When Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain in August 1492, he arrived on an island in the Bahamas after two months of treacherous travel across the Atlantic Ocean. In the 525 years since its discovery by Europeans, the allure of the Bahamas have drawn thousands of people to its sandy shores for various reasons. These islands have been used for everything ranging from shipbuilding yards to pirate hideouts. Today, The Bahamas is renowned for its picturesque beaches, world class fishing, and superb SCUBA diving environments.
Most Americans who visit The Bahamas will go to Atlantis, Sandals, or another resort on Bimini, New Providence, and Grand Bahama islands. Few go to the untamed wilderness of Andros Island, and, of those who go, even fewer realize the treasure trove of scientific information that lies beneath their feet just waiting to be studied.
Five months ago, I accepted an internship with a geosciences professor through the Princeton Environmental Institute. Every week since the beginning of February, I have been meeting with the professor and a sophomore — who I later learned was using this project for her junior papers and senior thesis — to read a scientific paper about how carbonate rocks are formed in The Bahamas.
Carbon receives a lot of attention in the media because it is being pumped into the atmosphere at alarming rates from burning fossil fuels. While it is true that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, a significant amount of carbon is also sequestered in the ocean each year as part of the carbon cycle. Through a series of chemical reactions, the polyatomic ion “carbonate” is formed which — when combined with calcium and occasionally magnesium — forms carbonate rock in the ocean, commonly known as “carbonates.” Limestone and dolomite are two examples of carbonates.
Oceanic levels of carbon are high when atmospheric levels are also high because a greater amount of carbon is being taken out of the air. Generally, the Earth has a warmer climate and higher sea levels when the atmosphere has a lot of carbon in it. As a result, this carbon signature should also be recorded in the carbonate rocks that are formed.
Geologists have long studied carbonates to understand Earth’s past climates — called paleoclimates — up to 500 million years ago. (By comparison, ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica go back only 5 million years.) But relatively few have studied how carbonates are being formed in the present to understand what the chemical signals in the rocks actually mean or if other natural processes affect them. Further complicating this interpretation is the role of diagenesis — a natural process that alters the chemical composition of rock when water seeps through it.
The Bahamas is the largest production zone of carbonate in the world. In particular, it is known for producing a special kind of carbonate sand called “ooids.” When left at rest for long periods of time, the ooids will solidify into limestone.
The Bahamas’ carbonate platforms began to form over 164 million years ago on ridges that were created when the supercontinent Pangea was splitting — in a process known as “rifting.” During the most recent ice age — which ended 11,000 years ago — the sea level was approximately 390 feet lower than its present value. Large ooid sand dunes were spread across the platforms, and many lithified into rocks. Today’s islands are the tops of the tallest sand dunes that existed in the last ice age. The highest point in The Bahamas is Mount Alvernia on Cat Island at 207 feet.
Deep oceanic trenches cut through the platforms. The largest, named “Tongue of the Ocean,” plunges down 6,000 feet between Andros and New Providence Islands. Divers have described the change in depth from the bank to the trench as a wall. Cold water from the Tongue of the Ocean spills onto the Great Bahama Bank, causing it to mix with the warm shallow waters.
No one knows exactly how carbonates are formed, but there are two predominant theories. One says that they precipitate out of the ocean during an event called a “whiting.” The name is derived from the white color that the ocean turns when they are present. Their origin is undetermined. Some think that they occur when underwater sediment is stirred up — the source of the disturbance is still being debated — and acts as condensation nuclei for carbonate formation. Others believe that they form when carbonate directly precipitates out of the ocean. Another theory posits that algae form the carbonates and that whitings occur when something agitates the water, thereby lifting them upwards from the sea floor. As with any debate, there are a number of other theories in addition to middle grounds.
Geologists have been studying The Bahamas since the 1940s. Their expeditions have analyzed carbonates either from land by traversing the islands on foot or the deep ocean in a big yacht. There have not been any studies that have taken measurements in the shallows between the islands and the deep ocean.
