Saturday, June 27, 2009

Long Island and Conception Island

May 25, 2009

It was only a 25 mile run from Georgetown to reach our anchorage at Calabash Bay, even before the noontime feeding bell rang. With mild winds and gentle seas everyone was happy. We even deviated from a direct course to troll along drop offs whenever we could, but only caught a barracuda and jack.

Long Island is called that because it is a long island, 76 miles in length, but only 4 miles wide at its widest point. It is bordered on the west by Exuma Sound and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, where we will be heading next. There are over 40 Bahamian communities (many with just a few inhabitants) along the length of the island, more so than any other island in the Bahamas. It was the 3rd stop for Chris Columbus (a distant relative of Christina Columbus, now penning this blog!), and the point of land within sight of our anchorage bears a monument to, and was named after, Chris' flagship, the Santa Maria which allegedly ran aground on one of the treacherous near shore reefs. FLUKE and her crew will try to avoid meeting the same fateful end thanks to our navigational software that is far superior to the ancient instruments Chris had to use.

Two years ago, we anchored about 25 miles south of here in the Salt Pond area on our return trip from the Jumentos, and had a chance to go ashore and do some walking around. That won't be the case here though; we are only going to stay for the night. As it turns out anyway, the surge from around the Cape is so strong, we are rolling so much from side to side we are not able to launch the dinghy. If we tried we think we would end up with a result as bad as when the cable broke, and the dinghy smashed into the upper deck rail. We are disappointed as we would love to snorkel and do some spearfishing on the shallow reefs that are clearly visible only a short distance away.

Aside from the surge, very puzzling in these benign conditions, the sparkling water here is perhaps the clearest we have ever seen, especially over the brilliant white sandy bottom. A swim (without my wetsuit on, the water is WAY too cold) out to the anchor reveals it is fully buried in a sea bottom that is gently rippled with finely packed sand. I can see forever, and so can the big barracuda that is chairman of the welcoming committee sent out to greet me!

We disturbed six squid that were using our anchor chain for “protection” when we hoisted the chain in the morning. They lazily drifted alongside FLUKE all in a line; the water was so clear we could see each of their individual tentacles waving goodbye.


This little uninhabited speck of an island was only a 15 mile run from Cape Santa Maria. Even though it is only about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point, it is clearly visible from the distance because it rises to an altitude of 60'. As you approach from the west you can't help but see the conspicuous outcropping of Wedge Point on the southern end of the island, so named because it looks like a gigantic wedge sitting in the aquamarine water. The island is like a big rimmed bowl with the interior of the island comprised of shallow creeks and a large mangrove swamp surrounded by higher land of varying elevations. Several species of migratory birds use the island for nesting and a source of water. When the wind is just right, there is a rotten odor coming from the land that I suspect is associated with the mangrove swamp. The odor is so foul, after we first got here I looked through the binoculars to see if there was a big dead carcass of some behemoth from the deep washed up on the beach. However, the mosquitoes must think it is just grand since they started coming out in droves at sunset after we had some rainfall. They are so determined to try to get to us, they annoyingly buzz loudly all night long batting against the screens.

Conception Island is a National Park under the jurisdiction of the Bahamas National Trust. Like the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, the entire land area is protected. No one is permitted to remove any plant or animal material, living or dead. Unlike ECLSP, fishing is still currently permitted in the surrounding waters. We only found this out because Wayne posted the question to the net and was answered by the park ranger himself! Lloyd and Jacquelyn were anxious to check out the underwater habitat in this remote area. One trip into the water and one hike on the island pretty much convinced us we wouldn't be going over to Rum Cay after all; there was just too much to hold our attention here at this tiny freckle on the ocean's face. Oh, by the way, my blood pressure reads 96/62: I am content.

The Neighbors

With the prevailing easterly winds, nice sandy bottom with good holding, and a large area to accommodate many vessels, a lot of boaters stop here. One night there were 10 boats anchored, a lot considering we are in the middle of nowhere on June 1, the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Cruising vessels getting ready to continue down the islands of the eastern Caribbean use this as an exit point to wait for favorable weather. Reversely those coming back from the same area stop here. We have seen several vessels pull in with their solid yellow Q-flags flying, indicating they are technically still “quarantined” as not having cleared Bahamian customs. We spoke to one couple on a sailing catamaran who had sailed back from Venezuela, where fuel was $.75/gal! Another couple we spoke with on a sailing ketch were headed to Australia.
We invited a couple from a small sailboat over for grilled tuna and mackerel after they had tried to leave the island and sail into the prevailing wind to Rum Cay, only to discover the wind conditions were too much for their vessel and sailing skill level to handle. After 4 hours in turbulent seas they returned; we thought they could use some cheering up. They said they wanted to make it to Luperon, Dominican Republic, a popular eastern Caribbean hurricane hole. After talking with them and hearing about their mechanical and technical problems and the fact we are now into hurricane season we tried to convince them to return to the safety of the states, get their problems solved, and develop a new plan to implement after hurricane season is over.

