Monday, August 27, 2012

Bimini Blast: Our STAYcation Part II

Duncan arrived back from his shoot in the early hours of the morning along with our friend Glenn, who had been on the shoot with him. We had rented a boat for the day, so everyone was rushing around to get ready and head out the door. Scuba tanks, bait, dive gear, lunch of champions ( peanut butter and jelly) and cameras filled every empty space on the boat. Walt arrived and we launched into our adventure.

Our first stop was Triangle to dive with Caribbean reef sharks. The sharks here have become familiar with divers over the course of 20 years of research and filming that has occurred at the site. We anchored the boat and began baiting. We are spoiled at this location and usually have sharks around us before the boat is even set. On this day nothing seemed to be happening,not a shark in site. Dunk and I looked at each other, as we had only encountered this one other time. Three years ago we were skunked on the same site because block rigs had been dropped in the area and their target was sharks. They were created with car batteries as anchors and had metal wire with large rusty hooks. No doubt a shark had struggled or been captured on one, causing the other sharks to disappear. Dead shark is a repellent for many shark species and companies are working on synthesizing dead shark as a repellent to keep sharks away from longlines, beaches and other areas that might be harmful to them.

We waited about 15 minutes and I made the call to move on with our day. There was no sign of life and we knew there would not be. We got reports from two other groups that attempted a snorkel on the site and they got skunked as well. It was later confirmed that a vessel had been shark fishing the previous day. Nothing like some asshole
(pardon my language, but this angers me to no end) tourists to go “shoot fish in a barrel.” Real fisherman huh? I was disappointed that our camera loaded friends didn't get the experience, but beyond disappointed and angry at the fact that people cannot leave sharks alone! The locals respect this site and understand its importance, but tourists don’t care about the damage they leave behind because it is not their backyard. I am not Bahamian, but I live in Bimini and this is my backyard!

We headed to another site to find some nurse sharks and were happily greeted by a slumber party of six nurses wedged under a coral head. They cruised around and sniffed our bait. This is one of my favorite spots, although only ten feet deep, to visit and hangout. The current was ripping, which made the dive challenging, especially in shallow water, but everyone got some nurse shark love.

We had such a blast hanging with the rays earlier in the week that we headed
back to Honeymoon Harbor to finish off our day. Glenn had never been and getting goosed by a stingray is really a must when visiting Bimini. We plopped down our delicious bait and were immediately mugged by 10-12 stingrays. They have no manners and do not mind giving you a goose or a bit of chew. If they get your toes it feels really weird. Glenn was like a kid on Christmas, the typical reaction, as rays swarmed him and traded lots of Bimini love for a free snack. There were several families picnicking on the beach and they came to check out what were doing. One mentioned she heard stingrays were dangerous, but we quickly coaxed her into the water and watched as she squealed with delight as a massive ray sat on her lap.

Before long we had a few other guests join us, as two large nurse sharks and two good sized Caribbean reef sharks came in to check out the commotion. Six kids, balanced precariously on a paddleboard, shouted, “shark,” and immediately headed off to get a better look. I love it when people yell, “ shark,” and move in for a closer look rather than running for the hills. The kids shouted and laughed as the shark tried to avoid the ruckus they were causing. “ Cool, “ and, “ awesome,” were shouted at least a dozen times. We basked in the glow of Mother Nature’s classroom and continued to talk to spectators about the rays and sharks. We definitely changed a few minds which soothed the wounds inflicted earlier by the lack of sharks at Triangle.

The conditions were perfect as stingrays zipped across the white sand bottom in gin clear water. I am pretty sure Denny was actually drooling as he fired shot after shot on his camera. Two and a half hours were absorbed by sharks and rays and we soaked up the final moments. Dunk and I dropped everyone off for a snorkel lap around the concrete ship, as it really is another must for the Bimini visitor. We were back before sunset and ready to celebrate the day with a cocktail. I blended some frozen deliciousness and we enjoyed some local fare.