Andros Island was once a point of interest for such research trips. But few have travelled there since the 1980s until my professor did so as a post-doctoral fellow at MIT in the early 2000s. A chain of small islands off of its northern coast, named “Joulter Cays,” was described by geologists in the 1970s. They recognized that the cays laid within an ooid production zone.
The region’s easterly winds cause waves from the Tongue of the Ocean to crash onto the eastern side of Andros, thus preventing smaller particles from falling out of suspension; however, the sheltered western side experiences little wind from the seaward direction and has an extensive shallow bank — on the order of 66 miles — to protect it from oceanic swells. As a result of this, the waters are sufficiently calm to allow tiny particles of carbonate mud to be deposited.
My professor has done extensive research on the muddy northwestern corner of Andros in an area called “Triple Goose Creek.” It is a mudflat riddled by channels. Unlike most fluvial systems that carry sediments away from the mainland, Triple Goose Creek’s channels have the net effect of brining them into the island like a delta.
In addition, the Gulf Stream flows past the Florida Keys and turns northward because of the Bahamian banks. But a small eddy spirals off of it that moves south along Andros’ western shore. It can take up to 250 days for the water to pass the island. Ocean water in this region becomes increasingly saline as evaporation occurs. This creates the perfect conditions for carbonate production to occur. Whitings have also been spotted along the island’s western coast near Triple Goose Creek.
Our project spanned both Joulter Cays and Triple Goose Creek. Its goal was to study the chemistry of the ocean water and seafloor sediments to determine: how carbonates are created, which natural processes affect their production, to what extent diagenesis alters carbonates, and how various forms of carbonates are distributed around the island by ocean currents.
I arrived at Princeton on Memorial Day to help the student prepare and pack the equipment. She had raised $100,000 from grants to pay for it. The following day, we began our two-day drive to Florida from New Jersey. Despite the fact that our road trip was 20 hours long, it was not terrible. I enjoyed looking out of the window at the changing landscape. There were a lot of billboards for “adult clubhouses” and “South of the Border” along I-95 from North Carolina to Georgia.
On the third day, we dropped off our rental car. A van took us to a small airport in Fort Lauderdale for a charter flight company. We waltzed through the checkin with pocketknives on our belts and no TSA security guards to confiscate them. Following a short wait, our pilot walked us onto the tarmac to our airplane. It was about twenty five feet long with two propellers. Our seats were crammed towards the front, merely inches away from the pilot. The student sat in the co-pilot’s chair. All of the luggage was packed into the back. The cabin temperature rose as the airplane baked in the sun. The pilot closed the doors and climbed into his seat from a cockpit door.
An enormous Boeing 747 took off from the runway in front of us. I never realized how big regular commercial jetliners were until I was staring at them from a small charter airplane. With a steady hand pushing the throttle forward, the pilot launched us into the sky. Fort Lauderdale’s skyscrapers slowly disappeared on the horizon.
After 20 minutes of flying, the ocean suddenly turned from a deep azure to a light cerulean. We were over the Great Bahama Bank. White ooid cays dotted the water beneath us. As we dodged towering cumulus clouds, Andros Island appeared in the distance. A bumpy landing finally brought us to our destination.
The sweltering heat hit me as soon as the door opened, though a strong easterly breeze made it more bearable. Half a dozen airport workers sat around in the shade, waiting for the next flight to arrive. We went into a building to go through customs. My professor told us that we should not tell anyone that we were on this trip for scientific research unless specifically asked to prevent drawing unwanted attention. Each of us was summoned into a room for questioning. A large woman sat behind stacks of papers on a desk. She asked from where I had come and where I was going before stamping my passport. Then, a customs official briefly inspected our luggage.
While we waited for our host to pick us up, a few workers told us about how Hurricane Matthew had destroyed several towns during the past fall. Another worker bragged about how she singlehandedly turned back Johnny Depp’s private airplane because he lacked the proper paperwork to travel to Andros. A truck from the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) came to gather fuel. The naval station is used for testing torpedoes and submarine equipment.
