24° 23.71' N,  76° 37.95' W
Warderick Wells Cay, Exuma Cays, Bahamas
Wednesday, December 8th, 2004

This cay is the home of the headquarters of Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, one of 25 Bahamas National Parks that are administered by the Bahamas National Trust. This remarkable Park and organization deserve substantial coverage on the Wind Song web site. No representation of Bahamas cruising could be considered complete without it.

You can of course visit the Bahamas National Trust web site. Some of the material that follows came from there. But let's start with the following statement:

The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) was established by an Act of Parliament in 1959
as a non-governmental, self-funded, statutory body,
mandated with the development and management
of the National Park System in The Bahamas.

That sentence might bear a second reading. This is a private, self-funded organization that runs the Bahamas National Parks by parliamentary mandate. It receives not one dime from the government. It relies on private donations, with all the opportunity for influence and corruption that implies. Its labor force is almost entirely volunteer. It does not have the power of eminent domain. How can this possibly work?

Yet it does, and the 8 by 22 mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is a great example. Exuma Park consists of six island groups, each named for the main island in the group, to wit (NW to SE -- see photo and map below): Shroud Cay, Hawksbill Cay, Cistern Cay, Warderick Wells, Hall's Pond Cay, and Bell Island. The 8-mile width of the Park extends out onto the shallow Great Bahama Bank to the west and into the deep Exuma Sound to the east. Here's where it lies with respect to the rest of the Bahamas.

The Park was the original impetus behind the 1959 founding of the BNT. Put another way, the Bahamas National Park system was founded so that there could be an Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. This is because the country had no money for a Park System at the time, so there had to be something official on the books that said any Parks that got created couldn't cost the country any money. Parliament put the Exuma Park region under protection for one year in 1957 and gave the Park activists one year to invent from scratch a no-cost way to run a national park system. In 1958 this was extended one more year, and in 1959 the deed was done. It is astounding that a bureaucracy that forbidding could be circumvented that quickly.

Exuma Park still has exactly one paid employee, the Park Warden, Ray  Darville, who became Warden in February 1993 and has lived here and held this position very full time for the 11.5 years since. (Type "Ray Darville Exuma" into Google and see what you get.) Ray is surrounded by a small, constantly changing cadre of dedicated long term (6 months to 2 years) volunteers who actually run the place, basically in exchange for free mooring in the mooring field out in front of the HQ, where anchoring is not allowed and the charge (for boats up to 40 feet) is $15 or 6 hours of labor per day. More than that can get you free water, a place to tie up close to the office, and electricity, or, for boatless volunteers, a bit of "crash-pad"-style sleeping space ashore. The core group is supported by casual volunteer labor donated by visiting yachties, who number in the hundreds through a cruising season. These volunteers, and the work they do, are managed by the core group, so Ray can concentrate on higher duties.

Ray's word is law here, but he isn't particularly dictatorial. He can't be. There's no way he could micromanage everything happening here even if he were around all the time, which he isn't. He has to trust these folks to make the day-to-day decisions.

Ray's duties basically have three parts: 1) protect the Park's natural resources, 2) develop the park itself to support and encourage visitors, and 3) support those visitors when they visit. He directs numbers (2) and (3) from something of a distance through the volunteers, while staying very busy doing number (1) all by himself.

This is because only the Park Warden is authorized to enforce the law. And the law here is YOU CAN'T FISH. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is what is known as a No Take Zone, the first in the Caribbean area. That doesn't mean there are fishing limits, or species-specific fishing seasons, or what have you. It means NO LIVING THING in the water can be harmed or even be molested. Given that there are certain segments of the Bahamian population who live on fishing and REALLY want to fish right here, Ray has his work cut out for him.

The Bahamas have been pretty thoroughly fished out, the Exumas being no exception, and in the Exuma area the folks responsible mainly reside in the small town of Black Point a few miles south of the park, where they support themselves by "subsistence fishing". The problem is, "subsistence" to these folks involves not just consuming fish as food, but also sale of fish to get money -- not a lot of money, but enough to "subsist" in the modern world, where (for example) a land line phone call costs $0.18/ minute and local cell phone calls cost $0.40/minute ($0.91 to the US). According to the volunteers we've talked to, these people could not care less about this Park. They will fish anywhere for anything that will make them anyamount of money whatsoever. We hear a certain poverty in that attitude, which makes the attitude understandable, even if not tolerable. Before Ray Darville came to town, No-Take enforcement was less vigorous, and fishing in Black Point was a $100,000 annual business, mostly from inside the Park. Granted, that isn't much when spread across the 300-person population, but it is certainly enough to decimate the Exuma Park fishery. Ray singlehandedly shut it down, and continues to identify, arrest, and prosecute poachers zealously. This has not endeared him to the Black Point citizenry. The legal penalties are not slight.