To our surprise several sportfish vessels have even anchored here for the night. This island stop gives them several options to fish various drop-offs to the deep Atlantic between here, Cat Island, Rum Cay, and Long Island. They can stay out late or get an early start without having to go into a marina on one of the other islands. I counted 15 rods and reels mounted on one of them that came into anchor. Another one, estimated at 70' in length, named FREE ENTERPRISE dropped its hook. We laughed at the name, surmising that the owner didn't vote for Obama!!

One afternoon, a small Bahamian fishing boat came in to anchor. During my beach walk I could hear loud clanking as the men cleaned their conch and then plops and splashing water as they discarded the large shells. These were not easily plucked from shallow waters; I surmise they had to collect these ocean conch in no less than 25 – 30' of water, and probably even deeper, very hard work to say the least. Sadly, I have only seen one living conch in the shallow waters we have snorkeled around here.

Jacquelyn and Lloyd Hunt in Paradise

Conception Island offers a number of options for the water enthusiast. The West Bay anchorage fronts one of the prettiest beaches we have seen in the Bahamas, 3/4 mile long. You can get your walking or running exercise in by choosing a workout in the soft, white upland sand or take an easier stroll in the finely packed sand at the water's edge, where you can try to keep pace with the docile nurse sharks and rays that lazily sniff the bottom just a few feet from shore. If you want a breezier stroll, just take the 50 yard hike on the path through the sea oats over to the ¼ mile long eastern beach on the windward side of the island. However, the waters are calm there too, since the near offshore reef breaks down the waves. Either choice, when you get hot, just take a dip in the swimming pool clear water.

Either side of the island offers near shore snorkeling options in water of varying depths, from a “baby” snorkel site of 3-4' in depth to coral heads and rock formations to take the dinghy or swim from your boat, 5-30' in depth. There is undersea activity wherever you look and depending on the time and patience you want to expend.

The FLUKE crew spent most of their time spearfishing the isolated coral heads and rocky outcroppings in West Bay, usually at depths around 20', but venturing into “lung buster” depths of 25' for us, where we don't have much down time. It is so easy to become entranced into watching the underwater activity where on the brightest of sunny days, you can really see forever in the crystal clear water. There is so much action in holes, crevices, and under ledges. Before you know it, you need to surface and wonder if you can make it back to the top with the little air you have left in your lungs. One time I surfaced, totally out of breath to where I was light-headed and gasping for air. I looked up towards the sky, and before the water could drain from my mask I thought I was seeing stars, like before you black out. When I finally regained my proper vision I realized I was seeing several topic birds flying overhead. Despite my temporary discomfort, I smiled and reveled in the beauty of those birds and how lucky I was to be in that situation anyway.

We had to look carefully to find Nassau and Tiger groupers that were large enough to spear for table food. We regularly saw large ones, in the 10-15# range, but it was obvious we were not the first humans they had seen. They always stayed a cautious distance away, and if they thought we were getting too close, would duck into one of the honeycomb formations and go to a site unknown to us. Eddie did well spearing a couple of groupers at each outing, but has had enough misses, with the fish coming off the spear that he has spent much time in the cockpit silently honing the spear points, contemplating his future moves. He has even added some little cylindrical metal attachments over the spear prongs in hopes of getting better adhesion through the fish. Carol finally speared her first fish that made it successfully back to FIN, a Tiger grouper, and became an official member of the Hunt Club. It would have been a good time to take my blood pressure to see if I could break the 100 mark!

Lloyd and Jacquelyn have become so spoiled with their diligent support staff hovering nearby. Wayne and Ursa are in FIN, ready to pick us or our fish up at a moment's notice. That gives us a lot of peace of mind in being able to get out of the water quickly if confronted by any “terrorist” activities. The seemingly unlimited visibility also makes us feel safer. We have only been confronted with sharks on 3 occasions, black tip and bull sharks. They make their intentions clear with their circling around us getting closer and closer, and we know that we will not win any battles with them if we have a speared fish. This is one of the few places where we have not had a barracuda just hang over our shoulders the whole time we are in the water. They come by, look around and then are gone, probably waiting out of sight, hoping for the sound or scent that indicates easy pickings may be within their reach. The sea is their domain, and we are no match for their ability to get their meal however they wish. It is then time to climb back into FIN and call it a day.