Our host for the trip was Jeff Birch. His father, Dick Birch, was a pioneering SCUBA diver of the mid-twentieth century. In 1960, he established Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island, the world’s first diving resort. My professor met Jeff during his first trip Andros. He allowed him to stay at Small Hope after a burglary. Because of his generosity, my professor promised to promote his business and has done so by bringing three sedimentology classes there for their spring break field trip.
When we arrived at Small Hope, I was amazed. It looked like the picturesque tropical resort. Hammocks were stretched between trees next to the white sandy beach. A leaf-covered pavilion protected a wooden bar near a long dock. Small huts formed a line from the lounge building. The sun reflected off of a light ocean. A deep blue strip lined the horizon, indicating the deeper waters of the Tongue of the Ocean. Small waves sloshed up against pitted limestone.
Jeff demanded that we spend a few minutes relaxing, so we sat at a table and ate lunch. We spent the early afternoon preparing our equipment for the long voyage ahead.
Later, we waded into the ocean for an hourlong swim. The water was remarkably clear; I could see at least ten feet in every direction. We watched the sediments shift on the ocean floor while waves rolled over top of them. There were few fish in the water. On the swim back to shore, I saw a starfish and two sea urchins. The sun started to set as we climbed out of the water.
At dinner, we were joined by two other college students who had just started working for Jeff. They went to George Washington University and Case Western Reserve University. Both were curious about what life was like for students at Princeton. Apparently there are a lot of rumors among other colleges about how Princeton students always wear suits and are unnecessarily snobby or how everyone works on Wall Street after graduation. Only four other guests were in the dining area.
I woke up early in the morning to watch the ruby sun rise over the ocean. All was calm.
After breakfast, we loaded our gear onto a pickup truck and hitched on a sixteen foot bone fishing boat. We crammed into the front seat of the truck. It was an old Ford F-150 from the early 1990s. The truck’s air conditioning was broken.
All of the cars that I saw on Andros were from 2000 or earlier. The Bahamas have an import tariff of 50 percent. Rental car companies in the U.S. use their cars until they have ~10,000 miles on them. Then, they sell them to poor areas — like Andros — that either cannot afford new cars or do not want to pay more on tariffs. Cars drive on the left side of the road in The Bahamas. But almost everyone has an American car with the driver on the left side.
A worker from Small Hope drove us northward. I asked him about a campaign poster on a post. He said that The Bahamas held parliamentary elections in May. The Progressive Liberal Party — his party — had an overwhelming majority with 29/39 seats in parliament. He said that the election, “was a whooping” for them. They lost twenty-five seats while the opposition — the Free National Movement — went up to 35/39 seats.
The road was paved asphalt for the first quarter of the hourlong drive before turning to a dirt pavement. He told us that the government was originally going to pave the entire road, until the new party took control. It cancelled the plans to do so. He said that all of the politicians, “talk about Nassau this and Nassau that” but few care about Andros. Nassau is the capital of The Bahamas, containing 274,000 people — equivalent to 70 percent of the country’s population. In contrast, Andros Island is larger than the state of Delaware but has less than 8,000 people, most of whom are clustered along a thin strip on its eastern side. The worker said that locals refer to the island as “the Sleeping Giant.”
Along the way, there were sweeping views of beautiful bays. Shanty houses were nestled in forested enclaves. The road continued forward for as far as the eye could see with pine trees standing alongside it.
We finally arrived at our boat launch in Lowe Sound around noon. Rubble of smashed cinder block houses from the hurricane was strewn around the town. A pile of conch shells laid next to the old concrete ramp where our driver was trying to back the boat trailer into the bay. Once our boat was in, it floated eight inches above the water due to the weight of our supplies in it. The professor and student sat in the back by the steering wheel while I was seated on the edge of the bow.
With a wave to our driver, we departed into the open sea.
The first fifteen minutes of boating were difficult because the water was less than three feet deep. None of us wanted to push the boat out of the sand. At the half hour mark, we reached deeper water and picked up speed. I could see the horizon in all directions with islands dotting it. A cloud dropped its misty rain onto the earth in the west.
