Thursday, 20 April 2017

BAHAMAS: Before You Visit The Bahamas, Know This

Idyllic South Andros

South Andros is the second largest island in the archipelago of Andros, which contains hundreds of islands, islets, and cays. All together, the land mass of this archipelago amounts to 5,957 km2 (2,300 mi.2). This constitutes slightly more than half of the entire land territory of The Bahamas, while containing only about 2% of the population.

Comparing Andros with Barbados, it is fourteen times larger than this neighbor to the south, with only 1/40th of the population. Wonderfully pristine, Andros represents a tropical paradise and its royal nature preserve, West Side National Park, encompasses over 6,000 km2 (1.5 million acres) of land and sea. The original bounty of flora and fauna are thriving and untainted. Seen from space, the entire region is either jungle-green or Caribbean blue, without any trace of human development.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit this amazing island, staying as the guest of my friend Wilfried Vincent, General Manager of the Tiamo Resort.

Bonefish Capital

South Andros is famous world-wide as the Mecca of bonefish "big game safari" fishing. These fish, which can weigh as much as sixteen pounds, constitute a major prize for fishing aficionados because of their strength, stealthy ways, and habitat. Together, these qualities create the science and the art of the bonefish hunt, not to mention a bonefish sub-culture.

Pound-for-pound, the bonefish has earned a reputation for having the most energy and pull of any known fish species. Its shiny, silvery hue reflects the ambient light in the water. Combined with turquoise coloration on its dorsal surface, the bonefish merges perfectly with its environment. It sometimes uses its prominent snout to dig and eat in the sand, raising its posterior end out of the water. Called "tailing", this visual cue creates an opportunity for the expert eye of the experienced angler.

This skittish piscine quarry frequents tidal shallows, which prohibits motorboat engines, music, or loud conversations. The sportsman must pole through the water, Venice-style, or wade. The moon's position and the tidal schedule determine water depth and thus the most likely "lucky spot."


Andros barrier reef

The Barrier Reef of Andros, approximately 306 km (190 miles) long, is among the largest reefs in the world and thus one of the planet's largest living organisms. This reef rests upon the western rim of an oceanic trench known as the Tongue of the Ocean, which stretches north-south for hundreds of miles and divides New Providence (Nassau) to the east and Andros to the west. Over 2,000 meters (1.25 miles) deep in places, the Tongue is surrounded by islands and cays, providing the necessary calm conditions for this delicate living museum that is the reef. Indeed, because of the slow growth of coral, the Andros Barrier Reef was alive and thriving hundreds of years before Columbus first discovered the New World (at the Bahamian island of San Salvador.)

Caves of Nassau

Originally utilized by the Lucayans, the original inhabitants of The Bahamas, the caves of Nassau offered these native peoples various uses. For example, the relatively cool, constant temperature of 24°C (75°F) and the natural shelter would have given them options for storing food and protecting themselves from hurricanes. The Lucayans would have used fire to prepare food and to keep away animals and insects. Remains of Lucayans have been excavated from caves in The Bahamas.

The Lucayans constituted a branch of the Taínos, a largely peaceful, Arawak-speaking native people present throughout the Caribbean at the time of the arrival of Columbus. They were harassed and attacked by the Carib Indians, who seized islands and women from the Arawak speakers. Ultimately, the European discovery of the New World spelled the end for their culture; smallpox, other infectious diseases, and slavery obliterated this native world.

Although the culture of the Caribbean native peoples was extinguished in the Age of Discovery, genetic studies in islands such as Cuba and Puerto Rico indicate that modern inhabitants still have some native DNA, although less than that of Africa and Europe. However, in The Bahamas, the remaining native DNA in the population appears to be negligible or non-existent.

Due to its early discovery and exposed geography, The Bahamas suffered the persistent depredations of Spaniards and other Europeans. In the 1500s, the Spaniards deported some 40,000 Lucayans to work as slaves in Spanish mines and plantations in various territories. Over time the Lucayans were replaced with black Africans as the workers and principal residents of The Bahamas.

While few artifacts remain, it is believed that the caves of Nassau were also used by pirates that were active in the area in the 1500s and 1600s. The deep caves would have provided them with refuge from attacks by European navies or rival pirates. The labyrinthine passages of the caves may also have provided hiding places for caches of arms or treasure.

Whatever the nature of the pirates' activity in the caves, it is clear that there was a significant pirate presence in The Bahamas during the golden age of piracy. Prior to the 1718 arrival in New Providence (Nassau) of British Royal Governor Woodes Rogers, who came with a mandate to cleanse the islands of piracy, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach had prevailed as the informal governor of a "Privateers' Republic," a base for criminal maritime plunder in the Atlantic.

