Turtle Tales from Warderick Wells

Boo Hoo Hill, blowholes, a greeter shark … oh my! Warderick Wells was definitely our favorite stop in the Exumas this past spring. We only had time to visit a few Exuma islands before we had to move to get our boat back to safety before hurricane season began, but Phillip and I both are so glad we stretched our Exumas visit enough to let us enjoy this stunning Land and Sea park at Warderick Wells Cay. Here is where the island is located.

The natural deep channel that snakes through the harbor makes for some of the most stunning neon-streaked water views I’ve ever seen.

The snorkeling here was also some of the very best we’ve done to date. Being a Land and Sea Park it is a “no-take reserve” (meaning no fishing, poaching, or harvesting) making it a fabulous ecological preserve and wildlife refuge. 

The whole island really is breathtaking. I felt like a super model when I saw the photos of myself walking out of the water. It’s amazing what a beautiful Bahamian backdrop can do. Bo Derrick look out!

But, the island had so much more to offer than views:

The legend of Boo Hoo Hill, with its haunted howls from the souls that perished on a long-ago ship lost to the reef is a fun hike up the island and offers a signing tree with an amazing view. 

Emerald Rock gifted us with exceptional snorkeling just a short dinghy ride from our boat. I saw a baby puffer fish, a white speckled stingray, funky sea cucumbers, and a lion fish all in one dive. Sorry not sorry for the lack of underwater photos. I was living that moment! Not filming it. 

A friendly (I’m going to assume) nurse shark comes to visit every new boat that hooks onto a ball in the mooring channel. It was a little unnerving at first, knowing we were about to go snorkeling. But, when we saw him swim up to every other new boat that came in, we knew we were safe. It’s just a new breed of shark they have in the Exumas: a greeter shark. : )

There is also a sunken boat near Mooring Ball No. 10 that was really neat to dive. While the channel graciously offers enough depth for 20+ boats to cruise in, grab a ball for a few nights, and enjoy all the island has to offer, it is still only around 15-18-feet deep allowing for easy free-water diving and snorkeling. You can see the channel here that curves around, kind of like a fish hook.

Underneath the sunken boat, Phillip and I saw the biggest grouper and lobster we had both ever seen. The grouper had to be about four feet long, from nose to tail, and the lobster’s body was bigger than a basketball. Antennae to tail, he was probably longer than the grouper! We had to dive down 3-4 times to fully take them in. And, it was fun to learn from other cruisers who were there, as well as the Land and Sea Park staff, that the grouper and the lobster are apparently long-time friends who have been living under that boat for years. I wonder if they get tired of the lookie-loos … 

This is all just the tip of the Warderick iceberg. I could go on. But, when I was reflecting back on our time there—as Phillip and I are right now gearing up to kick off our cruising season this year, beginning again in the Bahamas—three distinct memories came back to me. One, I sent to Bob Bitchin in a fun “Annie-dotal” story he requested at the Annapolis Boat Show. Be on the lookout for that. It’s called They Don’t Answer Stupid Questions in the Bahamas. The other two I’ve written up for you below: 1) We Dropped the Ball; and 2) Our Time With a Turtle. : )

We Dropped the Ball

This was easily mine and Phillip’s biggest ever complete mooring ball FAIL. If you’ve ever felt like you have been “the show” in the mooring field, with everyone watching you miss the ball, lose a boat hook, trip on the deck, miss the ball again, curse, throw things, etc., don’t worry. We’ve been there, too. This was definitely our day to entertain the other boats already safely on their balls in Warderick Wells Cay. And, it was my day (of course!) to be Captain. 

Since I got my USCG license in 2017, Phillip and I try to share all roles on the boat equally … well, except when it comes to contorting into lazarettes and engine spaces. I seem to be more suited for that. But, when it comes to helming, navigating, sail trimming, deckhanding, etc., we try to keep it equal so we always have a good understanding of what the forces on the boat are doing and what the other crew member is experiencing or dealing with. It has been a very fruitful, eye-opening exercise for us as we continue to learn the obstacles and challenges unique to the traditional roles we use to play where Phillip always helmed, and I always ran around on deck like a jackrabbit on cocaine fending off and catching/tossing lines. While the mere role of Captain does not (on our boat) make one responsible for any snafoos, I will just go ahead and admit our epic fail that day was 100% my fault. But, thankfully, there was absolutely no damage, 0%, so it is now just a fun docking debacle story we get to share. As Bob Bitchin will tell you: The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is what?  Attitude. Love that guy!

So, after an unnerving exchange with Radio Lady, the Exumas Land and Sea Park gal at the headquarters who guided us in and assigned us our ball (you’ll read about her in an upcoming Lats and Atts issue), I was navigating our Niagara 35 along the narrow channel that I mentioned snakes through the harbor. It really is a fantastic, natural deep channel that—thankfully—allows us, on boats with a deep draft, to come in and enjoy this amazing place, but it was still a pretty tight little channel with a strong current pushing us toward our ball that did not have me feeling comfortable about turning around in it.

If I could avoid turning around in it, I was sure going to, which is why I told Phillip as we were approaching our ball to “Grab it at the bow.” My thinking being he would secure the ball to a bow cleat, the current would push and whip us around in a nice, tight little circle leaving us safe and latched on the ball once the boat got turned in the right direction. A great plan, right? Many of you more experienced helmsmen probably had the same reaction Phillip did.

