When Pigs Swim
28 February 2015 | Staniel Cay, Exumas, Bahamas
Caroline / 77º, clear and sunny, winds E 12 MPH
The Central Exumas
Our first several weeks in the Bahamas were marked by colder temperatures and higher winds and seas than were comfortable - remnants of all the storms that have been bashing our poor New England friends all winter. Now, however, the weather is settling back into its more normal pattern of mild temperatures and moderate trade winds blowing steadily from the east. This is quite a relief to us!
After leaving Allens Cay, we docked for one night at swanky Highbourne Cay, a private island with a very pretty but relatively expensive marina. We needed to take on water, fuel, and provisions, though, and it worked well for that. We feasted on seafood ceviche, a mahimahi sandwich, and a local specialty dessert, guava duff, for lunch at the marina’s lovely restaurant, Xuma. Then we walked around the island to explore the beaches on the eastern side.
The next morning, winds had already picked up considerably, and we had a pretty exciting time getting out of our tight little slip on one side of the harbor and then onto the fuel dock. It took several tries and the help of several people to get out, as the wind was making it hard to dock Thalia. Finally we did, though, and then motored out through the narrow channel, where one boat had run aground and four or five more were waiting for us to leave so they could come in.
Having dropped more than $500 in just one day there (dockage, fuel, water, internet, lunch, and provisions), we knew we couldn’t afford to stay longer, although it certainly would have been easier to do so.
Exuma Land and Sea Park
Moving further south, we spent a couple of uncomfortable nights bouncing around tiny Elbow Cay, trying to escape strong northerly winds, before we finally moved down to Emerald Rock at Warderick Wells, an uninhabited cay where the Exuma Land and Sea Park is headquartered. This turned out to be the most stunning anchorage we’ve ever seen, a crescent of turquoise in a protected harbor surrounded by scrubby hills, sugar sand beaches, and groves of mangrove trees.
We stayed four nights, taking our dinghy over daily to land on one beach or another, and hike the many trails. The highlight was hiking up to Boo Boo Hill, so named for the eerie sounds said to be made by the ghosts of a long-ago shipwreck. Located at the highest point on Warderick Wells, the spot is marked by an enormous pile of driftwood, much of it carved or painted with the names of visiting boats. To the north of Boo Boo Hill, numerous blow holes pock the coral rock cliffs, spouting foamy columns at high tide.
Returning to Thalia from our hike, we took our dinghy out into the bay, anchored, and snorkeled in the clearest water I’ve ever seen. No fishing or removal of anything is allowed in the park boundaries, so it teems with life. The small coral reefs we drifted over were home to a large array of wildly colorful fish, mostly juveniles. Experimenting with our GoPro for the first time underwater, Larry followed a nurse shark as it moved from one hidey hole to another.
The water was so clear - and only about seven feet deep at low tide - that any stingrays, sharks, remoras or other fish that swam by our boat were almost as clear as if we were still underwater. In the evening, we realized that the nurse sharks were lurking under our boat, as they love to hide under anything. Shining a flashlight into the water drew them out and they’d swim right by Thalia, some six or seven feet long, and each with one or two large remoras attached. It was thrilling to see them so close and to “play” with them.
What was best about our stay there, though, was that for once we didn’t feel compelled to move on the minute the weather became favorable to do so. You can get into the mentality where your focus is on finding places to hide from the wind and swells, traveling from one place to another just to seek protection, and leaving without ever seeing much. Spending several extra days in a calm, protected anchorage was a real treat.
When we felt ready to head further south, we exited from the shallow Exuma Banks through Conch Cut into the Exuma Sound on the east side, where the water is much deeper and where we hoped to catch a fish by trolling the short distance south. We did in fact catch a small barracuda, which cause some real excitement (Larry would say reel excitement) when a good sized nurse shark pounced on it as I was reeling it in, creating quite a drag on the line. The shark attacked the barracuda twice before I could get it in, leaving only the head with a staring eyeball and a lot of very sharp teeth. Laughing, we let the line back out, figuring the head would be good bait for another fish. Unfortunately - as is all too common around here - a fast fishing boat came screaming across our stern way too close, severing our line and causing me to lose my favorite purple squid lure.