An hour longer of boating brought us to the middle of Joulter Cays. A semi-circular sandbar protected it from the ocean. As my professor turned the boat around to enter, waves spilled over the bow. I pointed at an opening, and we broke into the inlet. The professor drove the boat toward a small ridge on the island. Joulter Cays is a protected bird sanctuary, so there were no official campsites. But our research permits allowed us to camp virtually anywhere.
We quickly unloaded our gear and ate lunch. I spotted the shadowy silhouette of a shark pass by camp. For the next hour, we waded through the water to look at the island’s grey limestone cliffs. They were less than 2,000 years old. We determined that it was once a dune — from the visible layers and crossbedding — but we were unsure if they were marine or aeolian in origin.
The sun was setting over the island by the time we were cooking dinner. As soon as it disappeared, the mosquitoes came out of the woods in droves. Even though the air was no longer warming at night, it was still incredibly hot. The humidity was stifling. It was impossible to not sweat. Still, that did not stop us from having a cheerful conversation for several hours.
The Moon emerged over the dark ocean. Tiny waves lapped up onto the ooid shoreline. Stars blazed fiercely in the black sky while the Milky Way formed a soft white streak across the zenith.
My tent was pitched on top of the island’s ridge. I jumped into it but still managed to bring in a dozen mosquitoes with me. The soft buzz of fifty more of them outside of the tent filled my ears. I could see them flying at the mesh netting, trying to get a bite of me. I laid on my back, sweating profusely. It was at least ten degrees warmer inside of the tent. Sleep was difficult and light with many interruptions.
Summaries of Selected Days
Day 6 (6/5) or “Greenhorns”— The sound of a passing boat awoke me in the morning. We started the day by walking along the emergent tidal flats in search of carbonate-producing algae. Small ripples riddled the sand beneath our feet. They were a vestige of the ebb tide. Everything was silent. We couldn’t find the algae, so we deployed our tide gauge before eating lunch.
In the afternoon, we walked a transect from our camp. As we swam across the cove, I noticed that there were strange temperature gradients in the water. At one moment I would feel a warm current and at the next get blasted by cold water in a deeper channel. We started in the ocean on the east side of the sandbar. Every 25 meters, we stopped to collect water and sediment samples.
Horseflies relentlessly attacked our legs. Their bites felt like needles being jabbed into us. If left unattended, they could draw a considerable amount of blood as their wedge-shaped organ stabbed into our skin.
Upon return to camp, I built a fire to keep the bugs at bay. It was an effective shield when the wind blew the smoke into the dining tarp. Unfortunately, the smoke didn’t fully protect us from the no-see-ums, whose fiery bites turned into small white pustules.
Our camp felt very remote at night. With the exception of some light pollution on the far southern horizon, there were no visible signs of civilization. There were only the stars and our island of safety.
Day 7 (6/6) or “Jaws”— When I awoke, I saw a swarm of no-see-ums waiting for me outside of my tent. We left camp when the tide was low and headed westward on a channel that ran through the middle of Joulter Cays. Mangrove banks lined our aquatic highway. I sat on the bow to navigate us through the shallow waters. Two sharks and a barracuda swam past the boat. Our worksite was one mile west of camp in the Cays’ tidal flats.
When we reached the mouth of the channel, shallow water extended to three small islands on the horizon. The western side of the Cays is incredibly quiet because it is sheltered from the wind. On satellite imagery, this area appears to be filled with sand. Instead, it was a muddy top layer; the entire area became exposed at low tide.
We walked the boat through eight inches of water to grid points that the student had identified on a map. At each point, we stopped to collect water and sediment samples. I was in charge of deploying a weather gauge and measuring various properties of the seawater such as temperature, salinity, pH, and dissolved oxygen. It felt like we were in the middle of the ocean, but the water wasn’t even above our shins.
An eight foot-long shark circled our boat. It swam within thirty feet of us and then went out to fifty yards. The shark’s fin stuck out of the water like that of Jaws. This continued for twenty minutes. I saw it turn around and start swimming toward us with speed. I told the student and my professor to get in the boat. The shark charged toward the boat, eventually veering away when it was within three yards. I monitored it for the next half hour as we continued our work.
