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Travelers are attracted to the Bahamas for a number of reasons, like the archipelago’s electric-blue waters and close proximity to the eastern coast of the US, or the staggering new Baha Mar resort complex in Nassau. For some, though, it’s the pigs.
In the Exumas (a region of the Bahamas composed of some 365 islands and cays), there is a stretch of sand known as Big Major Cay, and it’s uninhabited save for a population of feral pigs. One of the most popular attractions in the entire Caribbean nation, swimming with these photogenic swine is no simple side trip. Even travelers based in the Exumas need to devote at least one full day to see the Bahamian swimming pigs. And this is just one key thing to know before booking a tour to Big Major Cay.
Because I was based at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in Nassau, I caught one of the early-morning flights to George Town (GGT), the capital of the Exumas, the day of my tour. It was a 40-minute puddle jump from Lynden Pindling International Airport (NAS) on a Bahamasair twin turboprop. My flight left promptly at 8:40am and landed at 9:20am. It was like the tour had already begun, thanks to the stunning views below.
More untamed than the expertly manicured island I had been staying on, George Town (on Great Exuma) felt almost primitive when I stepped onto the tarmac. Less than 25 yards away on the other side of a chainlink fence, Jedi (pronounced Jeh-dee), the boat captain from Coastline Adventures, was right where he said he would be, wearing a bright orange shirt. I climbed into his air-conditioned bus along with a handful of other passengers, and we set off to pick up the remaining guests, who were staying at hotels on Great Exuma.
I stepped onto the wooden dock and joined the single-file line to drop my sandals into a bucket while boarding the 35-foot Marlin. I claimed my seat up front, where I had an unobstructed view, slathered on sunscreen and watched as Jedi and his first mate, Liz, revved up the engine and pulled us away from the dock.
Sandbar snack break
We dropped anchor at the stunning Pipe Cay sandbar that looked and felt like a shallow pile of talcum powder. Lemon shark pups swam close to my feet.
Jedi stepped off the boat and pounded a number of conch he’d caught with a mallet, revealing briny, white meat. Liz added the chopped conch to diced peppers, onions and a touch of mango for sweetness, and the group dug into bowls of the resultant conch salad.
Swimming with nurse sharks
It was already well into the afternoon by the time we reached our next stop on the tour, Compass Cay, a busy marina where dozens of nurse sharks swarmed beneath a marina. A mandatory $10 docking fee was required the minute you stepped off the boat, whether you swam or not. It wasn’t included in the tour price, and you needed cash.
I found a spot to sit on the edge of the dock and dangled my feet over the edge — as close as I’m ever going to get to full-grown sharks of any kind. Several other travelers jumped in, the first a woman on our tour with a GoPro in her hand. Before she’d even let go of the dock steps, a shark had already snatched the camera from her hand, nipping her finger in the process. Everyone yelped in shock, and Liz quickly wrapped the woman’s finger with a bandage. Most of the guests jumped back in the water, and someone found the camera at the bottom of the marina.
Other boats pulled up, and in a matter of minutes there were roughly 25 tourists crowded together in the 4-foot-deep water, bobbing alongside the sharks. Everyone was snapping selfies and feeding the sharks fish scraps handed out on the dock.
One tour member began pulling sharks out of the water for a photo op, and I couldn’t help but cringe. There is something about interacting with the sharks in this way — even passively swimming with them — that feels unsettling, like we’ve commercialized these wild animals in pursuit of a great picture.
Part of what struck me was that neither the dockmaster nor the tour guides ever offered visitors guidance on how to behave in the water. Save for a few signs warning guests not to feed the sharks anything but fish scraps, no one seemed to care what anyone did once they were in the water.
I later read a story claiming the marina owner brought them in years ago. Nurse sharks are considered one of the most docile species of shark, so it didn’t take long for the unaggressive animals to begin luring travelers. (The sharks are even named.) As daytrippers have become more aggressive, though, the animals, too, seem to be acting out in response.
Playing with pigs
Finally, it was time to swim with the pigs. When we dropped anchor in the shallows of Big Major Cay, it was way past lunchtime, and most of the pigs were passed out under a thatched hut on the beach. One huge male swam toward our boat immediately, though, its round, pink snout rising out of the water like a periscope. He was quickly banging himself against the side of our boat, demanding to be fed.
“Hold out your hands to show them you don’t have any food, and they’ll retreat,” Jedi said.
Liz also warned us not to turn our backs on any of them: Some are feisty enough to bite your behind if they think you’re not feeding them.
