Shirley checking out the underwater delights.
Who hasn’t dreamed of being able to enter another world and be surrounded by the beautiful and the bizarre? One aspect of our cruising adventure that we had both looked forward to was checking out the underwater world of the Bahamas. About 30 years ago, Tim and I had backpacked (separately) through parts of the South Pacific. We both vividly recall the visceral thrill of entering into that foreign-to-us world of coral and tropical fish.When we first arrived in the Bahamas, in the areas we explored in the Abacos, we didn’t find much underwater life, although we weren’t looking too hard. The temperatures were a little cool to be able to stay in for any length of time without proper gear. We were told the Exumas, though, was the place to go. The Exumas would be amazing, with warm, clear water and lots of undersea life. Yes, the Exumas.
We’re hitting many of the marked snorkelling areas in the Exuma Land & Sea Park and also poking around other areas that look promising, in and outside the park. The winds have continued to be exceptionally strong, so we’ve had to forego some sites that are a little too risky to get to. We’ll leave them for next time. We’ve put miles on our dinghy Poco and on our biceps, exploring. If we can find a large enough sandy spot that our anchor or rode won’t damage neighbouring coral, we’ll even drop Ariose’s hook for a few hours, don our snorkelling gear, and drop in.
Neither of us are strong swimmers, nor have much experience in the water, so we’re a little tentative. My heart (Shirley speaking) still pounds when I think of an incident from 3 decades ago in Fiji, when a large shark came out of the depths directly at me and my ex-husband only to turn at the last minute to skim by at arm’s length. Later we discovered that animals had been slaughtered to feed a village gathering, and their entrails dumped in the water adjacent to where we were snorkelling. Yikes! Anyways, that’s another story from another adventure a lifetime ago. Tim and I are finding that each time we go in, the undercurrent of anxiety we carry with us is diminishing and the excitement about what we’re discovering grows.
Some areas, though, have been disappointing. Although it’s a lot of fun poking around underwater and finding anything of interest, many areas seem to be struggling for survival, with much of the coral dead and silted over. The few solitary fish, looking like the last hold-outs, dart for cover as we invade their space. We hadn’t seen anything close to what we remember from snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, Fiji, the Cook Islands … maybe the passage of time has exaggerated our memories of those experiences? Perhaps in part. We do suspect though, that what we’re seeing or rather what we’re not seeing is a result of lots of factors that have taken their toll on life beneath the surface: global warming, pollution, over-fishing, boaters dropping & dragging anchors… We even wonder since this is a part of the world that regularly gets hit by hurricanes, if the resulting volumes of soil being washed into the water (especially since the Bahamian forests have been decimated by logging), if some reefs never get a solid chance to take hold.
One day, after a vigorous row from our anchorage at Cambridge Cay against current out to a rocky islet, Tim was first to get his mask and fin on. No, that’s not a typo. That’s fin, singular – the other donated overboard a few days earlier. Perhaps Neptune was pleased with the offering and decided to reward us. Tim dunked under, came up to shout “bingo”, and was gone. Finally! We had found healthy, vibrant life, in warm crystal clear water. It was like we were swimming in an aquarium that stretched to eternity. Spectacular.
Another absolutely amazing experience for us has been the caves. At the first one, Thunderball Grotto, close to Staniel Cay, we had no idea what to expect. We swam in and then came up to find that we had been transported into an ethereal world. Light was reflecting from submerged openings in the rock, flooding through the clear water, and a brilliant spotlight beamed down from above. It felt like sacred space. What a moving experience. The other caves we swam at Rocky Dundas have been equally awe-inspiring.
This is definitely a post where we think our photos will do a far better job than our words could possibly achieve in sharing a glimpse into the amazing underwater world of the Exumas. Grab your snorkelling gear, join us at the water’s edge, take a deep breath & jump in with us …
First, a caveat from the terrestrial biologist on board: We have limited resources to help us identify species, and in some cases, it’s downright tricky for our unaccustomed eyes to register the identifying features of often skittish fish (was there a spot on that dorsal fin of those little purple & yellow guys??), … So consider our id’s as best guesses, certainly not definitive.
2-Some areas, although a bit disheartening, are interesting to explore as they still provide habitat for life, like these Bar Jacks,
3-or Queen Angelfish looking more brilliant than ever against this desolate backdrop.
4-Here’s a nearly adult Blue Tang in the otherwise bleak surroundings.
5-It’s encouraging to find varied species managing to eke out a living even in the areas that looked silted to us. Here, from top-to-bottom is a Sergeant Major (black stripes), Squirrelfish, Beaugregory, and Blue Hamlet. Not sure about the other 2 fish.
6-This is either a juvenile Gray or a French Angelfish.
7-Other areas, though, have looked vibrantly alive to us, and it’s…
8-magnificent to feel as though we are flying over a multi-hued forest…
9-or have dropped into a well-stocked aquarium.
