Bahamas lookback II: falling short

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pinterest bahamas water dinghyThree months of cruising the Bahamas left many impressions. After too much time on the mainland, escaping east across the Gulf Stream felt like freedom: a refreshing change in outlook, a new place to sink into and explore – one that several circumnavigators we respect claimed among their favorites. There’s a lot to love about these islands (our favorite features summarized here). That said, it left us wanting. This is at least partly a case of poorly set expectations; we are also burdened (while blessed) by the tremendous depth and breadth of places we’ve experienced over the years. It’s not much, but a few aspects stand out.

The color of the water in the Bahamas is legendary. Astronauts like Chris Hadfield marveled that “from space, the Bahamas is the most beautiful place on Earth.” And when you’re looking down, even the less profound level of a boat deck, the blues are no less surreal than pictures suggest. It was what lay beneath.

Part of that is a question of clarity. It’s nice, but didn’t earn superlative reviews. White sand reflects that brilliant turquoise back at shallow depths, sparkling clarity from the top view, but suggesting more transparent conditions than exist when looking horizontally through the water. Here, it fell short. This picture of the reef in front of Totem on Great Inagua offers an example to illustrate. See those dark spots in front of us? They look like nothing more than black lumps from the boat, and “uninteresting” compared to the vibrant blue, but in fact these were coral heads positively teeming with life.

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Those black lumps were the good bit. The rest was mostly sand (and an entertaining carpet of garden eels wiggling under Totem). But these coral heads provided the most rich and interesting snorkeling we did in those three months (a close second, but tempered Nassau day-trippers: the carpet of soft corals and other plants and critters padding the exterior of the Thunderball grotto).

More disappointing than missed expectations on clarity was the dearth of life underwater. There were epic discrete experiences, like swimming with dolphins: the Atlantic spotteds that came to visit Jamie as he swam to check our anchor set off Bimini, the solo female who didn’t want to stop swimming with us in George Town. After being skunked on manatee sightings in Florida, watching a resident cow lazily drift through the water at Great Harbour Cay marina was magical. There was the tiger shark that wound a lazy path by Totem in Thompsons Bay, Long Island, and offered a blasé fin to the curious who tracked by dinghy to observe it further.

swim with dolphins

These will stick with us. But isolated examples aside, most of what we saw underwater was sand…just not very interesting. South Pacific underwater venturing was far more fruitful; in the Bahamas we saw dead coral, few fish, and a single top-level predator. The reefs probably look fine if you don’t know the difference, instead of a depressing reminder of negative human impact. Is it asking too much? Here in a comparably murky anchorage in Puerto Rico, Niall talks wistfully about missing his daily swim in Bahamian water.

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

A temperamental Tohatsu limited our reach and may have impacted our view. The trusty outboard has since been repaired, but during our Bahamas months it lacked the oomph to get our crew on a  plane. Without the reach that speed offers, we didn’t access what may have been more interesting underwater spots.

There’s not a lot of variation along the islands, mostly scrubby, arid, and flat. Once you look up from the water, little captures the imagination. You can always go for a walk, but what’s to draw interest in shore side exploring? The limestone caves were cool. There were ruins – the stone foundations left by early colonial settlers, the more recent reminders hurricane force winds, all with stories to tell. I also have no doubt there are hidden gems. I wish we’d found more: something to unlock more insight into the history, the natural bones, and the fauna so we could better appreciate this place. Hints teased: the giant centipede spotted on a hike, an interesting winging by.

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

The Bahamas is not a cultural destination. It’s not why people go. That makes it unfair as a disappointment, maybe, but exploring what makes a place culturally distinct highlights our cruising life. There IS fascinating history, but it felt buried away, or forgotten, or unimportant. Like the morning we spent driving around Long Island looking for the ruins of an old plantation hinted about on the tourism website. We went back and forth along the stretch of road that passes it and asked half a dozen people where it was… despite being within a small radius of the location and nobody could direct us.

Countries are experienced through taste buds as much as eyes. Bahamian staples were reminiscent of the US south: grits, and everything fried. Not too exciting, but the nature of the soil makes it impossible to grow much. Instead, what’s fresh comes from the sea. The national icon, queen conch, is on every menu. You can’t go to the Bahamas and not have conch! But it’s a fishery in collapse, with no season and poor definitions around legal size (what’s a “well-formed” lip, anyway? And say you knew that lip is supposed to be 15mm, would you know where/how to measure?). We tried it: once from a vendor, once by foraging ourselves. The bones of conch piled high behind shacks serving tourists in Bimini… all taken too soon. Not a market we want to participate in! On the other hand: mahi mahi served up hours after it was swimming, a delectable reminder of sustainable fisheries.

Bone pile, Bimini.

Bone pile featuring juveniles behind a Bimini conch shack

20/20 hindsight on any adventure is unique to the individual. In our case: generally speaking, the places and experiences that rewarded the most were those that took us further off the more traveled path. We’d seek those out, and we’d work harder to meet Bahamians. These go hand in hand: it’s harder to get below surface level where transient visitors traffic through, and tourism thwarts the deeper relationships with transactional encounters.

"Namesake," she called me, as we share a first name - if we ever make it back to Long Island...

“Namesake,” she called me, as we share a first name – if we ever make it back to Long Island…

This post has, frankly, been painful to write. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, complaining about what didn’t measure up in islands that so many love. I chatted this morning with the mom from Sandflea (Sailboat Story), Tambi, who we met in Eleuthera. As she rightfully points out: it’s hard not to love the Bahamas. And we did love those three months, it just… came up short of the superlative reviews. I get it, though. Most cruisers have particularly rose-tinted reflections on their first foray. For many who raved, the Bahamas were their first (or only) cruise from the US. By the same token: we still wax on about our love for the Pacific coast of Mexico, and while it shines on its own merits, the memories are surely magnified through the lens of our early-cruiser-eyes as the place we first stretched…and were rewarded.

I offer this as a counterpoint to my love letter about the chords the Bahamas struck. Whether it’s expectation setting or a reality check, I hope this offers helpful perspective for other hopefuls.