2018 Letters from the Bahamas # 6 by Greg and Barbara Allard
Letter # 6
Hello Everyone – This season the weather in the Bahamas has been challenging. For the last month we’ve had continuous high winds, repeated thunderstorms, heavy rain, and some nasty lightening; all of these are conditions which make it difficult to find shelter, or to move from one place to another.
We finally were able to find a “weather window” to leave Stella Maris marina on Long Island. Because of the water depth, we had to depart at full high tide, which was at 6:00 AM. That gave us only about a foot and a half under the keel, but enough to keep us from going aground.
(For the cruisers who read this letter, the Stella Maris marina is an excellent place to stop. While the marina is small and has been neglected, it’s part of the larger Stella Maris resort on the eastern side of Long Island, and visiting mariners have full access to all of the facilities. It also allows you to visit Long Island without making the trek down the east side to Clarence Town, which is open to the prevailing winds from the east. Just plan to enter and leave at high tide, which we observed to be about an hour and half after the Nassau projections. Tides are affected by the winds and phases of the moon, so take those into account.)
The winds were somewhat moderate the day we left Stella Maris, so we by-passed George Town and started up the Exuma chain to Cave Cay. We spent several days at Cave, and since we were now on the Exuma banks side (the western side of the Exuma cays), we were somewhat sheltered from the strong ESE winds. After exploring the area near Cave, we moved up to one of our favorite anchorages in the Staniel Cay area – Big Majors spot, which offers excellent protection from ESE winds. From there we went to Warderick Wells, one of the most beautiful places in the Bahamas.
This Letter covers our time at Cave, Staniel, Warderick, and our current location, Highbourne. Since some of those places have access to good coral reefs for diving, we’ll spend some time looking at their superb underwater sights.
Dinghy expeditions – one of our favorite pastimes. Our dinghy is our car. It takes us places we can’t go with the bigger boats. There are literally hundreds – if not thousands – of secluded beaches just like this one. We often take the dinghy ten or twenty miles from where we have left our larger boat. We look for islands and cays to explore, beaches to comb and coral reefs to dive on.
The beach combing is superb. Here are some colorful shells for the collection.
While walking the beaches, we found some beautiful pieces of black coral. We do not take live coral from the reef; we only take what nature has discarded.
These pieces were likely torn from the reef in a storm, and washed up on the beach where we found them. When this coral is growing on the reef, it looks very different – the branches are covered with different colors of outer coral. This black coral is actually the skeleton. It is often used for making jewelry.
A yellow fan coral, also found washed up on the beach. Both the black coral (above) and this fan coral were found on the beach at Highbourne,
It’s important to remember that within the boundaries of the Exuma Land and Sea Park (south of Highbourne), you are not permitted to fish, capture lobster, or even take any shells or coral (dead or alive) from anywhere in the park.
Running in the dinghy between Musha Cay and Rudder Cut Cay. The dark water is about 15-20’ deep. The lighter blue is 5-10’ and the very light colored water to the left is about 2’.
There are a number of sunken planes in the Bahamas. Some are from failed drug runs, years ago, and others are planes that just didn’t make it. The runways on the smaller out-islands are simple: mostly crushed coral, and not all that long. This plane is located just off Little Lansing Cay. One of the blades of the propellor is sticking up at the front of the plane.
The sea is quick to take over any foreign objects thrown its way. In this photo of the plane’s wing, several different corals have already taken root.
The Bahamas are not volcanic; all of the islands and cays are composed of limestone, which has tendency to be worn away and create blue holes, land caves, or sea caves. This one, at water level, was deep enough to drive the dingy inside.
A large Southern Sting Ray, skimming across the bottom. His barb sticks up about halfway down the tail. They only use the barb defensively and will not affirmatively attack you. The only risk is stepping on one who is sleeping in the sandy bottom which may cause the ray to whip you with his tail and barb; the injury is painful. For this reason, we use the “sting ray shuffle” when walking in shallow water: instead of stepping, we shuffle our feet across the bottom, which will move the ray along, rather than cause him to react badly. This ray was about 3’ across – small compared to the Spotted Eagle Rays which we will show you later.
On the west side of the Exuma chain (the banks) there are huge areas of shallow sandy water which cover and uncover with the tides. After I took this picture, two juvenile Black Tip Sharks (2’ and 3’ long) circled around me about 25’ away, in two feet of water. When I moved towards them with the camera, they scooted away. This shallow area is between two cays, which are owned by a celebrity….
The illusionist David Copperfield owns several cays in the area: the two main ones are Musha Cay, where he has a large home, and the adjacent Rudder Cut Cay, with his private airstrip.