The chief results are, first that the fish and other aquatic life in the Park have rebounded to a remarkable degree (more on that shortly), and second that Ray goes on his daily patrol through the Park expecting to get shot. In response, the Bahamas National Defence Force has recently assigned him a rotating two-man contingent of automatic-rifle-equipped marines who join him on patrol. Ray is engaged in a small war here. After speaking with Ray for a bit, one cannot help but wonder if part of why it's gone this far is that this suits his sense of style. Ray is, frankly, fanatical.

That said, it is only fair to note that the whole notion of a No Take Zone here is new and very unwelcome to this latest of many Bahamian generations brought up to fish indiscriminately, and it may just be that a fanatic is required to make it work. If so, Ray's the man. Whatever the case, the results are astonishing. The conch population density in Exuma Park is 31 times the average density outside the park, and migration of conch out of the Park provides a harvest of several million a year to these same fishermen. Crawfish tagged in Exuma Park have been found repopulating Cat Island, 70 miles away and empty of crawfish for many years. 74% of the Nassau Grouper in the northern Exuma region come from Exuma Park, and grouper tagged in the Park have been found off both North and South Long Island 150 miles away. This is the beauty of No Take Zones that fishing seasons and seasonal limits can't touch: it is literally foolproof, not requiring deep thought or calculated management, it cannot fail, and no one who is close to the fishing can deny that it is working because virtually every fish they catch comes from the Zone. There are renowned native Bahamian fishermen and sportfishing guides here who believe that every major island or island group in the Bahamas should have its own "feeder" No Take Zone, and it is hard to disagree -- even though the Black Point populace does.

As a direct result of this success in Exuma Park, the Bahamian Government has instituted a nationwide policy to protect 20% of the marine ecosystem for fisheries replenishment purposes. Accordingly, the Department of Fisheries is establishing a system of Marine Protected Areas for fisheries replenishment. The US Government used Exuma Park as a model to establish no take areas in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. There has been widespread call from Bahamians generally for more national parks “in their own backyards”. And ten new national parks were established in 2002, doubling the size of the National Park System -- all still at no cost to the government.

And what about Ray? It takes a lot to live with a man who, when he goes to work in the morning, may not come back that night. His wife left him, took their three boys, and returned to Montana where life is less uncertain. He lives here now with a girlfriend in a new Warden's residence funded and built by a generous group of 20 US donors, and the old Warden's residence in the back of the Park office building has been turned into a barracks for the marines who guard Ray's life and act as the Bahamian authority that arrests the bad guys. Life here is physically hard, logistically complicated, and intense.

He has obviously paid, and continues to pay, a price. For the roughly 11 months of the year he's on duty, working 12-16 hours/day and on call 24/7. It is quite literally his whole life. Any relationships he has are sort of along for the ride. On the plus side, he wakes up every morning knowing he is going to meet and interact with people that day who, because they want to kill him, because they have wrapped their lives around his every move, because they monitor all his radio communications so they'll have some hope of knowing where he is and when he's going to be gone (so they can poach), are living, breathing proof that he makes a difference. And what time he does not spend on patrol he spends with people who, through their tireless volunteer efforts, make it crystal clear how much this means to them and how much they want Ray to be able to continue doing exactly what he does. We are among them. This is why Roxanne spent two of her precious few days here weeding and making trail signs, and Lynn is at this moment collecting and hauling bags of plastic and glass flotsam from the endless supply on the windward (Sound) side of the island a half mile back across the mangrove swamp to the HQ to be burned, crushed, and buried.

It is worth asking at this point how many of us have jobs that daily give us palpable, immediate, and continuous positive feedback on our effectiveness. If we all had jobs like that, maybe we'd all be fanatics.

Friday, December 10th, 2004

We (well, Lynn) appear to have made something of a command decision to jump to Georgetown by the end of next week so as to have a few shopping days before Christmas (and Christmas itself) there, so this is our last day (and last Internet access) here in Warderick Wells. The plan is to come back north in January and visit the spots we'll miss (or have already missed) by jumping. Georgetown, which is located about halfway down the NE shore of Great Exuma Island (the very large, long, skinny island at the SE end of the blue "Exuma Cays"  box in the photo above), is about 73 nautical miles from here, the last 56 of which we'll try to do in a day.

