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.

That water!

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.

Landscape

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

Cultural interest

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.

Food

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

Next time…

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.

35 Responses to Bahamas lookback II: falling short

  1. Charlotte Caldwell July 24, 2017 at 1:30 pm #

    We really enjoyed this post Behan, thank you. Like you we came to the Bahamas after being else where and found that it did not meet expectations. The dearth of fish and sea birds was the major disappointment. Yes, the water is gorgeous. And we did find the odd gem of historical interest but culturally it left us wanting more. Perhaps we have been spoiled with the Pacific Coast , especially Mexico, but the Bahamas, and the Caribbean in general seems to have been affected so negatively by tourism and over fishing. I too don’t want to appear a spoiled whiner and I don’t want to discourage people from going, especially if they can’t/won’t go elsewhere. Thank you for your honesty.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 9:44 am #

      Thanks for taking it as intended Charlotte! It IS gorgeous – no regrets. We look forward to returning to the Pacific!

  2. Kevin July 24, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    I think your comment about seeing some things “magnified through the lens of our early-cruiser-eyes” is spot on. We enjoyed the USVI, BVI, and Spanish VI so much in our early days of cruising that sometimes our latest view is affected! We are headed to the Bahamas at the end of this H season and plan to spend additional time getting to know some of the locals, which has always made each stop better. Fair Winds!

    Kevin
    on m/v No Plan

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:03 am #

      I’m certain we have the same unfair bias toward Mexico, as our first foreign cruising destination, that many people have towards the Bahamas! I don’t know if/when we’ll get back to the Bahamas, and we’d approach it differently- but enjoy it again I’m sure. Looking forward to tacos and Pacifico though! 😀

  3. Jay Campbell July 24, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    Hey Behan: Of course, Karen and I are sorry we missed you, especially so because we know from 2 years living aboard in the Bahamas, but particularly in the Berry Islands, there are living teeming brilliant staghorn coral fields 8 miles from Great Harbour Cay, in 6 feet of water – but not without local knowledge (we have become somewhat “local” I suppose).
    As to fishing and sighting wildlife, once you know where to go, and these places are sometimes guarded carefully, fish, sharks, rays, and turtles are always within reach while snorkeling, not just sight. We literally can’t avoid taking Lobster, Hogfish, Grouper, or snapper on any given day in 10-20 feet of water. I am approached by sharkey apex predators on nearly every dive. But much of that spearfishing is on ledges, not reefs, that are full of life, if not pretty. One will not find them without direction. Check water clarity/visibility on San Salvador, Bahamas? Hundreds of feet last time I was there.
    30 years ago, diving around the world was an open book. Drop in and be dazzled. Then the Florida reefs and fisheries died, as did many around the globe. But to us, the dazzle of the above-water Bahamas marches the treasure below: IF you know where and how to look. That’s no reflection on Totem – it takes time. 🙂 Jay and Karen Campbell, MV Largo, Berry Islands, Bahamas.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:34 am #

      Hi Jay- I really regret we didn’t get to meet up, and as I replied to you on the FB post – I am so grateful for the remote hospitality you extended us in the Berries through Carla. It remains among our favorite Bahamian spots for that reason! I can imagine with the protection and ‘flush’ of the ocean that San Salvador is awesome. Maybe we’ll get there someday? I don’t doubt there are special spots in the Bahamas, and local knowledge like yours, or a guide, are they keys to finding them…and it’s consistent with my generalizations. Always tricky, and impossible, that business of generalizing! I hope the Bahamian reefs can realize some recovery “generally,” too.

  4. Pam Wall July 24, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

    I, too, have been to many places on this globe, and to me there is no better place for sailing and cruising than the unique Bahamas!!!!

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      You know I love you and deeply respect your opinions Pam! We’ll agree to disagree on this one, on the basis that all travel is individual — we don’t expect people to agree on favorite places.

  5. Estelle Cockcroft July 24, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    Like Jay and Karen, we have found wonderful spots in the Abacos and Exumas. We taught sailing schools in the Abacos for a few seasons and we still get to go to the Bahamas occasionally. While I agree that culturally it leaves one a little wanting, the Bahamas is magical in its own way (as you have mentioned) BUT you have to know where to look and spend a little time exploring. Unfortunately we also ache when we see the devastation happening to the conch and lobster. Estelle Cockcroft, Catamaran Guru

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      You are spot on Estelle. I wish we’d had more of the cues on where to look, and more time than the three months along our journey through the Bahamas. Hopefully the islands can turn around their fisheries, but it’s a long road!

