Islands of Discovery: The Southern Out Islands of the Bahamas

Trek to the southern Out Islands of the Bahamas is a back-to-nature, people-to-people kind of experience. Locals socialize around the conch bar in the afternoon and still wave to one another as they drive from settlement to settlement.

Venturing to these islands is a thrill in itself. From Nassau’s New Providence Island, the soft greens and pale blues of the Great Bahama Bank swirl in a spectacular kaleidoscope of color and pattern. Islands and small cays sprawl over a turquoise canvas that stretches for thousands of miles.

It is said that there are 700 islands in the Bahamas — not difficult to believe when seen from the air — and a vast expanse that’s still mostly unexplored by divers. Anglers easily outnumber bubble-blowers and consider the bonefishing on the shallow banks equal to any fishing ground in the world. Although several Out Islands — notably Great Exuma, Long Island, Cat Island and San Salvador — have long-standing dive businesses, there are still surprisingly few, considering the great expanse of ocean and exciting possibilities.

Underwater adventures here will satisfy every level and type of diver. Looking for mysterious blue holes? Exciting drop-offs? Prefer colorful coral gardens? Then select an island. Any island. English is the native language, and the American dollar is used right along with the local currency. Add great underwater visibility, warm water and reliable instructors, and you have the perfect components.

The Out Islands pace is slow and relaxed. You’ll awaken to crowing roosters and the soft rustling of golden palms. Don’t come expecting exciting nightlife, lots of shopping possibilities or fancy gourmet restaurants. Out Islands cuisine can best be described as basic — grouper fillets, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, all washed down with a cold bottle of Kalik, the local brew. But after an exhilarating day on the water, a Bahamian meal enjoyed right along with Bahamian company could transform an ordinary dive trip into something really special.

The Discovery

These are the very islands that Columbus discovered on his first daring voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, attempting to be the first explorer to reach the East Indies by sea. Columbus set off from Spain on August 3, and it is generally accepted that his first landfall, on October 12, was on the island of San Salvador, (meaning Holy Savior), at the time called Guanahani by the native Lucayan inhabitants.

Columbus described the natives as well-built, handsome people, who swam and rowed dugout canoes to the ship’s boats bringing parrots and other gifts. When he left, he saw so many islands that he couldn’t decide where to go first. It’s surmised that his route through the Bahamas was to Rum Cay, then to tiny Conception Island and on to Long Island and Crooked Island. Today, both San Salvador and Long Island have imposing monuments commemorating the Columbus voyage.

Columbus was as impressed with the islands as he was with their inhabitants. He described beautiful groves of trees and fertile land. He wrote about flocks of parrots that “obscured the sun” and fish with the “brightest colors in the world.” If he could have seen the beauty of the coral reefs, it would have knocked his leggings off. Columbus had no way of knowing that the New World lay in his path; consequently, he named these islands, which he assumed were outposts of Asia, the West Indies.

Sadly, the Spanish enslaved the peaceful Lucayan people. By 1511 the entire population was gone. The Spanish, along with the English and French, tried to establish settlements throughout the 17th century and much of the 18th, without much success.

English privateering (legalized pirating) for many years was the most successful enterprise. Pirates in the service of the crown looted the galleons, hiding among the many islands and harbors. Under Henry Jennings, Nassau grew to become a wealthy, albeit lawless, pirate capital, welcoming the infamous Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and Calico Jack Rackham. King George II declared the Bahamas a royal colony in 1718, establishing Woodes Rogers as governor and outlawing privateering. Salvaging, or wrecking, became the enterprise du jour.

Invasion of the Loyalists

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, English Loyalists (those who remained loyal to the Crown) lost their lands and left the colonies in droves, taking their slaves with them. King George III awarded them enormous land grants in these southern Out Islands, and the remains of their cotton plantations are still evident today. Examples are Lord Rolle’s estate on Great Exuma, Dumfries on Cat Island, Gray’s on Long Island, and Farquharson on San Salvador.

The burgeoning population cleared land for farming and felled hardwoods for shipbuilding. As a result, the Bahamian parrot, flamingos and other birds so plentiful when Columbus first arrived live on only a few islands today. But the huge plantations were not successful and many Loyalists abandoned them, this time leaving their slaves behind. Full emancipation came in 1834.

Fishing, sponging and fruit farming became the economic mainstays and remain important to this day. Visitors can still witness the practice of pothole farming; that is, planting in deep holes within the porous limestone.

Although the Bahamas are politically tied to the British Crown, its fortunes have always been interlocked more directly with its American neighbors. With the growth of tourism in the mid-1960s and the establishment of the Bahamas as a corporate tax haven, the islands prospered. In 1973 Bahamians declared independence from British rule and created the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

Island Hopping — the Exuma Cays

Nassau International Airport is the hub for travel to the Out Islands, with Bahamas Air and a number of charter companies all leaving from the domestic terminal. Flights run on regular schedules during daylight hours.

Just southeast of Nassau, the Exuma Cays archipelago appears, stretching for more than 100 breathtakingly beautiful miles. The northern section comprises the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, where commercial fishing and collecting have been prohibited since 1958. More than 300 uninhabited cays, with their sandy beaches and tranquil harbors, are a boater’s dream.

