Afloat in the Bahamas

The Bahamian islands are renowned for their expanses of powdery white beaches that stretch for miles and gently taper off into crystal-clear azure waters. Cruisers and non-cruisers alike have long portrayed this sprawl of irregularly shaped islands as paradise found. Our expectations were high as we journeyed from the north shores of Providenciales and set a northwest course for Mayaguana Island, the largest of the far Bahamian islands, and our first taste of the rumored paradise.

Abraham’s Bay at Mayaguana Island offers a large, shallow harbor that is well protected by a breaking reef. Entrance to the harbor is made through one of two narrow passages on either side and is best transited in good light to see and avoid shoals and coral heads. Once anchored we were as eager as Sydney, our Springer spaniel, to explore any one of the several pale beaches that fringed the Bay. We quickly discovered these to be elusive as not one was accessible unless we were prepared to pull the dinghy through mud flats for a ¼ mile or more in ankle-deep water. With the days light beginning to fade we made for the only clearly visible landing, a worn pier where a couple of other dinghies were tethered. We were agreeing that we wouldn’t want to be making what turned out to be a fifteen minute ride after dark or when the winds were up when we spotted the first of several nurse sharks prowling beneath us. We’d boasted many times that we had seen only three sharks in all our years in the BVIs and each time, people said to us ‘wait until you get to the Bahamas…’.

At dawn the following morning we set off for Plana Cays, a pair of uninhabited atolls that would serve as an overnight anchorage and nothing more if our guidebooks were to be relied upon. After Abraham’s Bay the steep virgin shores of the Plana Cays appeared at first glance to be equally enticing, however, a significant surge made landing the dinghy difficult if not outright dangerous. Choosing our moment carefully, we made for shore only to discover that the blonde stretch of sand was little more than a facade for coral slabs that lay treacherously close to the surface at high tide and well exposed at low. The Plana Cays are reported to be excellent shelling grounds however, our explorations of both the lee and windward shores turned up nothing more than a variety of debris blown ashore from storm surge.

We tucked in for the night fervently hoping that our discoveries at Mayaguana Island and the Plana Cays were mere aberrations. It was with these thoughts in mind that we departed the west Plana Cays shortly after 8 AM and made for Atwood Harbor on Acklins Island, approximately 25 nm to the Northwest. With winds between 5 and 7 knots out of the NE and near flat seas, we motor sailed the brief 3 and ½ hour passage and managed to avoid the temptation to continue on to Pitts Town Landing on Crooked Island, an additional 38 nm beyond. With little wind and no increase predicted during the next 24 hours, Atwood Harbor promised to be both safe and idyllic. I welcomed a short sail and some extended time at anchor. Atwood Harbor was reported to have a crescent of ivory beach at least a few miles long, and judging from the cautions in one of our guide books (warning against this harbor when the wind and seas were flowing from the north-northwest), there was every likelihood we would have the anchorage to ourselves. We were both yearning for a just such a place.

Acklins Island, like neighboring Mayagauna and Plana Cays, is encircled by breaking reefs and well-charted coral heads. The entrance to Atwood Harbor faces due north and should only be undertaken in good light, calm seas, and an unswaying trust that the rock laying to portside really is Umbrella Rock despite its deceptive appearance at high tide. It wasn’t until several hours after we’d laid anchor and the tide was at its lowest that it became apparent why this rock is so aptly named. The handle of the umbrella is well hidden until the tide ebbs and when at its lowest the rock actually resembles an enormous umbrella.

Using GPS way points noted in two guide books to confirm our own, we made our approach from the east and gave considerable latitude to Umbrella Rock a few miles to our port before beginning a ninety degree course change that would take us directly into Atwood Harbor. No sooner had we changed course when Jim spotted the first of three humpback whales to our starboard – a mother and calf rising in unison from indigo water and a third adult whale a short distance behind. We quickly changed course to converge with the little pod taking care to remain a healthy distance away so we wouldn’t scare them off. After 15 minutes or so when it looked as though our visitors had left us, mom and calf surfaced not 50 yards off our bow in what can only be described as an encore performance. Then they were gone. A more spectacular welcome to Atwood Harbor couldn’t have been imagined!

By noon we’d made our pass through the reefs and laid anchor with four feet of sand under our keel. The dinghy was quickly launched and we headed to a nearby shore only a stones throw from the big boat. In the short distance between Beedahbun and the beach, we slowed to watch a six foot nurse shark slide across the clear sandy bottom and saw several sting rays scrounging in the same vicinity. The beach was all we had hoped for and more – free of surge, and rimmed with an expanse of soft white sand that sloped gently into the harbor. We strolled along the beach collecting conch shells, and then scrutinized the shallow waters surrounding ancient mangrove roots and rocky ledges that separated one long stretch of beach from another. An ebbing tide made our explorations especially rewarding. Nestled in a grassy sea bed that extended several feet out from the mangroves were baby conch, 2-3 inches in length, and beyond these were slightly larger rollers or juvenile conch. The empty conch shells we’d found strewn about the beach were the less fortunate brothers and sisters of these youngsters who are vulnerable to severe storms and surge from the north-northwest. For shell collectors, these incubators are especially attractive because they’ve not been damaged with a chisel as have their larger relatives that are sold in abundance in shops around the world. Experience has taught us that where there are small conch there are bound to be larger ones in deeper waters. Our mouths watered in anticipation of crispy conch fritters later in the day.