The winds shifted to the west away from their usual easterly direction. Consequently, we were now on the lee side of the island; the wind was blocked. All of the bugs noticed and attacked us.
My professor said that the common way to judge the intensity of a mosquito onslaught was to count how many can be killed in a single slap. Later in the trip, I set the record with 15. His record was over 50 in the Canadian Arctic. He said that his doctoral adviser‘s record was 78, also in northern Canada.
Day 10 (6/7) or “Miracle”— The previous night was sweltering. Fortunately, a thunderstorm hit the island at 2:00 AM. Lightning woke me thirty minutes before it arrived. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A strong gust of wind made a whooshing sound over the water. It started to drizzle and transformed into a raging torrent. There was a flash of lighting every second for five minutes. Then everything went calm as if a switch had been turned off. The air was much cooler. I had never seen a storm quite like this.
Another storm hit two hours later.
In the morning, we went into a channel on the northern portion of the island and turned west into the tidal flats again. The ultimate goal of these trips was to map the distribution of carbonate grain sizes and facies.
A thunderstorm came at 9:30 PM. It rained heavily for two hours. Storms are nature’s form of air conditioning in The Bahamas.
Day 11 (6/8) or “The End of the Earth”— A storm came at night. The sun pierced through the clouds in the morning.
On this day, we went to the far northern edge of Joulter Cays. This area is home to the largest ooid shoals in the world. The tide was receding when we arrived, causing the emergent part of the shoals to appear as though they were growing.
Dark storms lumbered by us to the north. Joulter Cay seemed distant to the south, though it was actually less than a mile away. Clouds’ shadows danced across the brilliant water. Bright white sand stretched to the northwest. There was the sky and the ocean and nothing else.
It was the end of the Earth.
The tide lowered, and we didn’t notice until it was too late. Our boat was beached, so we had to push it back into the water.
We went west and boated along the edge of the shoals. My professor lost our second tide gauge, so we spent an hour swimming around in search of it to no avail.
Around 6:45 PM, we turned back toward camp. The ocean was beautiful at dusk as the blue hue of nautical twilight creeped in from the east. The Tongue of the Ocean lined the horizon as a dark strip.
Although it was always hot in The Bahamas, this evening felt unbearably muggy. The air hardly cooled even though the sun had set; it was saturated with water. I was in a steaming sauna.
There was not a single gust of wind to blow my fire’s smoke into the dining tent. The bugs were relentless. I rarely turned on my headlamp because it would attract a swarm of mosquitoes to my head. They were constantly flying into my ears.
Moonlight sparkled over the ocean. A passing airplane’s light reflected off of the water.
It was too calm for nothing to happen.
Day 12 (6/9) or “The Perfect Storms”— My prediction was correct. An intense thunderstorm came from the west at 1:30 AM. Five more of equal strength followed it at regular 30-45 minute intervals until 9:30 AM. As a result, we stayed in camp longer than usual to cook pancakes. Thunderstorms continued to the north and south of us throughout the day.
We took samples along a transect near the camp. The evening was hot again. This was the fourth day without wind to keep the bugs away.
The sand was annoying me. It got into everything. I had some blisters from Day 6 that had not healed. There were open holes on my foot from them that swelled but never got infected because of the salt water cleaning that they received every day.
Day 14 (6/11) or “Jaws II”— A hot beam of sunlight basked my tent. It raised the temperature within it enough to wake me up. Fortunately, there was a nice breeze to ward off the morning bugs.
As before, we went north around the edge of the Cays near the ooid shoals and followed a channel to the west. This section of the tidal flats was unlike any of the previous ones that we had studied. The ground gave the water a brown hue while deep green channels cut through the shallows.
When we arrived at our destination, we saw two sharks in the distance. I was charged with being on shark watch for the entire day. A stingray swam nearby. I estimate that it was two feet in diameter. Sharks frequently passed by our boat. One came within five feet.
