I confess, Bimini in the Bahamas is not the first place that comes to mind when I consider nature travel. The north island is fairly congested with settlements and development projects and the lagoon channel, despite well-posted no-wake signs, may as well be a race course for local boaters and partiers on fishing excursions from South Florida. I was quite put off on my first visit, four years ago. It was hardly an idyllic paradise. It seemed loud, crowded, somewhat dingy and I found the development on the northwest corner of the north island downright appalling. Wasn’t one of Bimini’s main assets its lovely mangrove-fringed lagoon that housed an important lemon shark nursery? Was populating the beach dunes and ripping out huge sections of mangrove and sea bottom habitat in exchange for yet another resort with yet another marina and yet another casino really necessary? Despite the fact that it’s one of the most logical first stops on any boat trip from Miami to the Bahamas, a journey I take at least once a year, I found myself avoiding this historic big game fishing destination.
I may never have returned, but a convergence of circumstances led to me docking at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort and Marina on this last voyage. I shuddered as the first party boat jammed past, leaving my ears ringing and my task of securing our boat lines challenging in their flagrant disregard for the no-wake zone. I felt better about life after a stroll to a serene white-sand beach overlooking turquoise waters just a couple of blocks away on the other side of the island. And sitting on my deck watching flocks of White-crowned Pigeons settle into Pigeon Cay for the night while Least Terns bomb dived for fish in the channel between the islet and myself that evening, I felt downright optimistic.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) was my primary, well really only, order of business so first thing the next morning I paddled across the boat channel into the shallows beyond. I circumnavigated Pigeon Cay for closer views of the White-crowned Pigeons I’d seen landing the night before. Shy birds and rather rare in the Miami area, it was a treat to see such a concentration of these pigeons at such close range. Adult and newly fledged young Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, Tricolored Herons and White Ibis also appeared in and around this incredible rookery. Pigeon Cay was actually the first place White Ibis were documented to nest in the Bahamas. A large Southern Stingray drifted across the seagrass below me as the wind and current eased me forward to the next little mangrove islet. Island after island housed various herons and more pigeons, the latter exclusively depending on such mangrove islands for both roosting and nesting. The shallow waters below held an array of small fish, but also larger Porgies, Mangrove Snappers, Barracudas, Yellow Stingrays and I even snuck up on a school of very respectably sized Bonefish – one of the notoriously elusive species luring fishermen to the lagoon. Least Terns and Laughing Gulls crisscrossed the skies above me and I glimpsed a Least Bittern in flight, possibly the first summer record for the island. Enthralled, I maneuvered my SUP up mangrove channels and into various coves. One such cove was filled with baby lemon sharks, all between one and two foot long and oblivious to my presence as they foraged intently. I passed a large nurse shark and several Cushion Sea Stars in slightly deeper water. It was as if all the development and it’s speedway channel were miles away.
The next day was stormy – too windy and choppy to make SUPing appealing, but snorkeling seemed like a viable option. The shallow waters just north of the south island were relatively calm and I was pleased to discover an area where the ocean floor as far as the eye could see in any direction was literally covered in low-lying corals, sponges and an associated thriving reef community. I saw the biggest Three-rowed and Five-toothed Sea Cucumbers I’ve ever seen. There was an impressive array of juvenile to adult Queen Conch, a few Tulip Snails, several Milk Conch and an awe-inspiring Atlantic Triton’s Trumpet. A brilliantly-patterned Banded Clinging Crab lurked around the edges of a large Corkscrew Anemone. A huge Spotted Scorpionfish blended seamlessly into the side of a large sponge. All around Blue Tang, Bluehead Wrasse, Harlequin Bass, Longspine Squirrelfish, butterfly fish, angelfish, and various other reef fish darted or lurked about the numerous caves and crevasses. It was beautiful, intimate and far less crowded than the popular, if a bit erie, Sapona wreck site I’d snorkeled last visit. The Sapona was a concrete-hull ship converted to a rumrunner during prohibition. It was destroyed in the great storm of 1926 and currently serves as an artificial reef worthy of a visit, but I was just as happy with my private snorkel.
