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The Caribbean Sea is an oceanic sea largely situated on the Caribbean Plate which is trapped between the North and South American tectonic plates. Two oceanic trenches are beneath the sea: the Cayman Trench, which marks the deepest point of the sea at 25,200 feet (7686 m), and the Puerto Rico Trench, which is the northern boundary of the sea and contains the deepest point of the Atlantic Ocean at 28,400 ft. (8648 m). Although the sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean, it is separated from the ocean by the Puerto Rico Trench and several arcs of islands, the West Indies, along its eastern and northern boundaries. The Greater Antilles includes Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico; collectively, these islands constitute over 90% of the land mass of the entire West Indies, as well as over 90% of its population. The Lesser Antilles stretch over an arc from the Virgin Islands, east and south to Trinidad, then west to Aruba, with at least seventeen active volcanoes. The western side of the Caribbean Sea washes up on the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and the rest of Central America south to Panama and Colombia; the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef runs along this side for 620 miles (1000 km) from the northern tip of Yucatan to the Bay Islands of Honduras. The sea and all the islands have a tropical climate and the resulting abundance of tropical flora, fauna, anad marine life. Lush jungles cover most of the islands and sandy beaches line the islands' shores.
The name "Caribbean" derives from the Caribs, one of the dominant Native American groups in the region before European contact. Following the discovery of the islands by Christopher Columbus, the area was quickly colonized by numerous European countries including Spain, Portugal, England, the Dutch Republic, France, Courland, and Denmark. Sea and land battles for domination between the colonizing countries raged for more than 300 years resulting in a mixed cultural heritage on the islands, enhanced by the importation of hundreds of thousands of Africans to work the plantations. Today there are at least 12 sovereign nations and 12 territories or dependencies among the islands and island groups.
The sugar trade was the initial attraction for Europeans and sugar cane is still grown and processed in the islands but at a much lower level. Today's economy is based on year-round tourism—the warm climate brings millions of tourists each year to loll on the beaches, explore the underwater marvels, learn about the history, and partake of the spicy food, drink, and music. With few exceptions, the islands are safe and the populations welcoming; the appeal of a Caribbean cruise or getaway is hard to resist.