SI Vault
Liz Smith
January 17, 1966
If you tell 10 people at random that you have recently been in the Exumas, nine of them will probably think you are describing an uncomfortable skin condition. The 10th might inquire politely, as did Writer Tom Wolfe: "Is that a place or a religious state of mind?" The individual who does realize that the Exumas are islands will not be quite sure what they are islands of. ("Oh, the Bahamas—of course.")
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January 17, 1966

The Gulf Stream's Coral Spine

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There is something infinitely satisfying about Staniel Cay in that it lives up to its first impression of picturesque rusticity. As you sail into the natural harbor, four thatched huts stand appropriately on the beach. The huts are new, but are intended to maintain an atmosphere of island romance. Their yacht club is also a thatched Polynesian-type building that Trader Vic could take over without redecorating. In front of it, just for laughs, stands a parking meter embedded in the cement. There are no roads or cars of any kind on Staniel Cay, and it may never develop much more than it has—there probably is not room enough to blast out an airstrip.

But Staniel Cay has everything for the layover visitor, including a trip to the very cave where part of Thunderball was filmed. At low tide even the devout coward may enter this weird, wonderful, rocky temple through two narrow cracks—daring types can swim in through three underwater openings. Once inside, there is a ledge to stand on or you can snorkel about to watch the colorful parrot fish snipping off pieces of coral with their fused, platelike teeth or to observe giant crabs crawling on the bottom. Small silver schools of fish flash by, their guanin bodies catching the sun that filters into the cave. Or Joe Hocher will take you diving to his special "icebox"—a secret hole where he catches the enormous Bahamian crayfish or langouste (clawless lobster) for a special evening's treat.

The natives visit on the dock near the gas tanks with Captain Crimmins, and when he says "fissioning" instead of "fishing" they laugh. "Cap'n, you getting to be just like one of we." There is much conversation about sharks, and the captain, who has chartered for 25 years in these waters, vows he has never seen one in white water in the daytime. "It's a different matter at night. I can always catch a shark right off the back of this boat then." Joe Hocher displays pictures of an 11-foot lemon shark caught in this very spot. Later he towed it underwater, pried open its fearsome jaws and anchored it near a reef. Then he took swimmers back to be photographed riding it, spearing it and looking scared to death.

Though Captain Crimmins keeps a copy of if hanging in his main salon and a corny sign announcing that he performs marriages for the duration of the voyage, he comes into his own when he talks seriously of the Exumas or tells what he knows of fish and sea lore. "I don't believe sharks attack people down here. There is too much for them to eat here naturally. Sharks only attack people off Australia or California or maybe the Atlantic coast when they are hungry. The only shark victims I've ever heard of here were both occasions where a swimmer got mixed up in a school of fish and a shark struck at the school."

So the next day, emboldened by the clear white water that shows all the way to the bottom, you dive off the boat atop the very spot where they caught the lemon. Or you drift up to look at the graceful hawksbill turtles swimming with birdlike turns in a tank near the Yacht Club. ("When they grow large enough," says Chamberlain, "we will eat one of them—the meat is delicious marinated in lime juice and saut�ed in butter.") On the dock wonderful conversations always seem to be hanging in the air waiting to be overheard:

Man from Mississippi powerboat: "I guess you know where all these reefs are."

Native grinning: "I don't know where they all is, boss, but I know where a few of them ain't."

At night there may be a dancing party in the native nightclub, the Village Pink Pearl, where the electric-guitar band whoops it up for one and all, and the silk-shirted Mississippi ladies hang back shyly but are soon dancing with all the handsome young gleaming Staniel Cay fishermen to "freedom" songs played merengue style. Aside from the music, the night sounds are those of the sea and the generator—the two life-giving sources of Staniel Cay.

Your only pests here will be the invisible sand flies, or what the natives call no see'ums. Along with an occasional Kamikaze attack of mosquitos, for which one never seems to have the tobacco-scented insect repellent ready, no see'ums are about the only drawback to Staniel Cay, and indeed many islands of the Exumas and Bahamas. The sand fly bite, like the good old southern daggers', is indescribable, but the mark it leaves resembles the poor in that you seem to have it with you always. Sailing out of Staniel Cay past the coral formations that guard the harbor like humpbacked whales, you pick up a copy of The Bahamas Pictorial, a small newspaper with the slogan "Let us show these islands to the world" repeated in Latin: "Omnibus Has Insulas Demonstremus." Over your shoulder one of your shipmates, scratching wildly, quips, "You can say that again, but first let us show them to a good insect exterminator."

Captain Crimmins roars from the wheel, "No see'ums never killed anybody and anyway they only attack in a calm after a rain. This is very unusual."

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