Destination Review – Thunderball Grotto / Staniel Cay

by Patrick

Having made our way down through the Bahamas from Bimini to Black Point Settlement in the Exuma chain, we’re now approximately a little over half way through our journey through the Bahamas on our chosen route.

While I wouldn’t begin to claim that this makes us experts on the Bahamas in general, I do think that it gives us some credibility when talking about the aspects of one certain place as opposed to another.

In all, we’ve been treated to an amazing tableau of fantastic destinations, ranging from broad sandy banks and deserted islands with our own personal beaches, to forbidding rocky shorelines with abandoned light houses to explore. We’ve taken in the sights and sampled the services available in many locations. Each has had it’s own definite character and each has it’s own marks in both the positive and negative columns.

That said, there are very few places we’ve been that I would chalk up to the ‘Must See’ list of possible destinations along the path behind us. Certainly each place has been worth visiting, and I can think of only one place that we’ve visited since leaving the States that I would prefer not to see again (Allens Cay). However, at some point a small community of folks living on a remote tropical island with beautiful sand beaches and crystal clear water in gorgeous hues becomes much like the last one you visited. As I said, they’re definitely worth visiting as each has it’s own character, but in reality there is little separating one from another.

Our ‘Must See’ list is so far fairly sparse. In total it comprises three places – two that we’ve already written about (Hoffman’s Cay and the Wreck of the Sapona in Bimini) and the one that is the topic of this post – Thunderball Grotto and associated environs.

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Note that I am specifically naming Thunderball Grotto as the Must See, not Staniel Cay, the settlement adjacent to it. This is because our overall impression of Staniel Cay isn’t very high on the scale. When you visit this community you’ll find one of the first places in the Bahamas that offers what feels like an ‘American Style’ experience. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club has a restaurant and bar that feels very… civilized (and I use the term in a derogatory manner) compared to other places we’ve been in the Bahamas. We bought fuel there because it was the only game in town, but otherwise we took our dollars elsewhere to spend. I have no desire to enrich the owner of that place at the expense of the poorly paid and hard working employees. I had opportunity to have a lengthy conversation on one of the local beaches with an employee of the yacht club and his friend, who were frank in answering my questions about the island in general. Their comments about the manner in which the Staniel Cay Yacht Club is managed left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a case of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ on this island. Dollars spent at Staniel Cay Yacht Club are not benefiting the local population in the way that they should. Here, much as in the States, the division of wealth is plainly apparent.

Perhaps this is due to the proximity of Big Majors, the anchorage just to the North of Staniel Cay. When we were there the anchorage was home to no fewer than twenty uber mega yachts, each worth many millions of dollars all by themselves. Most of those yachts have tenders (i.e. Big Ass Dinghy) that I’m sure cost more than the entirety of our boat and possessions. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t fault those people for their wealth or what they choose to do with it. It’s just that this type of person tends to not be very mindful of the state of the lives of those around them who are working to facilitate their lifestyle. In my previous life on land I had opportunity to meet and do work for a good many people who were extremely wealthy, and my thoughts on the subject have proven to be more of a truism than a personal opinion. Take it for what you will, but the type of people who have yachts like that and who spend $500+ over a night on drinks and food at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club are not the kind of people that I wish to spend time around. It would be different if they were spending $250 on food and drinks and $250 on tips for the people serving them but sadly that is not the case. According the employees the money goes into the tightly bound purse of the owner and the employees barely scrape by on what amounts to just barely a living wage.

There are other services on the island, namely the ‘Blue Store’, the ‘Pink Store’, and the combination laundromat/liquor store. The stores have the same variety of goods that you’ll find in other locations in the Bahamas, but you’ll pay more here for them than you will on the neighboring islands. For example, a small can of Baking Powder at the ‘Blue Store’ was $3.75. Now that we’re in Black Point Settlement (just five miles south), the exact same can of baking powder is only $2.00. A bottle of vodka was $25, nearly twice the price of other nearby islands. We did spend a little bit on groceries here (about $20), and we did so at the smaller stores where the local owners are benefiting, but for the most part we chose to take our dollars further down the island chain.

Taking note of all the above, I would still highly recommend a brief stop at Staniel Cay for two reasons. First and foremost is Thunderball Grotto, and secondly for Pig Beach on Big Majors Spot if pigs are your thing.

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For us, Pig Beach was an interesting place to go and was pretty entertaining. While it was neat to see, it alone isn’t enough to make Staniel Cay a must stop, especially considering the above mentioned concerns about the way the local population is treated by the uber wealthy.

Thunderball Grotto

For the ‘Must See’ designation, I give you Thunderball Grotto.

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This small rocky islet in the harbor just North of Staniel Cay Yacht Club isn’t much to look at from the outside or above the water. It’s magic happens when you get below the surface and inside the islet.