The water was warm in the shallows. At one location, our equipment indicated that it was 100ºF. It felt like a jacuzzi. Meanwhile, the channels carried cooler water.
Around 7:30 PM, we decided to return to camp. Waves rocked our boat during the ride back. The sunset illuminated the tops of towering thunderstorms in the distance. Lightning streaked across them.
On the previous day, the winds had returned to the east. They blew away the bugs, clouds, and heat. This was the evening perfect weather.
I was beginning to develop a mild case of trench foot. Skin was peeling off in small chunks from the tops of my feet.
Day 19 (6/16) or “The Worst Place on Earth”— A land crab was peering in at me from outside of my tent when I rose. It was a foot in diameter and six inches tall.
After breakfast, we packed up camp to depart from Joulter Cays. I had to put on gloves and cinch the hood on a windbreaker to take down my tent because the mosquitoes were bad. Our boat rose an entire foot over the water now that the supplies had lost weight. I sat on top of a “throne” of duffel bags in the middle of the boat. The two hour ride back to Lowe Sound was smooth and cool thanks to the clouds that blocked the sun.
At the boat ramp, some workers from Small Hope and my professor’s graduate student greeted us. For the past two weeks, we had not communicated with anyone outside of our group of three. It was strange to talk to outsiders.
We drove west toward Red Bays for an hour. Although the distance between Lowe Sound and Red Bays is not significant, we could not drive more than 25 miles per hour due to the potholes in the dirt road. The government had not repaired it since 1984.
Red Bays is the only town on the western coast of Andros Island. It was founded in the early 1800s when a group a Seminoles sailed eastward during the Seminole Wars. In the 1970s-1980s, the town was a nexus for marijuana trafficking into the U.S. Miami was only 130 miles away. Our driver told us that there were 15 year olds walking around the town with sports cars and $20,000 in their pockets.
Airplanes dropped crates of drugs onto the flats below. In the 1980s, a geologist studied carbonates in the area and disappeared. He was later found in a resort’s bathtub with seawater in his lungs. It was suspected that he got too close to one of these crates when a drug lord came to pick it up.
Nowadays, Red Bays is mellow; drugs no longer run through it. My professor said that all of the former drug runners were middle-aged and became very religious. Their kids though, he said, were still “punks.”
As we drove through town, I noticed that virtually every house had a big boat propped up on cinderblocks in the front lawn. Our driver said that they were all drug boats at one time, but now no one could afford to operate them. Just as he said that, I began to notice that none of the boats had engines.
A travel website describes Red Bays as a thriving town. I would hardly give it such kind words. It was a hardscrabble community of fewer than fifty people who rely upon subsistence fishing for their livelihoods.
Our group reached the boat ramp around 1:00 PM. Andros protected the west side from the waves generated by easterly winds, causing the water to be perfectly still. The ocean was a light baby blue that reflected off of the bottom of puffy white cumulus clouds. It was stormy when we left the east side, but this looked like a sunny paradise.
Launching the boat was not difficult since we gained experience with it. We decided to take our supplies to Triple Goose Creek in two trips. This allowed us to go fast over the Bahamian flats. The student and I sat on the bow of the boat.
My professor left us at the campsite to set up the tents while he picked up the graduate student at the boat ramp. Unlike Joulter Cays, Triple Goose Creek did not have sand. Instead, it had a solidified mud beach. The ground was springy under my feet. After twenty minutes, the wind stopped, and the sun came out to bake us. It was the hottest point of the trip.
We were careful to select our sleeping locations. Every additional inch of elevation mattered to prevent flooding our tents. Pine trees signaled high ground because they avoid wet areas. My tent was on the highest ground, a mere six inches above the ocean and four inches above the others’ tents. Two days later, a heavy rain shower passed over us. Their tents were flooded by a quarter inch of water while mine remained dry. I would not want to be in this place during a hurricane.
The land was perfectly flat. I could see the horizon in the east over a vast mangrove swamp. Storms were rolling in to the southeast. A rainbow appeared on the clouds’ northern tip. I saw three more after it.
