Islands of the Dutch Caribbean


General Introduction

The Netherlands, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles together comprise the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Netherlands are located in Europe, while Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles are located in the Caribbean Sea and are jointly referred to as the “Dutch Caribbean”. The Netherlands Antilles today consist of five island territories each with their own island government. These are Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten. By 2010 it is expected that the situation will have changed. Curaçao and St. Maarten will comprise separate countries, which Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius will accede to the Netherlands where they will care a special municipal status.


The Dutch Caribbean consists of six islands. Two groups of islands can be distinguished: the Windward group and the Leeward group. The latter group is located about 60 to 80 kilometers off the coast of Venezuela and includes of islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. (Their geographic position is roughly at latitude 12° North and longitude 69° West). The Windward group is about 900 kilometers north, east of the Virgin Islands, and consists of the islands St. Martin (of which half is French territory), St. Eustatius and Saba (About 18° North and 63° West). The total land area of the Dutch Caribbean is about 800 km².





Leeward Islands

The geological history of the Leeward group started about 100 million years ago (during the upper-Cretaceous period). In this period large amounts of hot molten rock (magma) were erupted and solidified both on and below the sea floor, forming the foundations of the later Leeward Islands. All rocks were heavily folded. The folding phase ended about 60 million years ago and was succeeded by local accumulation of calcareous sediments while still under the sea. Later these deposits emerged as islands as a result of regional tectonics. Once emerged, erosion took over, and in the shallower seas around the emerged islands, reef building corals started to grow.

The final geological phase is mainly dominated by sea level fluctuations that influenced coral reef growth, during the Pleistocene ice ages (starting about 2 million years ago). These fluctuations are reflected in the formation of calcareous terraces, of which four, at most, were formed mainly along the windward side of the islands.

Windward Islands

The Windward Islands are considerably younger than the Leeward Islands, and are situated along an active magmatic belt. The islands are of volcanic origin, and therefore only a few types of sediment are present.

St. Martin is the oldest island. Its accumulation of volcanic ashes and tuffs started about 50 million years ago. Later, the volcanic rocks were subject to folding and intrusion of magma, and only recently did some coral accumulations form. The volcanic activity on St. Martin ceased long ago. Saint Eustatius and Saba are much younger.

The northwestern part of St. Eustatius consists of remnants of a volcano which was presumably active 3 to 1.5 million years ago, and is now heavily eroded. The famous Quill, located on the opposite side of the island, is a nice example of an ash volcano. It started its activity less than one million years ago, and ceased its activity only about a few thousand years ago.

Saba is the youngest island. The first submarine extrusions presumably took place only 500 thousand years ago. From studies on tree remains, found intercalated in volcanic tuffs, it is known that the volcanic activity stopped only about 500 years ago. Today, warm water springs indicate ongoing magmatic activity and Saba is considered to be a ‘sleeping’ volcano, rather than a ’dead’ one.

The entire Caribbean region as we know it today was created by the movement of various plates: the North and South American Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the Cocos Plate. There is little relative movement between the Caribbean and the South American plates at this moment in geologic history.


The climate on both island groups of the Dutch Caribbean is marine tropical, however, with substantial variations based on proximity to land masses and local altitude.

Those variations include a higher rainfall on the Windward Islands. This group receives about 1,060 to 1,100 mm of rainfall per year and has a higher risk of hurricanes than the Leeward Islands. In contrast, the average yearly rainfall on the Leeward Islands is 559 mm on Curaçao, 511 mm on Bonaire and 447 mm on Aruba, about half of the rainfall of the Windward group. The relatively low amount of rain, which falls in a contracted period, together with the strong easterly winds, high temperatures and long sun hours make up a semi-arid tropical climate on the Leeward Islands.

The average temperature on all the islands is about 27° C and is not subject to much variation, except for Saba where cooling at altitude is quite noticeable. On all islands the tropical heat is tempered by the easterly winds.


Along with Bonaire and Curaçao, Aruba is located off the coast of Venezuela.

Aruba is generally flat, and like Bonaire and Curaçao, has no rivers.

The island is situated along the southern boundary of the Caribbean plate; the sea depths separating it from the mainland do not exceed 135 m. On the north side of the island the depth decreases abruptly to depths of several thousand meters.

Like Bonaire and Curaçao, Aruba consists of a core of upper Cretaceous rocks originating from volcanic activity. Later in time it was surrounded and covered by younger sediments. More than the other islands, however, the old parts have been subjected to tectonic forces which resulted in a complicated geological structure.

