The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) form the southeastern end of the Lucayan Archipelago, which they compose along with the better-known Bahamas to the northwest.
The TCI offer some of the finest beachgoing and ecotourism in the Caribbean region, alongside a generally quieter, less-trammeled vibe than those big-time Bahamian vacation hotspots.
Home to what’s often described as the world’s best beach (Grace Bay Beach), the TCI also support one of the Western Atlantic’s largest and highest-quality barrier reefs, encircling more than 300 miles of the Caicos and Turks Island banks. The edge of those banks (submerged plateaus), widely known as “the Wall,” plunges dramatically thousands of feet into the deeps.
All of this translates to plenty of lucky vacationers basking on pearly white sands and, via snorkeling and scuba diving, exploring coral gardens and that astonishing brink of the Wall.
And that means sharing waters with Turks and Caicos sharks!
Let’s explore the question: Does Turks and Caicos have sharks? How common are sharks attacks in the Turks and Caicos Islands?
From mangrove lagoons to all the varied reef habitats, the TCI definitely support an overall healthy and varied shark population. Common (or reasonably common) large sharks found in the Turks and Caicos include:
- Caribbean reef sharks
- Nurse sharks
- Tiger sharks
- Lemon sharks
- Great hammerheads
- Bull sharks
The good news is you have very little to worry about in terms of shark attacks: These essential marine predators, lording over the top of the Lucayan food chain, usually have zero interest in chomping human beings, and indeed are vastly more at risk from our overfishing, bycatch, and unwarranted, fear-based aggression than we are from their (gnarly) teeth.
The Turks and Caicos Islands have only seen 3 confirmed unprovoked attacks since such events began being recorded hundreds of years ago. The most recent attack occurred in May of 2023, resulting in a woman losing her leg from a Caribbean reef shark bite.
In this article, we’ll introduce you to common and notable TCI sharks, including the six listed above and several other interesting species. We’ll also detail the history of shark attacks along the Caicos and Turks banks, which, needless to say, is a scanty history indeed!
Selected Types of Turks and Caicos Sharks
The following section isn’t a completely exhaustive list of all of the sharks inhabiting Turks and Caicos waters, which would number in the dozens and include coastal, pelagic (offshore), and deepwater species.
But the following accounts for most of the larger sharks you might possibly see while beach-hopping, swimming, snorkeling, or diving in the islands, and at least gestures at some of the rest of the TCI shark diversity.
Caribbean Reef Shark
This is the most common shark of Caribbean coral-reef ecosystems—hence the name!
The Caribbean reef shark is a classic-looking member of the Family Carcharhinidae, the so-called “requiem sharks,” which includes many of the World Ocean’s best-known medium- to large-sized sharks.
Stocky but streamlined, the Caribbean reef shark generally ranges between about six and 10 feet long.
It’s the primary apex predator of the Turks and Caicos Barrier Reef, primarily feeding on bony fishes. Interestingly, this species is often observed stationary on the seafloor or tucked away in reef caves.
This tawny requiem shark, which reaches about 11 feet maximum, is another common coastal species in the TCI, the nearshore waters of which (as off South Caicos) appear to function as a pupping or nursery zone. The lagoon of Half Moon Cay, that sandbar linking Little Water and Water cays, is well known for its small, juvenile lemon sharks.
Lemon sharks are fairly easily identified by their somewhat elongated look, their broad snouts, and (most diagnostically to the layperson) two dorsal fins of about equal size.
Common in mangrove lagoons, bays, and reef zones, lemon sharks prey on a variety of creatures, from crabs to rays to the odd seabird.
This little requiem shark, named for the black splotch on its snout that fades with age, averages about four feet long. It’s common along sandy flats and coral reefs on the Turks and Caicos banks, where it snatches up small bony fish, octopuses, and other diminutive prey.
While harmless, blacknose sharks are known to perform a threat display, hunching their bodies, when approached too closely by divers.
The tiger shark is the king of the requiem-shark family, reaching a maximum length of 18 or 20 feet long and sometimes weighing more than a ton. It gets its name from the blotchy stripes lining its blackish- or grayish-brown topside, which (like the schnozz-spot of the blacknose shark) tend to grow fainter as the shark matures.
But “tiger” also works in terms of this big, broad-jawed shark’s disposition and apex-predator status. It’s a famously indiscriminate eater, known to ingest manmade objects, seaborne livestock carcasses, and garbage of all description alongside a more typical diet of bony fish, smaller sharks and rays, crustaceans, sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds.
Tiger sharks are often found in coastal waters, though they’re less frequently seen here over nearshore reefs and flats than Caribbean reef or lemon sharks; you’d generally have a better chance of spotting one cruising the drop-off of the Wall.
Occasionally, though, tigers are seen swimming off TCI beaches: always an exciting sight, to put it mildly.
The bull shark shares the crown of “most badass requiem shark” with the tiger.
It’s a bit smaller, generally ranging between eight and 11 feet but capable of growing to at least 13 feet long. Bull sharks are notably burly-looking carcharhinids, thick-bodied with heavy jaws.
Like the tiger shark, the bull shark is definitely present in TCI waters but not commonly seen. Well known for its tolerance of freshwater, bull sharks mainly prowl estuaries, bays, and nearshore depths.
They feed on a wide range of animals, from bony fish and other sharks to dolphins.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark
This impressive requiem shark, unmistakable with its huge rounded and white-tipped pectorals and tailfin, once ranked among the most numerous large animals on Earth and a supremely important pelagic hunter.
