Eleuthera Island, Bahamas: It’s not for everyone

Eleuthera, Bahamas – Before I came here it was hard to fathom the rationale for promoting an island with a negative (“Eleuthera, It’s Not For Everyone”). But after ten days spent roaming its 110-mile length and half-mile breadth up close, the official motto of the long, skinny, desert-dry island the slogan began to make sense.

It is a special place: Hot, dry, swept by strong winds, much of its 220-mile coastline surrounded by calf-deep, psychedelically blue waters, a limestone-and-coral rock at the edge of the 700-island Bahamian archipelago, plunged up from a shallow ocean floor.

Home to fishermen, both sportsmen and lobstermen, the nearby Grand Banks remain fertile, suffering more from poaching that overfishing, far more abundant than the rocky, desert-like land. To grow anything here – from mangos to tomatoes, arugula to yams — dirt must be imported.

Though locals insist that the island’s biggest economy, tourism, is doing okay, I spent many, many hours exploring long stretches of sandy beaches, whether on the Atlantic or Caribbean side, alone.

Its small towns, from Deep Creek to Gregory Town, James Cistern to Tarpum Bay, are quiet, simple. While multi-million dollar tourist homes – some owned by celebrities from the U.S., most by expatriate descendants of the escaping Englishmen who first colonized the place in the 18th century – line some of the beaches, people are so few, so spread out that much of the island has a deserted feel to it.

Remember … it’s not for everyone.The same could be said for much of the Bahamas, I guess, though plenty of bone-fishermen, tax-evaders (there’s no corporate, income, capitol gains or estate taxes here) and a few renowned drug dealers happily call the place home.

(Regarding the latter, more than a dozen sizable drug trafficking operations have been based in the Bahamas, including Colombian king pin Carlos Lehder whose cigarette boats ran cocaine through the islands for a couple decades. As recently as the 1980s its Prime Minister was alleged to have received more than $57 million in drug hush money.)

Curious about stories of drug dealers and pirates (Blackbeard was said to have buried several fortunes on Eleuthera’s Atlantic coast) I came to talk to fishermen and scientists, about the state of Caribbean fishing and the future of the island to be more self-sufficient.

The fishing grounds here seem to be in better shape than on many islands and seas I’ve visited around the globe during the past couple decades – especially its lobster trade, which sends jets big catches around the world every day. The island’s big fishing fleet of 200 to 300 boats is based out of the northern spit of Spanish Wells.

But with a barrel of imported fuel oil already costing over $100, I would think there should be a more urgent push to rein in the abundant wind and sun that washes the islands nearly 24/7/365. Solar panels are few and far between. Island life is as laid back here as anywhere on the planet … not always a good thing.

One history of colonial life here, for example, mentioned the downside of eating barracuda taken from these shallows. Doing so, said British residents in the early 20th century, would cause your hair and fingernails to drop off.

Hoping for some local knowledge just in case someone presented me with a fresh barracuda for dinner, I poked around at the elegant Haynes Library in the capitol town of Governor’s Harbor. Across the street the shallows were dotted by a trio of bone fishermen; the town’s boat ramp hosted a crude plywood table covered with the day’s catch speared off nearby reefs – jacks, grouper, crayfish.

I asked the very sweet librarians if they’d had experience with barracuda, and if they’d lost anything in the process.

“Oh no, I never heard that,” said the first, her co-workers shaking their heads in agreement.

“Barracuda. That’s a sweet meat,” said a second. “Watch out though. The young ones, the smaller ones, can be poisonous.”

“Hmmm, yes they can,” said a third. “I ate one once and for six weeks every time I ate fish, no matter what kind, my hands would go all tingly. Everything that was cold was hot, everything that was hot was cold, in my mouth and in my hands.”

I left them nodding their heads under the whirr of tall ceiling fans, my fingers, somehow, already tingling.

[flickr image via mfrascella]