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The Road to Cherokee

07 14th, 2008

The future has arrived overnight down a twisting new road
to a place where time seemed to stand still for 150 years

By Jim Kerr

Of all Abaco’s communites, Cherokee Sound is by far the most isolated. It remains debatable as to why the location, 23 miles south of Marsh Harbour on the east coast of Great Abaco, was chosen for a settlement in the first place. One explanation is that American loyalists, sailing from Spanish-held Florida in 1783, were working their way up the east coast of Abaco when they spied a shallow harbour. It was the first they had seen, and while it was only suitable for small vessels, the area offered fertile land, protection from the sea and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of fresh water. The nearby mangroves, while dense, were Cherokee Sound Abaco Bahamasnavigable by skiff, and there was excellent elevation off an ocean point which formed the northern boundary of a fabulous bay and curving sand beach which became known as Winding Bay.
Why they dubbed the settlement “Cherokee Sound” is also a subject of conjecture. Patrick Bethel, a native of Cherokee and author of a brief but informative booklet called “Growing up in Cherokee, 1935-1950,” theorizes that the founder, Colonel Thomas Brown, who had commanded a battalion of king’s rangers in the Carolinas and had been the King of England’s representative to the Cherokee Indians there, brought with him a Cherokee Indian woman. Some say old photographs show distinct Cherokee features in the faces of some early settlement offspring.
Whatever the true source of the name, Cherokee Sound’s geographical situation held it in check for the next two hundred years. The shallow harbour did not allow major vessels, and the only alternative way into the town was a creek accessible by dinghy. Other early settlements such as Marsh Harbour, Hope Town and Man-O-War Cay, all with excellent harbours, were a day’s sail from Cherokee. In the 1950s, as these communties began to catch up with 20th century techology and establish modern-day industries such as tourism and real estate, Cherokee basically remained an anachronism of the 19th century.
Coming suddenly upon Cherokee is somewhat like finding the mythical Scottish village of “Brigadoon,” which, according to legend, only appeared once for a day every 100 years. Today there are 98 houses and a population of about 180, but there were as many as 400 people living here in the 1800s, and until the 1950s, there were more residents in Cherokee than in Marsh Harbour. The neat and narrow concrete streets pass by pastel painted houses trimmed in pink, green and blue. There are three churches; a small community center, which was resurrected from an old one-room school house; and a new, two-room primary school with 18 students. One small, but well-stocked, grocery store, the Cherokee Food Fair, serve the town needs, but there are no restaurants or tourist lodgings in the settlement, although 23 of the houses are foreign owned and a handful of these, as well as native-owned houses, are sometimes rented.
The people of Cherokee are known for being tall, handsome, intelligent and hard-working. While the earliest inhabitants were American Loyalists, newcomers included descendants of the Eleutherian Adventurers, who had settled Eleuthera from Bermuda in the 1600s. The village had ties with other loyalist settlements such as Hope Town, Man-O-War Cay and Green Turtle Cay, and today names common in those island communities, such as Sawyer, Albury, Pinder and Bethel, can be found in Cherokee as well. They survived on what they could grow on land or catch in the sea. Grits, corn, potatoes, peas and wild fruits were supplemented with conch, fish, turtle and whelks, but from the mid 1800s to present day, cash to buy everything else, from clothes to household goods, has come almost exclusively from catching and selling fish of one kind or another.
Cherokee fisherman Kenneth Albury, 63, stands six-foot-five. His solid frame and can-do attitude is typical of many men here who have worked hard all their lives to make the settlement a lasting entity. He left school at age 14 to go smack fishing on a 48-foot boat called the Renown, built in Cherokee. Like most, the Renown spent six to seven weeks at a time at sea before selling its catch in Nassau and returning home. Today Ken is a crawfisherman, a much more lucrative occupation which only requires an absence of two to three weeks. “I never had any desire to move away,” Ken says. “I like the quiet here and going to sea, and when you’re home for two or three weeks between trips, you have time to help the community.”
His mother had eight children. Large families were the rule back then, a trend which has greatly diminished in recent years. When Ken went to the little school, there were more than 80 children. His teacher was Pat Bethel, who was born in 1933, and whose own family numbered six boys. Today, half the 18 students in the primary school live at nearby Casuarina Point, and big families of 10 to 12 are a thing of the past. Attrition has also contributed to the decreased population over the years. But while many have moved away, others have either stayed or returned, determined to take advantage of new job opportunties while embracing Cherokee’s peaceful ways.
Hartman Albury, 35, is primarily involved in construction, a trade he learned from his father, but for 15 years he was a crawfisherman working for Ross Sawyer out of Green Turtle Cay. Bonnie, 31, his wife of 13 years, works full time at the Cherokee food store. Their home is a sturdy block house, as opposed to the older wood frame houses which tend to be plagued by termites. It’s bright and richly furnished, with every modern appliance, and inside some glass cases are samples of Hartie’s talent as a model boat maker, another skill passed down from his father.
“I’ve traveled a lot in the U.S. and Bahamas,” says Hartie, “but I prefer things in Cherokee to remain the way they were. Until now, it has basically stayed the way it was in my father’s day. People interact like they did 100 years ago, and I don’t want to see that change, despite the new road and all.”
Telephones arrived in 1987 when Batelco installed a radio tower on the edge of the village. Electricity, via an underwater cable from Casuarina, followed almost six years later, and the paved road, linking Cherokee to the newly paved highway on South Abaco, was opened in 1997. For the first few miles, the road runs straight through level farmland, then takes a series of sharp, 90 degree turns as it follows higher ground around the mangroves and along the coast until finally dead ending into a town parking lot to the left, or straight into the village and waterfront. Both electricity and the road are said to be fulfilled political promises in return for Cherokee’s support during the 1991 Bahamas elections, but whatever the motivations might have been, the outcome has been dramatic.
For people used to a seamless commute between home and work, Cherokee’s situation up to this point is hard to imagine. A mail boat plying the route between Marsh Harbour and Nassau was the community’s only regular contact with the outside world, except for short wave radio and telegraph. During the 1950s, a dirt farm road linked the unpaved road on south Abaco to a place called Big Mangrove, across the sound from Cherokee . From here, small, shallow-draft boats could pick up and drop off passengers at the settlement dock. In the early 1980s, Carol Albury, a Marsh Harbour contractor, pushed a road through the forest from Big Mangrove which circled the inland waterways and mangroves and reached the village. It was a necessary element in a project to bring in equipment to deepen the dredged channel from Cherokee to the ocean, but the narrow tract road was never intended as a viable overland route. Nevertheless, taxis came over it once a week, conditions permitting, and Cherokee men like Meldon Albury, Hartie’s father, commuted five days a week to construction jobs as far away as Treasure Cay.
Because of its peculiar location, it is easy to understand why Cherokee was as dependent on the sea for a living as much, if not more, than Abaco’s outer cays. Fishing smacks, which were typically 32-feet on the keel and 48 feet overall, carried a crew of nine or ten men on five to seven-week trips. Scale fish such as jacks and google eyes in summer, and snapper, grunts and yellowtail in winter, were caught with large nets about 300 feet long and 12 feet deep. The catch, up to 1,200 pounds, was stored in live wells and sold in Nassau about once a week. The boats were kept at an anchorage called Riding Cay, about a mile from the settlement, when the men came home for a layover, but during the hurricane months of September and October the boats were brought up into the creek, beached or hauled for painting and maintenance at the settlement.
Boat building became a major industry in Abaco in the late 1800s, but while settlements such as Hope Town and Green Turtle built sailing schooners for freight, Cherokee specialized in fishing smacks. The industry produced several generations of talented builders from the mid 1800s until the late 1950s, but Benny Sawyer, Hartie’s uncle, is considered the best and most prolific of them all. He built 22 boats during his career, and while most were fishing vessels, one was a 60-footer commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook of England and another, the Pinnochio, was later bought by William F. Buckley, who renamed it the Cyrano, sailed it across the Atlantic and wrote a bestseller book about it called “Airborne.”
Together with his father, Hartie built a replica model of Sea Bird, one of Uncle Benny’s early creations, and because of his talent, the Bahamas government has asked Hartie to build a similar model to represent Cherokee’s boat-building past for a display at a Smithsonian Maritime Museum in Baltimore. It’s only one project of many that Hartie and other Cherokee residents are involved with to preserve the past. A neighbor, Lee Pinder, was instrumental in erecting a monument to Cherokee sailors, an obelisk engraved on three sides and dedicated in 1988. Lee contributes a column on Cherokee affairs to the Abaconian newspaper, but while she is tuned in to everything going on here, and involved in many on-going civic projects, she is not a native. Originally from Ohio, she met her husband, Dan, a native Cherokee resident, through friends in Nassau, and spent the next 20 years living in Freeport before coming home to Dan’s birthplace.
“We looked for 20 years for a place here in the settlement,” she says. “This house had been sold to foreignors, and they sold it back to us.”
Like many in Cherokee, whether newcomers or tenth generation residents, Lee Pinder worries about foreign influence on the community, while at the same time acknowledging the tremendous contributions of outsiders. There have been many, but one of the most notable is Colyn Rees, an entrepeneur born in Bermuda who, unlike the loyalists, did not discover Cherokee from the sea. The year was 1946, and Colyn had founded an air charter service called Nassau Aviation Company. During the war, he had ferried new bombers across the Atlantic as an RAF Transport Command pilot, but now he was looking down on something decidedly more picturesque than open ocean. From the vantage of a Grumman Goose amphibian, he saw beauty and potential beyond anything previously imagined.
“I wanted to see all the islands,” says Colyn, who lives today in Marsh Harbour. “In those days, Abaco was the most neglected.” A talented photographer, he shot aerials of the village and the area. He could see how neatly the settlement nestled into the sound, how Winding Bay’s sandy beach curved gracefully to the north, and how the coastline rose beyond to elevations not found many other places in the Bahamas. “It was,” he said, “without a doubt, from Cherokee Point to Little Harbour, the most beautiful property in all the Abacos.”
A lifelong love affair with the area began soon after when Colyn himself bought 23 acres on a hill which sloped from the sea down to the sound just north of the settlement. He built five cottages as a bonefishing and deep sea fishing camp, then went into semi-retirement there in the late 1950s. He kept his businesses going in Nassau, but embraced the Cherokee community as his own. “It was the most remote, poorest white settlement I’d ever been to,” he recalls. “They were fishermen and boat builders and that was it. I felt I could help these people, so I commissioned the building of two fishing smacks.”
The Pride of Abaco and the Queen of Abaco, 60 footers built in 1952 and 1953, were among the last in a long line of Cherokee-built fishing smacks. Eventually, Colyn sold most of his land, keeping seven acres, and moved on. But he is not at all surprised to see the most recent development taking shape just a few hundred yards from his property. The Winding Bay Club, a $160 million development, features a spectacular links golf course, two-acre oceanfront homesites selling for $1.5 million dollars and up, and “cottages” which go for well over a million dollars apiece. The new development, which has come with the speed of light compared with Cherokee Sound’s history and slow evolution, already employs some Cherokee workers, mainly in construction and landscaping, with more jobs to come. But as affluent new club members and home owners at the Abaco Club at Winding Bay begin to arrive, the biggest economic impact will no doubt be on tourism and real estate.
“Everybody is anxiously waiting to see what happens,” says Lee Pinder. “People who have come here to visit from other Abaco communities have remarked how lovely it is here. They tell us, though, ‘don’t let foreigners come in and take it away.’”
Real estate prices in and around Cherokee have already spiked considerably. Lot prices in Yellowwood, a residential area between the settlement and Winding Bay, have more than doubled in recent months. “People will be tempted to sell at high prices,” says Hartie Albury, “and young people growing up today won’t be able to afford property in their own community. The problem will be keeping the community together. This is what happens when change comes.”
New neighbors, however, have always meant new benefactors. The settlement’s pride and joy, its long dock, which stretches far out over the shallow waters of the bay, has been rebuilt several times after storms with money contributed by foreign home owners. Fundraisers backed by foreign residents have also helped finance repairs, the community center, the village fire truck and other projects. Curiosity will no doubt bring Winding Bay’s new residents to Cherokee, but the outcome remains unknown. The world behind the gates of The Abaco Club is a world of refinement and manicured scenery, where an oceanfront golf course borders a well-tended white sand beach, and a stable of horses stand ready for treks across the property, and perhaps up to Little Harbour where gallery and pub-owner Pete Johnson is already thinking of new boat moorings and docks for a wealthy newfound clientele.
In a world where the day begins by addressing a ball teed up on a multi-million dollar ocean golf course, tiny, unimposing Cherokee Sound, while just over the ridge, might just as well be on a different planet. On the other hand, a glimpse of Brigadoon could be the beginning of a long love affair.