10-We have only begun to skim the surface, so to speak, of knowledge of what we’re seeing. We do know that there’s lots of fire corals around so adhere to a “look & not touch” rule.
11-Miraculous that coral is actually small single-celled animals, forming these intricate colonies using great creative license in transforming calcium carbonate from the water into their skeletons. Here’s a striking Brain Coral.
12-Coral that’s flourishing grows at a snail’s pace – about an inch year. Years of life could be destroyed in a careless flipper kick. We are super cautious.
13-Shirley looking rather diminuative beside this massive Elkhorn Coral as she exits Rocky Dundas cave.
14-We’ve learned that the single-celled creatures that are coral need specific factors to flourish:
15-water generally between 70-85 degrees F, water movement (we noticed some of the most vibrant in areas of strong current – frustrating, as it was often too strong for us), …
16-Coral also requires a certain amount of salinity in the water, …
17-and water clarity for light. If you can imagine, these tiny animals have a single-celled plant growing within them, and it’s that plant that helps the coral produce calcium carbonate to form its skeleton.
18- Silting kills that plant.
19-No wonder coral is so vulnerable.
20-Here’s a healthy-looking patch. Right in the centre is a Rock Beauty, the yellow & black fish with its head down / tail up, feeding.
21-So much other life calls these structures home.
22-These fish are oblivious to this lobster guarding its home…
23-whereas this huge lobster boldly marched across the sea floor… tonight’s dinner? No – we just watched it go.
24-Blue Hamlet among Branching Coral. Here’s an interesting fact to share at your next cocktail party: Coral’s minute bodies only have a single opening, which acts as both mouth and anus. I’m sure we can all think of a few people who, based on what they express, may share this trait. 😉
25-See the Lionfish, the one with showy fins, hiding? Their beauty belies the damage they are wreaking. They are invasive, eat almost every kind of fish on the reef, and their highly toxic spines mean they they have essentially no predators. People are being encouraged take on that role. Posters talk about their tasty flesh, and kits are available to enable safe removal of the spines. We didn’t dare try.
26-Bar Jacks & friends.
27-A couple of Rock Beauties scooting off to hide in the coral’s protection.
28-At times, we wondered if our breath-holding was causing us to look as oxygen-deprived as this Blueface?
29-Time to surface…
30-to dry out for a bit. We’ve also enjoyed viewing a lot of underwater life from above the surface.
31-We returned to Ariose from a day ashore on Great Guana shocked to see a dark mass under her. What?! We didn’t anchor anywhere near rock…
33-and Barracudas occasionally dashing in for a snack. They rarely attack humans, we’ve read. That’s little reassurance when they fearlessly swim right up to you, eye-to-eye, opening and closing their mouths, to show off their teeth. Disconcerting, to say the least!
32-We quickly realized the mass was alive – thousands and thousands of tiny fish – sardines we think – seeking protection.
34-This show went on for hours – Amazing to watch.
35-Even walking along the shoreline, the marine life is present. We’re often accompanied by stingrays in the shallows, …
36-and have seen several Nurse Sharks, although these ones …
37-are enticed into the Staniel Cay Yacht Club docks by boaters feeding them.
38-At 3 anchorages in a row, we noticed a very bizarre fish hanging out under our hull. We weren’t sure if it was possible that it had followed us, or were these different fish of the same species.
39-One day, while cleaning dishes over the side, one (then a 2nd & 3rd) repeatedly darted to the surface to grab scraps.They were remoras! And really large ones at that (about3′ long), with their distinctive suction plate on their heads. Ariose was a stand-in for their usual whale or shark feeding station.
40-At Cambridge Cay, turtles shared their bay with us. At one point, about a half dozen were within view from where we anchored.
41-Even when underway, the amazing clear waters of the Exumas give us a window into the world below.
42-Eager to take a look at what’s passing beneath us, Tim may have forgotten something.
43-Perhaps our most thrilling experiences yet have been not only underwater, but under rock. This is Rocky Dundas, an islet where at low tide, you can swim under the lip, into some caves.
44-We already mentioned that we’re not the most self-assured snorkelers (yet), so you can imagine that it took a bit of courage to head in to the caves. (That’s Shirley faking confidence to entice Tim in to Thunderbolt Grotto) …
45-All we needed to do was swim through that narrow opening in the rock behind Shirley, turn 90 degrees and swim a little more…
46- to come up through glowing water and be met by …
47-this truly awe inspiring site.
49-We stayed in each cave as long as we could, until dropping body temperatures forced us back out to the warmth.
50-What a perfect place to stash pirate loot. And what meanings did Lucayans or the people that preceded them give to this space?If only these caves could talk.
Hope you enjoyed snorkelling with us. If you’re interested in sharing, we’d love to hear about your underwater experiences.
Until next time, we’ll leave you with this marine interaction we witnessed:
“You make fun of my make-up again,” said the Queen Triggerfish to the Squirrelfish, “and I’ll give you another shiner!”