Sadly Shari and Walt departed early the next day, but we scurried to get on the water before Dennis had to catch his afternoon flight. The tide was right for us to make a run through Smuggler’s pass in the mangroves. This aptly named route was utilized by rum and drug runners in the past and is one of the most amazing places on the planet. We zipped through the channel, not as wide as the boat in some places, and relished in the complete rawness of the mangrove forest. The occasional airplane passing overhead was the only reminder that were were not a million miles from civilization. Very few people on the planet have visited this region and it really is a hidden treasure. Schools of juvenile snapper darted a head of us as juvenile green turtles raced each other across our bow. A large Southern stingray cruised a long and a juvenile lemon sharks took cover in the thickness of the mangrove root maze.

The channel finally opened and we were deposited in the lagoon that separates the north and south islands. In the distance the development has littered the landscape with piles of sand and heavy construction equipment. Boggles my mind that a treasure like this channel exists and people are blind to it, having no empathy towards the vital roll it plays in the life of the island. A role that not even the al mightiest of dollars can rival.

We anchored the boat and swam. We floated, laughed and wallowed in what we had just experienced. Such a breathtaking place that never ceases to amaze me. We said goodbye to the mangroves and pulled up at Stuart’s Conch stand to toast the day with a cold libation. Front row parking on the beach and cold Kaliks in our hand immediately. We had become frequent guests in the recent days and I have to say it never got old. There is nothing bad about sitting on a deck over the ocean with a cold beer and a lovely breeze. We shoved off and headed for home so Denny could make his flight, although I am sure he wouldn’t have minded missing it.

Thanks to our amazing friends for sharing our home and this incredible little island.Check out Denny’s VIDEO that captures some of the brilliant moments from this part of the adventure as well as the FIRST.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bimini Blast: Our Staycation Part 1

I love it when people come to visit because it means we get to play tour guide and tourist. Although tiny, the islands of Bimini have an eclectic history and culture. We spend most of our time under the water, so exploring topside is always a blast. The best way to get around Bimini is either by bike or golf cart, so we made good use of both options as we set out on our “staycation.”

Dennis and Shari arrived and we hit the ground running. We stopped at Al’s Conch Stand, a rare treat because they are never open. We had negotiated a time for lunch the night before, but the cook had yet to crawl out from the debacle of the previous evening. We toasted their arrival to the island with a delicious nectar called Goombay Smash. This coconut rum and juice concoction is one of our favorites and we recommend to anyone visiting the Bahamas.

Al’s is conveniently located next to the water taxi and we hopped on board to head to the north island. The water taxi runs between the two islands fairly consistently, most of the day. Sometimes you wait a while if the driver is having a drink or had to run home for a minute. The quick trip across is always an adventure because you never know who is going to be aboard or what is going to happen.I love the idea that we take a boat to get to the,” big city.” Sometimes it can be an inconvenience, but having to take a boat to get to the grocery store is pretty awesome. The colors of Bimini are vibrant and with friends in tow, I found myself appreciating the details. The brightly painted bougainvilleas along the fence have bloomed. There are conch shells decorating a newly constructed gate and the small side streets are lined with possibilities.

We immediately trekked up the hill and headed to Sherry’s for lunch. The more Guinness that Sherry drinks, the longer it takes to get your food, but wow, can she cook! The brightly colored shack has a hand painted bar menu and as for food, well you just have to ask what they have going that day. Sherry works in a tiny kitchen and only has one small deep fryer. To appreciate how inadequate this is one must understand that EVERYTHING gets fried on the island. She labors away and cranks out food at a pretty impressive pace. Conch, snapper and lobster are in season and fresh, so we offered advice to Shari and Dennis on the menu items. We opted for ice cold Kaliks, the local beer, as we stuck our feet in the sand and enjoyed the blue ocean that drips off the beach. Very quickly we too were dripping as the humidity was fierce and sweating is more of an accessory than a bodily function in the Bahamian summer heat.

We walked down to Big Game to get our beach cruisers and hit the open road. We headed off with no plan and no limits, just living, “young and wild and free.” The island is small, but there are lots of little gems tucked away. In my travels I have found that most destinations require a bit of perseverance to really find the heart of a place and not just the tourist traps. I would say that sweating your ass off on a beach cruiser shows perseverance, no? It is also a good way to work up your thirst for a local libation when you make a pit stop. Our standard biking expeditions involve precariously balancing cans of paint, groceries and other supplies, so this was a nice change of pace.

