Saturday, May 14, 2016

Marvelous Middens of Middleton

 This was a  difficult post. I was just finishing it up  when our beloved little dog Dooley died unexpectedly.  I wasn't sure how to address it in the blog.  I've decided to go ahead and post the remaining chapters of our South Caicos trip including the photos of Dooley.  We know he had a few fans looking forward to his next adventure.  He was a much loved member of our family and will be in our hearts forever. 

The weather was not the Chamber of Commerce's version of perfect when we first arrived at Cockburn Harbour. We had an ongoing threat of squalls  that kept us within a quickly twisted outboard throttle's radius of  Twisted Sheets. We dashed around on a lot on short trips. We made  daily runs into the towns dinghy dock in our rubber ducky dinghy.  Our roofless rubber dinghy.  We started venturing a little bit further afield for brief hikes as the weather cleared. Like our trips to Long Cay. But in general we'd kept within sight of our anchored sailboat.   I think I must be somewhat of a worry wart in these matters.

 Then  for a few days after the front went through the anchorage became like a big swimming pool.  The Turks and Caicos sunshine came back and blessed us with some of the nicest weather we'd seen in a long time. We were ready  to go exploring. We just needed determination, Dooley the Demented, the dingy dinghy, some digital devices and a destination to discover.

We had a wonderful forecast  stretching out for several days. Partly cloudy, warm, no rain, light winds. Typical tropical. We felt  that the boat would be okay left by itself at anchor for a few hours.   The vintage Mercury outboard on the RIB was running well.  Hot dang.

I wonder what you make of this unusual sight.  No, I don't mean the strange little dog looking for fish,  that's not  unusual. Did you see that video of him watching the ray that we uploaded in the prior blog post?  That thing really got his attention.  He did a much better job searching the waters around the skiff after that.

By "unusual"  I meant that island in the background. See the stacks of  white gravelly looking material heaped up in rows there in the mangroves? Getting a close look at these was the order of the day. If we could just navigate through this horrible dirty water..... (what's the Alt-F key for sarcasm?)  That water is over two meters  deep under the boat.  I kept finding myself dodging bottom features I couldn't have hit if I tried.   


This little side trip started when I was looking at Google Earth images of this area.  This is something that I usually do when researching places we want to visit. I also scrutinize every different chart I can find. I look for both Explorer and Wavey Line  data, for those of you who follow these sailboat navigation type things. I do follow them with interest.  Remote bathymetry surveys were once  a big part of my job description.  

Since Explorer and Wavey Line surveyors make different paths through an area,  the two data sets are sometimes complimentary so it can be a good idea to take a look at both.  And Google Earth has become almost mandatory for satellite image.  Here's one showing South Caicos and some of the surrounding features:


We'd gotten a pretty good distant look at Six Hill Cay on the way here on our trip from Providenciales, and we'd already made several trips to Long Cay.   We'd been taking Dooley the Downloader to Dove Cay and to a weedy little path in town twice a day. I'd started thinking  about putting a fire hydrant on a plywood deck on a ring buoy. Would that work, ya think?  

Anyhow, back on track here, Middleton Cay seemed like a good place to start. When I zoomed in on it, the unusual nature of the southern edge of the little uninhabited 12 acre island immediately leapt out at me. There are all of  these boat slip looking features around a cove protected from the northeast. "What the heck!?" thought I. Or the sailing equivalent thereof. They didn't resemble any rock formations we've seen around here, and this was not some abandoned marina with docks. Then we noticed the rocky terrain along the east side.  What an interesting looking little cay. We just had to go take a look for ourselves, of course.  Wouldn't you?


We came in from the lower right hand side of that sat image, looped around the southern edge of Middleton Cay, and then headed up the west side looking for a good place to put the boat while we went ashore.   I put an "X" on the image to show you where we ended up landing the boat.   We walked along the sandy beach to the east until the rocks started.  Then we doubled back and went down the western edge until we came to the strange formations. Of course by that time we knew what these things were. I had done some internet homework on it the night before.

This is the view as we approached Middleton Cay from the southeast.


The weather was so calm we had absolutely no trouble at all motoring right up close to these immense piles of conch shells.


These are called 'shell middens', and they're not all that uncommon in areas where native people have been fishing for generations.  Instead of just another wikipedia link, I actually found a fairly informative one written by an expert. It's worth a read if you're interested in history. These shell piles are actually pre-columbian artifacts.  I love this kind of stuff.

Day after day, year after year, conch fishermen have been stopping off at Middleton Cay to clean their catch before taking the cleaned conch home to South Caicos. In this case, for hundreds of years.  I've read that people have been flinging their conch shells onto these piles since around 1100 AD. That's about the same time the second crusade was being organized in Spain and Germany. The French had just started Chartres cathedral and the streets of Paris were getting their very first cobblestone pavers. The Mongols were just starting to get organized in Asia,  the Maya were ruling in Central America, and here in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the indigenous natives were cleaning conch in these same beautiful waters right here on Middleton Cay. Those conch shells are still here, at the bottom of these very piles. This entire island has been described as an archaeological site.



It was very interesting to us to see how the ancient piles of conch shells are being reintegrated into the earth here. In piles high enough to reach the water surface, mangroves have sprouted.  Their roots have spread out and stabilized the shell mound, and will slowly start trapping what little sediment there is passing by on the current.That sediment  will settle to the bottom around the stabilizing mangroves and start to accumulate.  And so it begins. An island forms.


We went in close enough to see that there is still plenty of room to beach a boat here.  One end would be stabilized by the island while discarded conch shells were flung right and left, or so  I would assume after looking at the evidence.


