Monsters of the Deep, Denizens of Dreams
Sharks, stingrays, iguanas, boars, birds, barbecues, ice cubes and rum, chumps and chum: a review of a fabulous day’s outing with Powerboat Adventures to the Exuma Cays among the islands of the Bahamas.
The song of the ocean, sailing ships … I first suspected I had been dreaming when I found myself wondering sleepily why the denizens of the deep were singing the song of the ocean to the tune to “My Old Man’s a Dustman”. Surely this Cockney classic had not yet been invented in the seventeenth century. In fact, I’m not sure if Cockneys themselves had been invented by then.
Jolted into full wakefulness by this anachronism, I realized (not without regret) that I had indeed only dreamed of X P L’Horreur, explorer, and his happy ship. They had never existed outside my contented dozing. Now back from the Land of Nodding-Off, I found myself in a comfy seat on a thrumming, 1000 horse-power, projectile-shaped powerboat that was scudding at high speed across the waves, the sun shining, the hot winds buffeting, on the way back from a long day among the Bahamas cays.
Disturbingly, although now awake, I could still hear L’Horreur’s Cockney song of the ocean, and I could not get it out of my head – the dream had left me, but it left me these voices. I began to wonder about my sanity. Mercifully, when our craft slid into the dock at Nassau and the engines were cut, the singing stopped. Ah, perfection, all’s well. It had been a great day, the kind that you remember forever, growing in glowing with the passing of days. A really great day.
This was not a little because the Powerboat Adventures’ crew were particularly skilled at making you feel relaxed and at home, even special, even though they must have done this often before. Indeed, all the locals that my wife and I met on our Christmas break in the Bahamas were wonderful, welcoming and friendly, perhaps just as well for an economy that’s presumably heavily dependent on tourism. But despite all the care and careful stage management, the actors in this day’s play who made it especially memorable were not human.
Starting with monsters. On the way out to Ship Channel Cay, the ultimate destination for some two dozen of us day trippers, the boat made a short stop at Allan’s Cay. While we waited to disembark, we watched the people on some private yachts moored in the channel, as they dived into the aquamarine depths, or sunned themselves on the decks. No, they were not the monsters, however they came by their good fortune, however envious we might be.
The monsters were the black, scuttling, living-dinosaurs which surged from the scrub at the back of the beach to meet us. They rushed forward like the Carib natives of old, streaming to the shore to see their first white men emerging from the surf. These monsters, Rock Iguanas (aka Bahamian Dragons), had breakfast on their minds, and luckily for us their breakfast does not consist of men emerging from the surf.
For we came bearing sacrificial offerings, bunches of grapes issued to us before we descended the gang-plank (OK, OK, it was just a ladder, but gang-plank sounds more nautical-me-hearties, more piratey, more Caribbean). And although the black and red-crested breakfasters were awesome to all, it was the children on the trip who most enjoyed tossing fruit at these majestically ugly throwbacks to a time that time forgot. As I watched, I wondered if “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was inspired by these monsters (the lizards, that is, not the children).
After breakfast (the monsters’, not ours), we re-embarked and cut our way at speed towards lunch. This time we, as well as the monsters , would get to eat. And didn’t the monsters (sea monsters this time) seem to know it. As the powerboat docked at the jetty on Ship Channel Cay, the local sharks and sting-rays were already gathering. You might think that this was a problem, for a place with a gorgeous sandy beach where you were hoping to wade and swim.
Apparently not, because, to encourage the monsters, a man stood at a butcher’s table in the shallows, preparing fresh fish for lunch with a large knife. Chumps of fish being chopped from the carcasses, being used as chum, were whetting the appetites of the circling predators. In case you weren’t wide awake with terror and paying close attention when you watched “Jaws”, let me remind you that chum is fishy shark lure. And it seemed to be working on the sharks here, even if it wasn’t being thrown from Capn’ Quint’s “we’re going to need a bigger” boat. Consider us lured, said the sharks. Give us more.
All this whetting and luring took place while the guests were free, after arrival snacks, to indulge themselves at the beach bar, or on the beach, or both. The sleek, swirling creatures in the water were mesmerizing, and I watched them, fascinated, for some time, while going back to the bar repeatedly for glasses of fruit juice chock-full of ice, compliments of the house. Even though it was December, and despite an occasional light overcast, the sun shone often, the day was bright and hot.