The first thing that you’ll need to know is that you want to visit the Grotto at or near slack low tide. There’s quite a bit of current that rips through this anchorage when the tide comes and goes, and some of it makes it’s way through the grotto itself – which is open to the surrounding water on both the East and West sides. In practice I would recommend that you plan a visit about an hour before low tide as you’ll end up wanting to spend a couple of hours exploring the underwater wonders available here. This will give you a good stretch of time in which you can explore the area with little or no current and plenty of room to navigate through the openings into the Grotto. Note that if you were to plan a visit around slack high tide as opposed to low tide that the openings to the Grotto will require a lengthy underwater swim. While this is imminently doable for a moderately experienced swimmer with a good set of fins, I would caution against doing so as a matter of safety. It would be quite possible to find yourself trapped and get turned around in what would ultimately end up being your watery grave. Take the safe path and go at low tide.

 

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There is a fairly large sandy patch on the West side of the Grotto in which you can anchor your dinghy. Toss your hook just South of the Northwest corner of the islet and about 40 feet or so from the shore. From there you will be able to swim directly to the islet and into the Grotto itself.

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When you first approach the Grotto from the outside you’ll be treated to a gigantic underwater rock wall that is positively COVERED with corals of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Swimming in and around this living wall is a dizzying array of marine life of all kinds. I lost count of the number of fish and coral species that I identified somewhere around number 50. I’m sure that there are several hundreds of species represented here if one took the time to see the entire ecosystem and identify them all.

Make sure you take the time to swim around the North point of the Grotto and around to the East side. It’s interesting seeing how the ecosystem changes from one side of the small islet to another. The East side faces the incoming tide from the deeper water, so it gets blasted twice per day with a jet of colder water from the ocean side of the Exuma chain. While this means that most of the corals that you find on the West side of the island are not nearly as present, you’ll find other species here that weren’t present on the West side, only 100 feet away.

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After taking the time to sample what the Grotto has to offer on the outside it’s time to make your way into the Grotto itself. There are several possible points of entry into the Grotto, but the two main entrances are on the West and East sides. I recommend making your first entrance through the West side, directly under the ‘Welcome to Thunderball Grotto’ sign mounted up on the rocks. When you swim up to the wall it should be readily apparent where you enter, assuming that you took my advice and went at low tide. The opening is completely exposed at this time and won’t even require an underwater swim to enter. In addition to being the easiest point of entry, going in through this opening will give you the ability to identify the other possible entrances by examining the light coming into the grotto from the outside.

What you’ll be treated to inside the Grotto is hard to explain in words. We will be posting a YouTube video that covers this location sometime in the near future, and I recommend keeping your eye out for it so that you better understand why you want to come here.

Have you ever been to a truly well stocked salt water aquarium store, or visited a major aquarium like Shedd’s aquarium in Chicago? Those places are modeled after places like this.

Entire schools of various types of fish populate this location. Swimming into the Grotto you’ll be surrounded by thousands of brightly colored fish ranging from tiny neon colored minnows to huge bright blue Angel Fish. We saw more types of fish here than anywhere else we’ve been.

Once you’re into the Grotto itself you’ll be inside a fairly large cavern (about 50 feet or so wide) that opens expansively to a high domed ceiling about 35 – 40 feet above your head. There are a few holes in the ceiling that let in sparkling shafts of sunlight that wash the Grotto in glimmering beauty that is truly a sight to behold. As the light reflects off the water you’ll be treated to a technicolor light show on the cavern walls as it illuminates the varied colors of the walls that are covered in different types of moss and algae in a wide array of colors. To see this light show in all it’s glory you’ll need to be visiting on a day that combines bright sunshine and a low tide time that coincides with the sun being high in the sky.

I would recommend that you take with you a small bag of cat food or cooked rice. Take a handful of your offering and swim down about 5 feet or so and then open your palm and release the food. You’ll be absolutely swarmed by a thousand fish flashing in every color imaginable as they vie for the treats you’ve brought. I saw some folks who brought Cheerios as a treat for the fish, but this was nowhere near as impressive since the Cheerios float. Much better to have some cat food that is close to neutrally buoyant so that the underwater show happens all around you.

Elsewhere in the Grotto you’ll find several underwater passages that will lead you back to the outside though still more schools of fish and even more different species of corals and coraline algae. From inside the Grotto they are easy to identify because the light from outside marks the passageways. Just take your time and explore at your leisure.

For the more adventurous sort (like us), you can get out of the water just south of the Grotto entrance on the West side of the islet and climb to the top of the Grotto itself. If you plan on doing this, take some swim shoes or sturdy sandals as the rocks are quite sharp and jagged in places. Once to the top of the Grotto you can go to the largest of the openings and jump from the roof down into the pool of water below. The jump is about a 35 foot jump, so be prepared to hit to water going at a good clip. Don’t worry about depth though – in four jumps we never hit bottom as the portion of the Grotto directly beneath the opening is quite deep even at low tide.

Make sure that you leave plenty of time to visit this place. You’ll find that an hour isn’t nearly enough, and in the end you’ll be driven back to your dinghy by the current from the incoming tide, vowing to come back the next day. We did, and if the weather had cooperated I would have gladly gone back for a third visit to the Grotto before we moved on South.

The Grotto more than makes up for the lack of attraction to be found in Staniel Cay itself. For this reason it secures a spot at the top of our Must See list of destinations. Don’t miss it if you can help it.

Oh, and while we were there, it was finally calm enough to start working on our name change!

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