Aruba with its capital city of Oranjestad is located 30 km off the Venezuelan peninsula of Paraguaná (12°25' - 12°38' N; 69°52' - 70°3' W). The peninsula can be seen from Aruba on the southern horizon, weather allowing.

Aruba is known for its white, sandy beaches on the sheltered western and southern coasts of the island, and this is where most tourist development has taken place. The northern and eastern coasts, lacking protection from waves and currents, are considerably more battered by the sea and have been left largely untouched by man. The central part of the island features some rolling hills, like the 165 m Hooiberg, and Mount Jamanota, the highest peak on the island at 188 meters above sea level.

The annual mean temperature of Aruba's tropical marine climate attracts tourists to the island all year round. Temperature varies little from the average of 28° C, moderated by constant easterly winds off the Caribbean Sea. The mean precipitation amounts to less than 500 mm, most of it falling in November and December.


Bonaire is the most easterly of the Dutch Leeward Islands (12º19’ N; 68º11’ - 68º25’ W). The island is hook-shaped with the hollow side turned to the west. The island measures 288 km²; and its average width varies between 5 and 12 km. The total length of the island as measured from Malmòk in the northwest to Lacre Point in the far south is about 40 km.

The northwestern part of the island is hilly. In the middle of the island there is a terrace landscape, while in the south the island is principally low and flat. The highest points of the island are also found in the northwest. At 240.8 m, Brandaris is the highest point of the island. From Malmòk moving towards the southeast there is a sequence of hills, respectively, Seru Mangel (159 m), Yuwana (203.3 m), La Sana (173 m) and Barón (163.6 m).

Klein Bonaire

On the west side of Bonaire at about 2 km off the coast from Kralendijk is the small coral island of Klein Bonaire.

The island, measures 6 km², is uninhabited and the vegetation consists largely of dry scrublands.

On all three of the Leeward Islands the climate is semi-arid, and this fact is also decisive for the natural vegetation of Bonaire. The mean annual precipitation is about 510 mm. The vegetation large comprises thorn scrub, low trees and cacti. At the inner bays we find mangrove vegetation and at the coast low-growing salt-resistant plants dominate. The southern part of the island mainly harbors this type of vegetation. There are a number of natural fresh water springs, in the hilly northwest sector of the island. A number of historical water catchment dam systems are still in place and functional. There is more vegetation cover on the northern part of the island than there is on the southern part. The vegetation remaining today is the only a remnant of the once denser evergreen scrublands and forests.

From the time that Europeans discovered the island until the 20th century, Brazilwood (Haematoxylon brasiletto) and Lignum vitaea (Guaiacum officinale) have been harvested on a large scale. The wood was used, respectively, for dyeing fabrics and for hardwood construction and carpentry purposes.

Bonaire's reefs with its luxuriant marine life are unique in the Caribbean. The waters surrounding Bonaire are designated as an official marine park since 1999. Due to the semi-arid climate, with little rainfall the waters are exceptionally clear of silt year round. Water temperatures range between 26 - 29° C, with visibility usually ranging over 30 m, and frequently up to 55 m.

Another interesting feature is the very large flamingo colony (about 15,000 birds), which is located in the flat salt works area of the southwest sector of the island.


The island measures 444 km², and lies about 70 km from the South American mainland of Venezuela (12º2’ - 12º23’ N; 68º44’ - 69º10’ W). Only a short distance from the coast of Curaçao, the sea already reaches a depth of about 1000 meters. The 61 km long island is spindle-shaped. The width of the island varies between 5 and 14 km depending on the location.

Curaçao consists of a basaltic core on which several sedimentary formations were laid down. The youngest of these is a limestone formation, especially pronounced along the northeast coast of the island.

Only the northwest of the island has a hilly landscape. Many hills are found here, among which the highest point of the island, the mount Christoffel (375.4 m), the Seru Gracia (297 m), and others.

The narrow middle part of the island and the southeast sector of Curaçao are generally much flatter and lower.

The northeast coast is rimmed by four well-defined limestone terraces decreasing in height from the Highest Terrace, followed successively by the High- Middle- and Low Terrace, the latter of which borders the sea. The hand-shaped inner bays also came in existence during the Pleistocene ice ages. Examples on the south coast are the natural harbor of the Schottegat with the St. Anna Bay and the Spanish Water while on the north coast the St. Joris Bay is the main inland bay.