  6. Jim S/V Amity July 24, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    No spot’s perfect & shouldn’t be cause for disappointment. Were there a blemish-free spot it would be jammed. To paraphrase Yogi, nobody goes there anymore; its too crowded.

    Conch chowder! Mmmm.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Couldn’t agree more. and LOL re: the quote!

  7. Mary July 24, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    Your honest opinion of the Bahamas is appreciated, and perhaps necessary to bring awareness to the volatile and endangered ecosystem we love so much. There is one national park in the Bahamas, near Shroud, many efforts have been brought forward to protect the Berry Islands and Bimini…. something so important that seems to be pushed to side.
    I think it’s also important to bear in mind that the Bahamas relies also 100% on tourism, many of the locals are brought up to understand this, and thus it is difficult to find the “true” Bahamaian culture, mostly found in the out islands and northern (Abacos and Berries).
    Still, with some flaws here, I will never fall out of love with this country, its breathtaking water, and it’s hidden history.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Thanks Mary. Fully appreciate being in love with the Bahamas! I’ve heard great things about that park in the Exumas, too. We went to another one (the entire island of Conception, east of the N tip of Long Island, is a park). Nice, still underwhelming, but we weren’t able to jet out to the more distant reefs in our hobbled dinghy. Someday!

  8. Nicola July 24, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

    After cruising most of the Caribbean Islands, we have decided that we love the Bahamas the best. In some regards, for what they *don’t* have as much as what they do have! Further south, in the Caribbean islands, we found ourselves surrounded by “boat boys” almost as soon as we dropped the hook. We were asked for things or to buy things almost everywhere. We also have friends who have been victimized by crime there so being watchful takes an edge off enjoyment. Now the Bahamas have crime too, in the larger cities, but we simply avoid that. We love the culture of honest and friendly people who are simply welcoming without trying to make a buck off us. Fish are plentiful if you know where to go as are sharks, turtles and others. We love the serenity of walking on pristine white (or pink!) sand beaches and having them all to ourselves. The water is clear and beautiful and warm, and there are many caves and blue holes to explore. We love that we can hardly walk anywhere without being offered a ride by a friendly native. What’s not to love about that culture! I’m sorry to hear that your experience didn’t meet expectations.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:32 am #

      Hi Nicola- our time in the Caribbbean is brief (this last month in Dominica/Puerto Rico, and six weeks last year skipping through the lesser Antilles) but I can understand why you’d pick the Bahamas. We’d frankly pick our favorites as away from the Caribbean/Bahamas entirely, for the same reasons you like the Bahamas better than the islands to the south. The Bahamas ARE special! I think I’d like them better had my expectations been lower, though.

  9. Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor July 25, 2017 at 7:54 am #

    Thanks for sharing this, Behan. Some of the points in this post really resonated with me. While we thoroughly enjoyed our time cruising in the Bahamas this season and in 2015, we didn’t love it like we loved our time cruising in New Zealand or, for my husband, his time cruising in Europe. I think there’s definitely something to be said about how your first cruising experiences shape how you perceive later cruising experiences. I found myself comparing the Bahamas to New Zealand at times, which was unfair as they’re such completely different cruising grounds, and had to remind myself not to let that shape my expectations. Having said that, what we did love were the friendly and generous Bahamian people (thank you lovely lady at Cat Island for the mangoes) and the water (swimming in New Zealand, no thank you, too cold…brrr!). I suspect that the Bahamas is one of those places that gets better and better each time you go back and you have a chance to get off the beaten path and get more insider/local knowledge about where to go.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:32 am #

      Expectations are so important, aren’t they?! I try to remain open, but it’s very hard not to be shaped – and of course we read/research/query every place in advance, so it’s GOING to happen. Oh man we do miss swimming in that glorious water! And if/when we get back, we’ll enjoy the Bahamas that much more.

  10. Anthony Gibb July 25, 2017 at 7:58 am #

    Interestingly we are finding the challenge to remain positive about the Caribbean in general to be difficult when our sailing history has encompassed a wide range of experiences around the world. Our attitudes have improved with the oncoming hurricane season where it’s now much quieter i.e. fewer boats, the locals have more time to relate to us instead of chasing the fleeting tourist dollar and, what we call the ‘cottage boaters’ have returned to their mainland cottages for the summer season.
    The Caribbean, like so many places, suffers from overfishing, massive tourism e.g. cruise ships and coral die offs. It certainly doesn’t have the allure of the Pacific but away from the tourist areas the spirit of the local Caribbeaner still survives offering a relaxed and amiable view of life.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 10:50 am #

      I hear you Tony. We do crave the places that are more out of the way, although that’s a good way to describe much of the Bahamas (and the favorite corners we had there!). Most of the folks who don’t understand our misgivings haven’t stretched as far as you and Connie have on Sage, or as we have on Totem. That’s fine, travel experiences are unique to everyone. Really looking forward to catching up with you both further south… we are still aiming for Grenada in August!

