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Land & sea park

Nature rules in this pristine Exuma retreat

Originally published WELCOME BAHAMAS - NASSAU, CABLE BEACH & PARADISE ISLAND - 2003 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd

Even the most prolific writer scrambles for words to describe the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

" Astonishing" and "stunning," even "spectacular" and "breath-taking" are trotted out, but overblown adjectives cannot evoke the natural splendour of this place. Even photograph fall short.

The Yachtsman's Guide to The Bahamas agrees. Of the Exuma Cays as a whole, it says: "Almost all (the cays) have beautiful beaches and snug anchorages. The water is crystal clear and the vivid colours, on a normal bright day with a moderate trade wind ruffling the surface, cannot be adequately described. You will have to see for yourself."

As for the park itself, Stephen J Pavlidis, who wrote a cruising guide to the Exumas, said it was, "without doubt the most pristine and possibly the most beautiful area in the Exumas."

Still another seasoned observer, a world traveller who would know, said the Exumas were unquestionably, "one of the outstanding creations of nature."

This was Col Ilia Tolstoy, grandson of Count Lyoff Nikolayevitch Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The younger Tolstoy first visited the Exumas in 1931, when he was developing an underwater camera. He raved about the plants and animals to be found here and especially, "the clearest water I have ever seen."

A sad decline
When he returned to The Bahamas after the Second World War, Tolstoy was shocked. The indestructible water still sparkled in the warm Bahamian sun but the wildlife had been decimated.

He found dead iguanas with bullet holes in them; reduced reefs where corals and fish were under pressure from recreational and commercial fishing. Conch, once large and plentiful, were small and few, and thriving bird populations had been thinned out by a year-round hunting season with no bag limits.

Looking at the devastation, "I saw the ghosts of Passenger Pigeons in the air," wrote Tolstoy in an article for Nassau's The Tribune in 1979.

In the early fifties, he and others began talking about creating a park to reverse the declines and urging the Bahamian government to set aside some islands and their adjacent waters as a buffer area, where land and sea life could regenerate in safety.

Some of those involved in that early lobbying were Arthur Vernay, Suydam Cutting and Col F A Wanklyn, all members of the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo in The Bahamas. Others were Richard H Pough, Chairman of the Department of Conservation and General Ecology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Dr F G Walton Smith, who was Director of the Marine Laboratory of the University of Miami.

Birth of an idea
Tolstoy and his colleagues were not the only ones recommending marine conservation. Ray Carleton, a zoologist with Columbia University, had spent months photographing and conducting research in the Exumas. Without knowing that Tolstoy was advocating the same thing, Carleton approached the Bahamian government with the then-novel idea of creating an underwater park. In fact, it's believed that a book written by Carleton and Elgin T Ciampi, The Underwater Guide to Marine Life, contained the first published plea for undersea parks.

In response, the British Crown agreed to open up an area in the middle of the Exumas for a year of scientific study.

When they met in the mid fifties, Carleton and Tolstoy decided to combine their efforts. They turned to Dr Fairfield Osborn of the New York Zoological Society to finance this study under Carleton's leadership.

An important member of the original survey group was the Hon Herbert McKinney of Nassau, widely recognized as an authority on everything Bahamian. McKinney, said Tolstoy, had "an inexhaustible amount of knowledge " on the islands' wildlife. Another key member of the original group was Oris S Russell, then Director of the Department of Agriculture and Marine Products.

Driving the survey was the certain knowledge that the living resources of the land and the sea would sooner or later be destroyed if things went on as they were. As McKinney said at the time, there was an urgent need to "make people aware of the pressing need for conservation. The attitude of the people seems to be that the good Lord will always send more."

It was a rigorous study. Volunteers cut narrow paths on the larger cays to points of historical interest, enabling scientists to study the area's plants and animals, some of which were endangered: iguana, hutia - the only indigenous land mammal in The Bahamas - the curly tailed lizard and the white crowned pigeon.

Building on existing work, scientists catalogued the living resources of the shallow sea around the Exumas including corals, fishes, turtles, crustaceans and molluscs.

Thrust of the group's report was that the government should "ensure the perpetuity of those things that people come to see in The Bahamas, as well as to assure a lasting supply of those natural resources that are so necessary for the livelihood of Bahamians themselves." The government took the report to heart and quickly passed legislation in 1958 to set up the world's first land and sea park.