Overfishing and other human impacts have caused the population of oceanic whitetips to collapse, placing what not long ago was such an abundant predator at real risk of extinction.
Ranging up to 12 or 13 feet long, oceanic whitetip sharks are bold, powerful, opportunistic bluewater predators normally found well offshore, but which will draw near islands.
Rare sightings in TCI waters are a cause for excitement. Not far from the TCI, Cat Island on the Great Bahama Bank is a well-known seasonal hangout for oceanic whitetip sharks, thought to follow such prey as dorado, tunas, and wahoo into Bahamian waters.
Also capable of preying on sea turtles, dolphins, billfish, and other large prey, oceanic whitetips nonetheless are thought to feed more heavily on squid.
The nurse shark is, along with the Caribbean reef and lemon sharks, among the most commonly seen good-sized sharks in coastal TCI waters.
Usually six to eight feet long but occasionally reaching as long as 14 feet, nurse sharks are easily identified by their snout barbels, set-back dorsal fin, and impressively long upper tailfin.
Often seen resting on the sea bottom or lazily swimming above it, nurse sharks become more active hunters of reefs, seagrass beds, and sand flats at night, where they hunt for crabs, octopuses, and bony fish.
Great Hammerhead Shark
Largest of the hammerheads, the great hammerhead shark may exceed 20 feet long in rare cases. This magnificent predator is not infrequently sighted by divers and snorkelers along TCI reefs and drop-offs.
Capable of tackling a variety of prey as a top Caribbean predator, the great hammerhead is especially fond of stingrays and other rays as well as smaller sharks.
Quite the menagerie of other requiem sharks may be found along the Caicos and Turks Island banks, from little sharpnose sharks and medium-sized blacktips to large dusky sharks.
Other hammerheads that might be spied here include the pintsized bonnethead and the midsized scalloped hammerhead.
The enormous, filter-feeding whale shark, biggest of all sharks (and, indeed, biggest of all fish), is sometimes seen in Turks and Caicos.
At the other end of the spectrum, a variety of very small sharks, including dogfishes and smoothhounds, inhabit local waters.
History & Number of Shark Attacks in Turks and Caicos
Even though parts of the TCI, particularly the island of Providenciales (“Provo”), see large numbers of annual visitors, the majority of whom likely spend at least some time in the water, the number of shark attacks recorded here is exceedingly small.
The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) lists only two confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in Turks and Caicos since 1749, compared to 32 in the Bahamas (the most recorded by the ISAF in the Bahamas/Antilles region).
(Update in May 2023: A new attack has been reported in the news, but not yet added to the official tally. A woman was snorkeling near a resort in Turks and Caicos when she was attacked by, likely, a Carribean reef shark, resulting in her losing a leg.)
The extremely informative Visit Turks and Caicos website suggests there have been three unprovoked shark attacks, all non-fatal, in TCI.
These include a person bitten by a seven-foot shark—probably either a lemon or tiger shark—close to Bight Reef, one of Provo’s top snorkeling sites, in September 2021.
In June 2011, a snorkeler off Dragon Cay in Middle Caicos was bitten on the shoulder by a five- to six-foot-long shark, perhaps a Caribbean reef shark.
(The very same month apparently saw a spearfisher—engaging in a practice illegal in TCI—bitten on the lower leg by a roughly five-foot shark that he may have been trying to spear in the waters between Provo and French Cay. That would certainly categorize the incident as a provoked attack, but, either way, spearfishing—with the blood and thrashing fish involved—can be a clear attractant to sharks as many other ocean activities aren’t.)
And, in 2002, a 41-year-old snorkeler was severely bitten by a Caribbean reef shark off French Cay. That woman survived as well. Some reports suggest the dive boat the snorkeler was traveling with had been actively chumming before the sharkbite occurred.
A poorly documented account from early February 2002 may represent the only recorded fatal shark attack in TCI.
In an unspecified part of the islands, a fishing boat carrying four men capsized, and one of the men—a local police officer—was allegedly killed by a shark while swimming to shore for help with a companion.
A survivor—two men who stayed with the foundered vessel were rescued after 33 hours—noted circling sharks during the night.
The May 2023 attack where a snorkeling woman lost a leg likely was a case a mistaken identity, with the shark mistaking the woman for a different food source. Attacks like these are scary and draw national attention, but you can see by the history of the island that they are extraordinarily rare.
The paucity of confirmed shark attacks in Turks and Caicos should put your mind at ease when planning a trip to this amazing corner of the Caribbean.
The main reason your risk of being bitten by a shark here is low is because, as we said at the outset, sharks usually don’t view people as potential prey.
Only a handful of local species—mainly the tiger, bull, great hammerhead, and oceanic whitetip—would even target a prey item as large as an adult human, and these are rare off popular swimming beaches and snorkeling sites.
More common scenarios would be a shark biting a person whose hand, arm, or leg it mistakes for a fish, or a shark that’s being harassed by a snorkeler or diver possibly striking out defensively (as nurse and reef sharks are known to do when feeling threatened).
Avoiding swimming at night, steering clear of large schools of fish and active fishing operations, taking off your jewelry (the flash of which may look like a tasty fish or squid to a shark) before going in the water, and only entering the ocean with others (the buddy system!) are good ways to further lower your already low vulnerability to shark attack in Turks and Caicos.
Let’s appreciate these grand oceanic predators rather than mindlessly fear them: Sharks play a crucial role keeping the Turks and Caicos marine ecosystem in order, and their majesty, beauty, and gracefulness make them unforgettable sights for fortunate TCI beachgoers, snorkelers, or divers.
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Hope this helps!