“I think we should pass the ball, turn around, then try to get the ball as we’re approaching it, against the current,” Phillip said.

That would have brilliant. That’s not what I did. I told you I did not want to turn around. 

“Try your best to get the ball at the bow as I come up on it,” I told him. And, he did, but the current proved to be too much for him to hold it. After Phillip dropped it, I saw the ball coming up near me at the stern, and my inner deckhand/jackrabbit took over. I left the helm and grabbed the ball. But, oddly, with the ball saddled up on our port stern and the current streaming by, it was just the right cocktail of forces to park us. The boat was just sitting. Happily stopped. Only problem was we were backwards, and not secure on the ball. I gave Phillip a funny “What now?” look when he made it back to the cockpit, and he gave me a “Well, you’re the Captain” look in return. Or maybe it was a “this was your idea” look. Yeah, that was probably it. And, he was right. This was my mess. So, I decided we would walk the ball up to the bow together and secure it. A great plan, right?

Wrong again, Captain Annie.

I could just feel all eyes of the anchorage on us. Rightfully so. If I were them, I would have plopped down on my bow with a drink in hand for the free show! Cruising is full of them! As soon as Phillip and I got the ball near the bow and the boat started to turn around, she had somehow gathered the force of a thousand horses. When the current caught her stern and slung her around, it was so hard and fast that the rope loop from the ball jerked out of both mine and Phillip’s hands at the same time (leaving me with blood blisters). Suddenly we were drifting back to the edge of the channel with no one at the helm. It’s deep in the middle of that channel, but it is super shallow on either side. There’s not much room to avoid running aground.

I flew back to the cockpit to grab the helm and throw her in forward to stay in the channel. Phillip was absolutely right. It became immediately clear to me that approaching the ball using the current as a pushback was the best way to do it. It’s like docking with a head wind, much easier than with wind that is shoving you into the slip. I just did not want to turn around in that tight spot with the current.

Funny thing is, I got my wish. Because I didn’t turn us around. The current did! Along with our masterful ball-handling. (Sure, go ahead. Make all the jokes you want to right there.) While we were thrilled to finally be safe on the mooring at Warderick Wells Cay, it was clear that Phillip and I had definitely dropped the ball. 

Our Time With a Turtle

To date, this is still my #1 turtle experience ever, although I’m eager to collect more. Phillip and I were diving that sunken boat near Ball No. 10 that I mentioned, when he spotted a turtle on the bottom. Our entire time in the Bahamas, we had not yet had a good turtle spotting. They are just so fast … and shy. The minute they sense you are looking at them, the head pops down, and the turtle takes off. We chased many in our dinghy, but chase was all we did. By the time we had gone through Bimini, Andros, and Nassau, to make it to the Exumas, I was dying for a date with a turtle. And, boy did I get it! 

This little guy was munching sea grass on the bottom, minding his own business, enjoying his lunch, when Phillip pointed him out to me. Well, and I say “little,” but he was the biggest one I’ve seen that close-up. His shell was probably 2.5 feet in diameter. A decent-sized turtle. I stopped kicking and wading, thinking surely he would high-tail it out of there the minute he noticed me, like most other turtles always did, and I watched him in complete still-mode for a bit. It was cute to watch his little head extend out from his shell as he would turn it to the side and get a nice big sea grass bite. I could even hear him chewing! I watched him munch and crunch for about two minutes, then he started to make his way to the top for a breath of air. 

Phillip was about 5-6 feet away from me, watching the turtle and other things swimming around the sunken boat when the turtle stated to rise between us, putting him about 2 feet away from me, and 2 feet away from Phillip. Either one of us could have reached out and touched him! But, Turtle Guy was just slowly swimming up, not paying us any mind. Phillip and I were struck still with saucer eyes watching him. Then, a few feet shy of the top, the turtle stopped and waved his little turtle arms in a pattern to hold him steady. He turned and slowly looked at Phillip, holding his stunned gaze for a few seconds, then paddled his arms some more so he could slowly turn and look at me. The turtle and I locked eyes for another few seconds, then he kept on his path, making his way to the top, and we all broached the surface together to take a breath: me, Phillip, and Turtle Guy. Like we were some happy trio snorkeling together. That was a surreal moment we shared with a turtle. 

The turtle kept his head above water in between us for five seconds or so, then he slowly swam on down the same path back to the bottom to get back to his munching. He did this two or three times, heading down to munch for 3-4 minutes then swimming back up to take a breath and the three of us would all broach together and breathe together. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had while cruising. Phillip and I decided later—when we were giggling and falling all over each other in the dinghy re-living our turtle experience—that when he turned and looked at each of us, he was just taking us in, deciding if we were enemies or friends. Phillip and I both decided he saw us as friends, which is why he was fine to keep doing his thing and letting us tag along. I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever gotten the nod of approval from a turtle, you feel just about as “one with the earth” as possible. And, even had my underwater GoPro been working, and had I captured a shot of him, I don’t think it would have done it justice, and it probably would have hindered my enjoyment. It felt nice to just be one with the turtle without the blinking red light. I will never forget that moment. 

Hope you all enjoyed the Warderick Wells tales! I would encourage any cruiser heading anywhere near the northern Exumas to plan to pull into Warderick Wells Cay and stay on a ball for a few days. It is a “must-see” place.

Next up in blog time, we’ll head back to the Berries, to gunkhole one of our favorite groups of islands, before we tuck into a new marina to stash our boat for hurricane season. Stay tuned!

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