The Way It Was

07 14th, 2008

When they sailed to Key West
Green Turtle homes went too

(from the Spring, 2005 issue of Abaco Life)

By Jim Kerr

At age 18, John Bartlum of Green Turtle Cay was already a captain. His wrecking vessel, Wanderer, slid into Nassau on February 7, 1832 with a cargo of candles, butter, dry goods and oil that Bartlum and his crew had salvaged from the line ship Dewitt Clinton, which had recently wrecked on the reef at Elbow Cay.
Like most men on Green Turtle, Bartlum was a loyalist descendant. His parents, John Bartlum and Mary Curry, had come to Abaco in the 1780s looking for a new life after the American Revolution. Their youngest son and his crew were part of a sturdy breed, religious and hard-working, resilient and durable; much like the native madeira wood that went into their vaunted wrecking schooners, laboriously crafted at Green Turtle Cay. They would have been Bartlum House Stamphappy to stay and work in Abaco the rest of their lives, except for the law. But when it changed, requiring goods salvaged from U.S. ships to be brought to a salvage court in a U.S. port, John Bartlum moved to an obscure little island at the tail end of a series of islands at the tip of Florida known as Key West.
He became a shipwright there in 1835, and with financial help from a fellow Green Turtle Cay native named William Curry, he built a 10-ton sloop called the Mary McIntosh, described by the Key West Enquirer as “the first boat of her size built here, being about 32 feet keel.” A couple of years later, Bartlum was back in Green Turtle Cay where, on July 29, 1837, he married Sarah Lowe, daughter of William Lowe and Eliza Albury. For the next eight years (long enough to have the first four of their nine children) they settled into the house Bartlum had built there. But in 1845, lured by opportunity, Bartlum and his growing family moved back to Key West, where he proceeded to put both himself and his adopted new home on the map.
Engaged as a shipwright for Browne and Curry, Bartlum constructed a flurry of large sailing schooners of more than 100 tons each between 1848 and 1859. He had never served a day as an apprentice, learning from reading and hands-on experience, and while he would become a U.S. citizen in 1853, and would turn down many offers to leave Key West and relocate his work elsewhere, he chose to stay in this growing island town. After all, it was almost an extension of his homeland. The population of around 3,000 was 40 to 50 percent Bahamian, with about half of that number originating in Abaco. It was, in those days, more of a Caribbean island port than a city in Florida.
Besides, Abaco was only a few days sail from Key West, and like other Bahamians, Bartlum could easily visit folks back home. It was in 1847, however, that he returned to claim his most important possession - his house.
It was the year after the most devastating hurricane in Key West’s history. The town had been substantially flattened. In a scenario still familiar to hurricane victims everywhere in Florida and the Bahamas, no carpenters or other workmen were readily available to repair or rebuild, except at outrageous prices. So Bartlum came home, dismantled his house in Green Turtle, loaded it aboard ship, and reassembled it on a lot he had purchased in Key West from his brother, Joseph.
He wasn’t the only one from Green Turtle Cay to do this. Capt. Richard “Tuggy” Roberts did the same, buying a piece of Bartlum’s land in November, 1847 and reassembling his own Green Turtle house in Key West. Like Bartlum, he was a wrecker, but as a southern sympathizer and entrepeneur during the civil war, he used his ships to run Union blockades.
Both men, talented and successful as they were, were eclipsed by yet a third Green Turtle native, William Curry, a merchant and businessman extraordinaire, who became Florida’s first millionaire. He too had been a wrecker, but his subsequent mercantile businesses extended into ship provisionings, farm stores and ship building. In 1854, a year after he had become an American citizen, John Bartlum, working under the auspices of Curry’s company, built the clipper ship Stephen R. Mallory. It was the crowning acheivement of his career - 959 tons, 164-feet in length with a 35-foot beam, built from the mahogany known as “madeira” and capable of carrying up to 50 percent more cargo than any other ship its size. The ship was named for a U.S. senator who became secretary of the Confederate Navy, and she sailed for the next 14 years, including two trips around Cape Horn, until foundering off the Irish coast in 1870.
The Mallory cemented John Bartlum’s reputation and guaranteed his legacy in shipbuilding history in Key West. He lived there until he died in 1871 at age 57. His mentor and financier, William Curry, who had been born on Green Turtle Cay in 1821, died in Key West in 1898 at age 77. Together with Capt. Tuggy Roberts and many other Abaconians, they left behind a legacy of family and accomplishments that can still be seen today in the flourishing city of Key West. Curry’s house still stands, as do the Green Turtle Cay homes of Roberts and Bartlum, the latter now restored but still side-by-side, as they have been on the corner of William and Eaton Streets for the past 158 years.
Meanwhile, this year’s Island Roots Festival on Green Turtle Cay, scheduled for May 20-22, continues the Key West connection, featuring activities commemorating the ties. New Bahamian stamps, scheduled for release May 17, feature paintings by artist Alton Lowe of Bartlum, Curry and the houses brought to Key West. For more information on the Island Roots Festival, call 242-367-3067 or 242-367-4336. For information on acquiring the stamps, write Philatelic Bureau, c/o GPO, P.O. Box 8302, Nassau, Bahamas.