John "Calico Jack" Rackham was another famous pirate who operated in The Bahamas. He met and seduced Anne Bonny on New Providence and persuaded her to abandon her husband and to join his crew for a life of piracy. She dressed as a man and took part in sea battles. Perhaps the pirate life allowed her to escape the societal restraints imposed upon women in the early 18th century. In any case, in 1720 the British royal navy captured the ship and hanged Calico Jack.

An important date in the history of the Caves was the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh on December 5th, 1861. The fourth child and the second son of Queen Victoria, Alfred was the first royal personage ever to visit The Bahamas. The boy prince, only seventeen years old, had already been a midshipman in the royal navy for three years.

When the prince, known to his family as "Affie," arrived in Nassau aboard the HMS St George on December 3rd, a great crowd had assembled in the port of the island outpost. Several days and nights of formal dinners, balls, and royal engagements followed. The Bahamians were so proud of Alfred's visit to the Caves that they helped him carve his initials into the stone. To this day, a crisp British flag is maintained at the site to commemorate the royal visit.

Harbour Island

Dunmore Town, population 1,775, is the only locality in Harbour Island, which finds itself just northeast of the larger island of Eleuthera. This area saw the first permanent settlement of Europeans in The Bahamas, with the arrival of puritans in the mid-1600s.

After an initial period of famine and starvation, aid arrived from New England puritans, allowing the settlers to survive through this early period of difficulties. Then, following the British defeat in the American Revolution, many loyalists from the southern colonies migrated to the area.

Today the visitor can still sense this heritage by looking at the architecture of the quaint cottages of the island. The steeply pitched roofs of historic cottages may work well for unloading snow in northern regions, but are not best for resisting hurricane winds.

A variety of tourism magazines have rated Harbour Island's eastern shore as the best beach in the world. The three-mile long beach is noted for its pure and fine salmon-colored sand. Its constituent granules are composed of tiny particles of coral, seashells, and calcium from marine invertebrates. The principle pink pigment accounting for the rosé coloration derives from calcareous shells secreted by foraminifera amoeboid protists.

Exumas

Geologists relate that the story of The Exumas, an archipelago of 365 islands and cays, begins millions of years ago, during prehistoric ice ages. When much of the world's water was concentrated in polar ice, the sea level was much lower than it is today. Wind created vast sand dunes in the lands east of what is now Florida. Millennia later, when the sea level rose again, the peaks of these dunes became The Exumas, an enchanting 120-mile-long island chain.

Human habitation of these islands goes back some one thousand years. The Lucayans, a sub-group of the Arawak Nation, were the original inhabitants of this paradisiacal realm. Skilled hunters of birds, the Arawak also obtained much of their meat from the small mammals known as hutias. They kept pet parrots and trained dogs to assist with their hunts. They used blowguns, spears, and bows and arrows. From a dugout canoe, they were expert at spearing fish. Sadly, most of the Lucayans were killed by Old World microbes, with the remainder succumbing during brutal bondage imposed by the Spanish.

The navigation log of Christopher Columbus's first voyage indicates that The Exumas were among the first, if not the first, places in North America ever seen by a European, excluding the Viking colonization of frigid Greenland and Newfoundland. During the golden age of piracy in the 17th century, outlaws used the cays and waterways of The Exumas as hideouts to prey upon shipping between Europe and the wealthy colonies around the Caribbean.

The people and the government of The Bahamas have made the protection of nature in The Exumas a policy priority. In 1958, The Bahamas blazed a new trail by establishing the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 456-square-kilometer region that represented the world's first mixed land and water preserve. Visitors are encouraged to take photographs, but removing objects is forbidden, and certainly littering is sanctioned. Indeed, the value of the superb anchorages; as well as the preservation of the magnificent, delicate ecosystems; depends upon the unspoiled natural environment. The fauna that constitute major tourist attractions include the stromatolite reefs, among the Earth's rarest and oldest creatures, and the diverse seabirds that breed throughout this beautiful island chain.

Dolphins of The Bahamas

Dophins, the mammalian cousins of humans, constitute a major attraction of The Bahamas. The crystal clear waters, combined with the shallow sea, allow for unequaled observation of these amazing creatures. They are known to be capable of altruism and empathy, along with complicated tasks and collaborative strategies requiring sophisticated intellect. Scientists are still working to try to decipher their sophisticated language. Unsurprisingly, their brains are quite large in relation to their body size.

Another reason why The Bahamas in particular is a dolphin lovers' Mecca is because of the unique association of different dophin species in these seas. World-wide, dolphins break down into 39 different types of ocean species, as well as four species of river dolphins. In The Bahamas, one mainly finds the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, and the Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis. A recent scientific study revealed that these two species spend about 15% of their time in mixed groups.