Dusk came quickly as we watched the sun set over the ocean. Very few mosquitoes bit us in the cool evening. The night sky was fantastic.
My professor said that he had brought three sedimentology classes to Triple Goose Creek. In the second one, a student disliked the trip and told the next class that it was the “worst place on Earth.” Compared to Joulter Cays, I thought that Triple Goose Creek was a lovely refuge.
Day 20 (6/17) or “Sky Captains”— I woke up early enough to see the sun rise over the tidal marshes. For the rest of the day, I worked with the graduate student on flying a drone. His goals were twofold. First he wanted to make an aerial map of the norther part of Triple Goose Creek. Second, he wished to calculate water depth based on the color of the water.
I watched the rainstorms barrel over the Bahamian plains and come toward our camp. In the late afternoon, we placed two orange tarps in mangrove swamp. These served as control points with which we could determine distances on the aerial imagery.
Day 23 (6/20) or “Swamp People”— The wind became strong in the morning. That was not good for flying the drone, so we quit. In order to accomplish the graduate student’s second goal, we had to measure the depths across actual streams to calibrate the drone’s imagery.
We set off into the mangrove marshes before noon. Everything was covered in a grey carbonate mud. In some places, the mud was over our knees. My sandals were frequently sucked off of my feet by the mud. I measured the depth of the water across channels as the graduate student recorded GPS points. The hot water stung the sunburn and bug bites on our legs. For some channels, I had to crawl in the mud to make measurements or else risk sinking into it.
Tides on the west side of Andros were delayed by six hours from those on the east due to the amount of time required for the water to move around the tip of the island. Inland ponds had their tides delayed by another hour as they waited for it to move up through narrow channels. Sometimes, easterly winds can be strong enough to prevent high tides.
As we walked eastward, I noticed how the tide looked like it was changing. But this was merely the effect of slow water movement.
Day 27 (6/24) or “Fifty Shades of Blue”— There was little food for breakfast because it was the end of the trip. We packed camp quickly and set off for Red Bays at high speed. I rode on the bow. The water was choppier than before. I felt like I was sitting on a bar room mechanical bull. Several different shades of blue colored the ocean.
We waited at the Red Bays boat ramp for an hour until two workers from Small Hope picked us up. On the drive back to the lodge, we stopped at a supermarket for lunch. I had two small ice cream cups, a Snickers bar, and a can of chilled Coca-Cola. Cold food never tasted so good. The locals were complaining about the heat. They said it was unusually hot for the island. We didn’t notice.
For the next two nights, we stayed in Jeff’s apartment that overlooked the ocean. It was nice to have fresh water.
We ate dinner at Small Hope that evening. Jeff was impressed by my professor’s wild hair. All of us had a month’s worth of sea salt on our heads. This time, there were about forty people at the resort. Some were there for a wedding while others were divers. I went to the dessert table four times.
That evening, I worked with the graduate student to catalogue our samples. We had over five hundred. I walked out onto the apartment’s dock before going to bed. Nassau’s lights were visible from across the Tongue of the Ocean.
Day 28 (6/25) or “Pirates of the Bahamas”— The graduate student left early to go to his next field site in Washington. My professor and the student spent the morning sieving through sediment samples. I digitized data.
In the afternoon, we drove to the northern tip of the island. Our first stop was Morgan’s Cave. It was named for Captain Henry Morgan, a British privateer who was sanctioned by the British government to raid Spanish settlements around the Carribbean. He had known ties to northern Andros. Legend has it that he buried treasure in this cave.
A lush green forest surrounded the entrance. It was a typical limestone cave with stalactites and stalagmites. We walked around for several minutes before taking samples. I saw a cricket on the ceiling that was the size of my hand. Bats flew out of the cave’s mouth.