The highest hill of the southeastern part of Curaçao is the Table Mountain of Santa Barbara. This terraced limestone hill has a height of 197 m but has been mined extensively for phosphate. Another high point in the southeastern part of the island is Ronde Klip (131 m). Because of the easterly winds, only the south coast of the island is accessible for shipping.

There are no permanent rivers on the island because of the low precipitation (average of 570 mm annually over the period from 1905 to 1980), the high evaporation (potential average of 2866 mm a year) and relatively small size of the drainage basins. Only for a few months during and after heavy rainfall does water streams through the shallow valleys, which are called “rooi’s” on the Leeward Islands. In the past people built dams in the various “rooi’s” to collect fresh water in reservoirs, as well as to let water penetrate into the water table. The water was used on plantations for crops like sorghum, water melons, beans, peanuts, and small fruit orchards, referred to as “hofi’s”.

The vegetation on Curaçao is characterized by drought-resistant plant species. The vegetation of the volcanic central part of the island is principally deciduous, in which the trees lose most of their leaves during the dry season. In contrast the vegetation on the limestone terraces consists mainly of species that stay green year-round. Cacti are considered keystone species, because of the fact that they are the principal species carrying fruits and flowers during the dry season as food for fructivores and nectarivores such as bats. Because of the climatic conditions on Curaçao, agriculture never developed the way it did on other plantation islands in the region.

Mainly along the bays and saliñas fringing mangrove vegetation can be found. The coral reefs fringing the island Curaçao are very well developed.

Klein Curaçao

About 2.5 km in length and with a maximum width of 750 m, this small satellite island is located about 10 km southeast of Curaçao.

Klein Curaçao is famous for phosphate mining which took place in the late 1800’s. This mineral was discovered in 1871 by the Englishman John Godden. The mining was discontinued in 1913. The island’s surface became ca. 3 meters lower because of the mining activity, in which 90.000 tons of phosphate were excavated.

A lighthouse of 20 m in height was erected on the island as an aid to shipping safety.


Saba, with its capital city of The Bottom, belongs to the group of the Windward Islands of the Dutch Caribbean (17°37’ - 17°39’ N: 63°13’ - 63°15’ W).

Saba is located about 50 km south of St. Maarten and rises steeply from the sea. It is a sleeping Pleistocene volcano with an area of about 13 km². The highest point, Mount Scenery, rises 840.4 m above sea level. Weathering and erosion of the old volcano have strongly cut the sides, leading to numerous long radially expiring deep fissures, called “guts”. After rainfall water runs rapidly through these guts towards the sea. The seaboard slopes of the volcanic island are steadily undermined and eroded by the sea, and as a result they are very steep. Saba has no natural harbor. Only at a few locations it is possible to land with small boats. Fort Bay and Ladder Bay, respectively to the south and the west coast, are the only natural landing spots on the island. Large ships have to remain several hundred meters offshore. The other bays are unimportant for shipping and provide only difficult access to the island. Saba has no fully developed beaches.

The solidified lava flows in the vicinity of Flat Point and the 4-6 m thick sulphur and gypsum formations at Hell's Gate bear further testimony to the volcanic history of Saba. A post-volcanic phenomenon is the warm water spring at the foot of Great Hill. The water is 57 ºC or hotter and enriches the nearby sea water with sulphur.

The vegetation of Saba is mainly composed of woodland forest with ferns and damp soil, and many introduced fruit trees like the mango. Once there had been forests of mahogany trees until a hurricane in the 1960s destroyed most of the trees. The mahogany tree appears to be recovering on the island. Visitors refer to the forests of the top of Mount Scenery as "the Elfin Forest" because of its high altitude mist, dwarfed growth and mossy appearance. Saba's natural resources are managed by the Saba Conservation Foundation.

The climate of Saba is generally not different from that of the other Windward Islands, although due to the high elevation of the island, its peak is often shrouded in mist and temperatures are noticeably cooler as one ascends the mountain. The wind through the ravines of Fort Bay brings cool fresh air to The Bottom. Residents call this wind 'The Doctor'. Temperatures in The Bottom are also tempered by the shadow of the surrounding mountains; the number of hours of direct sunshine is reduced to approximately four hours per day. The natural vegetation of Saba is quite diverse. The top of the Mount Scenery is characterized by rich moist-tropical vegetation, which includes mahogany trees, palms, tree ferns, and various orchids and moss species.

The Saba Marine Park was established in 1987. The Saba Bank, which is located 4.3 km southwest of Saba, is a large submerged atoll of rich biodiversity, and is a prime fishing ground particularly for lobsters.

