The islands of the Bahamas are a very popular destination for those planning a snorkeling vacation. The island of Grand Bahama is usually the selection for most visitors. Many tourists arrive by air but it is also a stopping place for many cruise lines and because the nearest part of the Bahamas is only about fifty miles away from the United States there are even boat owners who make the trip in their own vessels. The two most popular cities for tourists are Freeport and Nassau, both of which never seem to be at a loss for anything to do. Because of this, both can get pretty crowded. If you are someone who prefers a more laid back snorkeling destination which is less touristy don't take the Bahamas off your list because it is still a great choice. Consider exploring the snorkeling opportunities available in the outer islands and cays found in the area.The Bahamas are broken up into districts which consist of islands, island groups and cays. These are the hidden gems of the Bahamas.
The district of Exuma consists of over 365 islands or cays. All together these islands form a chain which is 130 miles long. The largest of the cays is Great Exuma which connects to Little Exuma via a bridge. There are only 29 of these cays that have residents living on them. A few are even owned by some very prestigious people. Several of the privately owned cays have accommodations for those wishing to overnight or vacation on them but they need to be booked in advance because of the limited number of rooms. Snorkeling here is available year round but the waters are the warmest June through October as these are the months with warmer water temperatures. Since the main mode of transportation to get to the various cays is by boat, it is advisable to find out who offers snorkeling tours. There are also places that rent boats as well for the more nautically inclined but going with an experienced guide is always a good idea. They will know the best places to go and the best routes to get there. With so many cays to choose from, I have only chosen to highlight the ones that have some unique characteristics associated with them with regard to snorkeling.EXUMA CAYS LAND AND SEA PARK
This area in managed by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) for the purpose of protecting the delicate ecosystem that are within it's boundaries. It was just a suggestion in 1950 but 8 years later it became a reality which ended up making it the first marine fishery preserve in the world. In 1986, it was designated as a no take zone which means that found on land or in the water is not allowed to be taken out of the park. Because the BNT is a non-profit and non governmental agency funding is through donations and fees charged for mooring. The park office is located on Warderwick Wells Cay and has maps available to visitors on the various places to snorkel. There are 18 cays that are located within the 170 square acres that make up the park and a few of them are privately owned and a couple of them are definitely closed off to the public as they are land habitats for some of the endangered animals found in the Bahamas.. The rules of the park and all information are available at the park office. which is located on Warderick Wells. The marine life can include Hawksbill Turtles, Queen Conch, Green Turtles (which are an endangered species) have all been seen here. Because the park is a protected area you are assured to see quite an array of colorful fish and marine life.BIG MAJOR CAY
This area is located between Staniel Cay and Fowl Cay and really should be considered a "must do" for anyone exploring the Exumas. While not much is really said about the snorkeling around Big Major Cay. The reason that this is one of the popular places to visit is the local inhabitants which are pigs. They are not humans who are messy but real live pigs. When boats arrive at Big Major Cays, Pig Beach, the animals will begin to make their way to the beach area. They have come to associate the sound of boat motors with food as those who visit always seem to have something edible to share with them. Many of them will actually get in the water and swim out to greet the visitors looking for any food scraps they might have for them. There are plenty of different stories as to how the pigs ended up here with some saying that they were survivors of a shipwreck. Whatever the story you hear the pigs are there and you can actually get out and swim or snorkel with them. If anything this will add some very interesting and unique photos to add to your vacation memories. Pamplona Spain may have the Running of the Bulls but Big Major Cay has the Snorkeling with the Pigs.STANIEL CAY
This cay is just south of Big Major Cay and has about 80 full time (human) residents living on it. Getting here is either by small plane as they do have a landing strip or by boat. There are also accommodations available by reservation either at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club or at various rental cottages located here for those wishing an extended stay here. There are some shops and grocery stores on the Cay as well as a church, all age school and a few restaurants and bars. There are no banks or ATMs here and while some of the places do accept credit cards, travelers checks, U.S. or Bahamian currency are recommended. Staniel Cays claim to fame with snorkelers is without a doubt Thunderball Grotto. This location appeared in two James Bond 007 movies which were "Thunderball" (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983). Both films starred Sean Connery. It was also used as a filming location for the 1984 movie "Splash" which starred Tom Hanks and Daryl Hanna. You can only access the grotto from the water during low tide. Once you make it through the entrance you will find that it opens up to a cavern area. Light from the outside spills in from natural holes in the ceiling which is at it's highest point about 20 feet above you. You might wonder at the great abundance and variety of the fish that you will see. Through the years people have been bringing bread crumbs with them to feed them which has conditioned them to expect this when people are in the water. Groupers, Sergeant Majors, Angelfish and Parrotfish are just some that you might encounter. If you look hard enough you will might spy a few Lobsters or an Octopus or two. This is a great opportunity for close up photography and video for those with underwater cameras.COMPASS CAY
About 5 miles to the northwest of Staniel Cay is the privately owned Compass Cay. Getting there is by boat where, as you pull in to the naturally protected harbor, you will see a marina where your boat will dock. There is a per person charge when you arrive at the marina. A few rental properties are available for those looking for a secluded place to simply get away to unwind and relax. There are a number of beautiful beaches here but the best snorkeling adventure will be found at the marina itself. This is where you can actually snorkel with sharks. Nurse Sharks have been gathering here over the years feeding off of the scraps and leftovers from when fishermen cleaned their catches. It should be noted that Nurse Shark are probably the most docile shark in the ocean and will rarely be aggressive. The ones at the marina are actually fed several times during the day which keeps them in the area. There is even a part of the dock area that has been designated as the shark feeding station with a small specially built platform that brings them slightly above the water line as they swim over it. Snorkeling with these fascinating creatures is something that really should not be missed . They are actually quite graceful as they swim around seemingly without a care in the world. This is another place that is perfect for underwater photographs or video. The feedings also draws in quite a number of different fish all trying to get their share of the free handouts.
I have only highlighted a few of the popular snorkeling places in the Exumas, with 365 cays in its district it would be a very long article to read. Before exploring the Exumas on your own, it is a wise idea to do as much research as you are able with regard to the various places that spark your interest. Some of the cays are in the process of development with resorts being built on them while others that were once public may have changed to private ownership. If there is one thing that can be said about the Exumas is that it is always changing. While you may choose to explore them in your own vessel you might want to opt for one of the live aboard charters that include the Exumas on their itineraries. Since they visit this area frequently they would be the most knowledgeable with regard to the more desirable locations for your Exumas snorkeling experience.
By Roy Jamason
Updated August 18, 2015