Geography Of The Caribbean

The Caribbean Sea is the Atlantic Ocean’s second-largest marginal sea, after the Sargasso Sea, covering about 2.7 million square kilometers. Its deepest point is the Puerto Rico Trench, at 7,686 meters. The name “Caribbean” is derived from “Caribs,” a Native American tribe of the Lesser Antilles. The sea largely occupies the Caribbean Plate, with the island arcs separating it from the rest of the ocean. The Caribbean Sea is home to numerous coral reefs, including the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest barrier reefs.

Location

Caribbean map
Map of the Caribbean.

The Caribbean Sea is located in the Western Hemisphere, between Central and North America. It is separated from the Pacific Ocean by Mexico and Central America on the west and bounded by the Greater Antilles to the north, the Lesser Antilles to the east, and south by South America. It is linked to the Gulf of Mexico to the north by the Yucatan Channel.

Climate

Tropical cyclone in Havana with huge waves hitting the sea wall.

The Caribbean Sea is a tropical sea whose climate is generally tropical, characterized by great local variations. The sea’s climate is influenced by the tropical ocean currents, mountain elevation, and trade winds. The North Equatorial current, entering the Caribbean Sea from the tropical Atlantic, is a major influence on the region's climate.

Rainfall varies with water current and elevation, ranging from less than 12 inches per year on the Bonaire Island, off Venezuela’s coast, to 350 inches annually in the regions around Dominica. The trade winds blow across the region consistently at a velocity of 10-20 mph, creating semi-arid and rainforest climates in the area. The lowland areas between Belize and Costa Rica experience tropical rainforest climates, while Cuba, Yucatan Peninsula, and Venezuela experience dry tropical savanna climates. Arid climate is common around the islands of Curacao and Aruba.

Tropical storms, attaining hurricane velocity of over 75 mph, are seasonally infrequent in the northern Caribbean but rare in the far south. The cyclones often develop on Africa’s West Coast and travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The hurricane season lasts between June and November, peaking in August and September.  Therefore, the best time to visit the Caribbean is between December and April, when the weather is generally cooler, less humid, and drier.

Island Groups

The Caribbean region has about 7,000 islands, including sovereign countries and territories. These islands are divided into three groups. The Greater Antilles is an island group on the Caribbean Sea’s north coast, comprising four island states and two overseas territories.  The islands in this region include Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, Cayman Island, and Puerto Rico. Hispaniola Island is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, while the UK and the US possess Cayman Island and Puerto Rico. Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands, spanning 110,860 square kilometers. The Hispaniola Island lies between Cuba to the west and Puerto Rico to the east. Jamaica is located to the Hispaniola’s southwest, while the Cayman Islands are on Jamaica’s west.

Island groups in the Caribbean.

The Lesser Antilles is an island group forming the Caribbean Sea’s eastern coast and located between the Greater Antilles and South America. The Lesser Antilles islands are divided into three main groups. The Leeward Islands comprises islands on the north, including the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Guadeloupe, Saint Martins, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Montserrat. The second Lesser Antilles are the Windward Islands, comprising Dominica, Saint Lucia, Martinique, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago. The Leeward Antilles are islands off Venezuela’s coast, made up of the three Dutch ABC islands (Aruba. Bonaire, and Curacao). Trinidad and Tobago is the largest of the Lesser Antilles.

The third island group in the Caribbean Sea is the Bahamas (Lucayan) Archipelago. It comprises the island of Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands (British Overseas Territory). The two islands cover a total area of 5,524 square miles. The Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago form the West Indies region.

Relief

The Caribbean Sea is subdivided into five basins, separated by rises and ridges: Colombia, Cayman, Yucatan, Grenada, and Venezuela basins. The Yucatan Basin is the sea’s northernmost basin, with the Yucatan Channel separating it from the Gulf of Mexico. The Yucatan Channel runs between the Yucatan Peninsula on the west and Cuba on the east and has a sill depth of 5,250 feet. The Yucatan Basin is partially separated from the Cayman Basin by the Cayman Ridge, which rises above to form the Cayman Islands. On the other hand, Cayman Basin is separated from the Colombian Basin by the Nicaraguan Rise, which has a sill depth of approximately 4,000 feet. Finally, Beata Ridge separates the Colombian Basin from the Venezuelan Basin, while the Aves Ridge separates the Grenada Basin from the Venezuelan Basin.

Mountains in the Dominican Republic.

Although most Caribbean islands are relatively flat, some are rugged and dotted with mountain ranges. The Caribbean’s highest mountain range is the Cordillera Central, which runs through the Dominican Republic (Hispaniola island). Pico Duarte, the Caribbean Region’s highest peak, with an elevation of 10,164 feet, forms part of the mountain range. The Cordillera Central extends into northern Haiti as Massif du Nord. The Blue Mountains is the longest mountain range in Jamaica. It hosts the country’s highest peak, the Blue Mountain Peak, which rises 2,256 meters above sea level. Other mountain ranges in the Caribbean are Dry Harbor and the John Crow Mountains.

