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500 Leagues of Sea

The Exumas

   We are plunged into the sense of isolation again. The deep blue Tongue is an abyssal fissure below. At the very edge of its underwater cliffs StockingCay,Exumalazy white squiggles in dazzling thin aquamarine waters mark a long broken chain of islands.
     The Exuma Islands are a long chain of cays really, and most aren’t islands in any sense of the word.  They stretch southeast from Nassau and are green mottled blobs basking in the bright glassy waters of the shallows. They are dangerously close to that mysterious Tongue of the Ocean, standing on its precipice and forever gazing out at that blue swath

Stocking Cay

in the azure waters.
     The Exumas are sparsely populated, though they are situated in a way that places them under heavy air travel and as a halfway point for yachts. Again, like the other Bahama islands, it would be wrong to imagine these as beautiful palm lined paradises. Low bushes, casuarina trees and “sea oats” make up the greenery. Also, countless cays are small, some tiny, others only a barrier reef just above the water level.
     The most populated is Great Exuma, the largest and most southernmost, with the settlement of Georgetown.  Staniel Cay is a common halfway point in this outback chain. Nearby here and Big Major Cay is “Thunderball Cave,” a natural grotto for divers and snorkelers which some consider more beautiful than Amalfi on the coast of Italy by Capri. However, Thunderball Cave is far more remote, and its natural beauty gains more luster from  its wilderness isolation.


A typical cay in the Exumas

       There are settlements on these cays, like Hurricane Harbour, but not many. Some have runways good only during the day (since they have no lights). One thing they all have. Each has one or more turquoise bay with mottled bottoms of turtle grass. Boats dot the shimmering crescents; some can be seen peacefully dazzled in sunlight reflections at deserted cays. Many yachters use these Exumashallowsas a halfway mark to and from the Caribbean.
     The dangerous currents and shifting sands of the Great Bahama Bank are clearly seen around the Exumas. At low tide much of the sandy bottom around some cays can become land. Exotic patters in the sand show how strong the scouring current can be. Channels that look like a beautiful blue lagoon can have treacherous undercurrents, especially when the tide shifts. These create such marvelous patters as those ShallowExumacaysbelow. View of nature at work along here is most often only from an airplane. If you take a boat from a nearby populated cay, you often can’t come in close to such scenery due to the shifting bottom.
     Sometimes even far out, with no land in sight, yachters can come upon “sand bores,” parallel ridges of sand scoured into a frustrating maze with clear deep channels between these underwater sand dunes. They shift with the tide and cannot be marked.
     Evening and morning cause other things to come toExumawaters02 life on these quiet cays. The temperature at this time of ember-like dusk is perfect, the breeze lulls one to peaceful sighs. A patter, a scurry, rustling in undergrowth, scampering— and dozens of iguanas emerge onto the beaches and head for the tide line. A large central cay received its name from their population: “Great Guana Cay.”
     A bit of nothing in nowhere, below. All day long the wind does nothing but curse over this petty obstacle and the sea hammers away at it relentlessly. At night it’s cold, during the day it’s hot. No shadow, no relief. Bad place to be shipwrecked. This could be 50 miles from Nassau, but any place outside the view of others can be hazardous in the Bahamas.
     Those mottled waters contain many dangers to boaters and swimmers. The currents are swift, treacherous, and their native inhabitants can strike quickly. Reef sharks and barracudas have claimed this as their domain long before Columbus. 

    These dangerous denizens of the shallows will get rid of all trace of a human body quickly, but they cannot remove the twisted metal and hollow hulks of tragedy. The ecosystem of the Bahamas keeps the archipelago refreshingly clean. The result is that the hulks of Reefsharkmankind’s passing lie in museum suspension on the bottom. Divers come along, their breathing apparatus burbling with their breathing.
     Bubbles scamper to the surface. Curious eyes look around. Salvagers have already been there. The wrecks are picked clean of valuables. 
     Forced down by drug interceptors, this DC-3 ditched in the shallows. It wasn’t long after the miscreants wereDC-3wreckangle arrested that dauntless salvers came along and ripped through the cockpit roof to take the valuables. There is an ecosystem, of a sorts, even amongst the humans!
     Wrecks remain as gutted hulks, but they also remain as testament to man’s folly and the vicissitudes of nature.

     Yet flying over  these cays one can imagine how some planes and yachts are swept away and covered by the shifting sands of the shallow bottom. Isolation sometimes seems a little more eerie when one does come across evidence of man’s passing. I find nothing more unnerving than interrupted life. These are mementos of an DC-3wreckExumaunknown tragedy, mute yet screaming. Here’s the drug smuggler a DC-3.  These pictures, taken by Yann Arthur Bertrand, are now about 30 years old.
     The cays seem to lose a little beauty when you see what your fate would look like if you went down. Help is far away. Even if you make it to shore, you are on a lonely island. Chances of being seen by a passing plane maybe good if they are browsing the cays . . .but if they are on their way south to Great Exuma or bisecting to Cat Island, chances are you’ll only be a frantic blip waving from a sandy speck.
     But I speak of wrecks and survivors. The Triangle is not about that. Where are all those that vanished? There is no mystery to this DC-3. No sudden loss; a slow death; its body will remain as one of the 20th century’s contributions to these waters. But where are the pictures of the wrecks of the
many dozens that have vanished over these islands? Has an indifferent sea just covered them all up and left the non mysteries behind? Or is there more to the Bahamas than meets the eye?


       One is glad to come upon settlements, like Hurricane Harbour. You feel you’ve finally walked off the face of a clock that has stopped. The Exumas are fascinating because they have all the characteristics of isolation, yet are close enough to civilization so one can sample that special spirit that haunts the solitudes.
     Life along the Exumas is tied to the sea, and thus it is inexorably tied into mystery, for the sea itself is a mystery. The sea is always near to us yet somehow unapproachable. Only in the Bahamas is land and sea so teasingly intertwined. Both live in between rugged HurricaneHarbour,Exumaharmony and antagonistic disharmony. It is not surprising that both the forces of land and sea should join forces here and together tantalize us with reminders of their combined powers. They also remind us of how unexplored much of our planet is. These are oases of stifled progress left behind from the march of

Hurricane Harbour

mankind to civilize and industrialize.
     It is here where we can still step near to the old earth, where mankind walked in the paths of legends and was, at times, even a player in the events of the mythical. We sit in our armchairs today, cradled and cocooned in our big cities, and forget that this city life is artificial. Life in the unexplored regions of this planet, preserved in those areas where civilization is impracticable, was once the norm. Is the age of mythology still alive but relegated to these last bastions of the old world?
     What of the legends of mermen in these areas, those Bigfeet of the Deep? What is the possibility that scampering sounds under a grove of casuarina trees and a splash into the ocean beyond indicate an undiscovered amphibian? These small islands hold many mysteries that the casual investigator cannot even interpret.

Lets go Eleuthera, Cat Island, and San Salvador!

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