Caribbean Sand – How Do We Get the Powdery White Stuff?

Do you dream about walking on a beautiful Caribbean beach lined with palm trees? Do you imagine yourself sinking your toes into some of that fine powdery white sand warmed in the tropical sun? For many, I've just described their "happy place" where they go in their mind when they need to escape the pressures of modern day living.

Wiggling your toes into some fine white Caribbean sand is an amazing experience to be sure and I highly recommend it if you have not yet felt that very pleasurable sensation. Those of us who live in the Caribbean or visit it frequently might take this beautiful white sand for granted. Few of us really stop to think about how it was formed and why it is so different than the sand we find on many other beaches around the world.

So, I want to ask the question:

How does Caribbean sand get to be so fine and so white?

Well, first I should probably point out that not every Caribbean beach has fine white sand. Some Caribbean beaches have coarser sand that is yellow tinged or grey. This type of sand in fact is common in the Virgin Islands. In fact, off-white, greyish, or yellowish medium to coarse sand is probably the most dominant type of sand in the world on ocean beaches. There's also the pink sandy beaches like you find in Bermuda derived from forams, a tiny microscopic creature with a hard shell, and pink corals. Then there are those rare odd beaches in the world sporting an entirely different color like the volcanic black sands in Hawaii. There are also the green sands due to the presence of olivine crystals – and before you ask, "no" they are not on Mars. These rare green beaches are right here on Earth in the tropical Pacific. Anyway, green and black sandy beaches are certainly a curiosity and worth experiencing at least once for sure but they do not exactly conjure up my daydream image for a relaxing walk on a tropical beach!

So, getting back to the iconical Caribbean beach of extra fine snow white sand … how do these magnificent coveted the world over beaches form?

I'm going to use the Dominican Republic as a good example as that is where I live and work and I think it illustrates the two attributes of how you get fine white sand quite well.

First, let's consider the texture of how fine the sand is. It all has to do with how fast the water is moving. Fast moving water, ie a "rough" sea, has the power to pick up bigger particles and carry them along great distances. However, slower moving water, ie a "calm" sea, does not have the energy to pick up the heavier larger particles. Calm water can only carry fine particles. So we get fine powdery sand and no coarse particles being deposited on beaches adjacent to calm oceans. This describes the conditions on the southeast portion of the Dominican Republic.

Second, let's consider how white the sand is. To start, let's distinguish between off-white or dull white and really white or bright white. Hey, this discussion reminds me of those laundry soap commercials where they hold up the whites and compare them, but I digress! To get truly white sand on a beach, that beach must be adjacent to a coral reef whose skeleton is really white.

But that leads us to a new question: how do we get the white coral skeleton ground up really good and deposited on the adjacent beaches as fine white sand?

That's where the amazing parrotfish comes into the picture! There are many species of parrotfish and they are all popular with scuba divers and snorkelers because they come in pretty colors and patterns. They also have a big thick mouth shaped something like a parrot's beak which is why they are called parrotfish. The main food for parrotfish turns out to be the algae growing on corals and as they munch on this algae, they use their extremely sharp and strong teeth to rasp it off the coral. In doing so, they also take in some of the hard white skeleton and this gets masticated in the fish and then pooped out after it travels through the digestive system of the fish.

So, essentially we get our beautiful fine white sandy beaches from parrotfish poop and lots of it! A single parrotfish can produce about 200 pounds (that's more than 90 kilograms) of sand a year! Okay, that's only the humorous way of looking at it from essentially true too. You can also view it though as the marvelous way Mother Nature recycles her bountiful resources.

Our beaches here on the southeast corner of the Dominican Republic, including Bayahibe beaches and Saona Island beaches, are adjacent to some of the most extensive and beautiful coral reefs in the world. This is why this area has long been a favorite spot for divers. These coral reefs are a continually growing source of our exquisite fine white sandy beaches that we and our guests enjoy. They offer terrific opportunities to walk barefoot on the beach and melt all your stress away. I invite all of you to visit a southeast Dominican Republic beach and squiggle your toes into the soft powdery white sand and when you do give a special thanks to the amazing parrotfish!

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