Swimming with the Pigs
By James Shillinglaw
July 08, 2012 11:45 PM
Have you seen the "swimming” pigs? That question alone is what got me interested in taking a customized tour offered by Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours on Great Exuma in the Bahamas. I was staying for a week at Sandals Emerald Bay, the high-end all-inclusive resort that formerly was a Four Seasons.
Now I'm not the sort to just lie on the beach or by the pool, so at some point I knew I had to get off the resort property. I’d looked into the day trips and tours were offered at Sandals Emerald Bay, and fortunately Island Routes, which is owned by a unit of Sandals itself and offers commissionable programs sold through travel agents, has a location at the resort. Nearly everyone I asked said I simply had to take the “007 Thunderball” tour.
The tour is named after the 1965 James Bond film "Thunderball," because it visits one of the underwater caves used during filming of that movie. That's the one where James Bond (played by Sean Connery, of course) heads to the Bahamas to recover two nuclear warheads stolen by a SPECTRE agent.
Now I wasn't looking to recover any missing nuclear warheads, and even though my name is "James," too, I wasn't looking to go up against SPECTRE. But I was interested in a tour that visited the site as well as other parts of the Exumas, the huge Bahamian island chain running southeast of Nassau. And that, along with the "swimming pigs" and a "swim with the sharks" encounter, is exactly what Island Routes' "007 Thunderball" tour delivers.
We started off by driving about 20 minutes to a fairly nondescript dock on Great Exuma. There our group of 17 was greeted by Ray and Justin, the father and son team who were to be our guides on a high-speed boat ride through about 60 miles of the Exuma island chain. After boarding our boat, which was powered by two 250-horsepower Suzuki outboard motors, we began speeding very quickly at about 38 knots close to small islands, rock formations and sand bars.
Our guides pointed out the island owned by the Johnson & Johnson family, which was previously owned by Jessica Tandy (and is now for sale, our guides said, for a mere $29 million). We passed an old salt beacon, where sailing ships used to stop to pick up salt. We zoomed by past an island that our guides said was owned by actor Nicholas Cage (for sale, not surprisingly, for a mere $8.5 million, since Cage reportedly is a little asset poor these days).
We speeded by Bock Cay, a new resort being constructed on a series of small islands, which will have five-star luxury houses and a Greg Norman/Nick Faldo designed golf course. The property is expected to open in the next two to three years. Our boat slowed to take a look at a giant mansion being built on a small island by country music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Then we passed Little Darby and Big Darby islands, one of which has an old ruined castle on it built in 1910 (apparently there's never been s shortage of rich folks seeking to have their own islands in the Bahamas).
Our boat slowed so we could celebrity gaze at David Copperfield's Musha Cay, the high-end resort that is now popular with the rich and famous. Our guides told us that Dr. Dre, the rap star, was the current guest.
After passing Big Farmer's and Little Farmer's Cay (is every island in the Exumas denoted by a "big" and a "little"?), we took a break on a sliver of an island to swim in crystal blue water and climb a small hill to take in the view of all the surrounding beaches. We then stopped at another small island, designated as a national park, where was visited with a small group of Exuma Iguanas, who were hiding in the brush. They emerged to snap up grapes that members of our group threw their way.
Then, as we passed Staniel Cay, Ray told everyone to get out their cameras as we approached another small island. Rushing into the surf to meet us were five wild pigs, ready to eat their fill. We anchored the boat as Ray and Justin threw rolls and chicken dogs into the water, which the pigs quickly devoured. Then they told us to jump in and swim with the pigs (most of us did, but I stayed in the boat to take photos). It was one of the strangest experiences I've had in the Bahamas. To be honest, the pigs seemed a bit more dangerous than the sharks we were to encounter later on. But at least now I can say I've seen the "swimming” pigs.
Finally we arrived at the tour's namesake "Thunderball" cave, which is actually a rather large craggy rock where you can snorkel. We jumped in and followed Ray and Justin through the crevices and under the rocks into the underwater cave, which has a hole in the roof (the one James Bond escapes through when a line is lowered from a helicopter). Well, there was no helicopter for us, but our guides led us through some passages and tunnels and then back to the boat. It takes a bit of advanced snorkeling since the currents can be strong and there are sharp rocks you can bump into, but most of our group took the plunge. Ray told us his father had actually been recruited as one of the bad guys in the film.
Then is was time for lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a rustic restaurant and marina where the yachting set resides. Indeed, Ray told us it was one of the oldest restaurants in the Bahamas. We had conch fritters, blackened mahi mahi sandwiches and some pretty strong drinks, per Ray's recommendations.
We boarded our boat again for a long run to what was to be our next to final stop. On the way we passed yet another huge mansion on a private island, this one owned by the Bouchard family whose money comes from oil, Ray told us. The mansion also had three large wind turbines apparently to supply power.
We arrived at Compass Cay, another marina, where sand sharks like to gather to feed on whatever is thrown overboard from the yachts. With Ray's encouragement, we jumped in the water with the sharks as he threw fresh fish at the sharks (it's not a good idea to get your hand between the shark and the fish, Ray told us). We could "pet" the sharks and Ray even jumped in and tried to grab one (not something I tried to duplicate). But as I mentioned above, to be honest the pigs seemed a bit more dangerous than the sharks.
We boarded our boat one more time for the long run back go Great Exuma. But Ray and Justin had two more surprises for us. We suddenly came upon a school of dolphins, who tried to race our boat. Then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we stopped on a sand bar and waded around in the shallow water, gazing at the surrounding islands. Ray stuck a beach umbrella in the shallow water and broke out some very potent rum cake baked by his wife.
We finally arrived back in Great Exuma about 10 hours after we left. It was a long but very fulfilling trip. It's not inexpensive (priced at about $375 per person) but it's one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in the Caribbean and Bahamas. High-speed boats, iguanas, swimming pigs, sharks and a cave famous for a James Bond movie. I mean, what could be a better day!
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director for TravAllianceMedia, parent of TravelPulse.com. Agent@Home magazine and Vacation Agent magazine.