Returning to Beedahbun for a late lunch we wondered aloud at the treasures that had continued to preoccupy what appeared to be the same nurse shark and rays meandering about the sea bottom. After lunch we set off to explore a shallow creek encouraged by the efforts of a couple of bone fishermen whom we’d watched pick their way through a narrow, near-invisible entrance on the west side of the harbor. At the mouth of the stream a current was running so swiftly that the waters appeared to dance. I’d read about the dancing waters phenomenon that is common where shallow water and a strong current moving in one direction converges with an opposing wind but this was the first time I had witnessed this spectacle. This meeting of wind and current caused strings of water to leap from the surface, glistening in the afternoon sun and creating a rainbow-effect that eludes the best of cameras.

A sandbar was beginning to emerge down the centre leaving only a few shallow feet on either side as we gradually made our way upstream. Sun-bleached sandy shores lining both sides of the creek fell off into shifting shades of turquoise that when intercepted with the sandbar made for a startling portrait of blues and white. We eventually emerged to a large basin of shallows from which tributaries stretched in every direction, disappearing into thick clusters of mangroves. Two runabouts, each carrying a guide and a guest grazed at the fringes. On our downstream descent where the basin fed the mouth of the stream, a three foot lemon shark darted by our bow in knee-deep water. The sandbar we’d passed on our way up was now quite prominent and proved irresistible: Sydney and I ran down the middle sinking into the pudding-like sand while Jim drifted alongside. Just before the sandbar disappeared around a bend we took our places in the dinghy once again and let the dancing water swirl us about as the stream converged with the harbor.

The coral reefs on the west side of the harbor lured us next. After returning Syd to Beedahbun and launching the kayak, we set off – Jim to explore the reef and hunt for dinner, and me to spot for him from the kayak. This was the first time I’d paddled my kayak since our return to Beedahbun a few months prior and I was as excited about its re-inauguration as Jim was about the possibilities for dinner. For the past several days I’d been wishing for perfect conditions: calm, clear waters, a beach nearby to which I could paddle at first light with the dog, and time to leisurely explore shorelines and winding waterways. Atwood Harbor delivered on these conditions and more.

While Jim explored sea life below the water I delighted in exploring it above and exercising my body in ways I hadn’t for a couple of months. Regular reports of spectacular coral and an abundance of fish almost tempted me to don my snorkeling gear but I was enjoying gliding about the surface of the sea far too much to be influenced otherwise. Jim was in the water barely fifteen minutes when he speared a healthy two pound lobster that later made for a scrumptious dinner for two. Moments later he happened upon a nine foot nurse shark enjoying an afternoon siesta under a coral ledge that held the promise of more lobster. If this sleepy predator hadn’t abruptly changed his position and stared Jim in the eye, the lobster hunt may have continued. Once eye contact was made however, Jim became the hunted as well as the hunter. This proved to be the perfect time to climb aboard my yellow taxi and explore a less threatening section of reef.

As Jim continued his explorations, he marveled at the condition of the reefs, and the size, variety and abundance of fish. The reefs in Atwood Harbor teemed with life! Few things are more maddening than being within kissing distance of a school of grouper ranging in size from ten to thirty pounds and not being able to take even the smallest for dinner. The threat of contracting ciguatera, a potentially lethal fish disease for which grouper are well known, was all that kept us from feasting on this delicacy for the next month or so. Lobster sightings were plentiful but none were as large as the two-ponder speared earlier; a plate-sized rock hind did not have the same good fortune. But, once back on Beedahbun, a quick read of Scott and Wendy Bannerol’s book, The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing, discouraged us from enjoying our catch along side the earlier cache of seafood. Instead, it was put to good use as bait on our next passage. Rock hind, while excellent eating, share with grouper the potential of harboring ciguatera.

Jim prepared the rock hind for the freezer before my discovery in the Bannerol’s book, and as he’s often done with fish we’ve caught over the years, automatically tossed the remains overboard. Within moments, two, five-six foot nurse sharks were prowling around the boat. In all the years we’d tossed biodegradable scraps overboard we’d never attracted sharks – at least none that we no off. One or more remoras have routinely come by to feast on everything from orange peels to stale bread but not a shark. Those who’ve told us that the Bahamas are abundant with sharks weren’t exaggerating if our sightings during our brief stays at Abraham’s Bay and Atwood Harbor are any indication.

Few things are more satisfying than reflecting on the events of an altogether enjoyable day while sipping a glass of wine and watching the sun set. In the space of six hours we’d come closer to whales than at any time previously, sighted more sharks than we’d seen in all of our eleven years of cruising in the central Caribbean, discovered healthy reefs swarming with fish, watched a half dozen rays cavorting in the shallows, examined a conch nursery and day care center, and gathered exquisite shells along what we both consider to be the most beautiful beach we’ve come across to date. As the sun settled behind a cloud bank then re-emerged beneath casting shades of florescent peach and puce that radiated in every direction, we couldn’t imagine a more perfect day.
We dinghy’d Sydney to the beach one last time before settling in for a roll-free night as the colors of the day faded. No sooner had we begun a slow stroll along the beach when we caught sight of several dolphins frolicking in the space between where we’d left the dinghy and Beedahbun. We were momentarily speechless as their silhouettes rose and fell in the last light of the day. Our tranquility was eagerly shattered as we raced to launch the dinghy hoping we might drift closer to our new visitors without frightening them away. Adrift in the dinghy, engine off, and not a whisper, we were rewarded with close passes by no fewer than six dolphin including a youngster barely two feet long. Syd appeared equally mesmerized as she hung her head over the bow and stared into the now dark water. For several minutes the dolphins surfaced and dove, with a mesmerizing rhythm, and then they vanished as quickly as they had appeared. The last flickers of pink in the sky were quickly replaced by stars that sparkled like the brightest diamonds.

There is an advertisement that has appeared from time to time over the years proclaiming that ‘things are better in the Bahamas’. We settled in for the night thinking things couldn’t have been better in our sliver of paradise.