450 miles southeast of Miami, just 45 miles from the eastern-most tip of Cuba is the most southern of the islands of the Bahamas, Great Inagua. It is the place we checked in first with Customs and Immigration to get our Bahamian cruising permit for this season. Although it is one of the larger islands in the Bahamas in terms of land area, it is quite sparsely populated with just 900 people spread across almost 650 square miles.
It is well off the normal tourist path, no cruise ships stop here. There are a few rental properties and guest houses, but nothing that would rise to the title of “resort.” There is an airport with two scheduled flights a week to Nausau. Most of the traffic at the airport is from the US Coast Guard which maintains a joint base here with the Royal Bahamian Defense Force. Being so close to Hati, Cuba, and a major shipping route from South America drug and people smuggling is an unfortunate constant in the local waters. Like all of the “out-islands” in the Bahamas we have visited, the local people are endlessly friendly and helpful.
The basic ecology is desert scrub. No real trees other than mangroves except for some scattered casuarina trees, known locally as “Australian pines.”
What’s This??? SNOW???
No, not snow. It’s the biggest (only) industry on the island: Salt.
The flat land, warm temperatures, low rainfall, and breezy weather make ideal conditions for the rapid evaporation of seawater, and the production of large quantities of salt. Large quantities as in more than 2,000 TONS a day, a Million tons a year. Morton Salt has been producing salt here for about 75 years, and there were previous large scale operations extending back almost 100 years, and small scale operations since 1600.
The basic process is pretty simple. Water is pumped from the ocean into a large shallow “pan” where sun and wind begin to evaporate the water. Once it gets more concentrated, it is moved to a second pan where more of the water evaporates. Just before it gets so concentrated that crystals begin to form, it is moved to the final stage, where salt crystals begin to drop out of the water. Once a sufficient amount of salt is deposited, the remaining brine is drained off, the salt is plowed into windrows, and “harvested.” The whole process is an odd combination of mining and farming.
The concentrated brines of the salt ponds are full of pink algea, and tiny brine shrimp. The brine shrimp make good food for a large number of birds, including the national bird of the Bahamas:
The West Indian Flamingo. Unfortunately, on the day of our tour the birds were hunkered down in strong winds, and we couldn’t get very close.
The diet rich in brine shrimp makes these some of the pinkest flamingos anywhere. Depending on who’s count you chose to believe there are between 50,000 and 80,000 of these goofy looking birds that nest on the island. They nest on the ground on a few isolated islands in the middle of the salt lakes to avoid the wild pigs that roam the island. In addition to the pigs, there are wild horses, cattle, and donkeys. The wild pigs are hunted and prized as food.
Other common birds here are a white-headed parrot, burrowing owls, and an endemic species of hummingbird.
We’ll be heading out of here this evening heading to the uninhabited Plana Keys for some heavy duty beachcombing and fishing. We have been there before, and always enjoyed it as a stop. The weather looks great both for the passage and forecastable future.
Our trip there will be about 14 hours, so our plan is to do it overnight. That way we can arrive in the light of of the day which will help in picking our way through coral heads that are widely scattered in the anchorage.