The undiscovered Exuma Islands of Big Major Cay and Staniel Cay feature the Bahamas’ swimming pigs, and let us feel like James Bond when exploring caves and sunken airplanes.
For most people, the Bahamas is the allegory for a cheesy all-inclusive Caribbean vacation — watered down cocktails, chlorine pools and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Not true! With more than 700 islands, islets and cays, there are some fantastic untamed regions here that will ignite the adventure traveler in all of us. One of my favorites: the Exuma Islands.
More than half of the Bahamas’ beautiful islands are found on this magical chain that stretches north-south along the eastern edge of the Bahamas Bank. And with only 12,000 inhabitants, there’s a lot of empty beaches and bays to explore here.
In fact, the only “developed” islands in the Exumas were Staniel Cay and Great Exuma Island, and even these were not what I would call crowded.
There are regular flights to the capital George Town in the south, but you’ll have to take a tour boat or charter a plane to get to Staniel Cay and Big Major Cay.
Of course, the best way to see these islands is on a sailboat (I’m very biased on this), which is exactly what we did. Starting in George Town, we sailed all the way up to Nassau in the Northwest. Whether you know how to sail or not, Nassau-based Navtours was our favorite outfitter in the Exumas, and they offer cruising options for any level.
The Bahamas’ swimming pigs of Big Major Cay
The swimming pigs at Big Major Cay are certainly a curious attraction (and very popular with tourists).
After a couple of days on the water, our supplies were running low, and we had to restock in Staniel Cay (in the middle of the Exumas chain, and one of the few places down here where you can do so).
While there, we could not resist a trip to neighboring Big Majors to check out the famous swimming pigs.
We’d been warned that if you have food scraps on board, the pigs will try to climb your dinghy and could puncture it with their sharp hooves. Because of this (and also because we don’t like to feed wildlife anyway) we did not bring along any piggy snacks.
Either the porkies had a head cold that day (and could not smell that we had no food on board) or were bored because no other people were on the beach, they came at us anyway. Two of the biggest sows (and I really mean big!) waddled into the water and swam to our dinghy looking for lunch.
We wanted to get close enough to get some great shots of swimming pigs (where else can you see this?), but also wanted to save our dinghy. Luckily Eric managed to maneuver in such a way so I could take some good photos and not risk sinking our boat.
After letting the Bahamas’ swimming pigs get some exercise (in addition to saving our dinghy we were also concerned about their cardio vascular health), we landed the dinghy on shore, so we could get some shots of the super cute piglets that were playing on the beach.
Sensing the possibility of free food, a flood of piglets and sows in all different colores emerged from the bushes that lined the beach. In total, we had about 20 pigs around us.
Most of them were little guys, but there were a couple of big mamas in the mix. They were very curious and certainly looking for handouts, but not dangerous or aggressive.
Once they realized we didn’t have food, they went on with their daily business, which is mainly sleeping.
How those pigs got here, nobody really knows. Some say a merchant ship dropped them off here many years ago, while others suggest that some very business savvy locals placed them here to attract tourists. Either way, they are a big hit and worth checking out.
Thunderball Grotto lets you feel like James Bond
Between Big Major Cay and Staniel Cay is a small, nondescript islet made of sharp coral rock. If it wasn’t for the small sign outside saying “Thunderball Grotto”, we might just have missed it.
The cave is named after a 1965 James bond movie that used the cave for one of its scenes.
You can enter either by jumping through a hole in the roof (roughly a 7 m / 23 ft drop), or by swimming in through one of the barely visible openings on the western side.
The best time to visit Thunderball Grotto is at low “slack” tide when there’s no current. If you’re there at high tide, all the entrances/exits are underwater. And if you come between tides, be ready for some serious exercise, as the currents get ridiculously strong.
Though this sounds a little dangerous, it’s actually not so bad as long as you exercise caution and stick to low “slack” tide.
I kind of like destinations with (a little) danger as it weeds out the wusses — we did not see a lot of traffic at Thunderball Grotto.
Once we had secured our dinghy (not so easy with sharp rocks and strong current) and made our way in (we decided to go for the safer version: swimming), I quickly understood why this cave was chosen as a great place to film Sean Connery.
This huge dome is flooded with light cutting down from the ceiling and filtering though underwater tunnels, illuminating the magical, colored rock and underwater coral with a dazzling glow.
As this is a protected area, the amount and variety of fish and other marine life seeking protection here is amazing.
Thunderball Grotto gave me is one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments that the James Bond film did not convey. \
Snorkeling an airplane wreck at Staniel Cay
Off Staniel Cay’s west coast, in the shallow waters next to a row of rocks, we found a sunken airplane that nobody seemed to know about.
I stumbled across this plane because on the charts on our sailboat it was marked as a wreck. This is usually enough reason for me to check out a place, and since it was in shallow water (2 m / 6 ft), we decided to give it a go.
Rumor has it that many of the airplane wrecks you find in the Bahamas are a result of the drug smuggling activities that were rife down here in the 1970s and 80s. Whatever the story, these old planes are fun to explore.
You can either swim here from Staniel Cay, or anchor your dinghy just next to the wreck which is easily visible from above.
The sunken airplane is not huge, but big enough to spend some time exploring. The rear section of the wreck is pretty much gone, but both wings are still intact, as was the cockpit.
We didn’t find any drugs, but we did find some beautiful fish and colorful corals that have made this plane their home.
One of these tenants kind of startled me. Hiding under one of the wings was a 1.5 m / 5 ft shark which I didn’t see until I was very close. It was only a harmless nurse shark, but it was still a shock to suddenly see it swimming out from under the wing. After my heartbeat went back to normal, I felt kind of bad that I disturbed its naptime.
The Exumas may not get a lot of press, but they definitely have a lot to offer, especially Staniel and Big Major cays. And if I ever get back, there’s one more wreck waiting on the other side of Staniel that I have to explore!