Ambergris Cays are located in the sparsely populated southeastern quadrant of the Caicos Bank. They were named after the deposits of ambergris, a waxy secretion from the migrating humpback whales, that washes ashore. Greater Ambergris is four miles long by a mile wide. The highest elevation is 96 feet. Little Ambergris is nearby, only a few hundred yards in very shallow water. Little Ambergris Cay was described by the Surveyor General in 1879 as "composed of loose sand thrown up by the sea, the interior being a swamp cover at flood tides and not worth the expense of the survey."1a
The Ambergris area is full of sea life. South Caicos fishermen voyage daily to these flats daily to harvest fish, conch and spiny lobser. The fishermen report that green and hawksbill sea turtles nest on the Fish and Ambergris Cays. In the winter months, North Atlantic Humback Whales migrate through the Turks Islands Passage on their way to shallow Mouchoir and Silver Banks, just 30 miles south of the Turks and Caicos.
This tiny and often forgotten cay has changed ownership several times over the past years. "Greater or "Big Ambergris" was first purchased in 1811 from the Bahamas administration by John Lightbourne, but thereafter acquied by Horatio Stubbs of South Caicos. In 1826 Stubbs exchanged 6,000 bushes of salt for the island, the dwelling house and a female slave. Sisal was planted out on Big Ambergris during the boom for the product near the end of the 1800s."1b Since those times the island has been sought by Arizonan investors as a site for a university in 1978 which was turned down by the government and has also been the stage for some major drug smuggling in the early 1980s. To read more on this see H.E.Sadler's "Turks Islands Landfall." The year 2000 marked the first real development for Greater Ambergris Cay, whose wild desolate beauty is now open as tourist destination, a yacht harbour and scenic estates for home owners.
1a, 1b: Turks Islands Landfall, A History of the Turks and Caicos Islands by H.E.Sadler, pages 276-276.
"As one heads south from Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos, Long Cay stretches from north to south, pointing the way to a group of islands that can only be described as "wild." There are the rugged, beautiful and uninhabited Fish Cays and Ambergris Cays of the Turks and Caicos Island chain.
Ambergris Cays, named for the shiny substance secreted by the whales that migrate along the eastern coasts of these islands. This hard, waxy substance washes up on the Atlantic shores of these islands. Great Ambrgris Cay (the easternmost of the two islands) is typical of the island skirting the eastern edge of the Caicos Bank. The island's eastern side is lined with cliffs, adjacent to deep Atlantic waters; and the western side consists of a mix of broken, rocky and sandy shores facing the Bank. Between Great Ambergris Cay and Fish Cays on the eastern side, phenomenal coral heads push their way to the surface from 60 foot depths.
A short boat ride over a very shallow, sandy bottom brings one to Little Ambergris Cay. On the eastern shore of this cay, about twenty enormous pile of inestimable numbers of old, sun bleached conch shells (left by fishermen), extend perpendicularly outward from the shore. They seem to create narrow boat slips, just wide enough for one of the Expedition's Novamarine inflatables to glide into. On shore, rock iguanas (Turk's Island rock iguana- Cyclura carinata 13-18 inches long) scatter through the dry leaves and underbrush.
The southwestern end of Little Ambergris Cay is split by a creek lined with mangroves, which reaches deep into the island. Upside-down, pulsating jelly-fish carpet the floor of the creek. The young of many coral reef species such as the spiny lobster grow and develop in mangrove nurseries like this one before they become permanent inhabitants of reef environment. Mangroves are linked to reefs by these species and therefore are vital to the survival of coral reef species and ecosystems.
As the tide drops, the water rushes out of the creek, carrying all who would ride its eager dash for the sea. Exiting the creek and heading toward the Caicos Bank, the terrain of the cay's far western point changes from grainy soil with shrubs and several palmeto trees, into a delicate spit of sand. The sand bar is divided in two by a very shallow channel through which a tidal current passes, creating an insland of sand separted from the main island. During peak tidal flow, the current actually looks like a 50 foot long river. From the vantage point of this sand bar, the image sometimes appears surreal; the aqua-green water glitters passively against the vague horizon of dusty lavender sky in the east and boldly joins the crisp blue horizon in the west.
South of the Ambergris Cays, the sandy banks are studded with coral heads tht rise from the sand twenty feet to the surface of these clearest of waters. On a calm day one would have no problem spotting a dime on the bottom from above the glassy water. A fair number of lemon sharks inhabit these reefs which are the deily destination for fishermen from South Caicos.
Turning east again, the boater finds Bush Cay south of Ambergris Cay. This tiny island has a small light tower and is covered by trees."
Excerpt from the book "Island Expedition - Learning from the People and the Environment in the Bahamas, The Turks and Cacios Islands and The Caribbean."