New Galapagos

12 12th, 2007

Wearing elaborate and expensive diving equipment, cave diver Brian Kakuk sinks gently below the potentially poisonous hydrogen-sulfide zone of an Abaco blue hole. Below this level, where fresh and salt water meet, darkness closes in and only the beam from his powerful torchlight illuminates the mysteries of a long ago world. Kakuk has spent innumerable hours in this dark, delicate underwater sphere known as the Sawmill Sink, a blue hole south of Marsh Harbour, where extraordinary discoveries have been made of remarkably intact and diverse animal fossils. They include specimens of an extinct and previously unknown tortoise; 38 skeletons of Cuban crocodiles; an unknown flightless shorebird; an extinct falcon, Bahamas Caracara; and remains of present-day species, many of which are no longer found on Abaco, including the hutia, a rodent still living on a few cays in the central and southern Bahamas.

Most of these creatures are thought to have arrived in the Abacos more than 10,000 years ago, when the last ice age dramatically lowered global sea levels by hundreds of feet, exposing the banks of the Bahamas and allowing animals to disperse to the now- separated islands. During this period, the Sawmill Sink was a dry cave, inhabited by owls whose discarded meals Blue Holes of Abaco
created a bed of bones. Later, when sea levels rose to near their present level, the sink became aquatic. During this phase, crocodiles, hutia and birds became entrapped and died. The slow-moving, three-foot-long herbivorous tortoises most likely fell into the sink and drowned there. Sediment soon covered their remains, so that neither scavengers nor weather destroyed them.
About 2,000-4,000 years ago, the sink may have been surrounded by brackish swamp, a habitat more suitable to the crocodiles whose skeletons Kakuk found preserved in a 70-foot, cone-shaped pile of peat on top of terrestrial animal fossils on the cave floor. Each layer of this undisturbed “talus cone” tells a compelling story of geology and biology, one that is fast revising what is currently known of Abaco’s prehistory, and that may in fact further humanity’s understanding of how and why species change.
Vertebrate paleontologist Gary Morgan, one of several scientists currently identifying specimens from the Sawmill Sink, has surveyed fossils from various Caribbean islands for more than 30 years. Curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Morgan was the first to discover a fossilized crocodile in the Cayman Islands, a fresh-water species of crocodile, which now lives only in the Zapata swamp on the south coast of Cuba. As a biologist of extinct animals, Morgan usually works with “disassociated parts: a tooth, tailbone, part of a jaw.” By comparison to most fossil sites, the Sawmill Sink is a paleontologist’s mother lode. “To find a whole skeleton is vanishingly rare.” Morgan says. “Abaco has produced, hands down, the best fossils in all of the Bahamas.”

So “exquisitely preserved” are the fossils that Morgan is confident they will render precise radiocarbon dating to determine their age, as well as DNA information to determine their genetic relationship with other species in the Caribbean. He says it’s normally impossible to recover DNA data from bones that are between two and 10,000 years old, but some fossils from this site actually include tissues, stomach content and excrement.

“It’s the first time that complete and well-preserved specimens of any type of fossil have been found in the Bahamas,” says Dick Franz, an associate scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Franz is a museum herpetologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles of the Bahamas and West Indies. Why the Sawmill Sink specimens are whole seems to be lucky chemistry, as neighboring blue holes have not yielded such well-preserved fossils. As Franz explains, “The Sawmill Sink bones appear not to be mineralized like so many fossils, but maintain their original boney nature. This requires very special environments, such as water where little or no oxygen is present. The salt water in the zone of the best preserved fossils probably added to the preservation.”

At its surface, the sink appears to be a fresh-water pond, 55 feet across, in the midst of the pine barrens. Underwater, however, its deep vertical entrance widens into a cavern 550 feet in circumference. Here, the water is saline, mixing with in-coming tidal seawater via a complex subterranean cave system.

As Brian Kakuk submerges, he passes through the blue hole’s red and potentially poisonous acidic layer that often occurs where fresh and salt water meet, where sunlight is kept from penetrating the cave’s depths. Below this layer, Kakuk and other expert divers collecting specimens must rely on torchlight. Their diving apparatus includes closed-circuit re-breathers which do not release air bubbles, essential for maintaining the low-oxygen chemistry of the water in the blue hole. A re-breather scrubs carbon dioxide from the diver’s used air, recycling it and extending, by hours, the time a diver can remain underwater.

Kakuk and the other project divers take precautions not to disturb the deep deposit of fine silt on the cave floor, 95 feet down. Failing to do so makes recovering fossils more difficult, and more risky, as raised silt quickly reduces visibility. “It’s a really dangerous hole,” says Nancy Albury, project coordinator of the Sawmill Sink Fossil Site.

For years, Albury has maintained a database on Abaco’s caves and blue holes, taking scientists to these sites and recording their tidal fluctuations, geology, flora, fauna, and other data. A caver since 1970 and a long-time Man-O-War resident, Albury is presently a graduate student of geosciences at Mississippi State University. She says the sink project is a work in progress, adding that “Brian has a knack for seeing anomalies and finds something new almost every dive” He discovered the first tortoise in December 2004, and last summer, Albury says, divers identified five new crocodiles in one week.

The crocodile skeletons found in Abaco, including skulls complete with lower jaw and teeth, present a tantalizing case for Morgan, who says they are unlike any others found thus far in the Bahamas. Although bat fossils are his specialty, Morgan became a “self-taught” crocodile bone expert after finding Grand Cayman’s fresh-water Cuban crocodile fossils. And his preliminary examinations of the Abaco skulls point to the same fresh-water Cuban crocodile species, Crocodylus rhombifer. The bones of a crocodile collected in 1993 from another Abaco blue hole proved to be of the Cuban fresh water species and dated 2,840 years Before Present.

Morgan has not ruled out the possi- bility that the Sawmill Sink crocodile fossils may belong to a new species or subspecies, but he is sure they are all of the same species as one another. The skulls bear features similar to those of the Cuban species: a short, alligator-like head, and a short and broad snout. Fossils of the American salt-water crocodile, which still exists in Florida, Central and South America, and the Greater Antilles, have been identified on Andros, but not on Abaco. The American salt-water crocodile can grow over 15 feet long and has a wide girth, whereas the Cuban fresh-water species is no longer than eight-to-10 feet, with a narrower width.

The curious thing is that C. rhombifer fossils have not been found elsewhere in the Bahamas, nor even on any of the Greater Antillean islands near Cayman, excluding the still-living population in Cuba. Morgan speculates that during the last ice age, the Cuban crocodiles simply crossed the 10-to-30-mile gap between northern Cuba and Great Bahama Bank and spread out in the northern Bahamas, a wet climate zone. However, accessing Cayman from Cuba would require a 200-mile open-water swim, which leads Morgan to think that C. rhombifer must be salt-water tolerant, or maybe once was, before becoming trapped inland and adapting to its current brackish swamp habitat. Because Cuba is not open to scientific research, Morgan has not had access to the living population. “More skulls have been collected from the Sawmill Sink than from Cuba,” he says.

