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The Sublime Pleasure of a Tropical Wilderness

Tim Zimmermann rediscovers the extraordinary marine habitat of Little Bahama Bank.

June 18, 2012
Sailing World

Sandy Cay

Every once in a while you discover something special. Recently, I had occasion to spend 10 days on the Little Bahama Bank. I wasn’t there to explore the Bank itself–I was there to learn about marine mammal research–which perhaps allowed the Bank to sneak up on me a bit. But regardless of my focus, by the time I hit the dock again in West Palm Beach, I had learned something important: The Little Bahama Bank is one of the most extraordinary habitats I have ever seen, and perfectly suited to exploration by boat.

Actually, it was sort of a rediscovery. I had been to the Little Bahama Bank one time before, when some college friends and I chartered a 31-foot sailboat, sight unseen, from a Fly-By-Night huckster from Fort Lauderdale because we thought it would be fun to cruise the Bahamas. It’s amazing we even survived the 24-hour, non-stop drive, to pick up our unlovely craft. (I can’t remember what kind it was.) And it’s amazing we survived the nighttime crossing to the Bahamas. We had a handheld radio direction finder, and that was it. So we did some rough calculations about the Gulf Stream, picked a course heading out of the ether, and then waved the RDF around on occasion, mostly for reassurance. Because God looks after drunks, little children, and idiot college students (if that’s not redundant), the sun came up and West End, the northwest tip of Grand Bahama and our target, appeared directly on our bow.

Of course, we acted like there was never any question that would happen, and proceeded to spend a fine week poking around the Abacos and beyond. The engine died, we ran aground a few times, and I vaguely recall problems with the head. On the way home, we ran out of food about 24 hours too soon, and only found Fort Lauderdale again by sailing west to Florida and asking a series of scornful fishermen where we were. Of course, it was a gloriously memorable cruise, but being young and callow, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons (and taking note of how spectacular the Little Bahama Bank was did not make the list).

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This time, I paid attention. And what I registered was a spectacular white sand and grass bank, that sprawls across more than 1000 square miles, is mostly less than 20 feet deep, and is wholly unlike any environment I have ever explored. You start with the sugary white sand bottom, and the often gin-clear water, which makes you feel like you are in the world’s largest swimming pool. Except you are in a wild environment, and that means wildlife. On the Little Bahama Bank you tap into entire food chains. Small fish–eels, snakefish, tunny, and more–are constantly visible from the surface and throuh a dive mask. Spotted dolphins, who are happy to swim with ungainly humans, are constantly traveling the waters. And tiger sharks cruise on the periphery. Bird life is everywhere.

This is the real Sea World.

Sometimes you really have to hang around to fully absorb the magic of a place. In settled weather you can spend days out on the Bank, anchoring behind shallow bars, or running down to Sandy Cay if you get nervous. You may not see any land poking above the surface for days, and even though you know there is an enormous sunken island just beneath you, it sometimes feels as if you are mid-ocean. In a world in which full-power marketing turns every paradise into the equivalent of a theme park, and you can’t often find room to swing at anchor (BVI, I’m talking to you), I was amazed to see just a handful of boats. It is a true wilderness, and that is both precious and rare.

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We ran down into West End just once after we cleared in, partly because the Little Bahama Bank is capable of awe-inducing thunderstorms. And while some nights at anchor out on the Bank felt very exposed, eventually it becomes your habitat, too.

Um, good time to be in port

And so you can lie out on the deck, with a thick carpet of brilliant stars overhead, and experience the wonder and deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have tapped into the pulse of the planet, in a place mostly unmarked by humanity. You are just a creature among creatures, in a seascape like no other. That’s worth seeking. And remembering.

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