Normally puppies are not part of a tour, but with some very cute potcakes ( dogs that are bit of everything mixed in the pot) on the island, it was a must. Duncan and I had spotted them on a trip to the hardware store earlier in the week and I was desperate to get back. I kept my slice of Bimini bread from lunch so that I could have a treat for our new friends. We made a quick stop to visit the lone goat that calls an abandoned yard of cement his home. As I called him, we realized that he was blind. He moved toward the sound, but didn’t even flinch as I waved the Bimini bread through the fence. We finally connected and he seemed to enjoy his treat.

Next stop Porgy Bay for some puppies. They came running, disregarding the trash that they were investigating. Apparently Bimini bread was a good choice, as they devoured it along with our attention. Their little collars are made of rope and they both have pretty pot little bellies. Good to see dogs that are a little chubby on the island as food and care can be severely lacking. Walking away was nearly impossible, especially when they run after us. I am pretty sure that this was one of the highlights for everyone.

After the puppy patrol we headed all the way to the end of the island. Bimini Bay Resort is at the very tip of the north island and we like to show people the damage that they have caused. Seeing piles of dirt being shoved into the lagoon tends to have a more dramatic impact than just talking about it. The resort is changing the island drastically and there are many battles waging to try and protect the natural wonders of Bimini.

As we cruised along, Duncan and I did our best tour guide impersonation with explanations of local heros, hijinks and random facts. Bonefish Ebbie’s place, Ansel’s boat shop, The Dolphin House, the hardware store, and various bars and bakeries.
We made our way to Stuart’s Conch Stand, so we could taste a bit more of the culture. Stuart’s is a Bimini icon and the myth, the man, the legend, Stuart himself got us our Kaliks with a smile. His face is worn with sunshine and life of hard work. The piles of conch decorate both sides of the stand and we moved outside to watch the guys cracking conch. The conch pistol is considered to be the local Viagra and we made sure that Dennis and Shari both tried a sample. I think it tastes like low tide, but people seem to enjoy it. With 2 or 3 pistols ingested each, it was time for a sample of conch salad. The open stand sits over the water with the shades of blue flowing past. We appreciated the breeze as we enjoyed the food, friends and ice cold drinks. The atmosphere was filled with laughter, the good old boys sharing stories of times passed and the essence of the island. It was something straight out of a movie. Moments like these are some of my absolute favorites. This is not your prefabricated and packaged cruise ship tour of the Bahamas; this is raw and real.

The afternoon slipped by and we returned to the South island for cocktails while wallowing in the ocean. The waves were a little aggressive, so the easy lounge turned into a keep the cups upright survival course. Fresh coconut and pineapple coladas eased away the heat of the day. Dinner was cooked on our little grill as we reminisced about the glorious day we have just had. The next day we headed off to join the dolphin boat for the week, an intermission to our land adventures.

Duncan left for a shoot at the begging of the week, so I took on the sole responsibility of tour goddess. We had a new addition to the group, as Walt joined us for our exploits. Walt was a dive student of mine 5 years ago and returned for another underwater adventure. We wasted little time and found ourselves back on the water taxi with the North island as our destination. We decided to ease Walt into the island life and made our way to Big Game for some cocktails. The outdoor bar called our name and we waited as the bar tended blended Goombay smashes and rum runners. Fun noodles floated in the pool, so we had no choice but to put them to good use. I was allotted two in an attempt to keep my spider bitten knee high and dry. I failed epically as I tried to do this and hold a drink. We giggled and floated as some local kids offered to wash our boat. I wish I had a boat they could wash. Walt participated in a cannonball contest as we sipped our tropical concoctions and relished in the island life. This was my first time stepping into the Big Game pool. Despite living on the island, Dunk and I do not luxuriate and lounge much. We toasted him and stated that a repeat performance would be necessary.

The afternoon once again slipped by slowly and we headed due South. Walt and Dennis went to rent a golf cart as I prepared dinner. Local fish, peppers, onions, plantains and tomatoes wrapped in tinfoil and baked in the oven. The boys returned with a fresh pineapple, 2 bottles of rum, sodas and coconut milk. Guess that meant we were having a party. We laughed about the dolphin debauchery of the week and the cast of characters we met. Dennis tried his hand as mixologist and whipped up some concoctions.