Bahamas National Trust
Creation of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park led to the formation of The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), which was another innovation.The BNT is a non-governmental organization but it has a parliamentary mandate to build and manage the country's national park system, now comprising 22 parks and protected areas. This means it can draw up regulations with the force of law, enforceable by all uniformed officers of The Bahamas as well as by park wardens.

The park system is run by 21-member board comprising six representatives from the Bahamian government, six from international scientific institutions (see box), and nine who are elected by members of the BNT.

With a paid staff of only 23, the BNT relies heavily upon hundreds of volunteers, who give their time each year to help run the parks.

Head office is located at The Retreat, an 11-acre woodland area in New Providence that features a collection of rare palm trees. Funds are generated through memberships, special functions, entrance fees and shop sales but more than half comes from the Heritage Endowment Fund, created in 1983.

Among other things, the BNT oversees the world's largest breeding flock of West Indian flamingos, now 50,000 strong, one of the world's largest underwater cave systems and several research facilities, but the Land and Sea Park in the Exumas remains "the jewel in the crown" of the national park system.

Nearly pristine beauty
Only five per cent (about nine sq miles) of The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park's 176 square miles (about twice the size of New Providence) is actually land. The rest is seabed covered by the warm Exuma Sound.

It is located in the northern Exumas, a little north of dead centre in the Bahamian archipelago, extending from Conch Cut in the south to Wax Cay Cut in the north, a stretch of 22 miles. The park is eight miles wide, claiming the shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank to the west, and extending to the edge of the Exuma Sound to the east.

Aside from some of the finest cruising waters in the world, there are exciting diving opportunities everywhere in the park, on the productive inter-island coral reefs, and on the wall, where the bank shelves and then drops steeply into the blue depths of Exuma Sound.

There are nine large cays, 50 smaller ones and innumerable islets and rocks in the tract. Three of the four largest cays - Shroud, Hawksbill and Warderick Wells (site of the park office) - are leased to the BNT and six others are privately owned: Cistern Cay, Soldier Cay, O'Brien's Cay, Bell Island, Little Bell Island. and controversial Hall's Pond Cay.

A cay is saved
Hall's Pond Cay was purchased in the 1990s, for a reputed $1.5 million by notorious Czech financier Viktor Kozeny, who lived in exclusive Lyford Cay in New Providence. Kozeny created a furor when he put construction machinery on the island and began to build roads there.

So vociferous was the outcry that the Bahamian government ordered Kozeny to stop construction and restore the island to its original state. Then, on December 14, 1999, the government issued a "notice of possession" under the Acquisition of Land Act, signed personally by then-Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, reclaiming Hall's Pond for the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. At last word, the government was still negotiating a price for the expropriation and the cay was slowly regenerating itself.

At first, park wardens tried to enforce a limited take of fish, conch and lobster within the park. Then in 1987, over the protests of local fishermen, the BNT designated the entire park a "no-take" area, another first in the entire Caribbean area.

Protect the reefs!
In time, fishermen in the area came to endorse the idea and are now staunch supporters of the park and the no-take regulations.

Conservationists note that national parks like the Land and Sea Park, which set aside and protect entire ecosystems, are especially important in The Bahamas where the undersea world is as fragile as it is complex and beautiful.

Few realize, for example, how essential are coral reefs, not only to the countries such as The Bahamas that possess them but to the world at large; comparable in importance to rainforests, say scientists.

" They are the reason these islands exist," said marine biologist Thomas McGrath from Corning Community College in New York, who spoke with the Bahamas Handbook in 2001. "They are the only reason these islands exist."

As McGrath explained, the Bahama islands are made entirely of calcium carbonate, of which up to 95 per cent is produced in one way or another by the reefs. The reefs are also the centre of marine life, including conch, grouper and crawfish, which are seafood staples in The Bahamas.

Commercial fishing, which employs about 9,500 Bahamians, contributes some $200 million or more to the national economy. And reef-based tourism, including diving and snorkelling, contributes even more.

As Lynn Holowesko, former Bahamas Ambassador for the Environment, and also a former president of the Bahamas National Trust, put it: "It is the environment that brings visitors and investors to our shores. It is the mother hen that lays the golden egg of tourism."

Well aware of this, the Bahamian government in 1998 put in place a wide range of measures to protect marine resources over the years, including closed seasons, bag limits and "no take" areas like the Land and Sea Park. It also created a special court to hear cases involving environmental issues.

Tolstoy would be pleased.


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