Some things never grow old…like the enjoyment of snorkeling a fabulous coral reef, and there’s no better place to do this than the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. This protected area is the oldest park of its kind in the world, established in 1958 as a “no-take” area, meaning you can take only photos and leave nothing but footprints.
We passed Bells Cay where we saw an impressive new marina facility that was for private use only. It is unusually large and modern by Bahamas standards. Some guides have complained the island’s current owner has over-developed the area. Dr. Evil‘s secret lair perhaps?
We anchored near O’Briens Cay next to ruins of a sunken plane, and directly across from Little Halls Pond Cay which is an island privately owned by the (in)famous Pirate of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp. We didn’t see any activity on Johnny’s island but he apparently gets unwanted visitors since this sign was posted on the beach, photo taken by Bumfuzzle.
We were most interested in anchoring here in order to snorkel in The Aquarium, a gorgeous reef off Soldier Cay teeming with fish…so much so that they swarmed people as soon as they get in the water looking for food. The variety was also astounding and we hadn’t seen anything quite like it this season.
The plane wreck was also impressive in that several reefs were nearby so it too, was full of fish and great coloured coral. Evidently it moves around a bit. After a storm you may find it pointed in a different direction.
This picture is of a coral head close to the plane is about 10 feet tall. Too bad we didn’t think for me to pose there for scale while John took the picture.
After warming up from the initial snorkel trip, I headed back over to the sunken plane for a second look on my paddleboard.
About 2 miles away was Dundas Rocks which was supposed to be as good as Thunderball Grotto, and another amazing reef featuring unique elkhorn coral forest, so we anchored near there at Cambridge Cay the next morning. The trip over to the new anchorage was through a cut between two Cays and with the tidal current, it created quite a sporty ride.
Once at the anchorage, we dropped our anchor in crystal clear waters near a couple mooring balls. We also had a float planes that make regular fly-bys over our anchorage at progressively lower altitudes. John was slow getting the camera out for this picture for this pass, which was the lowest. He was maybe 150′ high. It’s fairly easy to estimate since our mast is 63′ off the water.
Unfortunately when we dinghied over to Dundas Rocks, the strong current and waves made it too dangerous for snorkeling next to the sharp rocks. We headed back towards our boat where it was more sheltered from the surging waves and found some quite nice coral nearby with lots of fish.
We shared the anchorage with this 161′ luxury yacht, Ocean Club. They were pretty decent neighbors even with 3 jetskis, 2 tenders and their own floating dock. For about $230,000 you could enjoy a week aboard.
Our next stop was Warderick Wells where the Exuma Park headquarters are located. Although the park offers several well maintained mooring balls, we anchored near Emerald Rock in quite shallow water with only 2 feet under the keel at low tide.
Those of us used to deeper water around boats are initially freaked out by this, especially since it’s hard to estimate depths visually with the water so clear. Once you get used to it, and pay attention to the tides, it’s actually quite benign and can be fun. It also makes it really easy to verify what the charts and your depth gauge are telling you! The general rule is that since most of The Bahamas anchorages have a soft sand bottom, just come in right after low tide, once it has started coming back in. As long as you are creeping along slowly, if you touch, no big deal. That just tells you how deep it really is. You want to ensure you don’t get stuck at high tide though…you may be there for a while!
The friendly young lady at park headquarters gave us info sheets about hiking trails on the island as well as nearby snorkeling sites. They had a well maintained dock in front of the main headquarters building and a separate building for staff accommodations.
Next to the park building, we saw a few small lizards along the concrete path. John was concerned about putting his fingers too close as they might bite him…which I thought was a bit silly, until I put my hand next to this little guy…and he promptly took a bite of my finger! I thought John would wet himself laughing 🙂
The beach next to the park headquarters was a great place to land the dinghy and had a nice picnic area. We met some fellow boaters from Canada and had a chance to practice our French. The beach also had an enormous skeleton display of a sperm whale from 1995. I wouldn’t want to meet up with this fellow when snorkeling!
With the strong winds the next morning, we chose to hike a couple trails recommended by the park headquarters. Along the first part called the Causeway trail, we crossed an interesting wood bridge between two pond areas.
At one point, we walked through a section with palm trees canopied over the trail, appropriately named Shady Tree Trail. I heard a rustle in the undergrowth and caught a glimpse of the elusive Hutia, a small furry rodent native to The Bahamas (a bit like a small Canadian ground hog.)
We came across a “rustic” ladder leading about 15′ down into a cave but didn’t venture into the depths to see what might be lurking there. Along our path, the landscape changed dramatically from ironstone cliffs to dried saltwater ponds.
From the top of the hill we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Exuma Park.
The trail led to the popular Boo Boo Hill where cruisers for many years have left driftwood with their names on it, as an offering to the sea gods. Our modest offering was our boat name simply written in sharpie on a conch shell.
Some boaters went to great effort to leave an offering with elaborately decorated works of art. We were amazed at how much driftwood had been piled on top of the hill. This photo shows a small portion of the expansive mound.
Winds continued to blow and with no internet connection whatsoever, we found other things to entertain us. While I made bread, John practiced in case this sailing thing didn’t work out.
Since this is probably the third time in my life that I’ve ever attempted bread making (and I’m still getting used to the notoriously unreliable boat oven), I was really pleased with how well the bread turned out. Boat ovens are typically small, don’t heat evenly, and to make matters worse there’s no temperature indicator, only a dial with numbers 0 thru 9 so it’s a bit of a guessing game.
The next day the winds calmed enough for us to continue north to Shroud Cay, which is well-known for narrow channels of water through dense mangroves that act as a nursery for fish, turtles, conch and birds in the protected Exuma Park. These channels are best explored by dinghy or paddleboard however the wind was clocking about 18 knots so we had no choice but to use our dinghy.
As we entered the channel we remembered reading that you should start the trip on a rising tide since some sections can dry out at low tide and trap you in the channel until the tide rises again…and it was already past high tide. We found a few spots that were already starting to get quite shallow so we didn’t waste any time. The park says you’re supposed to pretend you’re on the African Queen meandering through the mangroves with Bogart and Hepburn. John is going for a different look below.
We saw a few turtles and fish, and heard lots of birds. The channel meandered from the west side of Shroud Cay over to the east side which is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean and had some impressive waves. Our favourite part of the excursion was the little estuary where the channel met the Ocean, with surreal blue water surrounded by incredibly soft, white sand.
We anchored the dinghy on the beach and hiked up the hill to where “Camp Driftwood” was supposed to be. It took a little searching but we found the path heading up the hill about 100m around the corner on the deep side. This was the site of a shack that a cruiser built back in the 60s with driftwood (of course), shells and bits of whatever he could find. It was then used by drug runners as an observation post, and then evidently by the DEA for the same purpose…but for an admittedly different reason. We climbed the hill where it was located…or so we thought. No signs of any buildings remain but we did see a placard identifying it as Camp Driftwood. We have since read that the park cleaned up the island a few years ago and removed all signs of the actual structure, as it must have been more of a rubble pile by then.
From the hilltop we had fantastic views of Shroud Cay and the channels.
On the way back to our boat, we passed by “Jenny” anchored near the north channel. I was impressed with the number of plants growing on the second level balcony…like a floating greenhouse. John noted the amount of “windage” all that canvas would cause on an already top-heavy boat.
From our boat deck the next morning, we heard several birds overhead which turned out to be Tropicbirds, distinguishable by their long white tail. They mate and nest on nearby Hawksbill Cay in March or April and were doing their acrobatic mating dance over our boat for about an hour.
The strong winds didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm a bit. It was great entertainment for us over breakfast!