Three things strike you as you cruise the Exumas chain of the Bahamas: the islands cover a lot of territory, the water is really shallow, and you’ll never – ever – find the right words to describe the colors of the sea.
I’ve seen beautiful water in different parts of the world – the Cyclades Islands of Greece, the reef over Huahine in French Polynesia and the perfection that is the Tobago Cays in the Grenadines. But never have I seen so many shades of blue and green as I witnessed in the Exumas.
As a cruiser, it’s easy to get lost in the Exumas eddy. Boats enter and stay – for years. But with a weeklong charter, you have a packed schedule which is both a blessing and a curse. A curse for obvious reasons – you can’t stay forever. A blessing for the same reason and that means you’ll have to find your way out of the eddy and back to doing something productive with your life.
We chartered Malouna, a 45-foot Lagoon catamaran with Sunsail out of Nassau. The chain starts about 20 miles south of Providence Island after you cross Yellow Bank, a bar of nasty looking coral heads. With a short itinerary, the challenge with the Exumas is what to cover on the way down, versus what islands to pick up on the way back north. Even if we explored only the Northern and Central Exumas, we’d be covering over 170 miles round trip and no matter how you slice it, the first crossing is long and into the wind.
Early afternoon on the first day brought us to Allan’s Cay and its famous iguanas that come running when they see a dinghy pull up on the beach. They love fruit but so do the seagulls which are nasty little bandits that will attack you, your goodies and the iguanas. Feeder beware.
We had some fun with the lizards and with plenty of daylight left, we set course for Shroud Cay at the top of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 176-square-mile preserve with 15 major isles. Shroud has tidal creeks, one of which allows motorized traffic. A meandering dinghy trip through the mangroves with turtles all around brought us to Driftwood Beach that looks like a Hollywood set of a desert island. We pulled the dinghy up on the beach and then waded back into the water to catch a wonderful drift ride toward the Exumas Sound (east side of the chain). A sandbar stops you from being washed out to sea so you just walk back up the beach and do it again, and again – like a ride at Disneyland. The colors of the water as they swirl between the sandbars give your camera a workout but no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to capture what can be seen by the naked eye.
Warderick Wells was the next stop with a walk to Boo Boo Beach, a pile of driftwood inscribed with boat names. It’s a sort of cruisers’ shrine that keeps a silent record of all who pass, until the next hurricane blows it clean off the island. Having paid for a mooring ($100), we opted to stay the night.
The next morning, we headed down to Big Major on Fowl Cay for the world-famous swimming pigs. There are about 50 of them, all jostling for whatever food arrives via dinghy. Some are big and demanding, some are tiny and shy, but all enjoy a treat. Just around the corner is Thunderball Grotto, a cave that was once a site for a James Bond movie. Two tips on this cave: 1) try to go at lowish tide in the morning when there are fewer visiting dinghies and 2) take some reef shoes to walk up to the top to jump through the hole in the ceiling and drop forty feet into the water below.
We were only a few days in but not having the luxury of time like real cruisers, we had to turn back north so we set course for O’Brien’s Cay and the “Aquarium”. We picked our way there carefully and at one spot the crew thought we were anchoring because we came so close to land. There were at least five different hues of aquamarine waters around us that changed with the sand and water depth. It was distracting but so was the narrow pass we were threading.
The Aquarium is a small rocky cove with tons of fish that are well trained. Bottles filled with oatmeal and water will cause a fish frenzy. Nearby is a small plane in about 10 feet of water that’s an excellent snorkeling target. Of course, it comes with a price because everyone then has to get back in the dinghy from deep water. That’s always hard and never pretty.
We had stretched our itinerary as far as we could and it was time to turn around so we enjoyed a nice sail north to Norman’s Cay to check out the real sunken airplane attraction – a much larger plane that sits just below the surface. In the 1980s, Carlos Lehder of the Medellin drug cartel was running a lucrative operation from this island ferrying drugs into the U.S. One of his pilots missed the runway with a load of cocaine. The fuselage is cracked open so you can snorkel inside and all around the wings and engines. A last stale baguette and our oatmeal bottles did the trick again with the fish and even a large stingray glided back from the nose cone to check out the treats.
Crossing Yellow Bank back to the north was uneventful but also lacked a breeze so we motored to Rose Island and dinghied to Footprints beach bar. From here, it was an easy jump back to Palm Cay the next morning where the base drivers met us via dinghy before we reached the marina entrance. A charterer had landed his boat on the rocks just outside the entrance the week before so the base was taking no chances and insisted that we leave the driving to them.
Iguanas, pigs, some heart-stopping navigation and excellent snorkeling – what’s not to love? It was all amazing but the real draw was that every day brought a new hue of blue that I’d swear I never saw before. I wished my entire wardrobe could be made of the various shades of Exuma waters. I’d never have to wear the same color twice! Those colors will make me visit the Exumas again. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d be a lifer in that chain if I could and let’s face it, being productive is overrated.