenhouse. All of this is a testament to the former prosperity of South Caicos.
A stroll in the downtown core along Stamers Street will bring you to the old Admiral’s Arms Hotel, now the home of college students from around the world, studying marine biology at the School for Field Studies. The Admiral’s Arms Hotel was the first hotel in the TCI. South Caicos is also the first island in the country to have a regatta and the only island, besides the capital, that was visited by Queen Elizabeth II on her trip to the Turks & Caicos Islands in 1966. All of this early commercial success explains the reason for the densely and well laid out town centre on an island that now has just over one thousand people, abandoned buildings, and animals that roam the streets.
For those with an adventuresome spirit, or those who like diving or fishing, the Big South will be of immense interest. The island does not have the world class white sandy beaches of Providenciales nor does it have the undiscovered and spectacular beaches of North Caicos or Salt Cay. The South Caicos beaches are secluded and for those who may like to collect shells and other items, South Caicos has miles of untouched beaches and secluded coves. You can roam some of the beaches for weeks without seeing another tourist. For the beachcomber, there are beaches where years of artifacts have washed up on the shores. South Caicos’ Long Bay Beach, for instance, is a beachcomber’s paradise. The island will not appeal to the mass tourist market. For the diver or fisherman, however, South Caicos is heaven on earth.