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 Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RICHARD MORIN Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

Crab cul­ture

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.

BROWN CAN­NON III

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.”

RICHARD MORIN

Sun­rise on Small Hope Bay on An­dros, known as the largest and least ex­plored in­hab­ited is­land of the Ba­hamas.

RICHARD MORIN

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.

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