In The Bahamas, the mothers of the bottlenose dolphin species and those of the spotted dophins have been observed in interspecies babysitting, which is almost unheard of in nature. At other times, the bottlenose dolphins and the spotted dolphins have been observed cooperating, playing, or fighting. Although scientists are not sure exactly why the dolphins are fighting, they believe it may be related to inter-species mating competition. The bottlenose dolphins sometimes use their bigger size to take advantage of spotted females and even to mount spotted males by force. But the smaller spotted males have their own Ace card: they are capable of perfect synchronization, and can swarm and turn in a tactical fashion to protect themselves.

Dolphins belong to the Cetacea clade, which includes dolphins, whales, and porpoises. This botanical classification is defined as meat-eating, finned, aquatic marine mammals. In this clade, there are no other examples of interspecies interaction to the extent of bottlenose dolphins and spotted dolphins in The Bahamas. Indeed, a visit to this island nation is a must for those in love with humans' finned cousins.

Blue Holes of The Bahamas

The blue holes of The Bahamas, vast underwater cave systems, are enthralling on many levels, among them that of scientific inquiry. These largely-unexplored depths have no light and very little water circulation. The lack of circulation deprives them of oxygen, and so they represent certain death for any life form except the types of bacteria known as extremophiles, which love extreme conditions. But scientists eagerly study these mysterious caverns precisely because of the simple yet hardy life forms. Living things that can survive without light or oxygen might provide insights into what extraterrestrial life might look like.

Dean's Blue Hole, located on Long Island of The Bahamas, is a particularly popular tourist destination. This underwater sea cave goes down more than 200 meters beneath the surface. Ancient remains can be found along the floor of the cave, providing clues about life forms from millenia ago. Colorful, intertwining stalactites and stalagmites create an enchanting, alien landscape. However, only the most qualified divers should attempt the feat of exploring such caves. Even the most experienced explorers must remain vigilant and constantly attuned to safety concerns, because they know better than anyone the tragic incidents over the years that underline universal human fallibility.

Divers must master a whole host of procedures, safety checks, and best practices, such as obtaining prior certifications, operating in pairs or groups, and checking equipment. They frequently use ropes to thread their way through the cavernous saltwater maze, lest they quickly lose their bearings in the otherworldly environment. One important key to safety is communication. Divers should confer above the water to discuss their objectives, where they will go, and how they will get there. Importantly, they should establish the meaning of various hand gestures that might be required for underwater communication.

Dean's Blue Hole is also renowned in the sport of freediving (holding one's breath without scuba gear) as the most beautiful and extraordinary place to dive. While the typical person might be able to hold his breath for one minute, the world records for the longest breath hold are over twenty minutes, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. In December of 2016, Derya Can set a record for freediving by going down 94 metres into the sea without an oxygen tank. After 40 meters, the enormous pressure compresses the lungs, limiting the diver's capacity to breathe. Coming back up, pulling oneself along a verticle cord, the diver must resist the enormous urge to take a breath. The stakes involved, the flirtation with death, and constantly pushing the limit and setting personal records: these three things create a rush of endorphins among adrenalin junkies.

National Bird Caribbean Flamingo

The Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber) is a perfect fit to represent The Bahamas as its national bird. Many of its behavioral and physical characteristics correspond with the qualities of the country. For example, the vibrant vermilion hue of both males and females constitutes the brightest coloration of any flamingo species; this reflects the cultural vibrancy of The Bahamas, as well as gender equality of men and women. Flamingo parents sacrifice for their children, actually transferring pigment to their offspring; this might be compared to Bahamian parents transmitting their renowned culture to their children.

Flamingos are extremely social, with flocks of as many as 340 birds, and with some colonies reaching tens of thousands of birds. They spend a large amount of time in collective displays: instinctual rituals performed before, during, and after mating. This roughly corresponds to dynamic Bahamian traditions such as the famous Junkanoo parades of The Bahamas. Flamingos are tolerant and multiple species can inhabit the same territory; this reflects the history of The Bahamas, where African and European cultures have merged into a fantastic society that is tremendous fun!

In the entire world, there are only four main breeding sites: Great Inagua, The Bahamas; Archipelago de Camaguey, Cuba; Yucatan, Mexico; and Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. Today, Inagua wilderness boasts of more than 50,000 of these birds, inhabiting 743 square kilometers. This pristine nature preserve is protected by the wardens of the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo in The Bahamas.

Flamingos emerged early on after the extinction of the dinosaurs, with their cousin or possible ancestor, Juncitarsus, appearing in the fossil record about fifty million years ago. What appears to be the flamingo knee — half-way down the leg — is actually an ankle. What appears to be the ankle is actually where the toe starts. These birds prefer the salt life, whether it's saline lagoons, muddy flats, or shallow coastal lakes. They are tough creatures, able to tolerate two times the salinity of sea water and alkalinity up to pH 10.5, which would dissolve human skin.