Early naturalists in the Bahamas describe an abundance of “alligators,” a term they often used synonymously with “crocodiles,” although alligators have no tolerance for salt water and are unlikely to have ever been present in the Bahamas. In a book published in 1725, Mark Catesby writes, “In shallow salt water, these impenetrable woods of mangroves are frequented by great numbers of alligators. … [I]n no place have I ever seen such remarkable scenes of devastation as amongst these mangroves in Andros… where the fragments of half-devoured carcasses were usually floating on the water.” By the late 19th century, these reptiles had vanished from the Bahamas, presumably hunted into local extinction.

As coordinator of scientific research for the Sawmill Sink fossil project, Franz is working together with Morgan and other University of Florida scientists, as well as fossil flora experts and geologists, to reconstruct past ecosystems of Abaco and the northern Bahamas, perhaps venturing as far back as the Pleistocene Epoch, which began almost two million years ago. Franz speaks expertly on the sink’s tortoise fossils, which are all members of an extinct and as yet “undescribed” species that appears to belong to a group of South American tortoises in the genus Chelonoidis, which includes the red-footed tortoise, yellow-footed tortoise, Chaco tortoise and giant Galapagos tortoise.

“Six shells of the extinct tortoise have been collected to date…. A large male, with a shell length of nearly 50 cm, includes an associated skull, limb bones, pectoral and pelvic girdles, and neck and tail vertebrae. Large seeds, probably part of a last meal, were found inside the shell of a large female.” While tortoise fossils have been reported from Andros, New Providence, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cuba and Hispaniola, Franz says the Sawmill Sink tortoise “is not like any other fossil tortoise from the Bahamas or the West Indies.”

Based on what he knows about similar tortoises, Franz says the Abaco species would have eaten fruits and leaves, and likely were important seed dispersers. “Since we are dealing with an extinct species, we can only speculate about how they lived. They could have been here [on Abaco] in high densities, such as we see on other islands today, because of the lack of large mammal predators. I suspect they lived in lightly forested habitats, probably pine forests, where there was enough forage for food. They probably knew when a particular shrub or tree was dropping fruit, as tortoises use their noses to smell ripe fruits.” Tortoises dig nest chambers in sand or loose soil and lay “hard-shelled, golf-ball-sized eggs,” Franz says. Based on the body size of the Abaco tortoise, he suspects they laid between five and 20 eggs.

Franz suspects the tortoise lived on Abaco for thousands of years, but this duration is just one of many facts still to be determined. “Where they came from originally is easy…South America. How they got to Abaco is an important question that is not easily answered,” Franz says. “I suspect they lasted until the native peoples arrived and ate them into extinction. They were easy prey.”

Albury has also coordinated analyses of seeds, leaves, pollen and other plant remains from Sawmill Sink. She says, “The forest was really different than it is today to have been crocodile habitat.” When botanists examined core sediment samples from different levels in the blue hole, they found that 50 feet down, samples revealed the presence of pine, but 85 feet down – a layer thought to represent the ecology of approximately 10,000 years ago – there was no evidence of pine; instead, samples revealed hardwood or coppice. This reinforces studies conducted by scientists from the University of Tennessee, who analyzed pond sediment on Great Abaco and saw a shift from predominantly coppice woods to pine forest beginning about 800 years ago, in sync with human colonization and related fires.

No one knows exactly how many blue holes there are in the Abacos; local explorers guess about 50. It is commonly said that if we were to cut the Bahama Islands in half, they would look like Swiss cheese. Unlike other Caribbean islands, which are the tops of volcanoes, the Bahamas formed from an accumulation of dead organisms, such as corals, mollusks and algae, which created masses of calcium carbonate over tens of millions of years. When the sea level dropped during ice ages, the calcium carbonate was exposed to air and rainwater, causing a chemical reaction that hardened it into limestone. Since limestone is soluble, over the ages, fresh water percolated through it, creating caves and blue holes.

Scientists on Abaco are studying such diverse areas as flora, bats, birds, geology, sea life and tree rings. Their work is important locally because it will provide a clearer picture of the region’s natural history and will inform future management of Abaco’s natural resources, such as the Abaco National Park, the pine barrens and coppice forests, and endemic species like the Abaco parrot. But their work is also important on a grander scale, as the Bahama Islands offer science something rare.

“I think the Bahamas are the young Galapagos,” explains Dr. James Hickey, Professor of Botany at Miami University, Ohio. “The Galapagos Islands were the group that showed how evolution occurred [in the past]. In the Bahamas, we’re actually seeing evolution occur. It’s the most dynamic archipelago possibly anywhere. It’s a tremendous science resource.” As Hickey explains, the Bahamas are “young islands; most weren’t here during the Pleistocene.” The islands are immature ecologically and still evolving. Add to this their unique history of having emerged as large land masses when sea levels dropped, then having separated into many islands, and you have a live classroom for speciation, the metamorphosis of one species into another.
“Geological processes make for differentiation in a species,” Hickey says. “The fluctuating water level has changed population dynamics on all of the islands. On the various islands, Hickey says, “We see differentiations between parrots, iguanas, anoles, boas,” offering as an example the Abaco parrot’s anomalous ground-nesting characteristic versus the Inagua parrot’s tree-nesting.

With the help of Friends of the Environment members, Albury has undertaken the crucial task of preserving, labeling, and categorizing the fossils. It’s delicate work. “Any time anything is moved, it has the potential for falling apart,” Albury says. Prepping a fossil takes up to six weeks, she explains. “They require a series of fresh water washes, without which the bones would totally deteriorate.” Then the fossils are coated in a polymer resin. “If they’re not prepped properly, the salt air causes them to fracture and crumble.” The Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation, a private government entity based out of Nassau, has been the primary financial and logistical support for the project, and FRIENDS, the Bahamas National Trust, and the Abaco Department of Agriculture have provided local support.

In the early 20th Century, the Sawmill Sink site was a fresh-water resource for a lumber camp and provided water for the steam locomotive that hauled lumber to the dock for shipping to Nassau, Cuba, and the United States. Like many blue holes, it also served as a dumpsite. “The sink is now closed to all divers, unless permitted with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corp., and Bahamians involved are serious about protecting it,” Albury says. The Sawmill Sink Fossil Site is part of Bahamians’ heritage, she says, and she wants locals to become involved in the project and to have a sense of ownership, while taking care to preserve it.

Once she has documented all the fossils, Albury hopes they will be displayed in both Nassau and Abaco. Some fossils will also be housed within the collection of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, which has a large West Indian research program and employs most of the scientists working on the Sawmill Sink project. Of particular importance to the Florida museum is a holotype of the new species of tortoise for future research.

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, he described the archipelago as a world in which “…we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” As the Abacos reveal their unique biological story, one that is yet in flux, shifting perpetually toward ecological maturity, we too come closer to “that mystery of mysteries,” the origins of species.

Boatyards of The Bahamas

10 18th, 2006

Every winter Bill Gallo of Melbourne, Florida returns to Green Turtle Cay to fetch his sailboat, an Irwin 43 named Blue Rondo. For four previous months the boat has spent its annual vacation and downtime perched in a wooden cradle fortified by eight jack stands at Abaco Yacht Services, which has maintained and generally baby-sat Bill’s baby as though it were a close relative or a friend’s visiting child. “I’ve had the boat for ten years,”
says Gallo, “and this is the best boatyard I’ve ever used. My boat has been through Irene, Floyd and Jeanne with very little damage here; less than $500, mainly from rain water than had to be pumped out of the transmission.”

The Green Turtle Shipyard has been an institution on the island for 28 years, having doubled in size since its inception in September, 1978. Owned by the Bethel family of Nassau and operated by Manager Everette Roberts, his son, Scott, anddaughter, Crystal, as well as several dedicated yard workers, AYS counts on a growing list of satisfied repeat customers who have come to rely on the kind of security and competence long associated with Abaco’s flourishing boating industry. There are boatyards in four Abaco locations; Green Turtle Cay, Hope Town, Man-O-War Cay and Marsh Harbour, and while providing safe haven and shelter from the storm is an essential function, it’s only one of many services they perform for hundreds of boaters, including bottom painting, engine repairs and preparation work.

“Many boats are left year-round, especially by owners from Florida and North Carolina,” says Craig Knowles who, with his wife, Linda, are the management team at Lighthouse Marina in Hope Town, a business also owned by the Bethels of Nassau. “We store the boats and prepare them so that when the owner comes back, they can jump in and go, either here or in Marsh Harbour, where we’ll deliver the boat. Many owners will fly back and forth during the peakfishing season from April through May, then leave the boats here in mid August.”

