Island Time - Cruising comforts of the creature kind

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Fellow cruisers aren’t the only wildlife you can expect to encounter while island hopping in the Caribbean

Fellow cruisers aren’t the only wildlife you can expect to encounter while island hopping in the Caribbean

We were startled, not quite afraid, but wondering for a tenth of a second whether we should be.

Visceral surprise announces many encounters between human and beast now that most of us have become amateurs in the wild, getting our nature fix from television. This particular event, however, happened amid extreme civilization. Kelly and I were motoring the dinghy up a residential canal through Miami Beach looking for a place to land. As we brushed along some low hanging branches, something 4 feet long, orange and spiky dove from the trees into the water, then disappeared along the bottom as if shot from a gun. Had we been standing, we might have jumped out of our topsiders.

Alert now, we studied the bushes, and saw more of them, clinging to the branches, looking at us with that sideways gaze of theirs. They were lizards, of course. Big ones. Iguanas, we learned later, and descended from pets brought into the area when lizard ownership was an urban fad. Some of them were so big they might have been the original critters — adopted under JFK, banished from the house under LBJ or Nixon.

This non-native species now thrives in South Florida. On our last trip down the Intracoastal Waterway we even noticed a big female sunning herself on an abutment of the CommercialBoulevardBridge in Fort Lauderdale.

Once, during a brief career marketing trawler yachts, I brainstormed to reduce boating’s appeal to its essence, hoping to find some magic formula to sell my company’s product. I came to believe that being on the water for many people fulfilled a yearning to interact with nature hardwired in our primate ancestors. Half-baked though it may be, this theory can be used to explain the kayaking bird watcher, the racing sailor as well as the predations of the sportfisherman in his million-dollar battlewagon. Only the megayacht crowd, so insulated against nature they might as well be in a Manhattan apartment, seem to have missed the point.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that one of the great pleasures of cruising has been the creatures we’ve met along the way. It would not have been half the fun without them.

Welcome to WildKingdom

The wildlife show continued at North Bimini. Every time we’ve anchored in the harbor we’ve been treated to the sight of stingrays launching themselves into the air above the shallows. An elderly Bahamian once told me that Ernest Hemingway used to “disrespect” the rays by using them for target practice with his tommy gun. All I can say is that the aerial displays happen way too fast to shoot with my digital camera, so maybe the Great White Hunter’s bullets went wide as well.

Elsewhere, we never saw rays leaping, but plenty of them skimmed along the bottom, their undulating black shapes easy to discern against the white sand, beautiful and mysterious.

It was a Bahamian who gave us the news that the late “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin, had been stabbed in the heart by a ray’s barb, and it reminded us of why we shuffle through the sand rather than step whenever wading in Bahamian waters; rays like to bury themselves under a thin layer of sand and a ray stepped on is likely to stab you in the foot or leg. At Staniel Cay, some of the local rays and nurse sharks are treated as pets; each afternoon they congregate under the fish cleaning bench at the Yacht Club docks, and fishermen throw them scraps.

From Bimini, the next episode of our personal “Nature” series happened at Allan’s Cay in the northern Exumas, famed for its rock iguanas. These guys are the size of big housecats and nowhere near as impressive as their Miami cousins, but there were a lot of them on the small beach. They had once been common throughout the Bahamas, but they had been eaten to near extinction over the centuries by the islanders.

About 15 years ago fewer than a half-dozen greeted us on the beach. Now there were more than 80 jockeying for position, nipping at each other like a pack of hungry dogs. The population had thrived in part because cruisers were feeding them — and not just cruisers, but also a fast boat with dozens of tourists from Nassau bearing goodies. Guilty as the rest, we handed out a “trail mix” of dried fruit and nuts.

For creatures that used to be eaten by us primates, they were strangely unperturbed when I charged through them, stomping and waving my arms, trying to see if they could be frightened into running. They seemed not to notice.

With all the lizardry about, I wonder how many visitors noticed the leaves rustling once you walked inland from the beach. Another thriving inhabitant was a giant land crab that takes over the big snail-like shells of the conk. As I walked by they withdrew into their appropriated homes and stood still: Don’t look at me; I’m just an old shell; nothing to eat here.

Swimming with pigs

Southward from Allan’s the next great wildlife spot is Warderick Wells, headquarters for the ExumasLand and SeaPark, a nature preserve. Kelly describes the snorkeling there as a “carnival of fish and coral,” but another favorite is to feed sugar to the Bananaquits; these sparrow-sized, yellow-breasted birds land on your hand to take the sugar from your palm. You might also catch a fleeting glimpse of the furball they call hutia — that’s another native species, a big rodent that was eaten nearly to extinction.

I’ve mentioned the pet rays and nurse sharks at Staniel, but nearby on a cay called Big Majors Spot you can cavort with the famous swimming pigs. The Bahamians drop three or four of them on this uninhabited cay and let them fatten up on leftovers from the cruising vessels in the anchorage — lots of rice and pasta. One of the pigs swam to our dinghy and nearly swamped it trying to climb aboard; three of them chased Kelly across the beach until she gave up the goods. I suspect the joy is short-lived. When the cruisers thin out for the summer, I’d wager that the folks at Staniel invite these plump specimens back home for dinner and replace them with a new bunch.

In the Abacos, it was sea turtles. They were abundant and circulated in the anchorages at Marsh and Little harbors. Kelly developed such an affection for these “friends,” that she painted their portraits from some underwater photos some other friends had taken. We hated to see it when the Bahamians came in small boats to spear turtles in the clear shallows, pushing them against the bottom and running them through.

Now we’re back in the Dominican Republic which, outside the hotels, remains one big farmyard. We awake to the sounds of roosters crowing and burros braying. We hope we’ll get to Samana Bay on the country’s eastern shore before the humpback whales now gathered there begin the long journey back to their summer feeding grounds at Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts and other points north. North Atlantic humpbacks come south to breed and give birth and, according to the whale experts, most are Dominican-born.

Speaking of marine mammals, let me finish with a sea story. We were ghosting over Penobscot Bay in light fog a few years back, when I did what sailors often do in the privacy of the ocean. I went forward to pee off the bow while standing on the bow pulpit and leaning against the forestay.

Suddenly out of the calm dark water a porpoise leaped to within a few feet of me and looked me right in the eye, so to speak. In fright, I jumped backwards onto the foredeck. The boat shoes, however, stayed exactly where I had been standing. I had jumped right out of my shoes, and I’ll bet that porpoise is still laughing.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net.