What’s the Difference Between an Island and a Caye?

On November 14, 2013 in Culture

Remember yourself as a young child in primary school drawing a flat piece of brown land that protruded gradually in the center like a baseball mound with a coconut tree right in the middle.  It was surrounded with blue water that had black squiggly lines scattered everywhere to signify soft waves.  In the water you drew a triangle –as a semblance of a shark fin- and somewhere much closer to that brown piece of gradually-protruding-land, you drew a stick figure of a neck and a head breaking through the water with its arms sticking out.  To top it off, you drew a conversation bubble over the stick figure screaming, “HELLLLP!”

Adult Drawing

Adult Drawing

Okay, okay, so you may never have drawn the bubble, the stick figure, or the triangle.  And you never knew it then, nor probably even know it now, but that piece of brown land was not actually an island.  It was a . . . caye!  It’s pronounced as “key,” and depending on which part of the world you’re in, it’s sometimes spelled “key,” as in the Florida Keys, or “cay,” such as the cays you find in the Bahamas.  And well, let’s face it, Greenland is an island.  Australia is an island, an island with an area of 7.6 million sq km (4.7 million sq miles), far from the idyllic paradise portrait you drew as children.  But “size” is not so much what distinguishes between island and caye, but more so formation, makeup and elevation.

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Volcanic Islands

An island is any form of land mass that’s completely surrounded by water.  The two main types of islands are either formed by volcanic action, or are part of a continental plate floating on top of the Earth’s mantle.  Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines are examples of volcanically–formed islands.  Greenland and Australia are both continental islands.  Cayes, however, are sandy, low-elevation islands that form on top of coral reefs.  According to our ever so reliable Wiki scholars, cayes are formed when different “ocean currents transport loose sediment across the surface of a reef.”  The accumulated sediment that forms the caye is made up of plant and animal skeletal remains that are swept from surrounding reef ecosystems.  Soil and vegetation appear over time with the help of guano bird manure which helps fertilize the sediment.  This helps explain how coconut trees can grow and thrive on a caye and then eventually appear in your childhood drawings.  Cayes are fragile and incredibly vulnerable to weather, so much that residents typically build sea walls to protect their caye from serious erosion.   In more vegetated cayes, you will find that red mangroves exist and act as natrual sea walls.  So If you’ve ever wondered why, or have been disappointed that a tropical location like Caye Caulker doesn’t have a stretched beach, think again, you’re on caye.  So next time you see a portrait of a paradise island, ask yourselves, it this an island, or a caye?

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Goff’s Caye

Forman's Caye

Forman’s Caye

  1. Arthur Johnson Said,

    Just as Pluto is no longer a planet, the geography world could use some updates also.
    Why is Australia a continent but not Greenland?
    If the definition of an island is being surrounded by water, then the Americas are one big island, and the (2?) continents of Europe and Asia are one big island.

  2. Caroline Said,

    Thank you for that clarification! I always have wondered why makes a caye (I’ve seen it spelled quay as well). So i guess that makes caye caulker the true paradise of our childhood coconut palm dreams.

  3. Trudie Lum Said,

    I remember Goeffs Caye,, Rendezvous Caye, Tobacco Caye,,,Thank – you Raggamuffin Tours for a awesome life experience on the Ragga Queen 3 day tour through The Cayes alongside the Reef…………….Wowww….we’ll be back for more in the future!!

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