Conch Bar Caves: The Largest Non-Submerged Cave System of the Caribbean
The Turks and Caicos Islands (often abbreviated to TCI) are a British Overseas Territory known primarily as a tourist destination and as an offshore financial center. However, this small group of islands contains one of the geological wonders of the Caribbean, the Conch Bar Caves which form one of the largest and unique cave systems in the region. They are believed to have been used at one time by the Taino people, who migrated to the islands at least 1,000 years before Columbus’ arrival.
Description of Conch Bar Caves
The Conch Bar Caves are a karst cave system , a unique topography formed by the dissolution of limestone which is a sedimentary rock formed by a collection of small particles and subsequent bonding of mineral or organic particles on the seabed or other bodies of water. This system was formed millions of years ago when the Turks and Caicos Islands were still beneath the sea. Rain and groundwater shaped and eroded the limestone, forming the magnificent caverns.
An example of mollusk-rich fossiliferous limestone (St John, J / CC BY 2.0 )
The underground system of caves extends for approximately 1.2 miles (2.1 kilometers), almost reaching the sea, but the cave system is unique as much of it is above ground and one of the largest non-submerged cave systems in the Caribbean.
Over millions of years, flowing water has created many wonderous shapes and several entrances to the main passageway in the system. Several remarkable stalactites and stalagmites have joined to form pillars within the system. The interior, featuring incredible contours can be compared to a lunar landscape. Limestone pillars reach up from pools of water in the system and the levels rise and fall with the tides of the ocean, while several passageways flood.
Even in the main chamber, the ceiling of the caverns is quiet low. Like many other underground systems, it has a unique environment , and this means that there are astonishing examples of flora and fauna to be found, such as the four species of bats which inhabit the caverns.
Pair of marine isopods (Henri Kioskinen / Adobe Stock )
Rare isopods and crustaceans inhabit the pools now, but in the distant past, extinct animals such as iguanas and turtles also inhabited the caves. Many of these were driven to extinction by first the Amerindians and later by the Europeans who settled on the islands.
The Guano Industry of the Conch Bar Caves
In the 19 th and 20 th century, the caves were important to the economy of the islands. Local miners excavated the floor of the cave for guano – bird and bat excrement which makes an excellent farming fertilizer . Graffiti and inscriptions written by these miners can still be seen on the walls of the cave.
Conch Bar Caves and the Lucayan Indians
The Lucayan Indians were a branch of the Taino people who inhabited the Pre-Columbian Caribbean Islands. They migrated to the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands almost a millennium before the arrivals of the Spanish. The Lucayans developed a sophisticated culture and were expert mariners, but when the Spanish arrived, they were enslaved and forced to work on plantations. Many died of disease or were sold for high prices on other islands because of their aptitude to dive for conches and pearls. Within a generation of the arrivals of the Conquistadors, the population of the Lucayans had drastically diminished.
Conch shell of the Caribbean (forcdan/ Adobe Stock )
Approximately 35 Lucayan known sites exist on the Turks and Caicos Islands and since the late nineteenth century several sites have been found in the Conch Bar area. During excavations archaeologists found remains such as fragments of pottery and large mammal bones.
In the past, local people looking for guano came across many implements and even bedsteads. Several skeletons were found indicating that the caves may have been used as a burial site . Tragically, these remains were not scientifically recorded and were simply discarded.
How to visit Conch Bar Caves
The karst system is located beneath the hill near the village of Conch Bar, on Middle Caicos Island. It is situated near the airport and it can easily be accessed. The caves are open from Monday to Friday and are managed by the Turks and Caicos National Trust. The entry fee is 20 dollars for a guided tour of the beautiful caverns which takes about half an hour.
Top image: Conch Bar Caves Source: Photo by TCNationalTrust
By Ed Whelan
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