Adventures With Strangers – The Bahamas Edition
On the surface, meeting up with a complete stranger from the internet and hopping on their sailboat for a two-week trip may not sound like the best ideas. But that’s precisely what I did. My parents weren’t thrilled about the idea. . . nor was anyone else in my life for that matter. But I’d met up with strange men offering unique adventures before (I’m looking at you @everchanginghorizon), and that turned out pretty well! I’m not trying to encourage dangerous or reckless behavior – always listen to your gut. But in my experience, the bigger the risk, the greater the payoff.
Matt Grondin contacted me for the first time a couple of years ago. He emailed me a screenshot of his Instagram account with a short one-line message: “This is my IG if you’d ever like to work together in the Bahamas. I can take you sailing across the entire Exuma chain. Cheers!” I didn’t respond. But I also never forgot about the offer. He continued to support my work, leaving the occasional positive comment on my posts, and I watched as his adventure photography developed. A couple months ago, he reiterated his offer, and this time, I took it a lot more seriously. I floated the idea by Quin, and he seemed keen. So we hopped on a Zoom call with Matt, and the rest is history.
Matt picked me up in Fort Lauderdale at 6pm and we disembarked from Miami on his 2015 Beneteau Oceanis 38 a couple hours later. I watched as the bright lights of civilization slowly disappeared on the horizon. The wind was howling, and the waves surged up over the bow of the boat as we bucked a headwind for 10 straight hours. I huddled under an increasingly soaked blanket above deck, not sleeping, fighting off waves of nausea. That first night was miserable. But even then, I knew I wasn’t going to regret taking the risk. Every good story needs it’s turmoil, there are no highs without the lows after all. And despite the rough start, it only got better from there!
Matt turned out to be an excellent captain, guide, and friend. He took a lot on when he invited us aboard his home. I don’t care who you are; putting up with two complete strangers on a 38-foot boat for two weeks is no easy feat. Especially with a couple of sailing newbs like Quin and I! But Matt handled it like a champ. For 10 straight days after we picked up Quin in Nassau, we were always on the move, stopping at one epic location after another, and I can’t thank Matt enough for the unforgettable experience.
It was so good in fact, that I’d love you to be able to experience it too! Or at least something close. So I’m sharing my favorite destinations in the Exumas from our trip, to help you plan your own vacation to the Exumas! But first, a little intro to the Exumas.
Where is Exuma
The chain of 365 cays in The Bahamas, known collectively as the Exumas, covers over 100 miles of shimmering sapphire waters and sugary beaches. The Exumas’ gin-clear water makes it perfect for all manner of water-based adventures, from sailing to kiteboarding, fishing, and everything in between. Any lover of the ocean should add a visit to the Exumas to their to-do list.
Want to get away? Travelers searching for their own private slice of paradise can bounce among small, uninhabited isles in the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. Looking to mingle? Head to any number of picturesque marinas for fresh fish, tropical cocktails, and good conversation.
When To Visit Exuma
With temperate weather and sunshine year-round, there’s really no wrong time to visit the Bahamas. Many travelers prefer to travel to the Exumas in the winter while the weather is relatively dry and the humidity is kept at bay. June through October marks the Exumas’ rainy season, and you are more likely to experience storms, high winds, and cloudy days. That being said, we went in February, and battled wind the entire time. . . so go figure.
How To Get To Exuma
We sailed to the Exumas from Miami with a quick stop in Bimini to dive with Hammerhead Sharks. But most people get there via Nassau either by charter boat or flight. You can even take a day trip to the Exuma Cays via Nassau. . . although I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are extremely short on time. You can also fly directly from Fort Lauderdale to Staniel Cay (the perfect place to base yourself in the Exumas) via Makers Air, like Quin and I did when we departed.
What To Pack For The Exumas
You don’t need much for a trip through the Exuma Cays. If you are staying on a boat then comfort should be your priority. Expect warm days and pleasant nights. I would suggest bringing at least one warmer layer. I found myself wearing a sweatshirt or fleece more often than not. Especially when we were underway. Below are the items that I found myself reaching for over and over again. You can click the individual photographs for more details!
The Perfect Exuma Itinerary
We took about a week to sail from Nassau to Staniel Cay – our final destination in Exuma. Sailing is slow, and the wind was not with us, so factor that into this itinerary. It’s possible to see many of these places in a much shorter period of time by either joining a tour out of one of the more established islands or chartering a faster boat. That being said, there’s a lot to be said for slow travel, and many of my favorite memories from the Exumas took place during the unplanned in-between moments. The type of moments that don’t happen when you’re rushing from one bucket list spot to the next. So if you can, take a deep breath, slow down, and explore the Exuma Cays the way they were meant to be experienced – on island time.
