Photo Of The Day: Eleuthera

Eleuthera is a long slender snake of an island, about 110 miles long and an average of two miles wide. It has an embarrassment of beaches, which are notable not just for their number but also for their variety: a long pale strand here; a deep beach backed by reeds there; pretty pink sands elsewhere.

Flickr user trishhartmann captured this particularly dramatic Eleuthera beach, Tippy’s Beach near Governor’s Harbour, in June of this year. The clouds, the milky green waters, and the perfect sand all contribute to making this image especially compelling.

Upload your best images to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We choose our favorites from the pool as Photos of the Day.

A conversation with the founder of Swim to Empower

Named for the Greek for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, almost-always-calm Caribbean Sea … waters on both sides that literally beg to be swum.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the islanders. Taught to be scared of the ocean, even a percentage of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to change those numbers, founding Swim to Empower, an effort to teach people of all ages – teachers, artists, parents, even fishermen — to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S. on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentation has helped lead to the program’s expansion.


“Through the power of learning to swim the story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “What might be the unexpected power of learning to swim? What is at stake when people are unable to connect with their environment beyond purely using it for utilitarian gain? And, when we come to better understand our environment will we value it, and ourselves, more? For many, swimming translates into a new perspective – a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment – bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

A conversation with one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, and filmmaker Galvin.

Q: Simple question: Why is that so many Bahamians can’t swim, despite growing up surrounded by water?

Brenna: It’s funny that you framed this as the simplest question. In my mind, this is one of the more nuanced questions because there are so many reasons why Bahamians and many coastal people do not swim. Socio-economic, political, cultural, personal…the list is endless. If I had to pick the most formidable barrier to swimming, I’d say access. Granted that’s an extremely vague answer, but access to both education and equipment is an enormous barrier to learning to swim and links the larger legacies I just referenced.

Access to equipment is an interesting matter, as I mean both pools and open water beaches. Equipment differs depending on where you live in the Bahamas. Nassau residents have access to swim clubs and pools and members of the family islands have access to open water beaches. However, with recent private home and hotel development this seemingly balanced access has become more unequal as open water areas are quickly becoming privatized. Thus the equipment itself becomes a division between the affluent and poor, those with straightforward access and those without, and has deepened the socio-economic and political divisions between those who can swim and those who cannot. That’s after eight years of working with communities in the Bahamas.

Jen: I agree. It’s a surprisingly complicated question that brings up many loaded, historical harms – and when asked to an individual, it’s usually a very personal question. People also define swimming differently. Some think swimming is getting wet up to your knees, splashing around or just taking a soak. I see swimming and being comfortable in the water as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health – and this is what makes it a deep, rich story, especially for islanders living on such a long, skinny and low-lying island. But, for such a heavily layered issue, there seem to be some practical solutions. The work of organizations like Swim to Empower and the Diversity in Aquatics Program can’t be stressed enough. Access is definitely a key word here, like so many other public health issues. Physical beach access and educational access are barriers to learning to swim. I guess you can also distill it down to a more basic kid-adult framework.

Kids learn to swim from adults (or, older peers). If there are not adults who can teach kids and prioritize the idea of children learning this life skill, most kids won’t learn to swim. Plus, kids tend to spend a lot of time indoors. Having witnessed time and time again the emotional confidence learning to swim gives no matter how old the student, it’s also an emotional access issue. There are real fears associated with swimming that shouldn’t be dismissed – especially when it comes to the ocean. Swimming is labeled as a life skill for reason – it reveals untapped potential for achievement, health, and broader connections with the natural world.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project, early on?

Brenna: The hardest part was creating a program that is self-sustainable and community focused. In the beginning, it was critical to foster genuine connections with key community members. However, this takes time. Although it often felt like we were losing momentum, the time we invested in the community resulted in a successful collaboration.