Lighthouse Marina, with its fuelstation, marine store and liquor store, can’t be missed at the entrance to Hope Town Harbour, but the protected boatyard is tucked away in a hurricane hole behind the marina and beneath the Elbow Cay Lighthouse. “Boats do very well here in bad weather,” says Craig, who has operated the business with Linda since 1988. “There’s no surge here and a high hill to the west provides great protection. We’ve stored up to 200 boats in preparation for hurricanes, and that’s about the maximum for the boatyard.”

The yard at Green Turtle is similarly protected on Black Sound, but while it has a Travel Lift that can raise boats up to 50 tons and 50 feet, the yard at Hope Town specializes in smaller boats up to 36 feet. Most of its tenants are outboards, speedy little craft lined up by the dozen as though waiting their turn for a snorkeling trip or island cove picnic. It costs between $150 to $175 to secure a boat for storage and about the same amount to relaunch it. The storage fee is $4 a foot per month, and for many who return regularly, it’s often cheaper to put their boat in and out of the yard and pay the monthly storage than rent one while they’re here.

The same is true across the Sea of Abaco at Marsh Harbour Boatyards, located on the southeast shore at Calcutta Creek. Here, however, the boats tend to be bigger, and can range up to 100 feet because of the yard’s 85-ton Acme Marine Hoist “When we commissioned the yard’s lift, we had them build it four feet wider than standard to accommodate catamarans with 24-foot beams,” says Laurence Higgs, the yard’s
general manager and co-owner. “Many of the boats in the Moorings charter yacht fleet are examples, boats which are popular in Abaco because of their shallow draft.”

The yard can accommodate morethan 30 large boats from a week to several months. But while a number of big boats are kept here for six months during the winter, most come in for maintenance, repair and bottom painting that gets them in and out of the yard in a week. “This is our bread and butter work,” says Higgs. “We have 20 dedicated spaces for this kind of work, and we do it year-round. We also do fiberglass repairs, much of it to boats that have run aground, and engine work.” The yard occasionally subs out woodwork as well, and has several factory-trained diesel mechanics.

Business is growing here, as well as in other Abaco boatyards, as more and more boat owners, particularly from Florida and the Carolinas, are finding Abaco and discovering its cost-efficient and convenient facilities. In the past five years, the yard at Calcutta has doubled its business, growing from a staff of three to 18. For many boaters, the season has been extended because they know they can stay longer to have work done here, or simply leave their boats. While the majority of boats are in the 40 to 55-foot range, a hydraulic trailer can easily raise smaller craft. “A lot of small boaters with houses on Lubbers, Tilloo or Elbow Cay leave their boats here and catch a taxi to the airport, which is seven minutes away,” says Higgs. “Other cruisers stop over in Abaco and go on south to Exuma in the winter, working their way back here in the spring.”

At Marsh Harbour Boatyards, 90 percent of customers are here because of the workmanship, reliability and paint used in bottom painting, Higgs says. And while many boaters stay in a hotel, with friends, or even return to the States and come back during the five-to-seven days it takes for painting and maintenance, it’s not uncommon to find some living aboard their boats while they sit mounted on blocks in the yard.

Abaco has a long history of boat building and maintenance expertise, but the longest-running survivor of this traditional industry is at Man-O-War Cay, where construction of sailing schooners and dinghies have evolved into small sloops, ferry boats, regatta racing boats and, most recently, 20 and 23-foot fiberglass Albury Brothers boats, which are in high demand as rental and fishing boats throughout the Bahamas and Florida.

Today, however, Man-O-War’s boat industry has shifted in large part from building to repair and maintenance, with storage as a secondary option. Two boatyards, Edwin’s I and Edwin’s II, trace their origins back 45 years to 1960 when Edwin Albury started BoatYard I, then expanded when he bought out legendary boat builder William H. Albury, affectionately known throughout Abaco  as “Uncle Will.”

“Most of our business today comes from repeat customers and word-of-mouth, and it stays steady almost year-round,” says Daren Sands, who started with his father, Darwin Sands, in 1997, and has managed Edwin’s Boatyard II since last year.

Both Edwin’s II, run by Daren, and Edwin’s I, run by Keith Albury, feature rails which can haul boats up to 60 feet. “We do fiberglass repairs, carpentry, painting and mechanical work,” says Keith Albury. “And we have customers from up and down the eastern coast of the U.S. from as far away as Maine.”

Many boaters prefer the quiet setting of Man-O-War to store their boats. The
relatively small yards, where there is sometimes a waiting list to get in, can take boats up to 25 feet for storage. Wet storage on moorings is also available with adequate lead time.
 Hanging out in a busy Abaco boatyard on a pleasant afternoon provides an  inside look at how a well-oiled operation works, how yard employees interact with customers, and how work gets done in well-organized segments, from hauling a boat out of the water and getting it secured on blocks to bottom painting and relaunching.

“Because it’s family run and on a small island, service is a lot more personal than you would get from a boatyard staff in Canada or the U.S.,” says Alan Wainwright, a Brampton, Ontario attorney who comes to Green Turtle Cay twice a year and has kept his 32-foot sailboat Distant Fire parked at AYS for the past 11 years. “It’s one-on-one from the top down. And you can depend on the quality. Once I had my boat blocked at a Canadian boatyard, and when I walked on it, I could feel the boat move. When I have it blocked at AYS, I can’t feel it move.”

Not even Hurricane Floyd rocked his boat in 1999, even though there was only one jack-stand holding it up. In such a renowned cruising destination, such stories form a nucleus of information and opinion among boaters. And their shared experiences either inspire confidence or create an uncomfortable doubt that drives them elsewhere. In Abaco, boatyards have well-established reputations today because yard operators have come in contact with customers from all over the world. The growth alone indicates a healthy long-term success for this traditional industry.

“When I started here, there were no computers and the yard was half the size it is now,” says Crystal Roberts, office manager at AYS in Green Turtle. “It’s been amazing to see how it’s changed over the years. We have a lot of good customers here, a lot of repeat customers. And we’ve become good friends with many of them.”

Pretty Picket Fences

10 18th, 2006


Photo feature by Jim Kerr

“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost in his famous poem “Mending Wall.” He was an American poet, and in Abaco, nothing is more American about the island village scenery - or more neighborly - than white or natural picket fences.

Wall fences were, and still are, the most common property delineation used in the British Isles, especially in rural areas. The concept of picket fences in the American colonies, particularly in New England and New York, was inspired instead by pointed iron fences in Europe, which symbolized the stately and affluent status of the home owner. But metal was expensive in the New World, and wood was abundant, so picket fences were born.

The same laws of supply and demand existed in Abaco when American loyalists began arriving in 1783 to build settlements, and while a few wealthy types put up fences of wrought iron and brass, the vast majority opted for local cedar, and finally pine, for picket fences.

Picket fences make a bold and sturdy statement, but unlike metal and chain link fences they are not particularly intimidating. Respect for private property was a theme in Frost’s poem about fences, but while they may serve at times to keep out the neighbor’s dog, their main purpose in Abaco is beautification. Their standard height of only four to five feet actually invites socializing rather than discourage it. Generally, the only picket fences six feet or higher are found in backyards.

The best examples of these fences today are in the settlements of New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay and in Hope Town on Elbow Cay. But wherever they are found, construction and care still add to the home owners’ status in the community, just as his garden does. Sometimes, a white picket fence blends regally with a flowing and firey bougainvillea, and different styles can express individual tastes for simplicity or ornateness.

The crisp, vertical lines of a picket fence have always been associated with wealth, even though they are less expensive than chain link and most other manufactured fence material, and, as one resident put it, “astoundingly prettier.” The wood has to brave the rain, wind and salt air of the islands, however, making it still fairly expensive. Pine is cheaper than cedar, but requires more maintenance.

Since paint cracks and peels as wood expands and contracts in hot and cool weather, picket fences are often whitewashed or stained rather than painted. A cedar-bleeding block primer is best applied before the stain. Some, like the fence around the Sculpture Garden in New Plymouth, are kept unfinished on purpose to minimize maintenance costs. Another technique in Abaco is the use of stainless steel nails, which won’t cause rust stains on a white fence. But whatever wood or stain is used, chances are it will need touching up and redoing within three years. Fences may make good neighbors, but it’s a good neighbor indeed who is willing to help with that job!

