On a good day, the hazy bulk of Cuba to the Southwest is just visible from the observation platform of the Matthew Town lighthouse in
Inagua. Turning a few degrees to the left, you see only the unbroken horizon over the ocean, yet only some 75 miles (120 km) away lies Tortuga Island off the north coast of Haiti. Through these waters have passed the treasure-laden ships of Imperial Spain, as well as countless freighters and merchants plying their trade between the Caribbean and North America. The route is hazardous; low-lying cays and shallow reefs await the unwary and those poor souls hopelessly driven on by the forces of storm and hurricane. A few miles north of Great
Inagua, the rusting hulk of freighter sits perched atop the treacherous Hogsty Reef, while the remains of many more vessels scatter the reefs and ocean depths to the north and west.
|The Roseate Spoonbill is one of the more spectacular birds nesting upon
Southernmost of the Bahamian Islands is Great Inagua. Sandwiched between Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Island, its salt flats and low hills spread across the peak of an isolated undersea mountain rising almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) from the ocean floor. The terrain of Inagua is harsh. With little freshwater, low rainfall, and constant trade winds, only the hardiest vegetation can survive. Yet it is these very factors that have brought comparative prosperity to the island.
| Nature has been concentrating salt in Inagua's shallow lakes for thousands of years. Today, the Morton Salt Company speeds up the process by controlling water flow, and produces some 1 million tons of sea salt annually. It was salt that first brought settlers to this, the largest of the southern Bahamian Islands and the third largest island in the entire archipelago.
Bahamian historian Dr Paul Albury writes that the name of the island was most likely derived from two Spanish words lleno (full), and agua (water). An English corruption of these words,
Henagea, apparently persisted for some time, and was the name of the island when settlers first came there to harvest salt. In 1803, it was recorded that there was only one inhabitant on
Inagua, and by 1848, a mere 172. However, the salt harvest and the sale of the commodity to passing ships was so successful that by the year 1871, the population had risen to 1,120 a number close to the present population.
These good times were not to last, for the mining of salt in the U.S.A., and protective tariffs imposed by that country reduced the market, and the Inagua salt industry went into decline.
G.C. Klingel, who was shipwrecked upon Great Inagua in the 1930s, and who later described his experiences in his book,
"The place was a ruin. Vacant and broken windows stared at us from tumbled and deserted houses. Roofs careened at crazy angles, and through great gaping holes in their surfaces we could see golden splashes of sunlight that filtered into the darkened interiors. Flattened fragments of long-deserted garden walls lay in piles where they had fallen, dislodged by the elements and the flowers of these gardens had long since run riot and were strewn in hopeless profusion in a tangle of weeds and broadly padded Prickly Pear."
In the 1930s, the Erickson brothers revived the salt industry into a successful operation that was later taken over by the Morton Salt Company. Today, Matthew Town reflects its former prosperity and its residents enjoy a lifestyle unequalled in the southern Bahamas. Some 12,000 acres are now set aside for salt production. Seawater is pumped into the island by powerful diesel engines, and carried to the interior through natural creeks lined with mangroves. Man-made dykes separate this seawater from the increasingly saline brine in the evaporating lakes. Inagua's low rainfall and persistent trade winds are ideal for salt production, a natural process that is guided and assisted by man at every step.
From the air, the ponds are a quilt of many
colours. Different species of algae, minute floating forms of plant life, thrive in the changing concentrations of brine. Indeed their presence is welcomed, for by colouring the water, they increase the absorption of heat, and thus speed up evaporation and salt production.
The Bahamas Rock Iguana is found on islands in the Bight of Acklins in the Southern Bahamas.
Photo by Moira Attrill
At the end of the line, the brine flows into crystallising ponds to a depth of some 18 inches (0.5 meters). When the salt has
crystallised, the remaining liquor containing other mineral salts is pumped out into an adjacent area, a moonscape punctuated by the skeletal remains of dead trees. The salt left behind is harvested with heavy machinery, and carried away by trucks to an enormous pile where it awaits shipping.
The salt ponds may not only produce salt. Experiments are being carried out to grow various forms of marine life in the salty water. Brine shrimps,
stonecrabs, and prawns are all potential harvests. The old salt-ponds to the north on Long Island have already been converted to this purpose.
Long before the lakes of Inagua were utilised by man for salt production, water birds gathered here to enjoy nature's bounty. Man, in his turn, has enjoyed the birds. In 1771, English naturalist Mark Catesby wrote about the flamingo:
".... the flesh is delicate and nearest resembles that of a partridge in taste. The tongue above any other part, was in the highest esteem with the luxurious Romans for its exquisite
flavour... A man, by concealing himself from their sight, may kill great numbers of them, for they will not rise at the report of a gun, nor is the sight of those killed close by them sufficient to terrorise the rest, and warn them of the danger, but they stand gazing, as if it were astonished, til most or all of them are killed."