Ursa delights in fish getting dumped into the fish bucket and once got so excited trying to nip at the fish, she fell right into the bucket! It is fun to surface the water and see Ursa hanging eight (she has her dew claws removed) over the bow of FIN with the look of anticipation on her face, hoping there will be a fish on the end of the spear. She and Visitor never tire of the sushi they get when Eddie is cleaning the fish.

Southhampton Reef extends continuously for 4 miles off the northern tip of West Bay. It has varying water depths to appeal to snorkelers and divers alike, but is only accessible when the winds are light. We only went out about 1 mile on one calm day; we will have to go out there on another trip to view the 300' wreck in relatively shallow water which is supposed to be an interesting site. Southward, towards Wedge Point are buoys that mark sites for dive boats where divers can visit Conception Island Wall, which is said to be one of the most beautiful diving reefs in the Bahamas.

Even if you don't want to put your head underwater, just look over the side of your boat. There is plenty of activity to spark your fascination. Schools of jacks churn up the water after the little baitfish or scraps of food you throw overboard. Colorful and oddly shaped trunkfish are always on the prowl for scraps. These fish have a triangular shaped body with eyes borne high up on a sloping forehead. Their protruding lips make them look like they are always ready for a kiss. When I dump the cat litter box scoopings overboard, the cat poop floats. Up come the trunkfish. Generally reef and rock feeders, they are not properly designed to gobble surface snacks like the nutty buddies from the litter box. So, they have to stick the tops of their heads out of the water, and they look so comical with theirs big foreheads and bug eyes sticking above the surface of the water with their lips straining to suck in a turd. I chuckle every time I see them. It would make for a good utube video.

When Eddie is cleaning fish, we get a lot of activity, from the big guys: sharks and extra large barracudas. They are fun to watch from above, as we wonder who will get what. They just wander away when all the scraps are gone. Gulls screech overhead and try to get the little pieces before they sink; sometimes they land on the bow pulpit and get way too comfortable and overstay their welcome when they leave their droppings behind.

You shouldn't leave the island without taking the trip up the creek; the entrance is about 1 ½ miles south of the West Bay anchorage. You MUST go on high tide: the mouth of the creek is shoaled in very well (look for the deep water) and you will have to find your way through the deepest inland channels which you can access when the tide is flowing. Be prepared to tip up your motor even though most of the bottom is sandy.

The water is so clear, and you can see all the way to the bottom wherever you go. You will see some shore and wading birds, nurse sharks and rays and other fish, but the most interesting site of all is the dozens of juvenile sea turtles, 12-18” in diameter . Their heads are popping up everywhere and you can see them scurrying along the bottom underneath your dinghy. If you follow the main channel slightly to the north and then take the deepest water western branch, you can land your dinghy on the shore and take an easy hike through the open dune vegetation and access a small pocket beach on the western shore of the island. The shore is somewhat rocky, but it is not steep and it is not composed of the ironshore rock that is hard on your feet; the sandy rock is weathered and smooth and easy to climb on. There is even a gnarled, weathered buttonwood tree where you can sit to get out of the sun and look over the blue Atlantic.

On the Dry Side

One, if not the best, of the most spectacular views in the Bahamas waits for the cruiser who takes the time to walk over the dune to the windward beach on the eastern shore I described previously. The small half moon shaped beach is pretty enough by itself, but you have to walk all the way to its southern end. There is a 20' high rocky hill with a 3” diameter rope hanging over the side. Grab hold of the rope and put it between your legs, lean backwards, and “walk” up the steep side of the hill. It is NOT difficult! When you get to the top you will loose your breath, not because you had to overexert yourself for the climb, but because you won't believe the view. There are hundreds of individual colorful coral heads that stretch left and right as far as you can see over a sandy bottom with varying depths of water, making for a rainbow of blue and green water colors. When the FLUKE crew reached the top we just stood there in silence, not knowing what words to use to describe what we were seeing. The seascape is more like something you would see in an aerial shot of some island atolls in the South Pacific or Southeast Asia; we have never seen any other area in the Bahamas where you have this extensive of a view from such an elevated perspective. It was low tide, with no wind and very bright sun, so everything, the colors, rock and reef formations, wildlife in the air and water were all magnificently intensified. It was one of life's Kodak moments, and the FLUKE crew was without a camera!! I have added reliving that experience to my life list.

Now, you can't stay there for the whole time. Get off the boulder and look to your right, in the southerly direction for the beginning of a path. Those of you who have gone that way before will ask why I haven't said look for the lone coconut palm. That, probably 15-20 year old, island landmark beauty survived many storms, one of which undoubtedly washed it as a seed high enough upland in the lee of the cliff to allow it to grow in the first place. During our short stay it was hit by lightning and won't even remain a stump for long.