Nature’s Corner

10 18th, 2006


When Vertrum Lowe was growing up in Green Turtle Cay many years ago, he had a very unusual pet. The animal followed him around, ate fish out of his hand, and when Vertrum went to school in the morning, the pet would swoop into the school window and land on his desk.

It was a Summer Sea Gull, or Laughing Gull. “He just had pinfeathers when I got him,” says Vert, a life-long resident of New Plymouth and a well-known craftsman of model boats. “Someone had brought him from the northern cays when he was only five or six days old.”

Vert was 12 or 13 years old. And during the five or six years he had him as a pet, the bird acted as a “guard bird,” attacking strangers who came around. He also fetched marbles and deposited them on Vert’s steps.

“Wherever I went, he followed,” he remembers. “I called him ‘Gull,’ and if he could hear me when I called him, he would answer back.”

Anyone visiting New Plymouth during the spring and summer knows the cry of the Laughing Gull, one of three types of gulls found in Abaco. They appear suddenly in March, swirling and swooping over the harbour, making raucous cries and coming remarkably close to anyone willing to feed them. At six-and-a-half inches in length, they are the smallest of the gulls, and are easily identified by their black head, dark bill, dark grey upperparts and white underparts. Winter visitors include two other species, Herring Gulls and Ring-Billed Gulls, both in two different plumages. But the Laughing Gull is the only gull around in the summer months. While their habitat varies, and they sometimes disappear for periods starting in September, they are still around, flocking back to town during storms or fine weather.

Few people believe Vertrum when he tells them the tale of his gull. But the truth, he says, is that he had not only one, but two pet Laughing Gulls. A few years after the first bird came out on the losing end of a fight with a dog, Vertrum obtained a second bird in much the same way as the first. “He would fly off during the day with the wild birds, but return every night,” Vertrum says. “When they left in the winter, he stayed. He was friends with a potcake named ‘King’ and shared meals with him, even though the dog tried to swat him, and the two would walk together.”

One day Sid Lowe called Vertrum from his store in the settlement. The bird was there begging for food, and Sid wanted to prove to customers that the gull would go to its owner if called. Vertrum did and the bird flew home. “Early training is the secret,” says Vertrum. “I’d have three or four of them as pets now if there weren’t so many cats on the island.”

Conch: A Royal Gift From the Sea

10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

It doesn’t soar through the air like an eagle, race over the terrain like a graceful gazelle or roar like a lion, but in Abaco, the Conch is King. Or at least Queen.

Conch shelling on Abaco BahamasWell before Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, the native Lucayan Indians used the Queen Conch for food, tools, decoration, building material and jewelry, and 500 years later the current natives continue the process. Not only do folks here consume prodigious quantities of conch salad, conch fritters, conch burgers and cracked conch, they also make and wear conch jewelry, landscape and decorate their homes with conch shells, create conch art and sell conch souvenirs. In fact, nothing in the Bahamas or Abaco has stood the test of time quite like the slow-moving, algae-eating, easy-to-catch, hard-to-clean mollusk shellfish known as the conch.

They’ve been around these parts for 65 million years. Officially known as Strombus Gigas, Queen Conch (pronounced KONK) can be found from Brazil northward through the West Indies, Florida Keys and as far north as Bermuda. But because they have been vastly depleted by large populations in the Caribbean and the Americas, they now exist in large numbers only in the Bahamas, where they are not only a traditional food staple, but a national symbol.

At his stand adjacent to Harbour View Marina in Marsh Harbour, George “Show Bow” Wilmore slices and dices with a smile, chopping the moist white meat of the Queen Conch and mixing it with sour orange, lime, peppers, onion, tomato and salt. A line of hungry customers often forms, usually around mid-morning, their appetites further stimulated by Show Bow’s showmanship.

“The secret’s in the ingredients,” says Show Bow. “Some use cabbage or cucumber, but not me. I go strictly by tradition.”

He is one of four entrepeneurs in Marsh Harbour, Dundas Town and Murphy Town who “basically fix fresh conch salad in front of your eyes,” he says. “They got their customers and I got mine.”

in fact, his closest competitor is just down the street in front of Abaco Market on Queen Elizabeth Drive. Bruce “Froggie” McIntosh and his wife, Elva, set up their own program almost daily. Froggie perches on a stool in the back of his pickup, a slicing board in front and a rapidly slicing knife flashing down on his own particular recipe for conch salad. Soon, he says, Elva and he will be opening a small cabana-type resort and restaurant off Forest Drive called “Conch Paradise” where they will continue to serve up conch salad as well as drinks.

There is money to be made in the conch salad business, but it takes a special kind of person to put up with the work. Vendors like Show Bow and Froggie get up before dawn to go conching along the sandy and grassy bottom in water ten to 30 feet deep. They stock and maintain “conch crawls” with 500 to 600 conchs and, on a good day, they often use 50 or 60 conch to make 100 cups of conch salad, selling it at $5 to $6 a cup.

Once you have found them, catching conch and keeping them is easy. Using a muscular foot, the Queen Conch literally moves at a snail’s pace. The long, narrow foot has a horny, hook-shaped operculum on the end which the conch uses to propell itself in the sand. She had her origins there as a gelatinous strand of eggs wrapped around and around until it formed a banana-shaped mass. For about a month after hatching as an embryo, the conch floated as a microscopic larva until sinking forever to the bottom, buried for protection in the sand and feeding only at night on algae. The flaring outer lip that distinguishes a mature conch doesn’t even begin to build until the creature is two years old, and it takes about four years for the conch to reach a full grown stature of eight to 12 inches with a weight of up to five pounds. Taking conch that does not have a full lip, no matter how large the shell base, is frowned upon, since that depletes the population. Free diving is also the only legal way to gather them.

The Queen Conch, which is the only type eaten in the Bahamas, is easily corraled. Holes are made in the shell lip and several conch are strung together. When an old dock was pulled up for replacement a few years back in Hope Town, workers found seven conch tied together and fastened to a piling. They had been forgotten by a fisherman seven years earlier, but were doing just fine, thank you.

But while catching and keeping them is one thing, cleaning and preparing conch is another. Separating the animal from its home correctly, with a minimum of mess, is an island art form. Abaco fishermen like Show Bow and Froggie pride themselves in how fast they can accomplish this task, which requires a hammer, screw driver, and a thin, very sharp knife. With the shell held opening down and spire inward, a hole is made with the hammer and screwdriver on the spire of the shell between the second and third row of horny nodes. This is known as “cracking” or “knocking.” The knife is then inserted in the hole and the tendon is cut so the animal can be pulled out by the operculum, a step called “jooking.” Finally, the conch is cleaned, a tricky, messy procedure appropriately known as “slopping.”

An expert can crack, jook and slop 25 conch in under ten minutes. People like Show Bow and Froggie are usually so fast that watching them reveals little about technique. Amateurs often find the job a sticky, slimy mess. A black mucuous substance that emerges with the conch frequently gets all over your boat, your clothes or both. It is next to impossible to get off, except with lime and lemon juice combined with vinegar.

The shell is another matter. Cleaned up with commercial bleach, small amounts of muriatic acid or simply left to bleach naturally in the sun, they are bright pink, yellow and peach coloured. Found in abundance near almost any dock or bought from numerous vendors, conch shells adorn mantles, shelves, tables and porches of homes around the world. Many Abaconians use them to decorate planters and walls. One man created a conch shell water fountain on his private island, while Hope Town Hideaways Resort made a glimmering garden wall.

They are also the subject for paintings, and artisans fashion the shell into jewelry, carving from the pink twirl just inside the shell, just as they did centuries ago. Nor have conch pearls lost their value over the years. Depending on the shape, colour and size, they can fetch as much as $1,000. As rare as South Pacific pearls, they cannot be cultured like their oyster counterparts, having formed from a microorganism rather than a grain of irritating sand. No two are alike and colours range from white and beige to pink, red and brown. The most desirable are dark pink, and because they tend to fade in the light, they have an exotic mystique as “night only” jewels. Smooth and sometimes shiny, the best are set by jewelers and artisans with diamonds, rubies and gold in pendants, rings and earrings. A lucky fisherman who is looking for them can make hundreds of extra dollars, but they are rarely found in the routine, expeditious cleaning process. You are more likely to bite into one in your conch salad.