St. Eustatius

St. Eustatius, also known as Statia, or Saint Eustace, is one of the three Windward Islands of the Dutch Caribbean and lies southeast from St. Maarten. It forms part of the inner arc of the Windward Island chain, lying immediately to the northwest of Saint Kitts and Nevis and to the southeast of Saba (17.5° N; 63° W). It is named after the legendary Catholic Saint Eustace. The capital is Oranjestad.

St. Eustatius has a land area of 21 km² and can be divided into three distinct landscapes: in the northwest and southeast two volcanic massifs separated by a central northward sloping plain. The northern landscape locally known as the Little Mountain consists of the remains of a quaternary volcano. In the southeastern part of the island lies a 600 m high extinct quaternary strato volcano known as The Quill (a corruption of the Dutch word 'kuil'). The eastern crater wall and also the highest point are called Mazinga. The opening of the crater is about 2 km wide; the steep walls reach down 322 m to the crater floor at an elevation of 278 m above sea level. Both the walls and the crater floor are covered by tropical rain and cloud forest. The southern rim of the volcano rises steeply from the sea to the geologically characteristic White Wall and Sugar Loaf. The northern slope of The Quill gradually slopes down to the Culture Plain, which lies 80-30 m above sea level, in the central part of the island. In fact, this 6 km2 plain is the foot of the Quill volcano and is therefore composed of relatively fertile volcanic soils.

St. Eustatius has a steep cliff coast, which every now and then, especially in the bays only allows for narrow sandy and rubble beaches. From the northern end, going around the island are several bays with beaches consisting of dark volcanic sands. Geologists have shown that the island of St. Eustatius is gradually subsiding which accelerates degradation of the coast.

After heavy rain fall, fast-flowing streams may temporarily form which cause much erosion. Especially in the northern hills and the slopes of The Quill the “guts” emerge as deeply incised valleys and gorges.

The rainfall is very unequal from year to year: wet years follow very dry ones. Notorious in this respect were the years 1952 and 1953 and 1982/1983 when droughts occurred that killed almost all cattle on the island, seasonal agricultural production came to a standstill and all drinking water had to be imported.

The natural vegetation of St. Eustatius has a savanna-like nature and consists mostly of shrubs. In particular where former agricultural land has been abandoned, secondary vegetation is found which consists mainly of cacti.

On St. Eustatius - as is the case on all islands of the Dutch Caribbean - the process of soil erosion is strongly enhanced by human and animal agents. Felling of trees for charcoal production, the neglect and abandonment of arable land, and the uncontrolled grazing of large numbers of goats are the main causes of deforestation and erosion.

The St Eustatius National Marine Park was created in 1996 and extends around the entire island from the high tide line to the 30 m depth contour. The park covers an area of 27.5 km2 and protects a variety of habitats, including pristine coral reefs (drop-off walls, volcanic ‘fingers’ and ‘bombs’, spur and groove coral formations), 18th century shipwrecks and modern-day artificial reefs to promote fishing and dive tourism.

St. Maarten

St. Martin (18° N, 63° W), with its capital of Phillipsburg, is the largest island of the Windward Islands of the Dutch Caribbean. It is part of the northern group of the Lesser Antilles and has an area of about 86 km², of which the largest part is French-Caribbean territory. The southern, and smallest part of about 34 km², forms part of The Kingdom of the Netherlands. This division in which an international border runs clear across the island, was established in 1648.

St. Martin is very hilly with the exception of the flat Lowlands (Terres Basses) in the west. This area of low limestone formation is connected with the main island by Holocene sand banks (so-called Tombolo).

The landscape of the Dutch side known as St. Maarten consists of three ridges.

The coast of St. Maarten has a large number of bays, lagoons, sand banks and sandy beaches. The most prominent lagoon is the Simpson Bay Lagoon.

The annual rainfall in St. Maarten is certainly higher than that of the Lower Windward Islands, but because of high evaporation, it is too dry for tropical rainforests, and the vegetation consists primarily of savanna-like vegetation.

The vegetation depends greatly on the slope of the land and the degree of exposure to the trade winds. In the lower valleys, a lush tree growth occurs while the exposed higher grounds are dominated by shrub vegetation. The rainfall is very unequal from year to year and prolonged droughts in St. Maarten are no exception. There are no permanent springs, streams or rivers. Since 1969, a sea water distillation plant provides drinking water. Ocean Care was founded in 2004 in order to help preserve the coral reefs and the ocean surrounding St Maarten.