Childhood adventures in the Exumas
Risa Merl remembers a magical family holiday exploring the Exuma Islands by sailboat.
I suppose if we were an ordinary family we would be at a zoo, enjoying animal encounters from behind a secure pane of glass. Instead, after a short tender ride from sailboat to shore, I found myself barefoot on a balmy Bahamian island, staring down a pack of giant iguanas. The dinosaur-like creatures gazed at me intently as I stood barely a metre away. They heeded no ground on their beachy habitat of Allen’s Cay in the Exumas. The Northern Bahamian Rock Iguanas can grow up to 1.5 metres, and there were a few sizable fellows on the beach, eyeing me up.
Comparisons have been drawn between these spiky-spined lizards and the fierce Komodo dragons of Indonesia. Fortunately, the Bahamian variety are mostly herbivores, so my parents weren’t being completely negligent in letting me wander so close. But for a child who loves animals, it beat a visit to the zoo any day. This was just the first of many diversions we’d discover on this voyage through the 365 cays and islets that made up the Exumas. You see, my family hadn’t been ordinary for as long as I could remember – a lack of averageness that culminated with my dad retiring in his late 30s and moving my family onto a sailboat.
As a child, the Exumas were a wonderland. The islands seemed a menagerie with the cages flung wide open. Besides the giant lizards, we would encounter swimming pigs and nurse sharks so docile that you could stroke them. Not to mention snorkelling in wrecks and reefs so thick with fish it was like being dropped into an aquarium. We swam in caves straight out of a movie set (007’s, to be exact), snorkelled around a sunken plane and saw a giant sperm whale skeleton – like you’d find in a museum – washed up onshore. Each island seeming to hold a unique treasure just waiting to explored.
Children have the gift of seeing things with rose-tinted glasses, so I was happy to return to these islands as an adult, having travelled far and wide, and find them to still be one of my favourite places in the world. The water here, as many superyacht captains will attest, is some of the prettiest on Earth – clear enough to see straight to the bottom at 10 metres. And the islands remain blissfully peaceful and uncrowded. It is easy to find yourself in anchored in a harbour or picnicking on a sandbar with no other yachts in sight.
The Exumas, I’ve come to realize, can be loved by parents and kids equally. Diversions I loved as a child, I later understood held a different significance for my parents. At Norman’s Cay, we enjoyed an easy snorkel around the wreck of a plane sitting in shallow water. Back then, it was just a cool adventure to me, but my parents knew this island had belonged to Pablo Escobar during the drug lord’s heyday, and this was one of his planes that didn’t quite make its destination. By the time we visited, the island had been expunged of its seedy history and Norman’s was best known for a shabby-chic beachfront restaurant MacDuff’s (still around today), where we enjoyed some of the best burgers in the Bahamas – an ideal treat after an invigorating snorkel.
A few islands further south, we sailed into the protected, horseshoe-shaped harbour of Warderick Wells. The base of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park Visitor’s Centre, this island has more than seven miles of hiking trails to be explored. On the beach just outside the park office are the remains of a 16-metre sperm whale, better than a visit to the Natural History Museum any day.
Swimming with sharks might sound like a terrifying prospect, but not at Compass Cay. The marina itself accommodates yachts up to 55 metres, but many visitors here were just day trippers, having come to swim with the gentle nurse sharks that crowd the central dock. Their skin is smooth like a dolphin’s, inviting the shyer among us to give them a stroke, while those feeling brave might plunge in for a swim as we did, feeling their tails gently glide by.
That summer, I met the now-famous swimming pigs on the island of Big Major’s Spot (what many call ‘pig beach’). Only I didn’t yet know about their hidden talent. We went to feed them, and they happily munched the potatoes we brought ashore. When we were ready to leave, my dad pushed the tender out into the water, and I began swimming out to climb onto the dinghy only to find the pigs – some of them twice my size – swimming right behind me. It was much more intimidating than swimming with sharks, merely because I hadn’t expected it.
Many of the best adventures are unexpected, as also proven by Thunderball Grotto. From the outside, the island looks like nothing more than a plain, round rock. Nothing to see here. But by swimming through a crevice in the rock at low tide, we emerged into the most beautiful cavern with light softly filtering down through the ceiling. The cavern is named Thunderball after the James Bond movie of the same that was filmed here. We brought in a bag of bread to feed the fish, which were so friendly they ate right out of our hands. Like most girls my age, I was obsessed with the Disney movie The Little Mermaid, and I imagined I was a mermaid like Ariel swimming around in her secret cave, mooning over a prince and wondering when I’d get some legs.
Even after all these years, the islands still hold infinite wonder. And you don’t need to be a kid to enjoy them.