Day 1 In The Exumas:
It was still dark out when we slinked out from Palm Cay Marina on Nassau’s eastern end. The Bahamas so far had been more or less one miss-adventure after another. Plagued by technical difficulties, rough seas, and visa issues, we were already a couple days off our initial itinerary, and morale was low.
But Allan’s Cay was about to change all that. We dropped anchor in 8 feet of crystal clear water that reflected the perfectly blue sky. For the first time in days, there was a collective sigh of relief – we had made it. This was the Exuma Cays! Hours were spent splashing around in the water, paddleboarding, and marveling at the water’s clarity. Even with the persistent wind ruffling up the water’s surface, it was still like peering through a glass bowl into an underwater world. A lone nurse shark that I dubbed “Harold” kept us entertained as he made his rounds around the bay, always to return back to the shade of our boat.
While Harold The Nurse Shark took a nap under the boat, we took the skiff to the next little island over – a stone’s skip across the neon blue water. I could see the local residents from the boat. At first there was just a handful of them sunbathing on the beach, but as we approached, they shuffled away, tails slithering behind them from every nook and cranny. Iguana’s everywhere!
You can find iguanas on Alan’s Cay as well, but we had Leaf all to ourselves, so we hung out there instead. Based on the warm welcome that we received, I have to assume that people feed the Iguanas. They weren’t aggressive with us, but the sheer number of them is a bit intimidating. I kept waiting for Godzilla to come exploding out of the tropical calm to protect her long-lost relatives.
Day 2 In The Exuma Islands:
Norman’s Cay & Pablo Escobar’s Plane
The rhythmic sloshing of the boat lulled me awake. It was later than expected, and when I arrived topside, we were already anchored at our first destination for the day – Norman’s Cay. The main attraction at Norman’s isn’t the island itself. It’s the airplane that lies just under the water’s surface. Urban legend has it that the plane, owned by Pablo Escobar during the 1970’s drug smuggling era, was overloaded with illicit cargo when the pilot, high on cocaine, crashed into the water just shy of the runway. While the actual story is likely a lot less interesting, it still makes for a fun place to snorkel!
You can swim over, around, and through it. But ironically, the place where it really shines is from the air. If you have a drone, this is the time to fly it. From above, the plane’s skeleton lies prostrate in its final resting position. Like the fossil of an extinct beast, only when all the pieces come together does the complete picture emerge. The effect is both haunting and strangely captivating.
Shroud Cay & The Washing Machine
I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the Bahamas would look like. I pictured flat sandy islands, low-lying shrubs, and lots and lots of blue ass water. And for the most part, that was pretty spot on. What I did not expect was Shroud Cay. Yes, technically, it had all of the above features. Blue water – CHECK. Sugar white sand – CHECK. But it also had miles and miles of mangrove canals snaking its way across the landscape.
Part of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, the current in the area, creates a natural phenomenon lovingly referred to as the “Washing Machine,” that will wash you in a spin cycle from one side of the canal to the other side. All this to say, that unless you are a reasonably experienced paddler, I’d recommend taking a dinghy. You’ll be grateful for the motorized assistance if it really starts ripping.
Standing waist-deep in the water off Hawksbill Cay, watching the sun slowly melt into the horizon, I couldn’t think of a better way to end a day. I felt the soft white sand seeping up between my toes and marveled at the abundance of solitude. In this part of Exuma, I could have my choice of private beach. The empty beaches on Hawksbill the surrounding Cays stretch for miles, and you likely won’t see another soul. We anchored there for the night, holding on to yet another day filled with few people and lots of beauty until the world faded to black and the sky exploded with stars.
Day 3 In The Exumas:
The tranquility of our second night was a distant memory as we hooked onto Danger Reef’s mooring ball. Five-foot swells slammed against the boat, scattering gear, dishes, dog food, and anything else left untethered. My stomach churned as I peered into the deep blue water looking for any ominous silhouettes that might be lurking below. It was tough to tell whether I was seasick or just really nervous about the morning’s planned activity – swimming with sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.
Part of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, Danger Reef is a popular Scuba Diving destination. Unfortunately, Matt was the only one with scuba gear. So if Quin and I wanted to photograph the famous inhabitants of Danger Reef, we would have to free dive. Now, I’ve been scuba diving with sharks plenty of times, including hammerheads a few days before in Bimini. But this was different. I’d always felt safe scuba diving. The tank is a security blanket. A giant foreign object that I always assumed looked distinctly unappetizing. Without that, I was left questioning what I’d gotten myself into.
