Cayes vs. islands: What's the difference?

 Tobacco Caye in Belize.

Tobacco Caye in Belize.

When the hubby and I jetted off to Belize for our honeymoon, we stayed on the amazing Coco Plum Caye. While there, we also learned all about nearby Ambergris Caye, Tobacco Caye, Caye Caulker, Thatch Caye and many more cayes (pronounced “key” and sometimes spelled cay, key or quay).

Before visiting, I’d never thought much about why these tropical utopias miles off the coast were called cayes rather than islands—not just in Belize but destinations around the world (think the Exuma Cays, Florida Keys, etc.).

As the locals explained soon after our arrival, cayes are unique from other islands in their composition and how they form.

Cayes 101

While often dotted with palm trees and surrounded by cerulean water, cayes are sandy masses that form on top of coral reefs. Over many years, waves and wind wash sand and other sediment on top of the reef, where it settles, hardens and eventually forms a flat, low-elevation island known as a caye.

Primarily comprised of coral, cayes are extremely susceptible to damage from hurricanes and other forces of nature. Unless a barrier exists to protect a caye (a natural wall, such as the many mangrove trees found in Belize, or a manmade one—both of which helped shelter our honeymoon heaven), a storm can dramatically alter the shape and size of a caye within minutes. For example, six months before Mr. Smitten and I took our honeymoon, Hurricane Earl had whipped through Belize; the locals on our caye told us that Bird Island—an uninhabited caye just one mile off the coast of Coco Plum—had shrunk 50 percent from erosion caused by the storm.

To get a better sense of how a caye differs from other islands, compare the photo above of Tobacco Caye in Belize with the picture below of Oahu in Hawaii, an island formed from volcanic activity rather than the more fragile build-up of coral.

 Part of the island of Oahu, which was formed from volcanic activity rather than the buildup of coral consistent with the formation of cayes.

Part of the island of Oahu, which was formed from volcanic activity rather than the buildup of coral consistent with the formation of cayes.