The Exuma Cays

Kayaking in paradise

It’s sometimes hard to trace back and recall where our trip ideas come from but it probably started on a dreary, rainy Vancouver day in November by me asking Peter: “Where would you like to go for Christmas?” And his answer likely would have been: “I don’t know, somewhere warm?”

This is how we pick our tropical destinations: Google Earth comes out, we zoom in on the Carribean (or whichever warm-weather region is most accessible to us). We scan for a cluster of small islands fringed by turquoise water. The islands need to be spaced out no more than 3-5 km apart and in somewhat protected waters. This search brought us to the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas.

The Cays

Exuma Sea and Land Park is a nature conservancy that protects ~100,000 acres of sea around the string of small islands (cays, pronounced as ‘keys’) stretching N from the Grand Exuma. The heart of the park (and the visitor centre) is on Waderick Wells Cay some 100km N of Grand Exuma, your likely starting point. The cays are exposed to the Atlantic Ocean on the east side but have very shallow, sandy seas on the west. Most people will sail or power-boat along the chain, kayaking is not a mainstream sport by any stretch of imagination. The islands are superbly photogenic, very tropical with white sandy beaches and blue calm waters.

To paddle the whole length of the chain you would probably need 2 weeks or solid 7 days with a motor boat arranged for the transport back to the Grand Exuma. The nature conservancy visitor centre is probably the northern-most point you might plan to go to as the cays beyond that are spaced further apart so the crossings are bigger and exposed to the moods of the Atlantic. Having said that, if you are a novice kayaker, stick to the cays closer to Grand Exuma, perhaps going as far as the N end of Norman’s Pond Cay and then returning via a chain of islands called the Brigantines. Do the crossing to the Brigantines in calm conditions only.

Logistics

Logistics were a bit daunting because, you know, very few of the cruising crowd in Nassau are seeking to rent a kayak and go paddle unsupported for two weeks, so it took a while to locate a tour operator set up to rent seaworthy kayaks and let us take them overnight. There was pretty much only one in the Exumas – Out Island Explorers – and that’s who we went with. The thing with renting is that you never know what kind of a boat are gonna get . And in all honesty, I had some reservations about the kayaks we were provided. They did not have a centre hatch so packing 7 days of supplies was an issue plus they did not have a centre bulkhead so buoyancy was somewhat compromised. But having no choice and knowing that the cays were not going to be a super dangerous place to paddle, we accepted that fact. On the upside, this tour operator has some fantastic information on their website showing suggested routes, points of interest, possible campsites, complete with a map and GPS track and was very knowledgeable about the seastate and best places to go.

Okay, the kayak (a double) is loaded – let’s cast off!

Day 1

Starting from Barreterre dock on the N of of the Grand Exuma island we set off for a 3 km crossing to Rat Cay. The kayak was a bit wobbly since not having a centre hatch we had to strap a portion of the load to the top deck. The scenery at this point wasn’t really mind-blowing, more of a shallow, brownish sea between the Grand Exuma and the outlying cays.

However, as soon as we paddled by a string of 2-3 cays and hop over to Norman’s Pond Cay, I am excited beyond my expectations and think we just landed in paradise. The entire west flank of a 5km long island is laced with a white sand beach and perfect azure waters as if from a tourist catalogue. What is even more incredible is that this entire beach we have to ourselves. After about 4 hrs of paddling this is where we make camp for the night. We’re in heaven and I can’t believe it’s only Day 1!

Camping

Generally, all camp sites on the cays are unofficial and without services. You pretty much pull up to a beach you fancy and set up camp. There are a few exceptions where you shouldn’t camp but the map by Out Island Explorers linked above will tell you which ones. Respect this unwritten agreement and leave no trace as this miraculous arrangement where you can camp on beautiful beaches for free exists only because the property owners have not yet had a bad experience. Most of the cays don’t have permanent residents so there is almost 100% you’ll have the entire beach just to yourselves. One thing you should know is that some of the beaches (Norman’s Pond, I’m looking at you!) are infested with sandflies that come out at sunset and will feast on you incessantly. Bring a bug net and cover your ankles, you’ll be grateful.

Beach on the west flank of the Norman’s Pond Cay.