Every island has its regatta — the annual event most anticipated by islanders — but the Exuma Out Island Regatta (in April) is party central when sailors from all parts pull into George Town’s Elizabeth Harbor, then spill out to fill the restaurants and bars. But for boat builders throughout the islands, the race is serious business, and the event keeps alive the sailing know-how of old when these hefty wooden vessels with their huge billowing sails were the islands’ only connection to one another and to the outside world.

Divers and snorkelers will find shallow patch reef sites in the cuts between the islands and also near Elizabeth Harbor itself. Outside the reef line are spur-and-groove reefs where pelagic fish, mantas and eagle rays appear from the open ocean.

Stocking Island, however, is the primary attraction, due to its nearby Angelfish Blue Hole, a photographer’s dream. This perfectly round hole leads to a cavern at 90 feet (27 m), then runs horizontally for a full cave dive. Nearby are more caves and blue holes, as well as shallow reefs, wave-patterned white sand, and huge grouper being groomed by cleaner shrimp and gobies.

The venerable and tropically pink Peace and Plenty hotel, once a private residence and destination for British royalty, has a dive operation on-site as well as a bonefishing school. And the new 183-room Four Seasons Resort at Emerald Bay is about the hottest new facility in the Exumas, if not in the entire Out Islands. Golfers take note: It features a Greg Norman-designed 18-hole golf course.

Long Island

Follow the Tropic of Cancer due east and it will bisect Little Exuma, then Long Island, considered the most scenic Out Island. A single paved road runs down its 80-mile (128-km) length, flanked on one side by aquamarine limestone banks and on the other by the Atlantic’s crashing surf. In the south, riverlike channels wind past cay after beautiful uninhabited cay, all lush with mangroves. Beaches with powder-soft pink sand lined with coconut palms and pines stretch for miles.

Traveling south through the Out Islands, the climate becomes evermore arid, with cactus prevalent, as well as flowering bougainvillea, hibiscus and poinsettias. On Long Island, tropical fruits and vegetables of all sorts are grown in the fertile soil in the south.

Visitors flying into Deadman’s Cay airport in the south usually stay at one of several small fishing lodges or guesthouses. About midisland is the settlement of Salt Pond, the regatta site (June) and location of Reeldivers at Grotto Bay Bahamas.

A steep wall to the south, lush with healthy corals and teeming with pelagic life, and Dean’s Blue Hole are among the island’s natural wonders. At 660 feet (200 m), Dean’s is the deepest known blue hole in the world.

At the northern end are two exceptional full-scale resorts, both with dive operations. Stella Maris Resort, dating from the ’60s, actually started organized shark diving in the Bahamas. Day trips go out to uninhabited (and protected) Conception Island for beautiful wall diving. Running for about 20 miles (32 km), the wall starts to descend at about 60 feet (18 m). Large coral heads near the edge of the wall in shallower water are ideal for photography.

Both Stella Maris and the newer Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort (with a stunning crescent-shaped beach) run shorter trips to the West Long Island Wall, to the Comberbach wreck and to coral gardens all around the northern tip. Divers will see schools of jacks, snapper and Atlantic spadefish, sharks, grouper, barracuda and eagle rays.

For island touring, visit Columbus Memorial at the northern tip, the quaint administrative complex at Simms and the new museum in Hamilton’s. Evening options include Max’s Conch Bar or Chez Pierre’s for exceptional pastas. There’s usually a lively band and dancing at Stella Maris and the lounge overlooking Cape Santa Maria is the perfect place to socialize.

Cat Island Canyons

Cat Island, to the north, is not as well-known to divers but it should be. Sites along its south end wall plummet from 60 feet (18 m) and are covered with black coral, layers of plate coral, giant sponges and sea fans. Grouper and sharks appear from huge crevices and around massive coral escarpments. Dive centers at both Greenwood Beach Resort and Hawk’s Nest Resort and Marina look out upon the wall, and offer snorkeling and shore diving right from the beach.

About 50 miles (80 km) long, Cat Island consists of rolling limestone hills covered with lush-green forests, and very few inhabitants. The top attraction here is Father Jerome’s medieval-style Hermitage on Mount Alvernia. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon light for the best effect. This Jesuit priest built the native stone structure by hand, and at 206 feet (62 m), it’s the highest point in the Bahamas, with a 360-degree view.

One of the most scenic Out Islands lodgings is Fernandez Bay Resort, with a gorgeous western-view location and nine native stone villas. For casual dining and mixing with the sailing crowd, head to Hawk’s Nest.

San Salvador’s Wall

Barely an island (only 12 miles by 5 miles), San Salvador has 28 landlocked lakes. San Sal’s vast wall stretches from Cockburn Town all the way around the southern tip. Typically, it slopes from 40 feet (12 m) to 70 feet (21 m), then plunges steeply for hundreds of feet.

The Riding Rock Inn has been treating divers to outrageous dive spots for decades and maintains a loyal following. Both Riding Rock and reopened Club Med Columbus Isle face the wall on the northwest side of the island, and each offers enjoyable snorkeling from the beach.

For touring, visit the White Cross Monument, possible site of Columbus’ first landing; also the Dixon Hill Lighthouse, tended by the same family for generations and one of nine lighthouses built by the Imperial Lighthouse Service in the 1800s. Trade dive stories at Riding Rock’s bar or hangouts in Cockburn Town.

Amazingly, these southern Out Islands, less than an hour’s flight out of Nassau, are not particularly well-known to Americans. But thankfully, the region, which still seems remote, is readily accessible and definitely accommodating to divers.

By Jean Pierce Photo by Kevin Palmer