10 Tallest Peaks In The Caribbean

Rank Mountain Peak Country Island Elevation

1

Pico Duarte

Dominican Republic

Island of Hispaniola

3,098 m (10,164 ft)

2

Loma Alto de la Bandera

Dominican Republic

Island of Hispaniola

2,842 m (9,324 ft)

3

Pic la Selle

Haiti

Island of Hispaniola

2,674 m (8,773 ft)

4

Pic Macaya

Haiti

Island of Hispaniola

2,347 m (7,700 ft)

5

Loma Gajo en Medio

Dominican Republic

Island of Hispaniola

2,279 m (7,477 ft)

6

Blue Mountain Peak

Jamaica

Island of Jamaica

2,256 m (7,402 ft)

7

Pico Turquino

Cuba

Island of Cuba

1,974 m (6,476 ft)

8

La Grande Soufrière

Guadeloupe

île de Basse-Terre

1,467 m (4,813 ft)

9

Morne Diablotins

Dominica

Island of Dominica

1,447 m (4,747 ft)

10

Montagne Pelée

Martinique

Island of Martinique

1,395 m (4,577 ft)

Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic is the largest lake in the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean region is drained by numerous rivers, with the majority emptying into the sea or the Atlantic Ocean. The Magdalene River is the sea’s longest river inlet and Colombia’s principal river, flowing for about 949 miles from the Andes into the Caribbean Sea. Other major rivers draining into the Caribbean Sea are Motagua, Coco, San Juan, Chagres, and Altrato.  Some of the Caribbean lakes include Lake Enriquillo (region’s largest lake), Lago de Oviedo, Laguna de Leche, Grand Etang Lake, Lake Miragoae, and Etang Saumatre.

Biodiversity

Jamaican tody is an endemic bird of Jamaica.

The Caribbean region has a high biodiversity level, with numerous endemic species. The region is mainly dominated by tropical vegetation and has over 13,000 plant species, of which 6.500 are endemic. Some of these endemic species are guaiac wood, Bayahibe rose, and ceiba. Other plant species in the region are mahogany and coconut palms. The shallow waters contain mainly seagrasses, such as turtle grass and shoal grass.

Caribbean reef sharks swimming amongst the tropical reefs of the Gardens Of The Queens Marine Park in Cuba.

There are approximately 1,000 fish species in the Caribbean Sea, including four shark species, flying fish, angelfish, giant manta ray, parrotfish, Moray eel, and the Atlantic Goliath groupers. There are over 90 mammals, including whales, dolphins, and seals, as well as over 500 reptiles, of which 94% are endemic. The American crocodile, blue Iguana, Green Iguana, mona ground Iguana, and rock Iguana are some of the endemic reptiles in the Caribbean region. 

Threats From Climate Change

Climate change is a major concern, especially for the islands in the Caribbean region. One of the major risks associated with climate change is the rise in sea level, which may reduce the size of some islands or cause them to completely disappear under the water surface. The sizes of Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas are expected to reduce by up to 80%. Strong hurricanes are also expected to become more frequent and lead to significant losses, including loss of lives. Other expected environmental changes are prolonged dry seasons and shorter wet seasons, as well as temperature rise. 

Caribbean Islands By Size

Rank Island Area (km2) Country or Countries

1

Cuba

105,806

Cuba United States (Guantanamo Bay Naval Base)