Better yet, just enjoy your meal. Conch is still a major food source in the Bahamas where an estimated half million pounds are consumed each year. Properly prepared, raw or cooked, the meat is tasty and full of nutrients and vitamins. It has a firm, chewy texture, especially raw in salads. Local men are sometimes fond of slurping down a long, transparent rod or tube known as a “style” that comes from the conch’s stomach and is reputed to be a male energizer. The rest of the animal can be prepared in a dozen or more ways, usually pounded for tenderizing before cooking. Arrive early at any Abaco restaurant and you are likely to hear wooden or metal mallets pounding in the kitchen as cooks prepare cracked, stewed, battered or breaded conch dishes.

But whether it’s food, artwork, jewelry or just an inexpensive but distinctive ornament, the durable conch remains a highly visible symbol of Abaco. Long live the Queen!

Brendal’s Picnic

10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

“Goombay, anyone?”

Brendal Stevens, a mischeivous grin across his ebony face, glances toward the 11 adult guests aboard his dive and snorkel boat. He doesn’t have to ask twice as plastic cups are thrust in the direction of a jug he holds filled with a potion made from Castillo Gold, coconut rum and pineapple juice. After a stimulating dive and snorkel over “The Pillars” off Manjack Cay, these people are thirsty.

The boat is less than an hour from Brendal’s dock at White Sound Harbour on Green Turtle Cay. A giant eagle ray flapped his wings in farewell as we left the harbour on this sunny summer day, and a bottlenosed dolphin followed us across the channel to Manjack. The trip is a seven-hour, combination dive, snorkel and picnic that Brendal operates every week. The Pillars are thick coral fingers that tower 35 feet from the sandy bottom. Below we find purple sea fans waving from thick coral heads and a ridge that shelters an incalcuable assortment of colourful fish. A midsize reef shark slides by, paying us no mind, and “Junkanoo,” a large black grouper eyes us from a few feet away.

Back in the boat, goombay in hand, Brendal deftly cleans a couple of conch, giving his guests an opportunity to make a mess of things by trying it themselves. He cuts up grouper filet and marinates it with Real Lemon juice, lemon pepper, hot sauce and salad dressing in a pink, plastic bucket. We anchor halfway to Manjack beach and ten minutes later one of our boater guests has two hogfish and a mutton snapper on a spear from a Hawaiian sling which will be used later for our special close encounter with several southern stingrays. For now, however, the purpose of the speared fish is a mystery.

A sliver of white, crescent beach runs for a mile or so along Manjack’s lee side where Brendal ties the boat to a private dock. We gather fire wood and soon flames and sticks are crackling under a big metal grill. The grouper cooks in foil-covered pans for six minutes, then sits for another two before being served. There’s also snapper in cilantro and onions, regular tossed salad and the conch salad made earlier. It’s an incredibly tasty picnic feast, served at a table in the shade of casuarinas. Our bare feet curl deliciously in the cool sand, and before us is an almost searing panorama of sun and blue sky against an aquamarine shoreline and white beach.

Even before lunch, we couldn’t help notice we had company in the clear, shallow water off the beach. A nurse shark and his cousin, a large, black stingray, glided inches from the shoreline as we unloaded the boat. Now it was the stingray’s turn for lunch.

With cut up chunks of the hogfish and muttonfish caught earlier, Brendal coaxes us into ankle-deep water offshore. Soon there are not one, but four large stingrays circling our feet. Warily, we hold pieces of raw fish in the upturned and submerged palm of our hand. The jet black stingrays, their brown eyes watching us from the top of their head, swim over and gently take the food in an invisible mouth underneath their bodies. Their soft, satiny wings brush lightly against our legs and ankles, an unexpected but pleasurable sensation. Their long tail, with its venomous barb, somewhat rougher in texture than the wide wings, also rubs harmlessly against our legs.

After the cautious and protective parents are satisfied there’s no danger here, two four-year-olds join in the feeding and the rare and gentle communion with these strange and fascinating creatures. It’s the highlight of the day, and something to ponder as we head back to Green Turtle.

Bonefishing in The Bahamas

10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

In the past decade, Abaco has become one of the hottest bonefishing destinations in the world. Several small resorts have sprung up catering to bonefishermen, and others have happily adopted packages and other ways to accommodate enthusiasts of this sport. Along with eco-tourism, bonefishing is one of the most positive developments spotlighting Abaco’s tourist industry in recent times; a sport which not only conserves resources and highlights the environment, but also generates millions of dollars a year for Abaconians. Unlike lobster fishing, there is no closed season on bonefishing, although January through April is best. In the past 15 years, several dozen local men, most of whom once specialized in lobster fishing, have become full-time bonefishing guides, a fact which has relieved some of the pressure on the depleting lobster fishery. And while revenue from bonefishing visitors filters through myriad businesses, no individuals have benefited more in recent years than the guides themselves.

“Tourists wanted to go bonefishing,” says Marsh Harbour-based Town Williams, a lobster fisherman until about 12 years ago. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew where to go. I knew where the bonefish lived. The clients said ‘just take us there, and we’ll show you what to do.’”

Today he works 150 days a year as a bonefishing guide, a global business with clients from around the world who find him primarily on the Internet. There are more than 35 active bonefishing guides in Abaco, from Sandy Point to Coopers Town and beyond, and the number is growing as demand increases. They charge an average of $350 for two anglers for a full day, and $250 for a half day, which translates for most into annual gross income of more than $50,000. Like Town Williams, they may not have known much about the art of catching them, but they learned at an early age that bonefish - spooky and fast, but not much good to eat - live on the flats. The rest they learned by practice and from the experienced bonefishermen who came, including the legendary baseball great Ted Williams.

Williams and others knew that Abaco, like the rest of the Bahamas, was ideal for this kind of fishing. The silvery, almost translucent bonefish reside in water usually one to three feet deep. The name “Bahamas” comes from the Spanish term “Baja Mar,” or shallow sea. The islands are fringed by shallow banks, and while an Atlantic coastline with a barrier reef makes Abaco ideally situated for beaches, diving, snorkeling and deep sea fishing, the western side of the cays and mainland make for some of the best bonefish habitat in the world. The Marls, a series of small atolls amid shallow, marshy waters on the west side, cover more than 120 miles from north to south. Here, small shrimp, crabs, worms and shellfish, the bonefish’s favourite dinner, live in abundance, as do an unlimited number of bonefish. The west side of many of the outer cays, like Green Turtle, Manjack and others, offer more of the same, as does the eastern side of Great Abaco from Snake Cay to Cherokee Sound.Bonefishing Abaco Bahmas

While some locals still somehow manage to prepare and eat bonefish in stew or crushed into cakes, the bones that make up its anatomy have always made it less than popular as a food source, and today the fish is protected as a sport fish only. As such, it is always caught and released. The majority of bonefishermen and women use fly fishing techniques somewhat similar to mountain stream trout fishing, but with some significant differences. The fly, a light-weight lure usually crafted by the fisherman himself with personal intuition regarding how to attract and fool the fish, is cast as far as 50 or 60 feet, so that it lands softly at least ten feet in front of the fish. But before that can happen, the fish have to be found.

Most guides use 14 to 17-foot shallow draft boats powered by outboard motors to get to the fishing grounds, then pole their boats silently across the flats looking for signs of fish.. The guide, often scanning the waters from an elevated platform, spots the tell-tale signs of the fish, which sometimes travel in schools of 30 or more. Their tails and dorsal fins often break the surface when feeding in the shallow water. The cast is sideways so that the fly falls lightly. Plopping the fly in the water, or casting too close to the fish, will almost certainly spook them into a quick departure. Once hooked, however, a bonefish zips away at incredible speed, often running 100 yards or more on its initial flight. They generally weigh from four to six pounds, but ten-pounders are not uncommon in Abaco. Besides casting, it takes finese to set the hook, let the fish run, play out the line and keep him out of coral or marsh where the line might tangle or break. After netting him for a quick photo, the bonefish must be properly released unharmed and in a manner insuring he will swim away to perhaps fight another day. It’s not easy, and even a good bonefisherman will lose half the fish he hooks, getting a strike on one out of ten casts. Nevertheless, there are plenty of fish, and the chase is often the greatest reward.