Lucky for me, Danger Reef’s usual posse of Reef Sharks didn’t show that day. Instead, only two or three deemed it worth their time to come say hi. As a result, we didn’t get the photos I had pictured in my head, but it was still a memorable heart-pumping experience. And hey, I didn’t get eaten. So it’s a win in my book!
O’Brien’s Cay & “The Aquarium”
The second you dip your head under the water, you understand why it’s called the “Aquarium.” A kaleidoscope of tropical fish swarm around the equally colorful reef system. The Sergeant Major fish are particularly abundant and friendly!
The Aquarium is located on the NW side of O’Brien’s Cay. There are a couple mooring balls to tie off at, and you’ll see a sign for the Exam Cays Land and Sea Park. The current in this area can really start ripping, so aim for slack tide if you can. Otherwise, make sure not to stray too far from the protected cove.
When you’ve finished snorkeling at the Aquarium, head over to the nearby plane wreck. The submerged aircraft is only about 20 feet deep, but it makes for a fun swim-through. Again, the current can be powerful in this area. So test out the water before you get too far from your boat. The wreck is marked by a mooring ball.
Day 4 In The Exumas:
The most well-known underwater cave in The Exumas is by far Thunderball Grotto. But a more off-the-beaten-track option is Rocky Dundas. Located just south of Little Bells Cay (Cambridge Cay) in the Exuma Land and Sea Park.
There are two caves to explore at Rocky Dundas. They are marked by a sign high up on the rock face. You can also look for the two buoys, one at each cave opening, that are there for your dingy. As with Thunderball Grotto, you have to swim underwater to get inside the caves at high tide. At low tide, it’s possible to swim underneath the rock opening without diving under the water – but watch your head! The rock is sharp, and a stray swell could really ruin your day. Trust me. . . I know.
The first cave (on the left if you’re facing the island) has a small low tide beach and a hole in the top that will produce an ethereal light ray in the dark space when the sun’s position is just right. The second cave (on the right) doesn’t have much in the way of dry land to stand on, but it’s full of interesting stalactites and stalagmites.
Things to know about Rocky Dundas: I almost didn’t include Rocky Dundas in this post because while we were there, the surge ripped me off the side of the second cave, dragged me underwater, and threw me around on the sharp rocks like a rag doll. Luckily, Matt was able to grab me with his one free hand (the other was holding a few thousand dollars worth of camera gear) and pull me back up onto my feet before things went really south. As it was, I got some pretty gnarly cuts, bruises, and a pretty good scare.
The point of this story is not to discourage you from checking out Rocky Dundas. I’m not in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do. But I want to give people the information they need to make informed decisions based on their comfort levels. We clearly had terrible conditions at this particular location – and in hindsight maybe we shouldn’t have pushed it. The surge was big, and the current was ripping. I’m sure that there are other times when the water is perfectly calm and exploring the caves would be easy peasy. In short, if conditions are rough outside the cave, think twice about entering.
Compass Cay Marina
You’ve probably seen photos of bikini-clad girls floating in gin clear water, surrounded by a bevy of friendly nurse sharks. While it’s possible to take similar pictures at several locations through The Bahamas, more likely than not, the ones you’ve seen were taken at Compass Cay. It’s a picture-perfect marina, with a cute burger shack and colorful wood signs left by past visitors.
If you want to get the classic shot swimming with nurse sharks, arrive early! It’s a popular stop for tours coming from as far as Nassau. Every boat full of visitors, will likely feed the sharks from the bucket of leftover fish guts and squid provided at the dock. If you arrive in the late afternoon like we did; the sharks will be full, and probably not all that interested in posing for your photoshoot (I’m mostly joking).
Things to know about Compass Cay: They are very strict about photographing the sharks at Compass Cay. The local owner is wary of people coming in and making money off his property. As a result, you’re only permitted to use your cellphone or GoPro to take photos. If you want to use a “real” camera, there is a hefty commercial photography fee—they told us $3,000—and it is strictly enforced.
It’s also worth pointing out that there is no temporary day use mooring inside the marina (despite what their website says). You will be charged for the night if you attempt to dock, which will set you back $4.00 per ft. If you just want to hang out for an hour or so, it’s best to anchor outside the marina and then dinghy in. For that, you’ll pay $15/person. Or, you can just jump on one of the tours from Staniel Cay.
The sun was setting on our 4th day in The Exumas when we docked at Staniel Cay, but I could already tell I was going to love it there. We were greeted by one of my favorite underwater photographers André Musgrove. He grew up in The Bahamas and was on the island for a photography tour with a client. It’s always fun meeting someone whose work you’ve admired for a long time.