  11. Richard July 25, 2017 at 10:42 am #

    As a left coast person, one of the things that struck me most as I began to explore the Caribbean and sail offshore in the Atlantic was the contrast in biological richness. Coming down the Mexican coast we’ve been greeted by pods of 400 spinner dolphins, daily whale sightings, and places where there were so many turtles that they looked like a convention. By contrast, we trailed a line all the way from Bermuda to St. Martin and caught only a single small Mahi. When I was in the Bahamas for a couple of weeks I had an ear infection so have no underwater knowledge, but certainly left with the impression of a lot of sand and not much life.

    If you want to be really depressed, watch the time lapse photographic documentary “Chasing Coral” about the death of the Great Barrier Reef recently shown on Netflix. 25% of the entire reef dead in one season. With current sea temperature trends almost all of the world’s coral reefs will be permanently lost within 30-50 years, and with them 25% of all oceanic fish.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 11:10 am #

      We share your contrasting experience of the biomass difference between E and W coasts! I confess we did not even attempt fishing in the Bahamas, however. I do hope we can watch ‘Chasing Coral.’ We’re not currently Netflix subscribers, and it’s preaching to the choir on Totem, but I’m sure we’d learn a (depressing) lot from it.

  12. Rich Kallerud July 25, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    I think that it takes more than a few months to get to know an area, and capture it’s essence. My wife and I cruise on a Manta 42 catamaran and over the course of 20 years we have visited sixteen countries. We have spent eleven seasons sailing the Bahamas. It is our opinion that the best cruising grounds in the world are the Bahamas. As we have dropped anchor in the bight of the Acklins to have 1000 +/- pink flamingos land nearby for the night, the hammerhead shark breeding grounds of Bimini, the flocks of parrots of the Abacos, the seahorses of Eleuthera, rich marine life of the Jementoes/Ragged Islands, unbelievable clear waters with reefs alive with rays, eels, and fish of the Exumas, I can only wonder how you would not have been impressed by what you experienced. In the out islands of the Bahamas we never lock our boat or dinghy and never consider for our personal safety. I only hope that you never consider writing a book using your limited experience to unfairly judge a country.

    • Behan July 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

      Oh stop kicking sand, Rich! It IS possible to graciously disagree. You’re welcome to your opinions, and it’s always a pleasure to read respectfully presented differences, but disparaging my “limited experience” does not assist your credibility or your case.

  13. Rich Kallerud July 25, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    I believe that I was polite. I believe your review of the Bahamas was unfair due to the short amount of time you were there. I feel it takes more then 3 or 4 months to judge an area as expansive as the Bahamas. There are few areas left as unspoiled as the Bahamas. Unlike the pacific with islands of floating plastic, over fishing, nuclear waste, and dying reefs, the Bahamas is still an area where most areas are undeveloped. I am sorry you failed to enjoy this beautiful country.

    • Keith & Nicki, s/v Sionna July 25, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

      Your wording was polite. Your message came off as otherwise. A subtle difference, but an important one if you wish to be taken seriously as an advocate for the country you clearly love.

  14. Judith C July 25, 2017 at 4:37 pm #

    I blame the cruise ships. Dumping too many people at one time into an area that is better suited to getting to know visitors on a one on one basis. Yesterday I tried my hardest to convince a car salesman not to take another cruise on the BIG guys before taking a Windjammer type cruise. After all, he had convinced me to buy a new car, I wanted to convince him to get on a sailboat and really see the sea and the islands in it. His first argument was the all inclusive cruise, my argument was the Captain will show you a map and ask you where you want to go first and when you get there do you want to snorkel, paddle board, jet ski or hike first? Do you want to catch your dinner? A chef will cook it for you… Do you want to sit on a deck chair that some sweaty guy just got up from or do you want to sit on a beach in front of a bon-fire listening to a girl with a guitar. And finally, do you want to take a chance that that big hunk of junk will break down in the middle of the ocean and you and a thousand other people have to bob up and down in stench when you could just sit back and catch the breeze and sail to the next cove.