During a stroll along the beach I stumble upon this curious lace-like coral washed out on the shore. It looks like a pair of purple angel wings so I picked it up gently and attached it to kayak’s deck like a bow figurehead that sailors had on their ships for protection from all things evil. I’m hoping to achieve the same effect.

Coral “angle wings” as a figurehead on our boat’s deck.

Day 2

We wake up to a full day of sunshine and calm seas. Today we’d like to round the N tip of Norman’s Pond Cay and paddle down its other side and off to Leaf Cay lying just 500m off Norman’s Pond east coast. Now, the particular draw of the Leaf Cay is that it is swarming with iguanas, little prehistoric dragons that inhabit some of these islands. I’ve never seen iguanas before and that’s just another reason we came to visit Bahamas. That and the pigs but that’s another story.

However, as soon as we round up the N tip of Norman’s Pond we get a taste of the Atlantic Ocean. Here the two adjacent cays are separated by a fairly large ‘cut’, a break in the chain of islands, and swell from the open Atlantic starts to rock our boat. Not having the the best sea kayak and still heavily loaded with 7 days of water and supplies it doesn’t feel stable enough to venture in rough conditions. We bail 😦 but it gnaws at me and now I want to see the iguanas even more.

Currents

Alas, we paddle on, carefully picking our route through more ‘cuts’. Some are benign but in some places I was surprised about relatively strong currents (2-3 knots) in the randomnest of places. I think the shallow sandbanks amplify the velocity of a large amount of tidal water washing over them. All I’m saying don’t assume it’s all idyllic and just be intentional about when and where you cross.

We stop at Bock Cay for lunch. It has some sort of a resort somewhere upland which we can’t see from the beach but the sign by the dock instructs us to radio the resort master to get permission to land. This is a particularly pretty spot with blindingly white sand, shallow water and a gazebo for shade so we linger and cannot get enough of the views. Just another day in paradise.

Lounging on the dock at Bock Cay.

That night we camp on Lingnumvitae Cay. It’s a peculiar little island with attractive flora of thorny bushes and prickly plants that likely don’t see much rain. We are treated to the usual white sand and turquoise waters. Did I tell you that on all these perfect camping beaches we were ALONE?

Camping on Lingnumvitae Cay. A nice snorkel and a little walk among some very prickly bushes.

Day 3

The weather changed and it is blowing a fresh northeasterly. On the west side of the island chain however, we are quite protected and only feel the breeze when crossing from one cay to another. Wind gradually increases during the day and in the early afternoon it blows a steady 18 knots. We know that we have very little time left before a major storm rolls through. We’re not quite at our next campsite on Big Farmer’s Cay when the squall hits. The wind picks up to a crazy pitch and gusts at 25-30 knots. so we quickly pull over to the nearest shore to seek some shelter. There is none.

Storm clouds starting to gather.

The shore has some sporadic houses and a man emerges from one of them and hurries down to the beach to secure his rowboat. He’s not very pleased to see us (and that is probably the only instant of feeling unwelcome that we experienced during our time on the islands) and ‘recommends’, nicely enough, that we continue to the next bay where we can camp. Thought of his sending us back on the water in this weather seems incredulous first but when the wind reduces somewhat we take the opportunity and hop into the kayak again to carefully make our way to a deserted bay about a kilometer further north.

It’s basically someone’s abandoned property with a vacation home standing in a grove of palm trees, windows all boarded up, but we make use of a dilapidated gazebo nearby and pitch the tent right to it. As soon as we have the canopy over our heads the storm cloud unleashes the thunder and buckets of water. It rains steadily for quite a while and because our food is still in the kayak, we go to bed hungry. It is also the only night that we are shivering from cold and have to huddle for warmth.

Our camp on Big Farmer Cay where, again, we have this sandy beach to ourselves.

Day 4

The next morning shines with glory and we have a rest day. After a leisurely breakfast we paddle a very short distance to a nearby Little Farmer’s Cay and our only resupply point on this route. Since we still have enough fresh water and food, we don’t really need to buy anything but crave a bit of human contact. Little Farmer’s Cay is a convenient stopover for boats travelling up and down this chain of islands and has a nice restaurant and rental cabins. In a small lagoon, the locals were feeding giant turtles looking for a free meal. It was an overall pleasant day spent hanging out on Little Farmer’s Cay and watching the small tourist boats go by.