There are a few different legends about how the feral pigs first arrived on this uninhabited island, but most point to human intervention, whether you believe it was pirates, Spaniards or a businessman who dropped them off in the 1990s. It wasn’t long before the island earned its reputation as the “authentic” home of Pig Beach and boat tours started coming in droves.
On the day we visited, we barely stayed at Big Major Cay for 15 minutes before it was time to move on. It was disappointing, but, truthfully, once you’ve taken a round or two of obligatory photographs and fed the swine a few scraps of bread, there’s not much else to do. After all, who wants to hang out longer than necessary in the same water where feral pigs are freely pooping and peeing? Let’s put it this way: A lot of the marketing materials depict happy children snorkeling with swimming piglets. I can’t imagine anyone sticking their face in that cloudy water.
During my trip, I saw a grown man straddle a large pig as if to ride him and tourists hold a squealing piglet for photos. I asked Jedi about official guidelines on how to interact with the pigs, but he shrugged and said there were none that he knew of.
Last year, several pigs were found dead at this beach, their bellies filled with sand. Some critics believe the pigs ingest too much sand during feedings with humans, causing them to get sick, but no other deaths have been reported since. The changing climate may also be to blame (it was discovered that their fresh water source had dried up).
According to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the number of tour operators that can visit the cay per day is limited, and the pigs are on a “restricted” diet. “Visitors,” the ministry explained, “should use their best judgement when interacting with pigs.”
After the tour, I spoke with the manager of Coastline Adventures, Glenroy Smith, who told me explicitly that it’s not recommended to “handle the animals” and travelers are “[advised to use caution] when touching or picking them up.”
Around 3:00pm, we pulled up to a dock for lunch at Black Point Island. A slew of stingrays, nurse sharks and needlefish were swimming underneath. We set out on foot for a few blocks to Deshamon’s Restaurant, a colorful wooden cottage where a Bahamian buffet was set out.
We happily filled paper plates with fried grouper, barbecue ribs, yellow rice with diced veggies, and fresh fruit and red velvet cake. For $24, the homemade buffet lunch was a decent deal for the Bahamas, where prices tend to be quite high.
Visiting the rock iguanas
Once we were back in the boat, Jedi pointed out Musha Cay, the luxurious private island owned by magician David Copperfield and frequented by celebs like Johnny Depp and Oprah Winfrey. (Copperfield’s isle rents for a reported $57,000 per night.) Shortly after, we slowed down in front of the island owned by country singers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Our last stop of the tour was Bitter Guana Cay, where rock iguanas lounged like miniature dinosaurs on the beach’s rocky shoreline. It felt like a shrunken, toy-sized version of “Jurassic Park.” As we slipped off the boat into the lukewarm waters, Jedi handed us lettuce and, once again, we fell into what had clearly become a routine: Offer food, snap pictures, vacillate between delight and fear, take more pictures and leave.
When the boat returned to the dock at the end of the day, the waters had begun to take on a golden sunset glow. The breeze was calm, the mercury hovered around 85 degrees and we were surrounded by some of the world’s most compelling natural beauty.
It’s a shame the animals we encountered on this tour aren’t better guarded from tourists who behave badly. Because in many ways, it offers a compelling introduction to the creatures inhabiting the Exumas’ many cays — and there’s no better way to explore the region than by boat, whether or not you decide to splash around with the swimming swine. But ultimately, this is a widely popular tourist attraction that many travelers will book during a trip to the Bahamas.
If swimming with pigs and nurse sharks — and sunbathing with rock iguanas — has been on your travel bucket list since you got your first passport, just remember to be a responsible, thoughtful traveler. Be conscientious about what the animals can and cannot eat (the ministry, for example, recommends only fruits and vegetables including carrots, lettuce, watermelon and apples for the pigs) and be kind to the animals that call the Bahamas home.
Tour operator: Coastline Adventures, but several other companies run nearly identical tours. Some tour operators do offer half-day tours, but be sure to ask if they visit Big Major Cay — there are, in fact, other “pig beaches” that have popped up in the Exumas, and you will rarely reach the original on a short excursion.
Cost: $210 per person, including transfers to and from the airport or your hotel, snorkel equipment, unlimited Bahama Mamas, soft drinks and conch salad. Other, less expensive tour operators require you to make your own way to the boat launch.
When to go: Tours run all year. If swimming with the pigs is the highlight of your visit, ask for one that goes to Big Major Cay in the morning, when they’re more active.
Prep tips: Pack plenty of sunscreen and a towel, and bring cash for the shark encounter, lunch and tips. About $50 should easily cover you for the day. According to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, these tours are best suited for travelers 12 and up.
The Points Guy has comprehensive coverage of the Baha Mar resort and the Bahamas — read all our stories here.
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