Follow that path for a grand island tour of more breathtaking views. The path is periodically marked with decorated net floats (to Turtle Cove), worn enough so that you don't need to cut your way through the vegetation. You will walk up to 30' high in some places, peer down to the waves crashing on the rocks , see cliff dwelling sea birds flying out from the cavities below you, see a wrecked ship; look to the west and see the huge mangrove swamp in the central portion of the island. The path runs about a mile right along the edge of the seaside cliffs; some places have been undercut from the crashing waves and the original path fallen into the sea, but with careful footwork and some good handholds and a couple of more rope aids you can navigate around those areas. Continue on the path as it gently begins to slope away from the shoreline and weaves through a canopy of hammock vegetation growing robustly in the lee of the cliffs (with some buzzing mosquitoes), and you will arrive at Turtle Cove, another very picturesque island beach setting.

I explored the entire West Bay shoreline by myself, after getting dropped off by FIN. Full of entertaining wanderings along the water's edge and up on the low-lying rocky outcroppings and into the dune vegetation, it was just over a full two hours before I signaled my shipmates on FLUKE to come pick me up. I had Mother Nature news to share!

Looking into holes in the rocky ledges of the dune line, I found several nesting tropic birds. They sat silently as I peered in at them, marveling at how large they are, their brilliant white feathers contrasting with their startling black ones. They have a black band that goes through their eyes and they appeared like winged zorros staring back out at me, perfectly still, never once squawking or trying to peck me. My best surprise was when I peaked into one cavity and saw a lone nestling. It looked like a softball sized round ball with the whitest of white wispy down feathers with only a dark beak sticking out, one of the most beautiful chicks I've ever seen.

I made my way up into the vegetation. The area is very sandy and fairly open, not like some of the solid rocky terrains we have hiked on before. Some of the same tropical hammock vegetation that we have growing in Florida is also present here. However, the plants are all in bonsai form; the salt spray, wind, and minimal rainfall make for hard living. Seagrape plants are more shrub-like than tree form. Thrinax palms, one of my favorite palm trees, are about as tall as I am, instead of their usual 10-12'. It is easy to look over the tops of the vegetation and see the mangrove swamp down below and the undulating cliffs of the eastern shore in the distance. Careful observation rewards me with the sight of a nest within a low-lying, wiry, shrub. The nest is shaped like an elongated pouch, made of tightly woven palm fibers. I have to pull back the thick branches to find the small opening to the mouth of the nest and look inward to see two, light colored eggs with brown speckles, just about the size of jelly beans.

I've laughed each time I've passed an old wreck that lies just covered only a step away in shallow water off the sandy beach; what's left of it looks like the old vertebrae from some giant sea creature. Another, larger wreck lies at the southern end of the beach at the base of the 20' high rocky cliff. Examining it at low tide, I can make out gears, shafts, and 8” links of chain. When I scramble up to the top of the cliff I can see more parts of the wreck strewn out from shore, probably home to any number of tropical fish. I can also see the yellow shades of the big elkhorn coral growing close to shore and rocky underwater crevices where Eddie and I can go hunting. I'll take the easier long walk back along the water's edge to where FLUKE lies placidly offshore, and my crew mates are probably in their usual napping positions.

I detour up to a rocky ledge close to the area where most cruisers land their dinghies. Someone has creatively put together a deserted island beach bocci set and even enclosed a set of rules within a plastic, weatherproof sheet. The bocci “balls” are various sized colorful floats from fishing nets that wash up on the beaches when the tide is right. This is recycling at its best. Eddie and I added one float we found on another hike, and I added a coconut that will work just as well as another ball. The rules state that they can change at any time depending upon how much rum the competitors consume!

We left early this morning, June 6, having waited 2 extra days for more favorable seas to try to cross over to Cat Island. Eddie and I weren't anxious to move on anyway, and I had a lump in my throat when I turned to look back to see the interesting contours and colors of Conception Island fading into the distance as we headed out to sea. My spirits were lifted when I realized King Neptune was granting us calm passage and I would be able to finish off this section of our story while we were underway.

Plus, we had charted our course to take us over the Tartar Bank. This tiny bank is created from an undersea mountain top. The water depth goes from 5000' to 40' right in the Atlantic Ocean. The area around it is a feeding area for blue marlin, and there are many sportfishing boats trolling the surrounding waters. We heard on the VHF one boat tell another boat that in the previous week, 3 boats had released 10 marlin. So, the fishing flunkies of FLUKE did their best not to interfere with any of those hot shot anglers as we gawked at the streaks of the white sandy bottom and the clear, blue water when we passed over it. Eddie thought we should get in the water so we could tell people we snorkeled a mountain top!

Now, if we can only find a way to finally make a post!!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic descriptions - loved it!!!

    Where are the drawings???