Comedy Warm-Up Routines
A ray with a friendly (or hungry) disposition waited cutely at the feet of the chopper man, and was rewarded occasionally with a titbit, hand-fed directly into its mouth. Meanwhile birds manned the margins. They marched along the shore or sat on an old lobster pot, watching to see what they could manage to snatch by way of lunch, without themselves being snatched as lunch by the sharks. One in particular had a kind of comedy routine going. I believe it was a bittern, a marsh bird from North America that has the good sense, like many of the guests here, to fly south for the winter.
Bert (as I named him, being a bittern) spent most of his time trying to be invisible. His tactics, given his mottled colouring, probably work extremely well in his reedy home up north. Here, however, on a beach without any reeds, and where there was nothing mottled, he stuck out like a … well, a bittern on a beach. Nevertheless, he would hunch up and tip-toe skulkingly along the shore one minute, and then, the next, extend his neck unfeasibly. Up and up it went, way beyond the bounds of neckdom. If he was trying to blend with the wooden piers of the jetty behind him, it wasn’t working. I could hear the sting-rays laughing.
Another animal comedy routine was provided by a huge boar that lives on the island and attended the party once the boat arrived. He was formally introduced to us as “Stones”. Stones went into the the water just like the tourists – “I ain’t afraid of no sharks neither!”, he exclaimed. He disported himself in the shallows, emerging dripping from the waves like Ursula Andress in “Dr No”, all the while filmed by a wet-suited cameraman, who contorted and cavorted in the water to get the best angle, as if the boar were Kate Moss and he Mario Testino.
The boar’s real star turn, however, came when a guest was persuaded to invite him to join us for drinks. At this point I wondered if I had misheard, and in fact his name was ”Stoned”, but, no, I can report that he only had one little one, and was quite safe to drive afterwards. Beer was his tipple, although I suspected he might just as happily have crushed and swallowed the flimsy aluminium can it came in, and have been mightily refreshed by it too.
There were other entertainments before lunch, all optional. The first involved lining the guests up on their knees in the shallows to pay homage to the mighty sting-ray. Unlike in “King Kong”, on whose tropical island the visitor was the lunch, here, thank goodness, the visitors merely serve the lunch to the resident beasts. Each guest is given a piece of food, and the rays work the line like royalty at a reception, guzzling canapés as they go. I stood to one side to photograph the whole affair, and discovered, looking down, that if you haven’t brought a canapé, then your toes get investigated as a tasty substitute. Even paparazzi, it seems, must bring gifts.
The Main Attraction: Shark! Shark! Encore! Encore!
The next sitting of lunch did not involve lining up the guests on their knees in the shallows to meet the diners, presumably because that would be an encounter that could go the way of Christians and lions in the Colosseum. For this time the diners were the big boys, the bad boys, and the biggest and the baddest boys of all were invited to the front of the line, the better to entertain us (well, that and ensure they were well fed). It was tug-o’-war with sharks time.
We all stood on the very edge (but no further!) of the shore to watch. One of the crew tied bait (a large fish carcass from the chopping table) to the end of a large rope and threw it as far as he could. A roiling boiling of sharks and water ensued, until one shark won, clamping its mouth of barbs on the bait and attempting to make off with it. Cue Herculean heaving on rope by muscled Bahamian. Muscled Bahamian won, and the shark thrashed on the shore, jaws mashing, refusing to let go. Until, that is, he’d eaten his fill.
This was repeated several times, and then guests were invited to man up and man the end of the rope, if they dared. It certainly was impressive seeing all that sleek muscle (the shark’s, not the Bahamian’s) writhing at close range. Close range was however partly a problem, as it’s hard to cram a couple of dozen people point-blank on the shore side of a shark. If I had a recommendation, it would be that perhaps the crew could encourage some circulation of the crowd, or in some other way let everybody have a turn at getting close (well, close enough, that is).
You might think that watching the power of a marine predator with a mouth like a mincing machine might put you off getting in the water with him, especially if he was bigger than you. You might think that luring sharks to shore to feed on human-supplied fodder would put them in a hungry frame of mind, even perhaps a “humans and food go together” frame of mind. Apparently not – instead, we were told, it’s precisely to ensure that the sharks are too full to think of eating that they are fed this well. Because otherwise the next thing we did might indeed have seemed particularly daft – we went swimming.
