I can feel freckles forming on my nose as the sun paints my face with its rays. Translucent blue waters showcase vibrant tropical fish and colorful corals, while white sand beaches provide the perfect place for an afternoon picnic. All around me it’s a Caribbean paradise of palms, shells, sailboats and … swimming pigs?
David and Christina, owners of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, have offered to take me and my friends out on their boat for a day of exploring the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. The Exumas are a group of 365 cays (only 29 are inhabited) in the Bahamas, located about 30 minutes by plane from Nassau. While Nassau is home to big resorts and trendy restaurants, the Exumas have a much more laid-back vibe, the type of place where some inhabited cays only have one local restaurant and everyone knows each others’ name.
It’s apparently also a place with some crazy quirky offerings, as I didn’t even know pigs could swim, let alone inhabit their own private island. But here at Big Major Spot, enormous wild pigs come darting out of the island forest like desert nomads in desperate need of a cool-down.
“People brought them to the island along with goats and chickens,” explains David. “They’ve gotten used to people feeding them so they swim to the boats.”
Sure enough, soon there are pigs anxiously circling the boat. How do I react? I jump in to swim with them, of course.
The pigs prove to be harmless, and as long as you don’t touch them they allow you to get close enough for some photo opportunities. It’s fun to watch them swim and play fight with each other. Not to mention I can now check swimming with pigs off my bucket list.
From there our tour takes us to Compass Cay, where we meet Tucker and see his impressive collection of painted driftwood signs. Apparently, boaters and visitors will decorate and donate them to leave a piece of themselves behind on the beautiful cay.
As I’m admiring the signs, something stirring in the water catches my eye. At first I think I’m hallucinating, until I see the distinct fins of the ocean’s most carnivorous predator and the Jaws theme song begins playing in my head.
“Ready to swim?” asks David, who’s holding a bloody piece of fish. He throws the meat into the water and instantly the sharks begin swarming, their heads coming out of the water for a closer look.
David informs me that these are Nurse Sharks, and that there’s never “been an incident.” While this is comforting, I remind myself I don’t have the best luck, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I become their first incident.
Despite everything, I’m also the type of person who’s biggest fear is regret, and I know if I don’t swim with these enormous sharp-finned creatures I will regret it.
“On the count of three. One. Two. Thr…”
I’m in. The water is refreshing, although I’m not sure what’s around me because I’m clenching my eyes closed. I feel a splash, some sand and then… a giant fin. When I open my eyes I’m surrounded by maybe 30 Nurse Sharks, although they’re aggressively going for the chum and not my appendages (which I’m thankful for). I’m not sure they have the best vision though, as they keep smashing into me as they frantically swim toward the cut up Mahi Mahi David has thrown into the water.
Swim with sharks and not get eaten? Check!
Next we’re off to do something one can only do in the Exumas: go snorkeling in James Bonds’ hidden underwater lair. Thunderball Grotto is where the James Bond movies Never Say Never Again and Thunderball were filmed. To get inside the grotto you need to pass under a low cave opening — so small you wouldn’t know it was there unless someone told you. Once inside, the cavern opens up to reveal a world of sea urchin-embedded limestone, dangling plants and tropical fish. This mysterious world is illuminated only by a tire-sized opening at the top, making it feel like I’m inside a water-filled volcano. I spot sergeant majors, angelfish and blue tangs in the water, which is so clear you barely need a mask. James Bond sure had good taste.
At our last stop for the day I become convinced the Exumas are the Galapagos of the Caribbean. We’re at Bitter Guana Cay, and from afar it almost looks like there are wild cats running around the island. Upon closer inspection, however, I realize they are giant iguanas.
“People say they arrived to the island on floating logs,” explains David.
They run around chasing each other frantically along the beach; however, as my group walks onto the sand they all seem to freeze. Suddenly, an iguana about three times the size of the rest storms out of the high grass, and the small ones call to attention. The alpha-guana begins moving them around, probably trying to get them away from the strange alien forms that have just descended onto the beach. But soon they start to become comfortable with us, even approaching as if to say hello (although the fact that I’m holding a fruit cup probably doesn’t hurt).
By the end of the day I’m convinced the Exumas are the quirkiest island destination in the world. Where else can you wade in crystal waters surrounded by glistening palms and white powder beaches while also swimming with pigs, jumping into a pit of sharks, visiting the lair of the world’s most iconic Secret Service Agent and frolicking on a beach with enormous iguanas that seem to have the intelligence of European explorers? Nowhere but the Exumas.
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