Some 50,000 Caribbean Flamingos congregate on the lakes of Inagua each breeding
|By the 1950s, Inagua's Lake Rosa was the last stronghold of the Flamingo in the Bahamas. Fortunately for the species, an organisation called "the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo in the Bahamas" was formed to protect the birds in a declared protected area.
Later this organisation became the Bahamas National Trust, and the Flamingo reserve has become the Inagua National Park, a 287 sq.-mile (741 sq.-km) area comprising almost 50 percent of Great
Inagua. The flamingo, recently declared the national bird of the Bahamas, and appearing on the national coat of arms, has since made a spectacular comeback. Today as many as 30,000 of these birds may congregate at Inagua each spring to engage in their complex courtship rituals, and to raise their young. The Bahamas National Trust wardens have established a camp at the western edge of the Park, and some 23 miles (37-km) from Matthew Town, upon a low sand dune optimistically known as Long Cay. Here you can relax far from the cares of the world.
| While the constant breeze keeps away the bugs. Flamingos, Spoonbills, and other waterbirds parade past the observer in their search for food, probing the heavily organic mud for their supper. (Arrangements for a stay at the camp, and tours of adjacent areas may be made through the Bahamas National Trust at P.O. Box N4105, Nassau.)
At the eastern end of the lake are remote creeks, ponds, and luxuriant Mangroves where myriad waterbirds build their nests. Here are Cormorants, Pelicans, Spoonbills, Herons, and the rare Reddish Egret, the local form easily distinguished from its North American cousins by its pure white plumage.
ROCKS AND WIND
Not all of Inagua is swamp or lake; the southern and eastern portions of the island are mostly raised a few feet above sea level, and covered with either low coppice or thorny scrub. There are more cactus here than in the rest of the Bahamas, from the tall elongated Dildo cactus to the Woolly-nipple cactus, a six inch (15-cm) ball of ferocious spines. The rocky landscape, thin soil, and low rainfall make Inagua a harsh place for plants. Trees of possibly great age rise no more than a few feet above the rocky terrain. Such a growth form is even more exaggerated along the southern coast where the unrelenting trade winds and the almost continuous salt spray from the jagged
rocks below have flattened the vegetation against the rocky soil. Mature trees, moulded to the contour of the land, rise little more than a foot above the rock and blanket the ground with their trailing stems and branches.
From these rocky windblown slopes there is a fine view of one of the most graceful of seabirds, the White-Tailed Tropic Bird. After spending months out in the Atlantic Ocean, this species comes ashore along the rocky cliffs of the eastern Bahamas to mate, and to lay its single mahogany coloured egg. Wheeling and swooping, the birds utilise the air currents coming off the ocean as they search for a suitable nesting hole. Evidence from ringed birds suggests that they always return to the same nesting hole each year. The young bird, a fluffy white ball with a sharp beak, is fed by its parents upon a regurgitated mixture of partially digested fish, a concoction that it is only too happy to splash over those who disturb it.
Farther inland and better protected from the influence of the sea, the taller broadleaf coppice is home to the Bahamas Parrot, a species that today only survives on the northern island of
Abaco, and here on the southern island of Inagua some 350 miles (560-km) away. The Bahamas parrot is closely related to parrots of Cuba and the Cayman Islands, and in its Abaco habitat, is the most northerly species of Parrot anywhere in the world.
Just to the north of Inagua, and surrounded by water thousands of feet deep, is Little
Inagua, an uninhabited wilderness of some 49 sq. miles (127 sq. km). Local stories have it that Henri
Christophe, one- time ruler of Haiti, buried his treasure either on Little or Great
Inagua. Fishermen sometimes visit the island, and turtles come here to nest. Inland, in an inhospitable pothole terrain is found the only natural stand of Royal Palms in the Bahamas. The seeds may have been brought from the island of Hispaniola in the digestive tracts of birds.
Some 60 miles (96-km) north of Inagua across the Caicos passage is the island of
Mayaguana. Although a medium-sized Bahamian island of about 285 sq. miles (735 sq. km), its population has always been small. Today less than 600 people live in the "capital" of Abraham's Bay, and the two smaller settlements of Betsy Bay and Pirate's Well. Fishing, farming, and the few government positions are the only jobs on the island. Such being the case, many of the younger residents have left for Nassau to seek other careers. However, plans are afoot to increase tourism on Mayaguana and thus provide more jobs. Interestingly, Mayaguana is one of the few Bahamian islands to retain its Indian name. Out in the coastal settlement of Betsy Bay, many of the homes have a rural innocence from another era. Continuing to the north and west along the island chain you come to a small cluster of uninhabited cays. These are Samana Cay, sometimes known as Attwood's Cay and the East and West Plana Cays. Two of these small islands are of particular interest for their plant and animal species.
