I’m a passionate national park traveler—and a pretty happy camper whenever I step onto a cruise ship. If that sounds like a contradiction, then understand that whenever a ship that I'm on touches land—I’m off to something outdoorsy and active—and increasingly, that’s happening in national parks.
Not long ago, I took a Bahamas cruise aboard the Carnival Fantasy out of Charleston, South Carolina and the experience illustrated a surprising trend—modern cruise ship shore excursions can be one of your best bets for seeing national parks. The Bahamas is a great example.
The twenty-seven national parks of the Bahamas—more than a million acres—are waiting to make any visit to this 900-island nation a premier opportunity to see another country’s national parks.
Tiny Park, Big Impact
That’s how I found myself heading out of bustling, urban Freeport with a jostling van full of happy cruise companions on a multi-activity shore excursion to Peterson Cay National Park (pronounced "key"). We ended up on a quiet dead-end beach, shaded by waving casuarina trees (Australian pines), looking out at an aqua expanse of lapping waves.
Plopped into kayaks, we set out for a tiny, but tempting national park—Peterson Cay. It was an exciting crossing, and when we got to this ecologically significant speck of rock, sand, and reef (just 1.5 acres), we heard all about the pristine environment we needed to protect as we snorkeled in the gin-clear water.
My shipmates were impressed with our guide and our outing—but I was likely the only one among them who knew that an engaging and informative guide like ours doesn’t happen by accident. The parks have undertaken a laudable effort to impress Bahamians with conservation, its economic impact, and help locals engage the kind of training that turns cruise passengers into sunburned but satisfied customers who love the Bahamas and its parks. Diverse tutorials also engage high school and college students and range from identifying types of reefs to birds and their habitats.
Bottom line, the Bahamas is fast becoming a great ecotourism destination, thanks to a truly unique organization called the Bahamas National Trust. The Trust bills itself as the “only non-governmental organization in the world responsible for managing the national park system of a country.”
A Rich Heritage
Bahamas National Trust was created by an Act of Parliament in 1959 nearly a half-century after, “a plea was made to The Bahamas Government for the establishment of legal protection for the flamingos,” says the group’s history overview. “As Audubon Society records show, it was the first time in history that special protection for flamingos had been proposed and then established in law.”
What a start! Today, the Bahamas national park system protects the world's largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos at Inagua National Park, a 184,000-acre park established in 1965 on Great Inagua Island.
As early as the 1930s, conservationist Colonel Ilia Tolstoy, “began visiting The Bahamas” and in the 1950s he “noticed that certain plants and animals were being affected by increasing rates of development ...”.
In 1958, the Bahamian government established Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, “the world's first land and sea park established under a single authority.” The massive park is more than 100-square miles and includes 200 islands.
The next year, “the Bahamas National Trust Act was passed which created the only statutory organization in The Bahamas charged with conservation and preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty.”
Membership in the organization expanded rapidly in the 1970s, and by the “close of the 20th Century 12 National Parks existed, encompassing 315,000 marine and terrestrial acres.”
The system “doubled in size when 10 new sites were designated” in 2002 and acreage “jumped to more than 700,000 acres.”
Alone in “My” National Park
I’m an American—and somehow, some way, national parks invariably seem to bestow their true magic when you sit there alone and ponder the majesty of a place in your own private space. Not an easy thing to do on a microscopic dot of paradise that’s popular with visitors and locals.
But I did it. I stayed behind on Peterson Cay's sandy spit when my group set off into the crystal waters to snorkel. Blowing spray and flopping flippers, they headed around the other side of the island into their own wildly scenic setting. Over there, Freeport disappeared, the sea stretched far away, and a pristine reef appeared below.
Sure—I missed all that. But I’ve snorkeled before in the Bahamas, and like you (once you get there)—I plan on going back and will snorkel there again.
When the sound of snorkelers subsided, I sat there in the shade of a picnic table and sipped a cold bottled water. Birds swooped down, chased food in the surf, strutted by like I wasn’t even there. The natural island emerged all around me—and I was truly, undeniably, immersed in a place with a there there.
The snorkelers were gone a long time. I loved every minute of it.
Taking the Next Step
In 2012, the new Bahamas National Trust Act ushered in the first revision of the BNT’s
governing law in 51 years. The new law formalizes the group’s authority” and “strengthens the BNT’s ability to manage national parks and enforce conservation regulations,” said an article in the Nassau newspaper.
“The Bahamas of today is very different from what it was in 1959, in terms of human population and pressure on our natural resources,” said The Bahamas National Trust President Neil McKinney. Most importantly, the new “Act empowers the BNT to prohibit or regulate activities on land or on the sea bed in protected areas,” and that includes significant new penalties for activities injurious to parks.
Lawyer Pericles Maillis, a past president of the BNT put it a different way. “Development pressure on private lands and marine areas adjacent to national parks is rising ... We need to guard our heritage with teeth.”
The new law is a big step, designed to consolidate the island nation’s leadership in protecting its natural resources—and leveraging them to achieve sustainable economic and environmental benefits for the nation.
An Ever-Expanding Future
Neil McKinney has even bigger dreams. “Our current national park system protects about one per cent of the country’s total land and marine territory,” McKinney said, “but the government is committed to protecting 20 per cent of Bahamian land and sea areas by the year 2020 and this will translate into significant additional responsibilities for the BNT.”
It will also mean major new opportunities for visitors to savor the island environment and not just sample the country’s casinos. That applies whether you step off an airplane, a cruise ship—or even a private yacht. The Bahamas is a major magnet for sailors—and should be for national park enthusiasts, as well.
Join the Bahamas National Trust
The Trust is the only non-governmental organization in the world responsible for managing the national park system of a country. Check out supporting the cause.