Written by Susan Elnicki Wade
January 2018

Exuma Land and Sea Park is the Bahamas’ hidden jewel, and it belongs on top of every boater’s must-see list. At this water park, you won’t find wave pools or water slides, but you will experience gorgeous beaches, easy anchorage and a dazzling marine environment unblemished by humans.

Its colorful coral reefs and vibrant aquatic life create a playland of unparalleled beauty. The park’s 176 square miles of crystal-clear water and unique tropical islands are so exceptional that Exuma was declared the Caribbean’s first aquatic nature preserve in 1958 to protect its delicate ecosystem.

What makes Exuma so special? Centrally located in the Bahamas on a limestone plateau, it’s a diver’s and boater’s paradise with caves, canyons and coves carved out by ocean currents over millions of years. The soft sand is made of tiny fragments of coral and seashells, and the islands’ dramatic landscape is teeming with tropical plants, birds and wildlife.

When Columbus arrived in the late 15th century, the region was inhabited by the peaceful Lucayan people, whose population was eventually decimated by slavery and disease. By the early 1700s, it became a popular trade route for Spanish ships returning from the New World laden with gold and riches. They became easy targets for pirates who looted the vessels and took advantage of Exuma’s hidden inlets to escape after raids and stash stolen treasure.

In 1783, a wave of immigrants came to these islands from America. Loyalists to the British Crown, hoping to flee the new nation’s animosity toward English sympathizers, made Exuma their home. Most were Southern slave owners, who tried and failed to grow cotton on the thin limestone soil. In time, many packed up and moved to England but left their slaves behind to build free lives as fishermen and tradesmen. Ruins of Loyalist dwellings are currently on display in Exuma Park.

Delightful Discoveries in Every Nook & Cranny

With swashbucklers and revolutionaries in the distant past, today’s visitors in Exuma Park come to enjoy nature’s splendor with adventures on land and sea.

Warderick Wells Cay is the hub of activity and a good starting point to get the lay of the land. It’s wise to call the park office in advance to reserve mooring for your boat and take a dinghy to the visitor center dock. The massive skeleton of a 53-foot sperm whale is waiting there to greet you. The visitor center provides charts and guides for seven miles of trails that cover rocky bluffs, sand dunes and mangrove creeks as well as beaches to cool you down after a hearty hike. You can also visit remains of a Loyalist plantation, see a pirate den, snorkel in magnificent coves and climb to the top of Boo Boo Hill to savor a panoramic view of the harbor.

Several other islands showcase the magic of Exuma Park. Shroud Cay is an uninhabited string of rocky islands that encircle a shallow tidal basin. Its mangroves create a lovely sanctuary for a menagerie of fish, conch, lobsters, birds, sea turtles and other aquatic creatures. Hawksbill Cay is known for its Loyalist ruins and magnificent beaches. Two mooring areas are available for guests that want to investigate its beautiful harbors. You can snorkel through two limestone caves at Rocky Dundas Cay to see stalactite and stalagmite formations unique to this area.

Simple Rules to Safeguard this Marine Treasure

Stewards of Exuma welcome guests who want to help keep this spectacular ecological preserve uncluttered and in pristine condition, so they request that you follow a few easy rules while exploring the cays:

  • Exuma is a No-Take Zone, so do not remove anything living or dead from the park. Fishing, shelling, conching and lobstering are strictly prohibited.
  • Enjoy, but do not touch, the breeding habitats of seabirds, plants, aquatic life
    and the hutia (an endangered mammal indigenous to the Caribbean).
  • Trash disposal is not available in the park, so take out whatever you bring in and pick up any rubbish that you find on the trails or beaches.
  • The park has many shallow coral reefs and shifting sand bars, so keep a sharp lookout and operate your boat at idle speeds. The Exuma Land and Sea Park website (exumapark.org) provides charts for navigating tricky areas.
  • Some of the cays are privately owned and visited by invitation only. The visitor center is the place to learn which islands are open to the public.