The Bahamas Hutia (here being held by
Rod Attrill in gloved hands) was found only on the Plana Cays. It has however been
introduced recently to other
Samana Cay has been inhabited seasonally by farmers from nearby Acklins and by collectors of Cascarilla bark. This small tree, also known in the islands as Sweet Wood or Eleuthera bark, has a rich spicy aroma. Its bark is an important ingredient in the production o f the popular liqueur
Campari. Today Samana Cay ranks third in importance in the production of Cascarilla Bark behind Acklins and Crooked islands where many o f these trees have been planted around homes for the later harvesting of the bark.
A somewhat barren and nondescript little island, East Plana Cay has an area of less than 1,000 acres (400 hectares). It was here in the mid Sixties that Dr. Garrett Clough, a rodent biologist rediscovered the unique Bahamas
Hutia, an animal long thought to have been extinct. Hutias are plant eating rodents, and are about the size of a small rabbit. They have living relatives in Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica, but were only known in the Bahamas by their skeletons. In 1747, Catesby wrote about the
Hutia: "The Bahamas Coney . . . is a little less than the common wild rabbit, and of a brown colour without a mixture of grey hairs. Its ears, feet and tail resemble those of a rat, in the other parts it is somewhat like a rabbit, they feed wholly on wild fruits and vegetables, when surprised by hunters they retreat to holes in the rock. Their
flesh is esteemed very good, it has more the taste of a pig than that of a rabbit."
In early colonial times, the edibility of local wildlife was of critical importance, for supplies from elsewhere were sporadic and unreliable. Even today, with American-style supermarkets on several of the islands, the first question many Bahamians will ask about animals is "Can it eat?" - local dialect for "is it edible?" The population of between 5,000 and I0, 000 Hutias on East Plana Cay is still thriving. Smaller populations are also growing on two cays within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Scientists aboard the research vessel Regina Maris placed a small number of Hutias here a few years ago.
The islands of Crooked and Acklins encircle a shallow lagoon known as the Bight of
Acklins. Geologically this is actually the smallest of the true Bahamian Banks. Banks are shallow sandy platforms often bordered by narrow islands, and isolated from other shallow water regions by water of great depth.
Loyalists until did not settle crooked Island after 1783, but by the beginning of the 19th Century there were more than 40 plantations worked by more than 1,000 slaves who planted cotton. The plantations were short lived for the soil was thin and could not support crops for more than a few years. Soon the homes of the plantation owners began to fall into disrepair. Roofs collapsed, and stones from the walls were used for other purposes.
Today, fewer than 700 people live on Crooked Island. Most of them make a living from the land and the sea. At best, the plantation houses are now tumbled and scattered ruins. Two however are worthy of note. Hope Great House and Marine Farm have been left to the Bahamas National Trust by the late Herbert McKinney of Nassau, so that they may be preserved. Located at the extreme north-western tip of Crooked Island, Marine Farm overlooks the Crooked Island Passage, the deepwater channel dividing the southern and central Bahamas. It was close by here, at Bird Rock, that it is believed Columbus anchored during his passage through the islands on his first voyage of discovery. In 1492, he spent several days in the area searching for
"Samaot,"a place where it was rumoured that gold was to be found. Although he located an Indian village near to his anchorage, he apparently never found the Indian settlement on
Acklins, which undoubtedly was the place he sought. Recent evidence shows that there was a major Indian community occupying 3.8 miles (6 km) of coastal Acklins between Jamaica Cay and Delectable Bay. This was quite possibly the largest Indian community in the entire Bahamas at that time. To this day there is no evidence to suggest that gold existed on or had been brought to the island. Columbus called
Acklins, "La Isabella". Later it came to be called Acklins Key (early 19th Century), and in more recent times Acklins Island.
Before the advent of steamships, the monthly packet from Jamaica to England would pass through the Crooked Island Passage en route to Britain. Here it would drop off and pick up not only the malt, but also passengers and freight, for later trans-shipment to Nassau, and to other Bahamian islands. The first General Post Office of the Bahamas was located at Pitts Town, close to both Marine Farm plantation and to Bird Rock. Just to the south of Acklins are a small group of cays that still retain their original Spanish name. The Mira Por Vos Cays have never been inhabited, but are one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the entire Bahamas. On the cays is probably the most northerly colony of Brown Booby, a tropical Gannet with a four-and-half foot wing span.
If you wish to visit the Southern Bahamas you will find it helpful to make arrangements well in advance either through a travel agent, or somebody with family or friends in the area. Acklins is only accessible by private plane or boat, charter plane or
mailboat. The mailboats, privately owned craft under contract to the Bahamas Government, carry passengers and freight throughout the islands. Arrangements for travel on such boats must be made directly with the captain in Nassau. On Inagua the Main House, operated by the Morton Salt Company has basic rooms and good island cooking. Ford's guesthouse is also occasionally open to guests. Arrangements on Crooked and Acklins should be made through the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism in Nassau, or privately upon reaching the island. Other than charters from the United States, all travel to the southern islands is from Nassau.
For those who require structured vacations, the southern Bahamas is out, but for those seeking a new experience, a new view of the interaction of man and nature, the southern islands offer much.
© R. Attrill