Next, we went to Morgan’s Bluff. This limestone hill is the highest point on North Andros. A strange breakwater — made of gigantic concrete cubes — was adjacent to the bluff. The base of it was comprised of an old coral reef while the top half was newer aeolian limestone. We collected samples along it to study diagenesis. At the peak, I noticed a sparkling turquoise line that marked the Tongue of the Ocean’s boundary. The bluff gradually lowered to the south.
The final stop was Captain Bill’s Blue Hole near the lodge. As previously mentioned, sea levels were lower during the last ice age. Rain slowly dissolved the limestone until it formed a big sinkhole. Blue holes can be several hundred feet deep. They have fresh water at their tops that gradually turn into salt water with increasing depth because of its higher density. Water levels are known to change with the tides.
Jacques Cousteau proved that the blue holes in the Bahamas are connected by subaquatic cave systems and even claimed to have seen a great white shark in one. The remains of the local Native American people have been found in these caves. Their rite of passage consisted of swimming down through these caves with nothing but an inflated whale bladder for air. Tribe leaders were buried in the caves as a sign of honor. Local lore claims that the half octopus, half shark sea monster “Lusca” lives in them.
We walked into Blue Holes National Park. There was a small pavilion and picnic tables. The blue hole was eerie. It was a perfect circle of blue water. All was calm, but our voices echoed across it. An opening in the fencing signaled that we could go in. Each of us took a running jump into it from a fifteen foot ledge.
The water was crystal clear. I looked down below and saw only darkness; the black abyss yawned open. Staying afloat in fresh water was harder than in salt water. We had to tread water for the entire swim because there was no gradual change in depth. All of us climbed out and took samples of the blue hole’s limestone cliffs for diagenesis research.
We returned to Small Hope for dinner. The two college students sat with us and were eager to hear our stories. They told us about diving at Small Hope. One of them had dove to 180 feet along the Tongue of the Ocean’s wall. More experienced divers go down to 220 feet.
A crescent Moon was setting over the ocean to the northwest by the time we returned to Jeff’s apartment.
Day 29 (6/26) or “I Love Air Conditioning”— We ate breakfast and packed our gear in a truck that took us to the airport. During the wait, I saw a group of sailors from AUTEC come in. They were being flown to the U.S. The man from Bahamian customs looked through our checklist of equipment but did not inspect our baggage.
This time, I sat in the co-pilot’s chair. I watched the gauges as we climbed into the sky. The views from the air were spectacular. I saw the definitive line delineating the “wall,” blue holes dotting the island, Joulter Cays, and our campsite at Triple Goose Creek. Bimini rose in the distance followed by the skyscrapers of Fort Lauderdale.
Passage through the airport was easy. Customs barely looked at our passports, and we walked through a simple metal detector. After getting a rental car, we hit Florida’s Turnpike to go north. Around 5:00 PM, we stopped at the University of Florida in Gainesville to drop off our water samples for analysis. Some of its brick dorms looked like a southern version of Princeton. It also had a massive football stadium.
For the night, we stayed at a hotel in Kingsland, Georgia. Dinner was at a Japanese steak house. It felt strange to go to bed without a beach outside of my room.
In the spring, people asked me what I was planning to do in the summer. I often replied that I would be assisting with a research project for a month in The Bahamas, and that it would not be easy. They usually scoffed at me, thinking that I would be stay at a beachside resort the entire time.
The Bahamas embodies the best of camping and the worst of camping. Some days were perfect. We collected a lot of data against the backdrop of a stunning landscape. Other days were not. Hot days lacked wind, and the insects descended upon us for a feast. I also have a newfound respect for the wind and the sea. They can generate raging storms or create a pleasant evening.
Although it is merely a collection of small islands, The Bahamas have much untamed wilderness. The entire west side of Andros, for example, is an uninhabited tidal marsh. There are still hundreds of small cays and rocks across The Bahamas’ shallow platforms with secrets that are waiting to be discovered.
I am currently back at Princeton, helping to analyze all of the samples that we collected. Each contains information about how carbonates are formed in the modern world. In two years’ time, we will be able to put together a few more pieces of the puzzle that allow us to learn about paleoclimates. This will bring us one step closer to understanding the Earth’s ancient past.