So let's do a few photos of Warderick Wells and wrap this up. Here's an overview from nearby Boo Boo Hill (at 19 meters altitude the high point on the island), showing (left to right) the radio mast, the new Warden's Residence, a couple of low service buildings (generator shed, workshop, crash pad shed), and the HQ building. The North Anchorage, where the moorings are, is to the right.

These two lemon sharks hang out off the end of the dinghy/patrol boat pier below the HQ because . . . people FEED them! What kind of sense does that make? One guy we heard of also liked to feed the resident four and a half foot barracuda, "Bubba". After doing so one day, he got a sat-phone call aboard his trawler and sat on his transom swim platform to talk, dangling his feet in the water. Bubba thought it was another snack, and . . . an emergency evacuation to Staniel Cay ensued, followed by 44 stiches.

Below left, Tania and Roxanne look out at Daybreak on a mooring in Warderick Wells north anchorage, Spring 1994. View is to the NW from the Park Headquarters building.
Below right, Tania leans up against Mom in the same spot, December 2004. Tania is somewhat larger now.
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Below left, the eastern arm of the anchorage from the HQ building. Wind Song's mooring ball is in 15 feet of water. She has five feet under her rudder. The water under the dinghy, hanging on the aft davits, is two feet deep. These are steep-sided, narrow channels with lots of current in them.
Below right, Wind Song and the shallows nearby. In the foreground is a patch of nearly dry sand, where the four of us played yesterday like kids in a wading pool.
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View NNW from Boo Boo Hill across the top of the anchorage. Below left, Spring 1994. Below right, December 2004. Both are at low tide. Those small dots on the white area in the left photo are people trying to land their dinghy across the sandy shallows and go for a hike. The dinghy had to be anchored right where you see it, as the water was only 6" deep and getting shallower.
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(below left)  On the hike to Boo Boo Hill, the ground, as on all "solid ground" in the Bahamas, is extremely porous limestone.
(below right)  Large hermit crabs abound around the HQ. The shell this one is in is three inches across.
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In some places, the ground is very "porous". This sink-hole is a young mini-version of the larger "blue holes" like we saw on Andros Island.
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Boo Boo Hill is the one place in Exuma Park where the "take only photos, leave only footprints" rule is relaxed. Visitors may leave a memento of their visit, as long as it is biodegradable in the marine environment -- because hurricanes often blow these mementos into the surrounding ocean. If the sign on the Hill (lower left) that says this isn't enough of an admonition, on the Park Headquarters landing beach there is a full whale skeleton in front of which is a sign stating that the whale died of plastic ingestion.

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The view north (below left) and southeast (below right) from Boo Boo Hill over Exuma Sound.
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Late-breaking news: you remember those Haitian trading sloops we saw in Nassau? We've also seen a lot of them them sailing up and down the Great Bahama Bank west of the Exumas. They actually sail pretty well. Turns out the naval arm of the Bahamas National Defence Force makes a point of visiting each one it sees, to make sure everyone on board is legal and is following all the rules, one of which is: no more than four crew allowed (this is to minimize the opportunity for transporting illegals). In the neighborhood of Exuma Park, the Warden helps out by investigating any who sail by, if he's around at the time.

Right now he's not (he's on vacation in Venezuela), but a naval patrol boat comes through here every couple of days to tie up and catch some uninterrupted shut-eye. They patrol the rest of the time, especially at night, when Haitian sloops that are carrying illegals try to slip by the Park in the dark (and of course, without running lights -- cuz they don't have any). One of them tried that last night . . . and got caught. The patrol boat is here now, with the sloop's crew and a half dozen illegals on board, all looking oh-so-glum.

We found out why.  1) They all get deported, including the crew, legal or not, and none of them can ever again be legal in the Bahamas.  2) The boat gets confiscated on the spot and towed to a place off nearby Malabar Cays.  3) The spars are stripped off, the wood mast gets cut off at the deck, falls in the water, and all are transported to the Park HQ for use as building materials. And 4) the boat and all its contents are torched until the whole mess sinks.

We are told that there is nothing aboard these boats except people, rice, water, and the most godawful stink you have ever experienced.

Well, that's about all for this report. Unless Glenn, the head volunteer up at HQ, wants Lane's help scuttling the Haitian trader in the next day or two (we're told it's a labor-intensive process), we'll be leaving in the morning for Little Bell Island with (oh joy!) a full load of water.