The next day Dennis, Shari and Walt headed off for a dive and I settled in to do some work that I was desperately behind on. They returned 2 hours early as apparent “boat issues,” cancelled the second dive. I made the executive decision to head north for round two. Walt picked us up and off we went. We rented a golf cart instead of bikes and once again set off to find some trouble or hope it found us. Cocktails for the warmup at Sherry’s seemed to be the obvious starting point. Shari and Sherry shared an ice cream cone before Shari decided she needed her own. The guys had a bit of bromance on the beach before we pulled them away to continue the tour.

I did the quick run through Bimini Bay before stopping at Stuart’s once again. This time we opted for the lobster and conch salad with cold beers to wash it down. Walt negotiated with a local for a clean conch shell to take home and tried his first conch pistol as Shari and Dennis laughed like old pros. I think Dennis snuck another one in when no one was looking. Maybe he had plans we were not aware of? Walt made his presence permanent as he inked his name on the bench. Another glorious day at Stuart’s.

I grabbed a box of Ritz crackers at the grocery store along with supplies for dinner before puppy time. We found the mischievous duo tied up this time and, “Stinky,” their owner explained that he didn’t want them getting in the road. Most dogs in Bimini are outdoor pets and they have rope for collars and leashes. Our news friends are named Buster and Sunshine. Stinky is a proud papa and he let us give them some loving and a snack. They were less partial to Ritz than they were to Bimini bread, but eventually munched away. Walt secured them to their house as we parted ways.

Our next stop was to visit the goat, which we affectionately named, “Stevie the Wonder Goat.” We called out to him and he made his way to us. His owner scooped him up and flung him over his shoulder. He then places his sunglasses on the goat for a picture before lugging him off down the street. We heard some unpleasant noises, so we rode away praying that we will still see Stevie on our next visit.

We stopped our for absolutely necessary visit with Hotness. Corvell is a voluptuous local lady that sells souvenirs and makes the best conch fritters in all of the Bahamas. We hired her to cook at our rehearsal dinner and she was nothing short of amazing. Walt, Shari and Dennis shopped for goodies and we all walked away with a few items; I with the most amazing shirt! Hotness gave us each a beer coozy and even made sure to send one to Duncan. We departed as she asked if Dennis had a lady at home because she was going to make her jealous. Hotness puckered up and attached herself to Dennis’ cheek and made him blush. I am guessing that was the absolute trip highlight for Dennis whether he will admit it or not.

Our final stop was at one of Bimini’s movie claims to fame. In the last scene of Silence of the Lambs Hannibal calls Clarice and says he is having, “ an old friend for dinner.” This was shot in Bimini and the phone is still there. We each borrowed Shari’s fedora and did our best reenactments for photographs. A perfect way to end the day.

Back at home I took Dennis down to the fish table to teach him how to pound conch. He was a born natural and our conch was pounded to perfection in no time. This mollusk is tough and pounding is necessary to tenderize it before cooking. I wrapped the conch in tin foil with peppers, onion, tomatoes, plantains, coconut milk and lime juice. A rogue potato had been lost on the ride home at the hand of Walt’s erratic driving. In his defense, the cart did only have two speeds; stop and go. The potato was recovered and served up much to Walt’s delight. More cocktails and a fabulous dinner with friends. I rocked my new shirt and we settled in to more laughs about the dolphin debauchery.

To Be Continued: ( Yes, there is more)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dolphins and Sharks and Rays oh My

Our most recent adventure was quite a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, but the shark moments were amazing and will remain the highlight for me. Duncan and I were set to lead a conservation trip aboard the M/V Indigo around our island home. The underwater wildlife surrounding Bimini is incredible and this week was designed to offer guests a great insight into the animals that we love to interact with. The focal point of the week was the wild spotted dolphins. Just north of Bimini lies a stretch of white sand bottom and crystal blue water that is known as the dolphin grounds. Atlantic spotted dolphins travel in ever-dynamic pods, playing, feeding and being promiscuous in this area. Spotted dolphins are highly intelligent and curious and will spend hours interacting with humans. I obviously prefer sharks, but the experience is pretty amazing. A random mix of guests including one of my former co-workers and one of my former dive students joined us.