This was a drift snorkel, organized as the last thing before lunch for anybody who wanted (dared?) to go. We entered the water behind the jetty, equipped with flippers, mask and snorkel, and swam out into the channel to catch the fairly strong current that was running through it out to sea. Once in the channel, swimming was only necessary for control, not progress, until we turned again to land further along the shore, beyond the beach.
This means that it’s not like, say, the Great Barrier Reef, where you can float, stationary, amazed by the sights below, until you get third degree sun-burn. Here, because of the current, it was, by comparison, over fairly quickly. The channel was also in places pretty shallow (the tide was out?), and I found I occasionally had to avoid sharp coral that nearly reached the surface. But unlike my experiences at the barrier reef, where I only ever saw sharks far off, in this narrow channel I had my chance for an intimate howdy-do.
Even with your ears underwater, and surrounded by the splashing of others, you can hear people shouting. And what the others in the group were shouting was “Shark! Shark!”. I stopped staring at pretty tropical fish, the size of those you have in your aquarium at home, and looked about. There, coming up from behind me and sailing silently past, was a shark much larger than I am. He was close enough to have shaken my hand and presented me with his card. To my surprise, there was no shock of fear, no paralysis, no panic. Perhaps this means that I wouldn’t have lasted long as a caveman, but my response to this close-up confrontation with a stone-cold killer was a glacial calm. What an almighty thrill!
Dinner is Served (Again). Dozing Optional. Dreaming Best Avoided.
Blimey. All this excitement, and all this talk of sea-monsters, monster lizards and monster boars getting to eat, and even drink, has made me ravenous! Thanks goodness I’ve arrived at the point of describing lunch. This was being prepared all this time, and, salivating, I’d been tormented by the enticing smells coming from the barbecues. Fire! Smoke! Barbecues! I just love ‘em. And it was a great barbecue, with several sorts of grilled meat and fish, and several different sides of vegetables and salads.
It was all too nice to turn down, but too much to finish – ah, yet another delicious torment. It was even more piquant (if not picante) to reflect that the grilling of fish over coals, originally called barbacoa, may first have come from the Caribbean. X P L’Horreur, had he ever existed, would probably have had barbecues with his raffish crew (ooh-aarr) on beaches just like this one, over 350 years ago. It seems barbacoa may have meant “a sacred fire pit”. Yowsa, read my mind, that’s exactly what I think a barbecue is!
Speaking of sacred pits, after lunch a short walk was organized into the island’s hinterland, for anybody who was interested. Once again, we bore sacrificial offerings. Along the way our guide told us about the history and legends of the place, and about the exotic fauna and flora we encountered as we went. Finally we stopped at a deep, dark well, and plastic cups dosed with a libation of rum, the elixir of the Caribbean, were raised in a toast to the spirit of the place, much to the squealing indignation of the children in the group, who were fobbed of with Coke.
Full, warm, pleasantly tired, cocooned in the roar of the wind and the engines, on the return journey I drifted off to sleep, and I dreamed, as you know, that I heard the song of the ocean. Later that night, tucked up in bed, as I again drifted off, a dark shape, at first only dimly perceived in the murk, a huge shark, swimming in the gathering blackness of sleep, suddenly lunged at me, its jaws gaping.
“Waaaaaaaah!”, half conscious I jolted upright, arms clawing the air as if they could raise me clear out of the dark to escape my doom. Phew, just a dream. Hardly daring to try to sleep again, I lay down again. “Waaaaaaaah!”, the monster charged at me again from the closing shadows. So much for my glacial calm. Plainly it was nothing but an ice cap on a pent-up volcano of molten, primal terror, which, if you think about it, is possibly a more appropriate response. Reasoning with myself, grateful to be only dreaming, eventually I slept the full, long, satisfied sleep of a child whose mummy has shown him there are indeed no bugaboos under the bed.
Barbecues on the beach, pirate islands, comedy creatures, cute critters, ferocious beasts, white sands, blue seas, as much free drink as a freebooter could boot, it’s all a dream day out. Just be careful not to dream too much, if you’re prone to hearing Cockney sing-alongs in the throb of mighty engines, or if monsters and the denizens of the deep haunt you deeply. Definitely an almighty thrill!