Monday, July 15th.
We’re at the Paradise Island ferry terminal before 8:45 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m., the monstrous powerboat we’re travelling on pulls away from shore.
It’s roughly a one-hour ride from Nassau, heading south towards the Exuma Cays. We’re in open water, bumping over waves, the sun beating down on our heads and the sea spraying our arms and faces.
A couple of times, the boat hits the waves hard enough to send water splashing into the boat, onto some passengers. But the sun is hot, so it’s not unwelcome.
Our first stop is Allan’s Cay, a small island inhabited by iguanas. The water is crystal clear and so blue, it’s unreal.
When the boat is safely docked, Jen and a few of the other passengers climb onto the front of the boat and dive into the water.
The rest of us climb down into the water, with assistance from staff. The water comes right up past my thighs, wetting the seat of my shorts.
A member of the boat’s staff hands us a small handful of grapes with which to feed the iguanas. Prior to getting off the boat, there are just two rules our guide, Jason, tells us to follow:
(1) Find a stick at least a forearm’s-length long, on which to stick the grapes
(2) If you’re a woman wearing toenail polish, bury your toes in the sand.
Turns out that not only do these iguanas have a sharp bite, but they’ve also got poor eyesight. So for them, a grape and a woman’s big toe covered in cherry-red nail polish look the same.
There’s more than a dozen of the reptiles scurrying around, trying to nip the grapes and clamber back up onto their rocky perches before the seagulls (just above our heads and on the sand nearby) get to them.
About 20 minutes later, we’re back on the boat for another 10-minute ride to our destination, Ship Channel Cay, where we’re spending the rest of our day.
The boat veers left, then right, as the Miami Vice theme, immediately followed by the theme to Mission: Impossible blares over the sound system.
As the boat pulls up to the dock, there’s a little boy – maybe 5 years old at all – hanging out, watching us arrive. When it’s safe to depart the boat, we head into the main building, where an enormous platter of sandwiches – cut in halves – sits, just ready for the eating.
Around the corner, there’s a bar – and bartender – along with a couple of tables loaded up with more platters, of fruit and vegetables.
We grab our first drinks of the outing, then toddle off to the beach. No sooner do we set up our spot on the beach, spreading out our towels, then the group is being called to line up along the beach and kneel in the shallow water.
The stingrays are coming.
I go to change into my swimsuit, then take my place at the end of the line of people.
Jen’s moving behind the line, trying to snap some pictures, while Christine is half-heartedly in line beside me.
Not even a moment later, we hear a kid farther up the line freak out. That DOES NOT help me. Almost in an instant, my excitement turns to panic.
The moment a stingray gets within five feet of me, I drop my fishy offering, skittering backward up onto the beach as it gets closer, flapping past me. So much for that romantic image.
Next: feeding time … for the sharks.
Our trip leader, Jason, along with another colleague, affix squid to a rope, flinging it out farther into the shallow waters ahead of them. He manages to give my fellow “adventurers” a show, wrangling a couple sharks out of the water long enough for folks to “ooh”, “ahh”, and get a good look.
After the “performance” we’re left on our own for a bit – but not long enough, as (what seems like) 15 minutes later, we’re being summoned to participate in some drift snorkeling nearby. I just happen to look upwards and notice the sky’s not as brilliantly blue as before. In fact, it’s looking a bit grey in places.
Christine and Jen aren’t quite ready to go just yet, because everyone’s crowding around the snorkel guy to get their equipment and snorkeling tutorial. I’m leery, merely because I’m not the strongest swimmer, so I opt not to go.
As we wait for the crowd to thin out a bit, the sun disappears behind enormous clouds and grows really dark. By the time Christine and Jen get their snorkeling gear, it’s starting to sprinkle.
Because the group is already far up ahead and already in the water, one of the crew tells us that we’d be taken out by boat to join the others. I’m staying in the boat.
It’s pouring by the time we reach the others. Christine and Jen enter the water from the boat, while I’m seated, shivering and squinting because one of my contacts has come loose and is doing some swimming around of its own, underneath my eyelid.
While I attempt to regain my eyesight, I chat with Jerome, who’s manning the small motorboat, in the pouring rain. Despite being a bit cold, the water is extremely warm and actually looks green.
The rain’s stopped by the time the group and motorboat get close to shore.
I’m preparing for my eventual drop-off, when Jerome tells me they’re about to get some conch for the salad-making demonstration later on – would I like to come with them?
Since I did not snorkel, I figure, why not? The guys seem nice.
Jerome picks up trip leader Jason, still decked out in his wet suit – he’ll be the one diving for conch.
The boat travels out a little ways from land, but not too much farther out than where the group was snorkeling. Jason steps off the side of the boat, scanning below, then fully submerging and going below to pick up the day’s catch. From what I understand, the crew catches the conch a few days earlier, then leave them tied in bunches. (The conch uses its “foot” – which looks like a single claw or talon – to move along. Obviously, with five of those guys tied together, they can’t go anywhere.)
While Jason is bringing up the catch, I get to hold a horse conch (which, apparently, isn’t really a conch). This one had no “claw’, but tough material which plugs up the opening of the shell. Horse conch isn’t eaten, so after holding it a bit longer, I throw it back.
Once back on shore, I head to lunch. The buffet’s huge – fish, meat, pasta, vegetables, salads, and fruit.
I join Jen and Christine near a railing close to the pier, overlooking the clear water, where sharks, assorted fish and the odd stingray swim about.
Seagulls circle overhead, waiting for whatever morsels of food are dropped or tossed.
The little boy we saw on the pier earlier is throwing bread into the water.
Growing bored really quickly, he starts tossing cubes of cheese instead – which is, obviously rebuffed by the fish, but considered by the birds.
After lunch, Jen, Christine and I spread out on the beach, (partially) checking out Jason’s conch salad demonstration.
He starts by pulling this thing out of its shell, showing it to us in all its ugly glory. He even gets a little girl to pull out a second conch so everyone can get a good look at it.
He cuts off the parts we won’t eat (likely the parts keeping these conches alive), washes them in the sea water and seasons them with salt, chops them up and finally adds the rest of the ingredients.
I join some of the other fellow tourists in sampling some of the finished product. I think it’s tastier than what I’ve had in Nassau.
My friends and I have a few more drinks, get a little more sun, and frolic about in the water. And before we know it, our time is up, and we leave our temporary paradise by about 3:30 p.m. I think we can declare this day trip a success.