When the guests arrived we did our intros and talked about the goals we had for the week. Our first stop was the Sharklab to get everyone ready for the shark dive that would happen the following day. The lab is an ideal place for people to see sharks and have a chance to process their own personal experience. Duncan and I corralled everyone into the pen and began talking about the amazing sharks that are found around Bimini. I always find that showing people baby sharks is a way to elicit an empathetic reaction. They are really cute and this distracts from the monster mentality that some many people posses. Each person took a turn holding the little nurse shark. A few of the guests were nervous, but actually holding a shark and connecting with it usually breaks even the strongest adversaries. I could spend hours just wallowing in the pens and watching the lemons cruise and the nurse sharks pile up on the bottom.

The next morning we headed to Honeymoon Harbor to get everyone in with some of the friendliest animals in town. The stingrays that hang around the harbor have been fed for years and have no hesitation in bestowing love and the occasional goose on unsuspecting visitors and by goose I mean a stingray face to your backside. Stingrays are another species that gets a bad reputation, especially with the Steve Irwin accident. They are not malicious animals and unfortunately his sad demise could have been prevented. Predators attack stingrays from behind and the minimal movement of their spine is really their only defense. If a predator sneaked up on you and grabbed you, your reaction of self-defense would no doubt be similar.

Although the animals are given a small amount of food, the interaction is predominantly wild. Even after the food is gone the animals hang around and weave around snorkelers effortlessly. People argue that the animal’s behavior is being altered and yes to some degree it is. They are aware that people bring food, but it is nowhere near enough food to survive. Like shark dives, this site is the epitome of breaking stereotypes about these gorgeous creatures. Having a massive stingray sit on your lap is a pretty unique experience and even the biggest tough guy usually lets out a little giggle.

Our next destination was the reef known as Triangle where we were heading to do a snorkel with Caribbean reef sharks. The site was established about twenty years ago and has been used for research, filming and teaching. The sharks have become conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, but again there is not enough food introduced for them to be lazy and no longer seek out their own meals. This is one of my favorite places on the planet because I have had the opportunity to introduce so many people to sharks for the first time. It usually takes 3-5 minutes to break down the barriers and for fear to evolve into excitement and aw. That change in perception is what continues to give me hope for the future of sharks and our oceans.

As with life, sometimes things don’t work out as expected and the boat had some issues positioning where we needed it to be. We made the best of it and guests enjoyed 3 curious sharks that hung out as we explored the reef. The highlight for me was when Bonnie, who had just learned to swim before the trip, said, “ holy crap. There is a shark. I am swimming with a shark. “ Her face lit up with a great big grin. This woman had not only jumped in the ocean for the first time, but also loved the sharks that were sharing the space with her. This is a huge success in my book; an inspirational story that everyone can and should swim with sharks. Although the encounter didn’t go as it was planned, it was a still a beautiful day in the water.

Duncan got a last minute shoot and Nassau and had to leave us after the second day. On our way out to the dolphin grounds the boat grounded out on the sand bank. They are dredging the channel between the two islands of Bimini and are making a bit of a mess. We spent most of the day stuck on the bottom. Obviously not ideal, but guests enjoyed some sunshine and swam off the back of the boat. One of the guests had homemade dolphin tarot cards so we each got a reading. I got a goddess card, so I was pleased with the outcome.

The next two days included some amazing interactions with the spotted dolphins. The weather was perfect and the sea was like glass. The finally day found dolphins just after breakfast. On the way into port we came across a pod of feeding bottlenose dolphins. We were able to slip in and hang out with them as they fed in a circular pattern. It is pretty incredible to watch as a massive dolphin drives its head into the sand after a razor fish. Nurse sharks frequent the same area, so I happily watched them feed.

Despite a few mishaps on the boat, Bimini shined once again for our guests. The dolphins were beautiful, the weather was perfect and people walked away with an unexpected love for sharks, one I know they will pass on at home.