Feeding turtles in the Little Farmer’s Cay lagoon.
The famous pigs of the Bahamas

Have you seen a picture of a cute pink piglet swimming in azure tropical waters? Then you’ve probably seen one of the famous pigs. Near Staniel Cay there is a bay where a small herd of wild pigs got habituated to tourists and swim out to meet the arriving boats in expectation of a food handout. Apples flow freely to the pigs, tourists take pictures. Everybody wins. Staniel Cay is, in fact not terribly far from where we were camped on Big Farmer’s Cay, about 20 km to the north, but it would mean extra two days of paddling which we didn’t have. Sadly, we decided not to go. The silver lining – we’re not too keen on very touristy things so perhaps for the better we spared ourselves of the Instagram crowd.

Swimming pigs of the Bahamas. Photo by Bahamas Air Tours.
Christmas Eve

Second night on the Big Farmer’s Cay was a Christmas Eve and while in this rather tropical environment we still wanted to celebrate in our traditional way so we set a festive table in the gazebo with the holey roof. Peter strung out a set of tealights around the boat and I unpacked all the small goodies that we were able to bring with us.

Silent night!

Day 5

The day dawns perfectly calm. We’re up and out early at 6am to benefit from the calm conditions and paddle out “offshore” towards a point on the horizon. A moving dot on my GPS, that’s what we are. There’s no visual anchor point ahead of us, just a slightly curved horizon line. We are aiming for Musha sandbar, an area of shallow water and blindingly white sand.

Musha Cay sandbar.

We are about 1 hour too late after low tide so the sandbank is, unfortunately now under water, but still only about knee deep so we get out of the kayak and walk about giddily in this eerie spot surrounded by water. As the tide rises the water washes over the sandbank faster and faster, it’s one of those spots where the strength of the current surprised me. So we hop back into the kayak and paddle fast back to the cays.

We stop for an early lunch and a long snooze (it’s still only 10 am) on Dove Cay.

Lunch spot on Dove Cay.

Our goal today is to get to Norman’s Pond Cay where we’ll spend the night before a 4 nm crossing to the Brigantines so we’re not rushing and have time to enjoy a couple more perfect white sand beaches.

Stretching our legs at Neighbour Cay.
An amazing sunset at Norman’s Pond Cay.

Day 6

A windy day today but we knew that was coming. A bit unfortunate as far as the timing goes because today we need to do a substantial crossing to the Brigantines, about 4 nm to the SW. The wind is blowing about 13-15 knots from NE which isn’t ideal as the waves would be catching us broadside. We linger on the shore waiting for it to calm down and it does subside a bit so that’s when we go for it. We plotted our route in such way that the waves are in our back rather than broadside but as soon as we are a good distance from the shore we are carried away by considerable wind action. At least we don’t have to fight the wind but waves coming from the back are not a win either.

This is where the toughest marital disputes are fought over which heading we should be following and what is the optimal angle to ride the waves on. Lots of shouting going on. After some good struggle and white-knuckled we reach New Cay in the Brigantines chain. It’s still blowing hard from the NE so we need to duck between the cays and approach the beaches from the southwest.

Once out of the wind we love each other again and are rewarded by a campsite on another perfect white sand beach.

Lounging in the Brigantines.

We still have enough time, food and, most importantly, water so we take our time in the Brigantines and explore every nook and cranny and every speck of a white beach (all stunning) with abandon.

Mangrove forest on the S tip of Brigantine Cay.
Taking a break from paddling on a beach at the N end of Lily Cay.
Walking the extensive sandbanks N of Long Cay at low tide.
Camping on Cluff Cay, a very pretty campsite by an abandoned house.
A dream come true – we finally found the iguanas (on Cluff Cay).

Day 7

Today is our last day paddling in the Bahamas. We break camp leisurely in the morning and start heading towards the NW tip of the Grand Exuma where we will be picked up later today. The shoreline here is nowhere near as pretty as the islands. The white sand beaches are gone and replaced with shallow brackish water. We make one last stop at something that resembles a beach and go for a swim to wash off sweat and salt. I am already out of the water and on the beach when I shout: “Shark, shark!” It might have been a harmless species but a 1.5m fish with sharp teeth was starting to take interest in Peter who was still splashing in the water. He thought I am playing a practical joke but climbed out of the water nevertheless. He never saw the shark and thought I’m crazy. Oh well, marriage.

Before the very end I set the angel wings free again.

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