The Northern Exumas

The entire Exumas chain are an archipelago of 365 cays and islands, beginning just 35 miles southeast of Nassau. The cays are basically limestone in origin.  Nowhere in the Bahamas is any rock other than limestone found.  The cays themselves are very flat and low lying with few hills over 100 feet high.  The external limestone on the cays is worn razor sharp by the action of wind and waves and the cays themselves are honeycombed with caves and cave holes. The cays are covered with various cacti, scrub brush, flowers and trees.  Even though this is a harsh environment, the climate is one of the best in the world.  The air temperature remains between 50 and 90 degrees.... the isles of perpetual June. 

On Saturday, January 8, we departed from Nassau and headed to Allan's cay.  We had an uneventful trip from Nassau to Allan's Cay.  Nice weather, winds on the nose, so no sailing. The obstacle on this trip was the realization that we had coral heads to look for during our travels!  Isolated coral heads can be found almost anywhere in the Exumas, but our route from Nassau to Allan's Cay required us to cross the dreaded Yellow Bank, an area where the depths suddenly go from 20 feet to 12 to 14 feet.  The bottom is sprinkled with dark coral heads and small patch reefs. A few of the coral heads only have 3 or 4 feet of water over them.  This was our first experience with "eyeball navigation".  Fortunately, the sun was shining overhead, and we could easily see the coral heads and steer around them. See the dark spot in the water?  Yep, that's a coral head!  At first, it was kinda scary... thinking that you might run over one and damage your boat.  But, the more we saw, the easier they were to see, and we just went around them.  Gotta pay attention, though.  Fortunately, the islands of the Bahamas are close together and you don't travel at night.

Eyeball navigation requires that you learn to read the water... learning the relationship between the water color and the depth.  When you look down in the crystal clear water, every feature on the bottom is visible.  Reefs, heads, rocks and wrecks stand out distinctly in good visibility and are very easy to steer around... once you learn how to read the water.  The crystal-clear tropical Atlantic pours over the deep cuts between the cays and there are constantly shifting sandbars.  So, the color is always changing.  A little saying helps sailors remember about water color....."blue, blue, go on through; green, green, it might get lean; brown, brown, you'll run aground; white, white, you better go back."  Blue water is usually 40 or more feet in depth.  Green water is the hardest to read.  It can range from 3 feet to 40 feet.  It can take a while to learn to read green water.  The lighter the green, the shallower the water.  Water that shifts from green to white is showing you the sand on the bottom and there is little water in that area.  Brown signifies a rocky bar or reef with little water in that area.  The waters will usually tell you what lies underneath, but it is up to you to decipher the message. How did we learn?? We have a small, hand-held depth sounder that we use when we travel around by dinghy.  We would play a little game.. "how deep do you think this is?".  We would guess, then LA would put the depth sounder in.  Pretty soon, we got pretty good at reading the water.  Look at the photo below... you see it all.  Dark blue, faint green, a dark brown coral head (center of photo), and some white sand closer to shore (the brown in the front of the photo is sea grass on the shore).  See, with a little practice, it's not too hard.  The key is to GO SLOW.

Allan's Cay

Allan's Cay is our first stop in the Northern Exumas.  (Note:  I have seen Allan's Cay spelled Allan's and Allen's... according to which chart and which reference you look at!) The water is spectacular.  It really feels like we are cruising the Bahamas now!  The anchorage already has ten boats anchored when we arrive, so anchoring is a tight fit!   But, as my Daddy used to say, we just "got in there amongst them".  Stacy and Rene came over from Pipe muh Bligh and we had drinks to celebrate our arrival in the Exumas, cooked shish-ka-bobs and enjoyed the evening.  


The next morning, we dinghied over to Leaf cay.  Leaf cay is an uninhabited island and the main attraction here is a large population of rock iguanas.  Tourist boats come from Nassau to have lunch and feed the iguanas.  However, they all have their cameras out as they arrive and the first attraction they see is you on your boat.  They love to take pictures of YOU in your natural habitat.... I think everyone thinks you are sitting on the back of your boat drinking island drinks with little umbrellas in them.  And, luckily, sometimes you are! 


Iguanas of the Exumas Islands

The iguanas on Exumas Islands are some of the rarest iguanas in the Caribbean.  They are among the world's most endangered lizards and are found nowhere else.  In pre-Columbian times, the rock iguana was far more numerous than today and inhabited almost every major Bahamian island and cay.  The Cyclura cychulura species iguanas are found only in a few cays in the northern and central Exumas.  The few iguanas that are left are now protected by Bahamian and international law. 

As soon as you land on shore, iguanas start crawling out of the bush.  They are herbivorous, eating leaves and fruit.  This is important because they help disperse seeds, which helps maintain local plant communities.  The rock iguanas are a dark, dirty color with shades of red around the head and upper body.  The legs are dark and the skin has a criss-cross pattern to it and the eyes are a deep red.   They have a serrated ridge of skin along the spine that is used to bleed off excess heat.  They can live to be 80 years old, weigh up to 24 pounds, and breed every one to three years.  They deposit up to 10 eggs in sand nests in June and July, and the hatchlings emerge from the nests after 90 days.  Their most remarkable feature is their third eye.  Known as the pineal eye, it is located under a triangle of clear skin just behind the meridian of the other two eyes.   It is a well developed organ with a lens and retina.  The function is little understood, though some scientists suspect it is involved with the detection of day length, necessary for the reproductive cycle of the lizard.  


After checking out the iguanas, we hopped in our dinghies and explored S.W. Allan's cay.  It is a very small island with a lone palm tree.  We hiked across the island and took a few photos.  


  We stayed two nights at Allan's cay.  On Monday, January 10, we traveled 4.5 nm (nautical miles) over to Highbourne Cay, which took less than one hour. This is one of the pleasures of traveling in the Exumas.  The islands are very close together and you can hop over to the next island in an hour or two.  We anchored off the west side of the island.  

(Photo credit: Rene Foree)

That night, we dinghied over to Pipe muh Bligh, had margaritas, and Stacy fixed the most unbelievable chicken enchiladas.  We were in heaven!!

On Tuesday, we visited the island.  Highbourne Cay is the most northerly inhabited island in the Exumas Chain.  Three miles long, the island is privately owned and has a marina with 16 slips in a naturally sheltered harbour.  They have a fuel dock, water, electricity, and wireless internet for their marina customers only.  They have a small ship's store, but fortunately, we didn't need anything but ice.  A dozen eggs cost $6.50!  We met a couple in the marina from Vermont, Andrea and Jim, that were there on a beautiful Hinckley Power 55 motor-yacht.  We were impressed... it only took them an hour to get there from Nassau!! The owners of Highbourne restrict the cay's paths and beaches to guests of the marina, so we hopped back in our dinghies and toured the island from the water.

We dinghied all the way around the island and took some photos of the stromatolites on the east side of the island.  Stromatolites date back more than 3.5 billion years and are the world's oldest-known macro fossils.  (The earth is estimated to be 4 billion years old). Stromatolites reefs are created by tiny hair-like bacteria, called blue-green algae.  Being plants, they require sunlight for photosynthesis.  As they grow, they trap sediment and cement it together into tightly packed layers of limestone and appear as mounds under water.  The stromatolites that are found in the Exumas are estimated to be about 2000 years old.

The manager's house for the marina sits on a hill on the north end of the island 102 feet above sea level, one of the highest points in the Exumas. 


After touring the island, we got the itch to move on, so we went back to our boats, got ready in 30 minutes flat, and headed south.  Twelve miles and two hours later, we were safely anchored at Norman's Cay.

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