“It’s the stalking that’s fun,” says Neil O’Shea, a bonefishing fanatic who travels to Abaco with his equally enthusiastic wife, Karen. The English couple, who travel 4,000 miles from their home in Cheshire near Manchester, have been back to Green Turtle Cay four times since they got married in 1998, staying at the New Plymouth Inn. And while they have utilized local guides like Ronnie Sawyer, they like to go on their own, wading knee deep on the “town flats” just south of the settlement. Other locations in Abaco offer similar opportunities to bonefish without a guide. At the Sunset Resort, located on Abaco’s west side five miles north of Marsh Harbour, owners Janeen and Silbert Cooper work with a number of guides, but say it’s also “simple to just walk off the dock.” A flat, shallow expanse of water from their shoreline that stretches to the horizon is dotted with small, green atolls where ideal bonefish waters are five minutes away.

Many bonefishermen describe the experience as almost spiritual, as well as an addictive encounter with nature. It’s quiet and totally serene. The flats are habitat for fish and birds of all types. Herons, egrets, rays, barracuda and sharks are plentiful, as well as tropical fish. Sharks and barracuda stalk bonefish, and some guides rely on their presence as a strong indicator that bonefish are near. Visiting fishermen are often focused, and dedicate most of their vacation to the sport.

“Typically, fishing guests get up at 6:30, have coffee and talk about bonefishing,” says Janeen Cooper at Sunset Resort, which also has two bonefishing skiffs of its own. “They fish until 4 pm, come in for snacks, a swim in the pool, clean up, have dinner, talk about bonefishing and go to bed.”

Other bonefishing lodges in Abaco include Nettie Symonette’s “Different of Abaco,” in Casurina Point, Rickmon’s Bonefishing Lodge, Pete and Gays Bonefishing Lodge, and Oeisha’s Resort in Sandy Point. Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay, Hope Town, Guana Cay and Marsh Habour are also popular locales with a number of guides in residence or close by. All provide pickup service with optional equipment. Lunch is usually not provided. A good pair of UV sunglasses, sun screen and head covering for protection from the sun and being hooked is always a must. Guides are highly recommended for novices, and even for experienced fishermen. Finding the best fishing grounds in the company of a local guide greatly enchances the occasion, and is most likely to make it a memorable one.

Barefoot Weddings

10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

The wedding cake, a three-tiered structure filled with strawberries, had collapsed.

As the Jeep Wagoner crept ever so slowly along the road from town to Bluff House on Green Turtle Cay, even the most painstaking care had failed. The wedding, an elaborate if barefoot affair, was in half an hour. But the cake would be repaired quietly, behind the scenes and out of sight, never to distract or dismay a single soul on this otherwise joyous occasion.

“Usually, there is some kind of glitch,” says Molly McIntosh, who, after presiding over arrangements for hundreds of weddings at Bluff House over the years, ought to know. “But it’s always a memorable experience, not just for the bride and groom, but for everyone.”

Minor snafus and last-minute, “island-style” adjustments are common; a sudden rain shower, late arrivals, lost luggage. There’s the cake that melts on the ferry or topples on the table, requiring a rebuild. Or the minister from afar who has forgotten his “vow book,” and has to dispatch a runner to fetch it an hour before the ceremony. But the island glitches are balanced with warm beachy days, starry night skies, moonlit walks on the sand, sun tans, painted-sky sunsets, and the increduity of first-time snorkeling. Dolphins frolicking in the bow wake of a sunset harbour cruise, appearing as though on cue, have been among the positive omens. And these, as well as the snafus, are the shared and treasured memories that will last a lifetime.

Around the island archipelago, from Elbow Cay to Marsh Harbour, from Guana Cay to Green Turtle Cay, folks are getting hitched Abaco style. Both locals and foreign visitors arrange resort weddings and do it up in big and small ways; from 100 friends and relatives to intimate and quiet ceremonies. Attire ranges from tux and gown in church, to barefoot on the beach. Abaco’s resorts are averaging more than 100 weddings a year, and almost every resort has an assigned wedding guru who has developed an expertise which goes far beyond flowers and photography.

“A wedding here is unique and beautiful,” says Tania Duncombe, food and beverage manager at the Hope Town Harbour Lodge. “People want an experience that everyone can enjoy. It’s great for young professionals who want a casual, stress free getaway they can share with their family and friends.”

Sometimes, however, it’s not quite stress-free for Tania. Not long ago three straight days of rain preceded a large wedding during which a secret fireworks display was planned. The bride, groom and wedding party were returning from the Methodist Church at 4 pm., and still it poured. A construction crew had already rigged up a tent over the entire outside patio where greenery, gathered hastily from the bush by Tania and her helpers, hid the tent poles. But then, lo and behold, the skies cleared as the bride and groom made their way back up the street to the lodge, and a dazzling sunset, like a heavenly omen, lit the western sky behind the lighthouse. The fireworks followed, the stars came out, dancing ensued.

At the Abaco Beach Resort in Marsh Harbour, Kevi Thomas is a popular fixture in sales and marketing whose portfolio includes the title of wedding coordinator. As such she deals with many couples who want an island wedding that will fulfill a pre-conceived dream of tropical bliss. It’s up to Kevi to provide all the attendant props and atmosphere.

“A couple from Michigan wanted to be married in The Bahamas, but had never been here. They wanted the simplicity of the island, but they wanted elegance too. We made an aisleway up the beach lined with potted palms, conch shells and overflowing bougainvillea. There were tiki torches, and the sun was setting. The sky was serene and beautiful.”

The resort organizes a dozen weddings a year, averaging about 20 people, although 40 rooms in the resort have been booked for one wedding in November. And regardless of how elaborate or simple a ceremony might be, the event is almost always a five to seven-day affair. The bride and groom may get joined in holy matrimony, but the guests often cut loose in down-to-earth fun.

If the wedding is at the Abaco Inn or Hope Town Harbour Lodge, the wedding party might head out aboard Froggies Island Adventure for a day-long snorkeling trip to Fowl Cay Reef; or climb into rental boats and head for Cracker P’s for a gourmet luncheon on Lubbers Quarters. Mostly, however, they stay in town - lounging around on hammocks, walking the beach, riding rented bikes and sipping frothy sunset drinks.

“We set up dinners around the island,” says Tania. “They get a feel for the whole place. It’s a great getaway experience. It’s unique and beautiful - an international destination that’s close, intimate and civilized, and costs far less that a big city wedding.”

The Lodge averaged 60 to 75 people for seven weddings so far this year, with another 10 planned through the end of 2002. Guests not only fill the resort’s 24 rooms, but rent houses as well.

Bluff House has orchestrated as many as 36 weddings in one year. Fortunately, says Molly, some are small with just a couple of friends, or even the hotel staff, as witnesses. The resort sells a basic wedding package, which includes the minister, license, ceremony, cake, bottle of champagne, hors’d'oeurves, a bridal bouquet, groom’s button hole flower, and photography, for $1,000. From there, the sky’s the limit. Options include a special cake with sugar shells, a decorated beach setting, a soloist singer or entire band, and T-shirts with “Bluff House” and the wedding date emblazoned on them. Activities can include a day’s snorkeling and picnicing with Brendal, of Brendal’s Dive Center, a guest golf tournament at Treasure Cay, sailing or bone fishing charters.

A wedding in Abaco - regardless of whether it’s a first for the bride or groom - is always an event the wedding couple wants to share. “They are very much into each other,” says Molly. “but at home, weddings are often more for everyone else. Here, you are giving your guests something different.”

Traditionally, the bride and groom arrive mid-week before the Saturday wedding and pick up their license from either the commissioner’s office in Marsh Harbour or in Green Turtle Cay. They need to be in the Bahamas 24 hours before the wedding. (See side bar on requirements). If they are already familiar with Abaco, locals often become invited guests to the wedding. Afterwards, Abaco usually becomes the site of the honeymoon, and, more often than not, the wedding guests - or a portion of them - stay on as well. By then, the sailing is usually smooth, the glitches gone. The wedding is over, the luggage has arrived, calm prevails.

For Molly, Tania, Kevi and other wedding arrangers in Abaco who deal with behind-the-scenes surprises, there’s a sense of relief - until the next one.


To qualify for marriage in the Bahamas, you must be a resident in the Bahamas for a minimum of one day (24 hours) prior to the wedding. The following is necessary to obtain a marriage license, available at the commissioner’s office either in Marsh Harbour or Green Turtle Cay:  Birth certificates, Passports,Affidavits stating you have never been married or Divorce decrees, Bahamian entry visa to prove length of time in the Bahamas


©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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