Bimini was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s famous novels The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. When he lived here in the late 1930s, the islands were the domain of big game fishermen and other adventurous souls who wanted to be close to nature. Seventy years on, Bimini is moving in a very different direction.
Denver Stuart, a 26-year-old Bahamian with an accent that falls somewhere between an American basketball player’s and a 17th-century pirate’s, is agitated as he steers us across the bright blue sand flats off the island of East Bimini, or East Wells as it is known to locals. As is often the case with tropical lagoons, we are at the mercy of the tide and need to time things carefully to find what we are looking for. Denver pauses occasionally to point out a large shark or stingray that propels itself away from the boat, sending up a plume of sand. The tide is high and there are large predators everywhere, taking advantage of the deeper water that gives them access to the vast mangrove system on our left.
Denver is both pleased to have someone to vent his anger to and nervous of what I am writing down. He was hesitant to speak at first but, like a can of soda that has been left in the sun for too long, now that his words have started to flow, they are streaming out like red-hot lava. We are closing in on a spit of bright white sand dotted with seagulls and a pair of large brown pelicans. Denver gestures towards it. ‘All this land here was added in the last 10 years or so. It looks like nature itself what formed this pretty beach, but it ain’t nature. What really formed this is the dredging what they did on the west side of Alice Town and the west side of Bailey Town,’ he explains. The sand bank runs parallel to a flat mangrove island fringed by large pines. Between the two is a channel, the gateway to ‘God’s own nursery’ as Biminites refer to the island. As our boat starts to move slowly along the channel, I reflect on the symbolism of the narrow passage that limits entry into this special place, a hidden network of mangrove waterways that functions as the womb of the Great Bahamas Bank. This is East Wells Island, the smallest of the three tiny land masses that make up Bimini, an archipelago in The Bahamas.
Denver points towards the trees on our left and sighs. ‘These mangroves are so big and so massive, they could have been here from when the dinosaurs was here,’ he says. ‘Nature put them here. Man ain’t put them here, but man wants to rip them out. This land was supposed to be protected, you know? It’s supposed to be land for our generations to go on here on the island.’ I peer over the side of the boat to watch the ripples of light moving over the sea grass below us. We are here to experience the magic of East Wells, but also because, if local rumours are true, it is under serious threat.
The boat cruises to a halt and Denver ties up to the mangroves. We disembark and follow him onto the island, taking a path that leads back out to the lagoon. He wades into the ankle-deep water and points triumphantly when he finds what he is looking for. Submerged in the shallows is a concrete cylinder with a pipe sticking out from its centre. Despite its benign appearance, this bit of concrete could spell disaster for East Wells. It is a land marker and, as Biminites have learnt, land markers are a precursor for development. On Bimini, East Wells is the final frontier. We walk further inland and find another concrete cylinder. ‘Whoever put that marker there, either they did it with the government’s permission or they did it without the government’s permission,’ Denver says wryly. We have seen the flashy pamphlets that advertise ‘Rockwell Island’ and promise ‘ownership of beach and island estates for a privileged few’. The exclusive estate will boast US$3-million private homes, a wellness centre ‘with meditation garden’ and an 18-hole golf course.
The Bahamian economy is almost entirely dependent on the tourism industry, which employs about half of the local workforce and earns 60% of the country’s gross domestic product. Despite lying only 77 kilometres (48 miles) from Miami and being the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Bimini has remained surprisingly little known and undeveloped, attracting the kind of tourists who were drawn to its excellent fishing and authentic ‘Caribbean island flavour’.
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