As the weather continued to deteriorate, I decided to explore the north island a little more extensively. Bimini was after all one of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts and inspiration for his posthumously published novel, Islands in the Stream. Unfortunately, the only remaining modern link to Hemingway was the Compleat Angler Hotel whose bar was frequented by the author in the mid-1930s and served as a Hemingway shrine of sorts until it burned to the ground in 2006. The charred remains of the building persist, but it’s hardly as satisfying as cracking a beer on a stool Hemingway himself might have sat in after a big day fishing. Figuring the island must have more than one great beach to offer, I rented a golf cart and headed down the one full-island-length road. Not far beyond Alice Town I spotted a flattened area of fill that extended out into the lagoon-side waters and seemed to be attracting Least Terns. I parked at the edge of the area and slowly walked into what proved to be a Least Tern nesting colony. Adults swirled through the air, delivered fish to chicks, tended eggs or simply rested on the ground between foraging expeditions. The well-camouflaged chicks lay motionless to avoid detection and untended eggs were nearly invisible as they nestled in among the rocks. It was a lively spot and certainly the highlight of my land explorations. There were a couple more stunning beaches, a quaint cemetery and Stuart’s Conch Stand served tasty enough conch salad with cold beer, though not exactly served with a smile and certainly my requests for added spice were diligently ignored for as long as possible. While more interesting than I would have originally given it credit for, the north island remains too developed and non-native plant ridden for my taste.
The next morning the Bimini Lagoon was more inviting than ever – smooth as glass and perfect for SUPing. I yearned to explore its mangrove inlets further, but these were also optimal travel conditions and predicted for only a short time. Travel necessarily took preference, but my curiosity was piqued. Back at home I investigated Bimini further. I’d seen baby lemon sharks, but were there any impacts to the nursery from the ongoing development at the northwest corner of the lagoon? So far, it appears not as drastic as one might expect. The development began in 1999 with the most intensive dredging occurring in 2001. There was an increase in baby lemon shark mortality around that period, but that seems to have been a temporary result. The lagoon still houses 250 or so young Lemon Sharks in this 21 km² nursery. Lemon Sharks are long-lived and adults have large home ranges with females returning to the same nurseries year after year. Studies indicate that the same mothers that were using the Bimini Lagoon nursery prior to development are still using it now. If anything, there’s been an increase in the number of adults successfully breeding. The only real impact seems to be a shift in natural selection from favoring smaller, slower-growing babies to favoring larger, faster-growing babies, likely a response to fewer available mangrove-protected foraging areas since over 30% of the mangrove cover was lost to development.
It seems that despite the development and congestion, Bimini continues to be an important place for baby wildlife – shark nursery, rookery for White-crowned Pigeons, White Ibis and various herons, nesting site for Least Terns, coral reefs for marine vertebrates and invertebrates. And Bimini certainly seems to be working on its nature appeal. Fishing remains a prominent draw, but kayaking, SUPing and mangrove boat tours around the lagoon are gaining popularity, snorkel and dive tours abound and there’s now even a land-based nature trail on the south island. I’m generally leery of wildlife attractions due to the all too often associated negative impacts to the wildlife, but Bimini operators are promoting wild dolphin and shark encounters that at least on paper appear to be sustainable and respectful of the animals. I just might have to check it out on my next visit.
- The Bimini Big Game Club Resort and Marina is a fine place to stay. The marina is excellent, the staff friendly, the grounds are beautifully kept (and even rather birdy) and the restaurant is good. Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts helped launch the latest rendition of this resort and while they are no longer involved, the current owners are continuing their environmental legacy by maintaining the facility as a Shark Free Marina, which bans shark killing and landing. An added perk for boaters is that customs is on-site and immigration is just across the street.
- More information about the Lemon Shark nursery in the Bimini Lagoon, as well as other sharks and wildlife in the area, can be found at the Bimini Biological Field Station. Much of the shark information above came from the following citation: DiBattista, JD, KA Feldheim, D Garant, SH Gruber, and AP Hendry. 2011. Anthropogenic disturbance and evolutionary parameters: a lemon shark population experiencing habitat loss. Evolutionary Applications 4:1-17.
- Bimini can be reached from Miami on Resort World’s new ferry, by seaplane on either Tropic Ocean Airways (also flies to and from Fort Lauderdale) or Miami Seaplane, or by charter flight on Noble Air. There are also commercial flights to and from Fort Lauderdale on United Airlines or Silver Airways, as well as charter options with Island Air Charters or Noble Air (see above). And of course, Bimini is easily accessible from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale by private boat if you or a friend have one.