We’ve been working our way south through a very special part of the Exumas, the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. It’s 22 miles long, covering 15 cays and many smaller ones, and extends 4 nautical miles to either side of them. This national park enforces a “No Take” rule — no fishing, conching, lobstering, hunting, or foraging, and no leaving trash either (including the usual practice here of dumping organic garbage overboard). The intent is to provide a safe haven for native species, and as a result it’s one of the best places in the Bahamas to swim, snorkle or scuba. One of their mottoes is “Take only photographs, leave only bubbles.”
Our first stop in the park, after Normans Cay and its drowned plane, was Shroud Cay, a hatchet-shaped island whose interior is mostly a mangrove swamp. Around high tide you can motor your dinghy through shallow inlets that twist through the mangroves to the far side of the island. We felt like jungle explorers charting a river. We saw a baby sea turtle, rays, and dozens of little fish as we wound around, seemingly in the wrong direction much of the time. Eventually our inlet opened up onto a spectacular, curving beach; it sloped so gradually into the ocean that fifty yards out, the water was still only up to our knees. Where the channel met the sea it deepened significantly, so we had fun jumping off the limestone cliffs (they were short cliffs) into the water.
Then we moved on to Hawksbill Cay. At low tide, the entire north side of the island becomes a sand bar. We dinghied as close as we dared and walked around to the point. Sand stretched on, pancake-flat, for hundreds of yards, behind which, bizarrely, you could see deep blue ocean and white caps. In the shallow water rushing past our ankles we spotted two small, yellowish sharks chasing each other in circles, trying to find their way out into the sound. The kids ran after them but never got close. Finally the sharks darted through their legs and made it out into deeper water.
All of this was enjoyed with our new friends the Bowers. They’re a missionary family relocating via sailboat to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Jim and Stacie, children of missionaries themselves, grew up in the Amazon jungle in Brazil, and recently returned to the US after several years in Mozambique. Their two girls, ages 10 and 12, were about as sweet and self-possessed as you might expect. (The four kids had great fun playing hide and seek on our boats. I never realized there could be so many places to hide on a sailboat.)
From there it was on to park HQ, Warderick Wells. Shortly after tying up to a park mooring ball we saw a spotted eagle ray sliding past our boat, at least eight feet wide. Its wings unfurled in uncanny slow motion. Later we saw another ray nearly buried in the sand near a coral reef, looking up and around for prey with weirdly independent eyes.
There was a beach 50 feet from our mooring ball, and trails that led to blow holes and a small peak named “Boo Boo Hill.” We snorkeled at a number of coral heads around the island, and over a wrecked ship in the mooring field. Hundreds of tropical fish swam around the barnacled port holes, and we saw two Bahamian lobsters (several feet long, spotted, with two-foot antennae) fighting and chasing each other.
The park office offered Wi-Fi for a fee, although it wasn’t 100% reliable. The bottom of the instruction sheet for accessing the system, however, offered the following advice:
“If you think the network connection is too slow, take a look around you and enjoy the scenery and the setting …. after a long look at the different shades of blue water, the sandy beaches, and the beauty of the park, your pages should be back up and ready for you to try again.”