Jen: My role as an indie documentary filmmaker was to tell a story that connected ocean health with human health in a personal way. The film and the book were ways to document the paradox of islanders not knowing how to swim – and the power of people learning while reconnecting with their coastal home. I originally had wanted to tell this story over several locations globally, but ended up focusing the story on Eleuthera because of the innovative work of Swim to Empower. Plus, there’s something powerful about telling a big, universal story that comes from a small place. I let the story speak for itself and allowed people to use my camera as a vessel for their voices and actions.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times, especially because the wind really can rip.

Q: What has been your biggest success to-date?

Brenna: The ability to link the work of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, Olympic Association, and Swim to Empower. Our goal is to create a self-sustainable program run by Bahamians, for Bahamians. Although we had hoped that the Teacher Aides, students who had excelled in the curriculum, would become the instructors and perpetuate the program, teenage pregnancy and the prevalence of drugs have hindered this path. Therefore we saw an opportunity to work with the Bahamas Swimming Federation and the Bahamian Olympic Association to access their network of expert Bahamian swimmers. This linkage has been priceless in the development of the organization, as the competitive Bahamian swimmers have taken the project on as their own and not only continued but also expanded the program beyond the original five communities on Eleuthera.

Jen: Teachers, parents, camp leaders, students and organizational leaders are using the guide that comes with the movie. With funding from The Eastman Foundation and the Living Oceans Foundation I’ve also worked to run multimedia workshops for educators – the first conducted in Nassau with teachers from throughout the Bahamas; the next one will be in Nevis in mid-April. Free Swim continues to be an empowering film that combines the individual human experience of learning to swim with larger societal topics, exploring complicated socio-economic and environmental challenges with which communities’ worldwide struggle. And the more it’s shared, the more somehow the film’s purpose grows. Storytelling can move viewers to step beyond simply being aware of an issue to actually doing something about it – and oftentimes, watching a good story triggers more story-making.

Q: Are there some on the island who’ve taken up your efforts and are now teaching swimming to their friends and relatives?

Brenna: Yes. On a local scale, the teacher aides and older siblings in the community continue the lessons when the program is not in session. On a larger scale, competitive Bahamian swimmers from BSF and BOA have taken over the efforts and are now really leading the force. They are returning to islands where they grew up or have a great deal of relatives and are teaching those communities how to swim. It’s amazing to see how a program can expand but still stay rooted in community.

Q: Do you have favorite memory of the time you’ve spent on Eleuthera?

Brenna: The one that sticks out in my mind was one day after lessons when one of the young boys, Denero, grabbed the lifeguard tube and started playing it like a drum. The other children gathered around him as a “band” and the class sang and danced our way down the jetty. It was an amazing moment to see the ocean, which had brought so much fear, suddenly produce abundant joy.

Jen: I consider my friends on Eleuthera as family now. It’s a very special place for me. Always will be. There are really so many memories, especially since the film continues being shared with audiences around the world. While filming it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.

Eleuthera Island, Bahamas – “Fishing is a Good Life Here”

French Leave, Eleuthera — Under a cloud-studded sunrise at the end of the two-and-a-half-mile long beach I watch a 14-foot plywood boat back into the morning surf. A trio of Bahamian men readies it for a day of spearfishing along the near-reef that parallels the 110-mile long island. One will drive; another will watch and stack fish. The third – a lithe, fair-skinned black man with ‘Aries’ tattooed on his upper arm, who dons a thick wetsuit while we talk – will dive and spear. They hope the day’s catch will include as many as 40 grouper, maybe another 40 lobster.

The laws for all fishermen in the Bahamas are pretty straightforward, no matter the size of the boat or crew: Boats must be 100 percent owned by Bahamians. They can use seine nets, hook and line or — ‘Aries’ tool of choice this morning — the Hawaiian sling and spear. There can be no long lines, no chemicals or explosives in the Bahamas. The small fishermen have no GPS or fish finders. Bigger boats, mostly based at the north end of the island, have set up what the locals refer to as “condominiums,” slatted wooden traps to catch lobsters.

