Ok, ok. Exuma doesn’t have a zoo in the literal sense.
But since zoo is rooted in the Greek word for animal and, before that, a living being, the water and cays surrounding Exuma qualify as zoo-like places where you can see some pretty interesting species of both the animal and human variety.
There are lots of companies willing to take you on a tour.We signed up for a full day package with Aquaquest Escapes, the boat captained and crewed by Bahamians, all of them very safety conscious but also lots of fun. They knew the waters and cays well, and had all kinds of stories to share.
Iguana Island (aka Allan’s Cay)
Truthfully, I’m not that keen on interacting with reptiles: like Emily Dickinson said of her feelings about snakes, “Never met this fellow/
Attended or alone/Without a tighter breathing/Or zero at the bone.” Reptile eyes and claws give me the same response. So when we beached on Allan’s Cay, and a whole horde of iguanas came scuttling down to meet us in anticipation of a free breakfast, I wasn’t among the first to disembark from the boat. But since traveling is supposed to challenge your limits, I tried to conquer my discomfort, not altogether successfully. I decided to let the pros do the interaction for me, and enjoy a more distant iguana experience.
As we motored along between cays, our captain cut the engines and one of the crew dove into the shallow waters of an unofficial starfish reserve. He returned with a huge burgundy specimen. I’d never actually held a live starfish before, so feeling its prickly exterior was an interesting experience. Not to worry, animal activists – the crew returned him to his home in just a few minutes.
Sea Turtle Spontaneity
Turns out not all reptiles give me a zero at the bone response. When an energetic sea turtle suddenly flippered up next to the boat, I felt quite warm and gooshy. He stayed with us just long enough to get a snack and then disappeared again.
And if anyone cares, when I buy a swimup bar in the Bahamas, I can’t think of a better name for it than the Starfish and Turtle.
Pig Island (aka Big Bay Cay)
One of the Exuma cays’ biggest tourist attractions involves swimming with the pigs of Pig Island. How did the pigs get there? Apparently, years ago, the residents of nearby Staniel Cay needed a spot to store their pigs, which were rapidly starting to stink up their home island. The residents went over to feed them and bring back the occasional one for a feast. Eventually, some of the pigs began to anticipate the feast (the one they were getting, not providing), and began to swim out to meet the boats. The swimming pigs didn’t become an attraction until social media and selfie sticks became part of the tourist experience.
Now, every sea tour promises the opportunity to “swim with the pigs,” one we declined because, er, the pigs were doing in the water what pigs do after you feed them. Not only that, they can get rather aggressive if you make them beg for their food so your spouse can take a picture, as one of our fellow travelers found out to his terrified surprise.
Johnny, David, Faith and Tim
If the Exumas are a favorite hangout for the four-legged and the five-armed, they’ve also attracted their fair share of the famous and fabulously wealthy two-leggeds. Johnny Depp bought Little Hall’s Pond Cay after spotting it while filming The Pirates of the Caribbean. Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill purchased and entirely outfitted an island, including having all its infrastructure built and importing palm trees from Jamaica – much to the bemusement of the locals because, well, one thing you can find in abundance on the Exumas are palm trees. The Hill-McGraw island is currently on the market for $35 million US, in case you’re looking for a vacation property. David Copperfield invested in eleven pieces of Exuma paradise – Musha Cay, the island he rents out to exclusive guests, and the ten islands surrounding it for maximum privacy. You and up to 23 of your nearest and dearest can rent Musha Cay for as little as $57K per night.
A Few After Words:
1. A group of iguanas is technically called a “mess ” and now I know why.
2. For a more detailed account of the history of Pig Island, have a look at T.R. Todd’s account here, which includes interviews with Staniel Cay residents.
3. Have a look around Musha Cay, Copperfield’s rentable island here.
4. Take a peek inside the Hill- McGraw place here.
4. Aquascape Tours also gives you the chance to swim with nurse sharks and snorkel among tropical fish in the Thunderball Grotto of James Bond movie fame.