Protecting the Grand Banks
Andros Island, the largest of the 700 islands and cays that make up the Bahamas, is just a 10-minute plane ride away from the mega-resorts, golf courses and party vibe of tourist-oriented New Providence Island. Quiet Andros supplies fresh water and workers to its high-profile neighbor, but has retained most of its natural resources and beauty.
From above, Andros appears blanketed in green and bisected by wetlands, creating a larger northern and smaller southern landmass. The western side is lined with beaches, and a few towns are in evidence, but the Eastern side looks untouched. A shallow sea, called the Grand Bahama Banks, stretches halfway to the Florida coast from the eastern coastline of Andros.
Traveling to the Banks via small boat from the settled western side of Andros, through the wetland interior of the island and up the eastern coast takes over two hours. Along the way, miles of mangroves stretch their dark, claw-like root systems into the white substrate below. The mangroves hold one of the keys to the ecological health of the Banks and nearby reefs. Between 30 and 50 percent of Caribbean mangroves have been destroyed, but they are intact on Andros.
"Mangroves trap sediments and pollutants in their roots as the water flows through," explains marine scientist Tundi Agardy. She points out that mangroves also provide protection from storms and prevent erosion. "But their greatest ecological role is to provide nursery habitat for fish—nearshore species as well as deep water fish. The mangroves in West Andros support species as diverse as bonefish, snapper, grouper, spiny lobster, tarpon and reef fish." Some of these fish remain in local waters, while other young fish tagged near Andros have been tracked for hundreds of miles.
The Banks and the adjoining wetlands are also a birders" paradise. "This is one of the key areas for flamingoes, which have been driven out of a lot of other areas due to development," explains Shawn Leadon, a Bahamian guide. "There are also cranes, egrets, ducks and pheasant."
The Bahamas National Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Kerzner Marine Foundation hope to make 50,000 to 60,000 acres of the Grand Bahama Banks a Marine Protected Area within the next year. It will be designed to safeguard the Banks from development and pollution. "Too often, marine protected areas become paper parks because there’s no enforcement," says Agardy, adding that with so many stakeholders, enforcement won’t be a problem on Andros.
Educating the local people about the new marine protected area, and getting their help, is one of the first goals of the project. "We need to do capacity building with locals so that they can manage their own resources," says Debra Erickson, Kerzner Marine Foundation’s executive director. "People have to learn to value ecotourism and preservation, especially the next generation," adds Eric Carey, director of parks for the Bahamas National Trust.
Ecotourists come to Andros to see the wildlife, fish in the waters (Andros is world-renowned for bonefishing) and to go diving on the nearby reef, one of the world’s largest. The reef is remarkably well-preserved with high levels of coral diversity. Scientists attribute the reef health to the mangroves and the lack of development on the island. Divers are also attracted to the "blue holes" on the island—natural fresh water holes that can vary from 10 to several hundred feet in diameter.
There aren’t many places to stay on Andros, but Small Hope Bay Lodge, an eco-lodge built in the 1960s with native materials, has an excellent reputation for sustainability. The owner of the lodge helped establish the largest national park in the Bahamas, and the resort has won eco-tourism awards. The 21 cottages sit right on the beach, and every room has a view, but no phones or televisions. The Lodge offers eco-tours, birding and scuba diving at more than 60 dive sites.
STARRE VARTAN is an active eco-traveler.