2

Hispaniola

76,479

Haiti and  Dominican Republic

3

Jamaica

11,188

Jamaica

4

Puerto Rico

8,896

Puerto Rico

5

Trinidad

4,827

Trinidad and Tobago

6

North Andros Island

3,439

Bahamas

7

Isla de la Juventud

2,237

Cuba

8

Great Inagua Island

1,543

Bahamas

9

South Andros Island

1,447

Bahamas

10

Grand Bahama Island

1,373

Bahamas

11

Great Abaco Island

1,144

Bahamas

12

Martinique

1,128

Martinique

13

Isla Margarita

1,020

Venezuela

14

Basse-Terre

848

Guadeloupe

15

Cayo Romano

777

Cuba

16

Dominica

750

Dominica

17

Gonâve

743

Haiti

18

Cozumel

647

Mexico

19

Saint Lucia

616

Saint Lucia

20

Grande-Terre

587

Guadeloupe

21

Little Abaco Island

559

Bahamas

22

Eleuthera

518

Bahamas

23

Acklins Island

497

Bahamas

24

Long Island

448

Bahamas

25

Curaçao

444

Curaçao

26

Barbados

431

Barbados

27

Cat Island

389

Bahamas

28

Cayo Coco

370

Cuba

29

Saint Vincent

345

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

30

Cayo Sabinal

335

Cuba

31

Grenada

310

Grenada

32

Tobago

300

Trinidad and Tobago

33

Bonaire

294

Caribbean Netherlands

34

Mayaguana

280

Bahamas

35

Antigua

279

Antigua and Barbuda

36

Saint Croix

214

United States Virgin Islands

37

New Providence

207

Bahamas

38

Grand Cayman

196

Cayman Islands

39

Aruba

180

Aruba

40

Tortuga

178

Haiti

41

Saint Kitts

168

Saint Kitts and Nevis

42

San Salvador Island

163

Bahamas

43

Barbuda

161

Antigua and Barbuda

44

Marie Galante

158

Guadeloupe

45

Great Exuma

158

Bahamas

46

La Tortuga Island

156.6

Venezuela

47

Crooked Island

148

Bahamas

48

Middle Caicos

144.2

Turks and Caicos Islands

49

Vieques

135

Puerto Rico

50

Little Inagua

127

Bahamas

51

Roatan

125

Honduras

52

North Caicos

116.4

Turks and Caicos Islands

53

Saona Island

110

Dominican Republic

54

Cayo Guajaba

107

Cuba

55

Montserrat

102

Montserrat

56

Cayo Fragoso

101

Cuba

57

Providenciales

98

Turks and Caicos Islands

58

Nevis

93

Saint Kitts and Nevis

59

Anguilla

91

Anguilla

60

East Caicos

90.6

Turks and Caicos Islands

61

Saint Martin

87

Saint Martin and  Sint Maarten

62

Saint Thomas

80.91

United States Virgin Islands

63

Rum Cay

78

Bahamas

64

Ambergris Caye

65

Belize

65

Blanquilla Island

64

Venezuela

66

Colón Island

61

Panama

67

Isla Mona

57

Puerto Rico

68

Coche Island

55

Venezuela

69

Tortola

55.7

British Virgin Islands

70

Guanaja

55

Honduras

71

Popa Island

53

Panama

72

Bastimentos Island

52

Panama

73

Île à Vache

52

Haiti

74

Saint John

51

United States Virgin Islands

75

Útila

49

Honduras

76

Grande Cayemite

45

Haiti

77

Samana Cay

45

Bahamas

78

Cayo Saetia

42

Cuba

79

La Orchila

40

Venezuela

80

Anegada

38

British Virgin Islands

81

Cayo Largo del Sur

37.5

Cuba

82

Cristóbal Island

37

Panama

83

Cayman Brac

36

Cayman Islands

84

Carriacou

34

Grenada

85

Great Harbour Cay

32

Bahamas

86

Culebra

30.1

Puerto Rico

87

West Caicos

28

Turks and Caicos Islands

88

Beata Island

27

Dominican Republic

89

San Andrés

26

Colombia

90

Little Cayman

26

Cayman Islands

91

Cayo Cruz

26

Cuba

92

Big Pine Key

25.8

United States

93

Cubagua

24

Venezuela

94

Ragged Island

23

Bahamas

95

South Caicos

21.2

Turks and Caicos Islands

96

Saint Barthélemy

21

Saint Barthélemy

97

Sint Eustatius

21

Caribbean Netherlands

98

Virgin Gorda

21

British Virgin Islands

99

Long Cay

21

Bahamas

100

La Désirade

20.64

Guadeloupe

101

Tierra Bomba Island

19.8

Colombia

102

Bequia

18.1

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

103

Grand Turk Island

17.39

Turks and Caicos Islands

104

Providencia

17

Colombia

105

Cayo Agua Island

16

Panama

106

Cayo Grande

15.1

Venezuela

107

Key West

13.65

United States

108

Cayo Guillermo

13

Cuba

109

Saba

13

Caribbean Netherlands

110

Canouan

13

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

111

Big Corn Island

10

Nicaragua

112

Little San Salvador Island

9.7

Bahamas

113

Catalina Island

9.6

Dominican Republic

114

Terre-de-Bas

9

Guadeloupe

115

Conception Island

8.5

Bahamas

116

Ronde Island

8.1

Grenada

117

Jost Van Dyke

8

British Virgin Islands

118

Union Island

8

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

119

Solarte Island

8

Panama

120

Isleta de San Juan

7.8

Puerto Rico

121

Salt Cay

6.74

Turks and Caicos Islands

122

Klein Bonaire

6

Caribbean Netherlands

123

Mustique

5.7

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

124

Navassa Island

5.2

United States (Claimed by  Haiti)

125

Terre-de-Haut

5.2

Guadeloupe

126

Isla Mujeres

5.2

Mexico

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