We could see from that position that there were clearings on the other side of the taller trees.  Openings in a grassy little glade.  We boated around the western edge and up to the northwest point of the island looking for a good place to beach the boat.  A place without sharp pointed shells.   This video was taken as we went up the west side, toward the small point and beach in the distance.  There are some good views of how far  the bases of these middens spread out underwater.



There is a nice little protected beach there around the tip of that point. And  we could leave an inflatable rubber boat in the water here without worrying about Queen Conch's revenge.


The sand here is very fine and  there weren't a lot of shells.  Well, other than the obvious eleventy gazillion conch shells, I meant. I may have just found my next laptop wallpaper photo.


This is the view from the "X" I marked on that satellite image, looking toward the east.  We were interested in what might be under that canopy of vegetation over near the limestone ridge.  And we walked as far in that direction as my feet could handle. Because once again I had hopped into the dinghy without any shoes.  Walking on ancient conch shell fragments will tax even toughened feet. Those shells are  thick and form a layer all along the edges of Middleton Cay.  Even in some of the sand that looked smooth from above, sharp shells lurked just below the surface.


La Gringa had noticed the way the waves and currents were shaping the sand ripples in the shallow water where we landed.  We're constantly being amazed by the water quality here.


The sand ripples were moving even as we watched them.  Slowly, the little patterns were changing shape as the currents coming around both sides of the island converged again at this point.   They were very, very light currents, and on this near windless day we were able to watch this sediment transport process first hand. I think I could have watched it for quite a while, given a beach umbrella, a comfy chair, and a suitably stocked cooler. Might have to try that one of these days.   This would make an awesome time lapse video but we'd need a tripod.


This is the view from where we landed the boat looking south down the west side of the Cay. This is back in the direction we came from when we made that video. It's basically a mix of limestone ledges and conch piles.  We could see some old faded trails going off into the bush.   It didn't look like there had been any recent human activity on the Cay.


I had to wonder about this.   On an island literally covered with heaps of harvested conch shells, this one apparently died a natural death.  There's no hole knocked in the shell.


We did not notice any palm trees on the island, but as is common on all tropical shores coconuts do wash up here from time to time.   This one still had slosh-able liquid inside it.  I'd assume it was still potable.


We walked down that side of the island until we got to the edge of the prominent shell middens.   They start out small at this end.


And there are still scattered piles that break the surface of the water.   This one has some small mangroves just starting to take hold.  And a visiting seagull that we had annoyed by inflicting a small dog into his world momentarily.  He'll get over it.


Here a shell, there a shell, everywhere a conch shell.  Dooley had learned that he was restricted to the beach with us on this trip.  He had gotten a lot better at staying next to us while exploring new places. I think that started one time we left Pine Cay and got all the way back to Provo before discovering that the dog been left behind.  I had to go back and get him.   And he was waiting right there at the spot where we'd left, too.   He knew we'd come back for him.


He might also have been  a bit nervous running around in bushes wearing that life jacket.  And we know exactly when that phobia started. His Go-Pro Dog Cam got him caught up in the bushes on West Caicos one time. Took us quite a while to find him. All pitiful looking and forlorn, tied to a buttonwood by his pursuit of art.

I asked La Gringa to stand by one of the shell heaps to give you an idea of scale. The ones over in the middle of the cove are about twice this high.


We wanted to see if we could find any signs of old habitation or occupation here.  One of the articles I read about this place conjured that it was used for special ceremonies and as a retreat.  It's conceivable.  There have been ancient pottery pieces and other signs of early inhabitants found here. This wasn't exactly my idea of a smooth trail, but I thought I could see a small natural spot to sit around a fire in the distance.


My over-active imagination takes over sometimes. I can easily imagine the bare feet of Taino fishermen walking these same trails, almost 2,000 years ago.  I'm also guessing their feet were tougher than mine.


This is the area I saw that I thought might bear looking into a little. It's a line of small limestone boulders  facing a  flat grassy  area. These are just big enough to provide nice seating, should someone want to use it as such.   And I'm not claiming that anyone ever has.  My imagination might make that claim, but I never would.


Here's a telephoto view of the limestone ridge that runs down the eastern edge of Middleton Cay.  Of course I wanted to go investigate this natural shelter.  Of course I could imagine some overgrown cave entrance or other place to camp there in the lee of the prevailing winds and storms.  Of course I left my shoes on the sailboat.

Maybe next time.


This is a view of Six Hill Cay off in the distance. We traveled between here and Six Hill Cay on the way into South Caicos, and we'll be passing it again on the way back to Provo when we go.  The route is off in the deeper blue water on the far side of that obvious shallow sand bar.  Must have been fun being a boy with a canoe around here a few centuries ago. Heck, probably fun even now.  Lots of places to explore within sight.


We'd seen enough to answer most of our questions about Middleton Cay by now. We did want to make one more stop before turning back toward the anchorage and Twisted Sheets.   If you look way back up at the first satellite image of the area, there is a small spot that the charts label as Conch Cay.  It was only slightly to the south of us, so we headed over to see what that was about.  You might be able to make out Conch Cay in the exact center of this photo.   The land mass to the left is the southern end of Long Cay.   Conch Cay is the light sandy patch in the middle.


I think we were hoping for a more stereotypical tropical island, but what we got was, well, Conch Cay.  It could be described as a sandbar almost completely surrounded by discarded conch shells.


It would sound better if we called it a sandy desert isle, with its own small tropical lagoon....I suppose.  


At this point we were ready to head back to the house, and we really didn't see any big reasons to go ashore on Conch Cay.  So we turned the little dinghy back toward the Harbour while we still had time for another shore run to the grocery store and to order a couple of cracked conch dinners to go from the Sun Set Bar & Grill.   From there it was just a quick run back out to Twisted Sheets at anchor.


It sure is great to get home at the end of a busy day. This old boat might seem to be somewhat of an unconventional house by some standards, but for now  it's home to us.