Day 5 In The Exumas:
Sharks at Staniel Cay
After our first night at dock in over a week, we woke up to nurse sharks circling behind our boat! I couldn’t help but laugh. We had spent the last few days trying to swim with sharks. Whether reef sharks at Danger Reef, the famous Nurse Sharks at Compass Cay, or every little cay and bay in between, we had always come up a little bit short in the shark department. And here we were, docked, not even trying, and the sharks came to us!
We quickly threw on our snorkel gear, ripped out the cameras, and spent the morning doing an impromptu photoshoot with our guests of honor. It’s one of my most fond memories from the trip. Which just goes to show that the best moments are often unplanned – especially when mother nature is involved.
Things to know about nurse sharks: Nurse sharks are slow-moving bottom-dwellers known for their docile demeanors. Like all sharks, they are not particularly interested in humans. That can change if you decide to start acting less like a person and more like a source of food. Throwing bait into the water you’re swimming in, and then wiggling your fingers and toes around is a pretty good way to do that. So, if you are lucky enough to swim with nurse sharks, try and minimize your movement and keep your digits protected. Nurse sharks might not possess large teeth, but their bite can be quite painful!
There’s no questioning how Thunderball Gratto became a star with features in multiple movies since it’s debut in the 1963 James Bonde film “Thunderball.” Everything about it, from the hidden underwater entrance to the stunning blue water, exotic marine life, is cinematic. Don’t even get me started on the glimmering sun rays that pierce through the water, spotlighting any subject that they grace. I know the term “magical” gets thrown around a lot, but if I had to use it to describe just one place on this trip, Thunderball Gratto would be it.
Like many other locations on this itinerary, it’s best to time the tide to avoid heavy currents inside the Gratto. High tide is the best time to go for photographs. At high tide, you will need to swim underwater to get into the cave. It’s not difficult! But if the thought of diving into an underwater cave makes you nervous, plan on heading to the Gratto at low tide when you can enter the cave without diving under the water.
Big Major Cay (aka Pig Island)
Plot twist: I didn’t go to Pig Island. I know, I know. . . strange. Pig Island is arguably the most famous “Instagram Spot” in Exuma. It is a stone’s throw away from Staniel Cay, Thunderball Grotto, and several other popular destinations. We motored right by it multiple times. So, I basically don’t have a good excuse. There was just always something else I wanted to do more.
That being said, I’m including it because I know swimming with pigs is something a lot of you are interested in experiencing. From what I understand, the pigs will swim out to your boat to greet you as you approach the island, and it’s not uncommon for them to hang out for a while. If you don’t have your own boat, this is another easy destination to visit as part of a more extensive tour. As with all animal-based tourism, I encourage you to do your own independent research before engaging with the pigs.
Day 6 In The Exumas:
Staniel Cay Adventures and The Musician
As much as I loved sailing, it’s not fast. The boat that Staniel Cay Adventures picked us up in, on the other hand, flies! In fact, if we had wanted them to, they probably could have taken us to most of the locations that we spent the better part of the last week sailing to in one day.
Staniel Cay Adventures offers various scuba diving trips, tours, and charters tailored to your adventure desire. In our case, we were interested in exploring The Musician. Just off the coast of Rudder Cut Cay, swimmers will find a life-sized sculpture of a mermaid patiently waiting near the bench of a baby grand piano waiting for you to play her a tune. This sculpture is aptly named the Musician.
The famous magician David Copperfield commissioned the artwork from Jason DeCaires Taylor and then had it hidden about 15 feet below the water’s surface as an unexpected surprise for the few who are willing to seek it out. Needless to say, we wanted to be one of those few! And Staniel Cay Adventure was more than up to the task. They even stopped at a few other cool locations along the way!
Day 7 In The Exumas:
Gale force winds blew in on our last night in The Exumas – topping 30mph through the day. So, instead of spending the morning visiting Pig Island, or any of the other potential last-minute adventures we had on our list, we resigned to making sure the boat didn’t crash into any nearby cays.
At 3:00 pm we said our final goodbyes to Matt, Grey Wind, and Lulu, and hopped on a golf cart to the airport. We boarded our Makers Air flight from Staniel Cay to Fort Lauderdale as the pilot warned us that it was going to be a bumpy ride. From my window seat, the Exuma Cays resembled small white and green jewels floating in a sea of electric blue Gatorade. We were only a few hundred feet above the water, but I already missed it. Wind and all.
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Happy Adventuring. – jess