Four national parks flourish in the Bahamas’ secret garden
Famous for its underwater caves called ‘blue holes,’ Andros Island morphed from a diving destination to a sprawling wildlife mecca
The ankle-twisting trail to the magnificent Rainbow Blue Hole zigzagged around limestone outcrops and past wild orchids, bromeliads and wild coffee plants, and sea grape, mahogany and brasiletto trees. Little did we know that we were stumbling through nature’s medicine cabinet.
“This is a pigeon plum tree,” a natural laxative, said our guide, Torran Simms, pausing by a bushy tree with emerald-green leaves. For those with the opposite problem, a tea made from the rough bark of the stopper tree will “stop you right up.”
Every few paces on the mile-long route on Andros Island promised a cure for whatever ails you. Golden creeper for a sore throat. Crab bush for stomach distress. When boiled, the shaggy red bark of the gumbo limbo tree yields a healing topical ointment. It’s also a key ingredient in a legendary herbal tea called “21-Gun Salute,” bush medicine’s answer to Viagra.
It was the morning of the first day of my three-day mission in early September to visit four national parks on Andros, thought to be the largest and least explored inhabited island of the Bahamas archipelago.
Over the course of my whirlwind stay I would snorkel on the world’s third-longest fringing coral reef, tour what may be the only national park on the planet dedicated to a crab, get caught in a sea turtle traffic jam on Andros’s vast but rarely visited West Side, and leap off a 15-foot cliff into the watery home of the mythical Lusca, the half-shark, half-squid said to inhabit the island’s so-called blue holes.
On this first day, I was joined by two other tourists — Annika Gerbeg and Sabrina Forstner, nurses visiting from Germany. After our medicinal hike, we finally emerged from the brush. “The Rainbow Blue Hole,” Torran announced.
Before us lay a perfectly round lake roughly the width of a football field. The surface mirrored the brilliant blue sky; the sky’s reflection gives the basins their name.
Torran explained that blue holes are giant sinkholes created when carbonic acid in rainwater eats through porous limestone to expose a subsurface cave. Rain further erodes any irregular features on the edge of the collapsed roof, creating the characteristic round shoreline. More than 350 blue holes exist on Andros, the largest known concentration in the world.
We retraced our steps to the SUV and drove deeper into the heart of the 33,235acre Blue Holes National Park. After a brief stop at the smaller Cousteau’s Blue Hole, where adventurer Jacques Cousteau dived in the early 1970s, we were off to Captain Bill’s Blue Hole.
A wooden walkway through a forest of spindly Bahamas pines led to a shelter on the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped 15 feet to the lake below. A five-foot diving platform extended out over the water, offering a spectacular view across the 440-foot-wide, 300-foot-deep blue hole. “Ready to jump?” Torran asked. He was the first to make the leap, an exuberant effort that took him eight feet from the platform lip before he arced downward. The German nurses quickly followed.
I moved to the edge, paused, then stepped into the void.
I entered the water in a standing position. Water shot straight up my nose and I surfaced, coughing and sputtering.
We splashed around in the refreshing water, the two friends chatting cheerfully in German while I struggled to float on my back. A half-hour later we clambered up a ladder, dried off and headed back to the many comforts of Small Hope Bay Lodge, my base of operations.
A fishy Central Park
Lightly touristed Andros Island is 104 miles long and 40 miles at its widest. It lies 154 miles southeast of Miami and less than 40 miles southwest of Nassau. Only 8,000 people live on the island, mostly in tiny settlements scattered along the east coast. Virtually the entire low-lying western half of the island is uninhabited.
Andros was even more of a tourism afterthought in 1960 when pioneering Canadian scuba diver Dick Birch opened a dive resort on the shore of Small Hope Bay. Local legend has it that the pirate Henry Morgan hid treasure in the bay, confident that searchers had “small hope” of ever finding it. Locals initially had small hope that Birch’s lodge would succeed.
But the Small Hope Bay Lodge flourished, first as a dive destination and now as a family-friendly resort that offers diving, fishing and nature tours to 1,500 visitors a year. Dick’s son Jeff now operates the lodge and has made it an industry leader in sustainable tourism.
World-class diving and snorkeling remain the main draw. One afternoon I boarded a 36-foot pontoon dive boat for the 15-minute trip to the Andros Barrier Reef National Park, which is actually two neighboring preserves that together protect 64,834 acres of the 124-mile-long reef complex.
We anchored in a spot called “Central Park.” “We took some New Yorkers snorkeling here,” said dive master Brian Birch, Jeff ’s 26-year-old son. “After the dive they said there were so many fish it looked like Central Park” on a sunny spring weekend.
Central Park lived up to its name. I snorkeled a dozen feet over clouds of tiny electric-hued fish that swirled around giant coral heads that erupted from the rubble bottom. A small grouper eyed me warily from beneath a tangle of elkhorn coral. A few yards away, a long-nosed trumpetfish stood on its tail over a patch of bone-white sand.
At one point, hundreds of silvery blue runners the size of my palm surged around me. The school circled and closed ranks to become a single shimmering organism 15 feet wide and eight feet tall.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the school raced off, and it was time to return to the lodge.
About 3,000 crabs are estimated to live in every acre of the Crab Replenishment National Park on Andros.