The day will take this trio 30 miles down the coast and back and will end by early afternoon, when they will take whatever they’ve caught across the island to the port at Governor’s Harbor where they will clean and hawk it from the boat ramp. The cutting table there is close enough to the road that passing drivers can slow, observe, ask questions (“What you got today?” “How fresh?”) And decide to stop and buy … or not.I watch them motor away up the coastline and then find them later in the day. ‘Aries’ tips a white plastic bucket filled with six-pound lobster to show off his catch. “It was a good day,” he says. When I ask if fishing is his passion, he admits not. “I like being on the water, I can dive to 100 feet, I’m not afraid of anything down there, even the tiger sharks, but to be honest when construction is good here … it’s good for the fish because lots of guys, including me, stop going out.”

A forty-five minute drive to the north delivers me to Gregory Town, where a now-dimming sun lights up the harbor. On either side of the bay, fishing boats have come in from twenty to thirty miles out to sea, stacked with fin fish – mostly grouper and jacks — and conch.

There are 9,000 fishermen throughout the 700 islands of the Bahamas; only a few hundred of them call Eleuthera home. The fishermen descaling a boat loaded with grouper are happy with the small number of locals who make a living off the sea. “When my grandfather was fishing,” says one, his head swarmed by flies as he rakes a sharp knife over a foot-long grouper, “this bay was loaded with fish. Now we have to go far out to sea for a good catch. But once we’re there, there’s plenty of fish.”

Despite such colloquial wisdom among the fishermen I meet up and down the length of Eleuthera – that there are plenty of fish out there — statistics, mostly collected by NOAA, suggest that’s not exactly the case.

NOAA says the lobsters, conch and all finfish in the region have been fished “to a dangerously low level.” Particularly concerning is drop offs in the number of snapper and grouper, which are already off limits along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., especially Florida.

One fish that’s long disappeared from these waters are the Atlantic bluefin tuna. “The only tuna we see now are black tuna,” one of the Gregory Town fishermen says. “And they’re only the size of a football, when they used to be several feet long.”

The biggest, most successful, thus wealthiest fishermen on Eleuthera live on an island off the northern tip, called Spanish Wells. With a population of 1,500, mostly white descendants of the British Puritan loyalists who first settled here in the 1780s, there are a couple hundred big boats based here.

Regarded as the lobster capitol of the Caribbean, it is one of the wealthiest settlements in the region. It is also a conservative, staunchly religious place, where visitors stick out. Guidebooks advise to expect “passive displays of hospitality.”

Many of the men, even into their seventies, still dive for fish, during a season that lasts from August through March. Most use condominiums, or traps, which help fulfill big contracts with Red Lobster and several big European chains.

The near waters surrounding Eleuthera are shallow, 75 feet at the deepest, and easy to navigate. According to the men of Spanish Wells the only hindrance to success these days is not a lack of fish, but poachers, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, who sneak into the 45,000 square miles of Caribbean that is supposed to be for the Bahamians-only.
One group of fishermen in Eleuthera who don’t seem to have any complaint are the visiting bone fishermen who comes in droves to escape winter’s cold and whose silhouettes you spy throughout the day, fishing knee-deep in the salt water flats lining the Caribbean side of the island.

I stand with one, on an elevated cement wall lining the calm bay at Governor’s Harbor. Peering into the distance, he’s looking for signs of the big, opaque fish that love these shallows. He’s been coming here from New York to fish for forty years.

“There are probably a couple thousand of them within casting range,” he says. “Which never seems to change from year to year. I think because they’re mostly too smart to let us catch them.”

[flickr image via Thespis377]

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]

Cruise line private islands, a very safe port

Often a highlight of a cruise to the Bahamas or the Caribbean is a stop at one of the cruise line’s private islands. Probably one of the safest, most controlled ports of call you might visit, cruise line private islands are consistently ranked high by passengers. Most are located in the Bahamas and each one is unique.