Big Majors Cay
We came back to the Banks side of the cays through Big Rock Cut, a somewhat tricky passage with strong currents and numerous coral heads that leads to a popular cruiser’s destination, Staniel Cay, by way of Thunderball Grotto (where Sean Connery and crew filmed a Thunderball scene in the late 1960s). Our first destination, though, was the next cay north, Big Majors Cay, which I had long wanted to visit because it is home to a large drift of pigs. Swimming pigs, that is.
The legend is that the pigs swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon, and over the years have adapted to their environment by learning to swim. I don’t honestly know if other pigs swim, but these pigs sure are good at it! What’s more, they’ve trained the tourists so well to bring them treats that I doubt they even have to look for food on the island. When a boat approaches, they swim right up, sometimes even hooking their hooves over the side, and open their mouths for a carrot or an apple or other treat.
We took our dinghy ashore the first afternoon, armed with our Nikon and a handful of carrots, and had a great time bobbing around in the shallow water, fending off a couple of huge, very friendly sows who weren’t about to let the piglets near us.
The pigs are a great tourist attraction, of course, and bring a steady stream of power boats, dinghies, kayakers, jet skis, paddle boarders, and others to visit. Despite that, it’s a wonderful anchorage. It’s huge, with room for up to around 50 boats, and well protected from all but the west. We spent three or four peaceful nights there before moving back down to Staniel Cay - only about two miles away - and anchoring out here after filling our water tanks at the local marina, the charming Staniel Cay Yacht Club.
Staniel Cay and Thunderball Grotto
We’ve spent the past two days at Staniel Cay, walking around town and eating wonderful lunches of fish sandwiches and the local Kalik beer with several friends who are also anchored out here. Yesterday the weekly supply boat came in, good timing on our part. There are three tiny grocery stores here, known as the Pink Store, the Blue Store, and Isles General Store. Shelves were empty of any fresh produce Thursday, but Friday afternoon we returned with our friends and stocked up on tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, pineapples, mangoes, chicken, eggs, and more.
We also left our propane tank at Isles yesterday afternoon. We’d taken it in to be refilled, and were told we’d have to leave it overnight. Apparently the propane isn’t pumped under pressure into the tanks as it is in the States - they use gravity to fill tanks, which takes hours. No problem - we’re happy to stay another night!
As we are anchored directly off Thunderball Grotto, this morning we dinghied over to snorkel there. It’s a tiny island - really just a very large coral rock that has eroded from above as well as below to create a natural cavern in the center of the island. At low tide, several narrow openings appear that you can snorkel right into. We arrived this morning just at low tide, then swam in. Once past the entrance, we found ourselves in a stunningly beautiful domed cavern. Openings in the coral rock ceiling above let in shafts of light, so there’s no sense of a dark, cold cave. It’s more like an indoor saltwater swimming pool, teeming with a colorful array of fish who are much less shy than fish normally are on reefs. I suspect they, like the pigs, are often fed by visitors.
Now, of course, we want to get our hands on a DVD of Thunderball so we can watch it again. There are photos of the film crew on the walls at Staniel Cay Yacht Club, where they also hung out, eating fish sandwiches and drinking Kalik beer. It doesn’t seem that all that much has changed, thankfully.
Tomorrow we will again attempt to catch a fish on our way five or six miles south to Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay. A local fishing guide and bread baker named Cool Runner (you can’t make this stuff up!) in Highbourne Cay told us he’s from there, and that we must visit. We’ve since heard from several other cruisers what a nice, untouristy, typical Bahamian town it is, so we’re looking forward to checking it out. Also, apparently a woman there named Lorraine runs the best laundromat in the Exumas, and will serve us conch fritters - six for a dollar - while we wait. Now that sounds like a plan!