  15. Scott Kuhner S/V Tamure July 26, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    We love the Bahamas 🇧🇸 and for the last fifteen years we have been spending Four to five months a year there going down to the Exumas and up to the Abacos. For the last four years we have just been going to Hope Town for the winter and love our time there. However, when compared to distant parts of the Pacific the Bahamas are not quite as exotic. But then again, most of our impressions of the Pacific came from our two circumnavigations 1971-1974 and 1987-1991 when the whole world was different. Since our two circumnavigations we are always asked, “What is your favorite place?” We don’t have one specific favorite place, we love many places for different reasons. That said, we do love the Bahamas, even though it is not as remote as were our experiences of many islands in the Pacific. We love the locals and we don’t have to lock the dinghy. There is a nice relaxed atmosphere in the Bahamas.

    • Behan August 1, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

      Funny how it seems everyone wants to ask that “favorite place” question! Our answer is the same – different places, different reasons. Actually we usually just start spitting out names of the many many places that left a mark! We really DID love the Bahamas (a half dozen positive posts got a little lost in the wake of this lone critical one). I wish we could have seen the Pacific when you did! But even in our relatively recent (2010) experience, it is a WORLD apart from the Bahamas underwater. I can see how the Bahamas are a great option for folks who want to stay closer to home. That’s just not us right now: we’d rather have more vibrant wildlife, more cultural interest, and a healthier environment, and there are a lot of other options available to us.

  16. SailingTranquilityBay July 26, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

    Nice article Behan. While some might have “insider information” on where you can find a healthy reef these days, we’ve felt the same disappointment in a lot of places in the Caribbean and Bahamas. We’ve also felt disappointment hearing about massive oil spills, Fukushima still on fire, “sinking” islands, and as one person mentioned above — mainstream science being in near full agreement that coral reefs and the life they support will only be a memory soon if the course of humanity doesn’t change.

    Mostly, I feel disappointment every time someone insists that everything is so damned rosy — when clearly they’re just living a fantasy life in an imaginary world. The only way things are ever going to change for the better for future generations is if people begin propagating the truth about the state of our world. We spent five years cruising all around the Caribbean, and three seasons in the Bahamas. The ratio of healthy reefs to reefs so dead that you can’t even find an urchin on them is beyond alarming.

    The ONLY way things are ever going to change is if people can have a conversation about what’s real. What’s real in the Bahamas — in terms of healthy futures both economic and environmental — falls way short for anyone looking at the world with healthy expectations.

    • Behan August 1, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

      This is the sad truth. I was reluctant to write this because the Bahamas is kind of sacred cow for many… and plenty of them have let me know just how they feel about this! Well, good that they can defend the islands the love, but a big issue here is that it needs a very different kind of “defense” as you pointed out! It IS alarming.

  17. Elizabeth July 26, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

    We were there 18 years ago and the conch shells were already piled high from cruisers harvesting them. Many of the beaches were covered in plastic and debris just beyond the sand. It was beautiful warm water but it depressed us.

    • Behan August 1, 2017 at 5:03 pm #

      It IS depressing! Plastic is everywhere, not just Bahamas. Unless a beach gets a major tidal flush or is physically cleaned… plastic. :-/

  18. Richard July 27, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    As a species we humans are in precisely the same situation as a frog in a pot of water slowly being brought to a boil. For most people their failure to grasp the situation is understandable because they are immersed in a world largely divorced from contact with the natural world. In principle people who go cruising should be in a better position to understand what is going on around them, but they still see the world through a mind developed by all the years spent in a career that provided the funds to purchase the boat and outfit it with as many of the conveniences of land life as possible.

    There is no pot of water to jump out of because the pot is the entire planet. And the burner underneath it is the industrial civilization we have created, which temporarily supports a population far beyond the natural biological carrying capacity of the planet. No amount of education and solar panels can save a civilization based upon exponential growth of population and consumption and exploitation of natural resources and all our fellow species.

    I wouldn’t give Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars by himself and a colony of 20 breeding females much of a chance either. LOL.

  19. Bob July 28, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

    After several winters in the Bahamas I fear that our impressions are the same as yours. The Bahamas are beautiful but not well managed by their government and the future of the fisheries is sadly, not bright. The Bahamas are a fpgreat place to hang out but left us wanting more. After one winter in the eastern Caribbean I believe we have found our winter home. Bob. http://Www.sailpandora.com

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