I saw exactly none on a two-hour tour through the park with Peter Douglas, the charismatic chief executive of the Andros Conservancy and Trust and manager of the Bahamian government’s Andros tourism office.
“They are molting now, buried in the mud out there,” Douglas said, gesturing toward the marshy coppice that crowds both sides of the two-lane Queen’s Highway, the major north-south road on Andros.
In May and June, the land crabs are on the move. The creatures, with bodies larger than a fist and formidable claws, abandon their mud burrows and rocky crevices at night to travel to the ocean to spawn. Their nocturnal journey takes them skittering across Queen’s Highway, where flashlight-toting Bahamians line the roadway to fill gunnysacks and 50gallon drums with the tasty crustaceans.
“It’s a battle between your fingers and their pincers,” Douglas said. “Crabbing is part of the Andros culture. We love our crabs.”
Without crab sightings to interrupt us, Douglas told the story of the parks, which opened in 2002 after years of frustrating government delays. Local residents helped set park rules and decided what areas to preserve. The Blue Holes Park was created to protect the freshwater supply. West Side National Park preserves conch, crayfish, turtle, fish and bird breeding grounds. The marine parks protect the reef. The nearly 3,000-acre Crab Replenishment Reserve ensures a supply of crabs for future generations. Nearly two-thirds of Andros lies within park boundaries.
“It didn’t come from the government,” Douglas said proudly. “It didn’t come from scientists. [These parks] came from the people who understood the resources and the culture — the people who lived it, not learned it.”
The wild West Side
My journey to the 1.4 million-acre West Side National Park began with a long, lurching car ride to a launch ramp at the Behring Point Settlement and a 50-mile dash in an 18-foot skiff through the meandering North Bight channel. The shallow bight, more than a mile wide in places, runs east to west and cuts Andros roughly in half.
Jeff Cartwright, my guide to the park, stopped first on Broad Shad Cay to search for the endangered Andros rock iguana. This giant lizard can grow to be three feet long and lives only on the west side of Andros, Cartwright said.
Fewer than 5,000 now live in the wild. But Broad Shad Cay was literally crawling with them. The fine white sand was streaked with straight furrows plowed by the lizard’s long tails. At the end of one trail, a homely two-foot lizard with a mottled black body and a brownish-orange face peered over its shoulder at us.
“That’s a teenager,” Cartwright said. I took note of its two-inch long curved claws. Happily, I knew the lizards are strictly vegetarians.
We boarded the skiff and continued west, stopping briefly at the ruins of the Bang Bang Club on Pot Cay, a fishing lodge and reputed hideaway of gangster Al Capone. (The name of the lodge honors a tequila drink, not its most notorious guest.)
West Side National Park fills nearly the whole western half of Andros. We passed mile after mile of low-lying cays, mangrove estuaries, sand flats, turtle grass beds and shallow channels that snake deep into the interior, a favored wintering ground for migratory North American songbirds.
More than two hours from the dock we emerged out of the North Bight, turned sharply left and ran south to the shallows at the mouth of Big Loggerhead Creek.
“Turtles, two of them,” Cartwright whispered. The pair of green turtles in shallow water off the bow made a frantic exit into the channel.
Suddenly, turtles were everywhere. “One moving right,” Cartwright said. We nearlybumpedintothebackofatwo-footlong green turtle before the startled creature bolted in a swirl of tawny mud. “Another one there. Another moving right . . . more there. They are all over this bank.”
“Big one straight ahead,” he said as a turtle the size of a manhole cover disappeared over the edge of the channel. “That was a loggerhead.”
In Florida and most parts of the Bahamas, sea turtle sightings are occasional occurrences. But here they’re routine. “We see quite a few of those guys, at any time of the year,” Cartwright said.
We crossed the channel and hopped off the skiff to hike around the site of the old sponge-trading station. Then it was time for lunch, and we headed north to Little Loggerhead Creek for a shore picnic.
Raindrops began to fall as we ate chicken and steak grilled over a charcoal fire. We broke camp and the skiff roared into the North Bight, angling between the storms building to the north and south of the channel.
But West Side National Park had one more wonder to share. Halfway home, a dark, curved fin emerged 100 feet in front of the skiff. Then a second.
“Dolphins!” I shouted, and Cartwright eased back on the throttle.
“There’s three of them together — one’s a little one,” said Cartwright as dark shapes materialized off the side of the skiff. “There’s a fourth. . . . must be the uncle.”
The dolphin family kept its distance at first, circling the boat but growing less wary with each revolution until they were swimming a dozen feet away. Then the four-foot calf broke formation to pass a few feet off our bow. It tilted broadside to look up at me. I thought we made eye contact.
We played with the dolphin family for 20 minutes. The rain was closing in and we were still 25 miles from the dock. “We should be heading in,” Cartwright said.
And so we left our playmates. Their dorsal fins still broke the surface, as if bidding me to return to the wild West Side and the wonder-filled national parks of Andros.
Top, the nature reserve-rain forest surrounding Belcampo Belize Lodge, outside the fishing
village of Punta Gorda. The lodge adds a luxe aspect to “agritourism.”
Sunrise on Small Hope Bay on Andros, known as the largest and least explored inhabited island of the Bahamas.
In Andros’s Blue Holes National Park, guide Torran Simms leaps off a platform above Captain Bill's Blue Hole. Jacques Cousteau explored Andros’s giant underwater sinkhole-cave systems in the 1970s.