We are always searching the charts for areas of coral, which make good diving spots. This small “patch reef”, in the cove just east of Musha (near to the small inlet) has some nice specimens of Elkhorn coral. The silvery area at the top of the photo is the underside of the surface of the water.
There is also a larger reef, with very good diving and more Elkhorn, just off the east-facing beach below the Copperfield house.
This school of Palometa, almost translucent, swam by near one of the Copperfield reefs. They are members of the Jacks family, and also known as Longfin Pompano.
Not something you see everyday – an underwater sculpture of a Steinway grand piano, with a mermaid leaning against the bench. It is in 15’ of water off the southwest end of Rudder Cut Cay. It was placed there by David Copperfield.
Thunderball Cave is located near Staniel Cay, where the James Bond movie of that name was partially (about 20 seconds worth…) filmed. It is a great snorkeling spot, with a big cave which is easy to swim into at low tide, but the real beauty is in the coral formations which surround the little cay. This Purple Fan Coral is superb. In the right foreground is a light colored Symmetrical Brain Coral, and if our identification is correct, at the upper right are some Porous Sea Rods, olive green in color. Sometimes it is difficult to accurately identify the hundreds of types of coral, and while we have excellent guides with color photos, we are still learning.
A gap in the reef, showing the path to deeper water.
A Green Sea Turtle casually swam underneath me. Their name does not come from the color of their shell (which is brown), but from the green color of their fatty tissue. They are remarkably fast. This is a younger turtle; fully grown they are are 4’ long and weigh between 250 and 450 pounds. They are endangered.
In the middle of all the natural beauty, there is always something unusual or even strange, mostly man-generated.. On occasion in the U.S. smaller boats will sometimes raft together – that is, tie up to each other while anchored. In Big Majors Spot we came upon this raft-up: three large boats all tied together, sitting on one anchor; they stayed that way for several days and nights, during unsettled weather with periods of strong winds. We estimated the largest mega-yacht to be about 170’ long, the middle one about 100’, and the smaller sportfish boat at 70’. If the single anchor on the largest boat were to drag, the result could turn bad very quickly. Boats are note like cars, where you start it and go. There are preparations to be made before getting underway, the engines on all of the boats would have to be started and all of the lines connecting the boats untied before the raft-up can be split apart. Also notice that at the stern of the sport fish there was yet a fourth boat (a center console), rafted across the stern.
What was most surprising was that the small sailing catamaran, directly behind these three hulks, seemed happy to be anchored there for several days, breathing in the 24 hour-a-day fumes of at least three large generators, and taking the risk that they would not drag down on him in the middle of the night.
During one of the season’s endless rainstorms, this little frog fellow appeared on our windshield. We had seen him elsewhere around the boat, and figured that he had become a stow-away on Long Island, about ten days before.
While diving at the “Coral Garden” at Warderick Wells in the Exuma Land and Sea Park, we spotted these two massive Spotted Eagle Rays in the distance. Their wingspan looked to be eight feet across, and their overall length with the tail was about 20’. There was no way we could keep up with them while swimming, but we anticipated that they would swim around the rock formation on the right and circle back towards us.
The winds were rather high this day, and the resulting waves stirred things up, making the water clarity less than normal.
Circle back they did. The water here was approximately 25’ deep, so this photo does not convey how huge these animals are. While no real threat to us, swimming near a living creature so impressively large grants you a humble sense of perspective.
One of them swam right under our friend Jim Pope, who was close enough to take this beautiful photo showing the Spotted Eagle Ray’s distinctive markings.
Our next stop was Highbourne Cay. When you venture off the regular paths, you always discover something new – this man tends a growing herd of goats, and maintains a beautiful herb garden, helping the cay to be more self sufficient.
While walking on one of the ocean-facing beaches on Highbourne, we came upon this Piping Plover nest. The nest had been built between the arms of a large branch of black coral, which drew our attention to it, and fortunately prevented us from stepping on it. The owners of the nest, the male and female piping plovers, immediately took action. They both ran away from the nest on the beach in different directions, feigning that they had broken wings, by dragging their wings in the sand as if they were injured – all in an attempt to make predators (us) think that they were easy pickings, and to draw us away from the nest and eggs.
A magnificent Queen Triggerfish, one of the most beautiful and distinctive fish on the reef.
Right now we are in the northern Exumas, dealing with a tropical weather system which has been developing in the Gulf of Mexico. Strong winds are forecast for the coming week, so we are monitoring that system closely.
Several years ago we included the following quote from Mark Twain. Many of you have seen it before; it has become common because it says it the best. Of course it does not just apply to being on a boat.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain, 1835 – 1910
Warmest regards to you all.
Greg and Barbara