On every private island you will find crystal clear water, sandy beaches, water sports and activities along with beach-side service for drinks and lunch will be served. Some require tendering in from the ship, others dock at the island.

The first passengers off the ship will find a pristine beach raked and clean, along with resident workers ready to make your stay comfortable. There is plenty to do (or not do) for adults and kids and even serene adult-only areas.Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas is Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island, under their care since 1977 when the line became the first to have one. The island features Snorkeling

Recent enhancements to the island that started in January of 2010 will continue through the end of this year. Several new island activities have been added since the project began including more than 16 wave runners, kayak rentals and an eco-adventure boat tour around the island. These are in addition to the existing snorkeling; floats; inflatable hippo slide; and parasailing.

The second phase of enhancements includes an arrival/departure pavilion, additional bar facilities; several comfort stations; a band stand; cruise program activity area; private beachfront cabanas; a kid’s play area; straw market; and beach volleyball courts. The beachfront will continue to be expanded on the island’s west end.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas This Holland America Line island (now also a Carnival island) was originally called Little San Salvador Island and has been rated as “Best Private Island” by Porthole Cruise Magazine. An international bird sanctuary in the Bahamas, the beauty and serenity of Half Moon Cay is unique.

There are a variety of exciting and new activities to choose from while exploring this privately owned paradise. You can go horseback riding on the sand and through the surf, take a stingray adventure, visit the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park, hike a nature trail or simply relax in an air-conditioned, private beachfront cabana.

Princess Cays, Bahamas is Princess Cruises private island on the south side of Eleuthera Island about 30 miles from Nassau. Princess Cays guests will find equipment for many beach activities. Water sports fans can choose from water craft such as sailboats, catamarans, paddle wheelers, kayaks, and banana boats, while those who wish to explore the island’s coral reef can rent gear for snorkeling.

Floating mattresses are available for lazily drifting in the sun, and several protected swimming areas are available on both the north and south beach areas. Beachside, reggae and calypso music set the mood, and guests can enjoy a game of volleyball or basketball, or choose to relax with a hammock, beach chair or under an umbrella.

CocoCay, Bahamas is one of two private islands for Royal Caribbean. This one is more along the lines of other cruise lines private islands with sandy beaches (duh) and a nice hammock here and here to enjoy your island-style seaside barbecue.

Tip: When you get off the tenders, there are three beaches to go to. The first one is the biggest and the most crowded. Keep walking and you’ll find the second beach, which is a little smaller and less crowded. Keep going even further and you’ll find the third beach, which is the smallest and least crowded.

Labadee, Haiti in is the home to what Royal Caribbean calls their “private destination” and with good reason. On the north coast of Hispaniola, the secure, secluded area is surrounded by exotic foliage and mountain slopes. Guests can enjoy beautiful coral reefs, a pristine public beach as well as a very nice private beach area reserved for suite guests.

A year ago Royal Caribbean International came under close scrutiny as the line planned to visit their private destination of Labadee, Haiti shortly after a devastating earthquake rocked the island. I was on board Freedom of the Seas last January when critics said it was in bad taste for the line to have cruise passengers go ashore for fun and sun while so many were suffering on different parts of the island nation. A year later, not a lot is better in Haiti and Royal Caribbean continues to call.

Castaway Cay, Bahamas is Disney Cruise Line’s private island. Unique to Castaway Cay is that the ship docks at the island, no tendering involved, which makes for a great experience. Recently updated, this one has it all.

This is Disney Cruise Line turning an island into a theme park, complete with rides, trams to get around on, gift shops plus really good food. All other private islands pale by comparison. Really.

They should build hotels here and let people stay a while. No wonder some sailings include two stops at the popular island.

If all those are not good enough for you, maybe you should just buy your own

Flickr photo by fotodawg