STORY AND PHOTOS BY ANN RUPPENSTEIN
Who let the pigs out?
Big Major Cay, which could more adequately be called Pig Major, is a small uninhabited island that makes up one of the 365 cays that surround Great Exuma – uninhabited aside from those world-famous swimming pigs and a handful of chickens, that is.
— Ann Ruppenstein (@AnnCTP) January 25, 2020
Exuma’s swimming pigs have long lured visitors around the globe to this picturesque part of The Bahamas, but how exactly did the Instagram-worthy hogs get there?
“It is said that during the Gulf War, two family members bought several pigs and chickens to raise for fear of an extended war and the threat of food supplies not being able to reach Exuma,” Kerry Fountain, Executive Director of the Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board tells Travel Courier. “They placed the animals on Big Major Cay to be used as food in the event supplies were to become scarce. The Gulf War, however, didn’t last as long as anticipated, so the need didn’t arise to use the animals as food. As time passed, boaters looking for deserted beaches to picnic or swim, were greeted by the inhabitants of the island and soon started bringing treats and eats for them. The eager residents, in anticipation of receiving food, began meeting – swimming to – their feeders before they landed onshore.”
Today, visiting the swimming pigs is a top experience for travellers to Exuma, and The Bahamas in general. Tour operators like Triple A Adventures take great care not to overcrowd the destination with scheduled arrivals, as well as adhering to a strict regime of what can be fed to the pigs. There are now more than 80 pigs and piglets who call Big Major home.
“The pigs roam the island freely, they are not domesticated, but should not be considered as wild animals either,” says Fountain. “Water for the animals is provided, and, of course, there is no shortage of food, which includes bread, fruits and vegetables. A vet visits the island every other month to check on the animals and provides basic meds and vitamins to ensure that they remain healthy. Other than greeting visitors, you will find the pigs sunbathing on the beach or wading in the water during the heat of the day.”
Along with international travellers, Exuma draws in an A-list clientele. Country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw have set up camp (i.e. a mansion) on one of the islands, Goat Cay, and David Copperfield has developed Musha Cay into a vacation rental, visited by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Johnny Depp. The price tag? A mere US$37,500-US$57,000 per night, depending on the size of the party.
50 shades of blue
Exuma is often described as a no filter needed destination for its vivid postcard-worthy blue waters.
“While we in The Bahamas boast of having the best white-sand and pink-sand beaches in the world, and the clearest waters in the world, Exuma takes this to another level,” says Fountain. “There are beaches and clear waters, then there are Bahamas beaches and clear waters, and at the very top, the pinnacle, there are the turquoise waters of Great Exuma and its surrounding cays.”
With seasonal non-stop Saturday service with Air Canada from Toronto to Exuma, and direct lift from major Canadian gateways to Nassau, from where it’s just a short flight to George Town, it’s easier to get to Exuma than some may think.
“The Canadian market is quite significant and very important to us, as it is the second largest source market for visitors to The Bahamas,” says Fountain. “While we realize that the Bahamas Out Islands are not for typical tourists seeking an all-inclusive vacation getaway, we have a saying for travellers seeking sun, sand, sea and a genuine, authentic vacation experience – ‘Why one would want to fly beyond the Bahamas Out Islands is beyond us!’”
Bucket list-worthy moments
While the allure of getting up close and personal with the swimming pigs continues to help raise the profile of Exuma, there are so many other bucket list-worthy experiences that await clients in the destination. Here’s a firsthand look…
The name’s Bond, James Bond: “Look up there, what do you think that is?” our guide Ron of Triple A Adventures asks pointing to the ceiling of the limestone cave. “Bats!” After leaping off our boat decked out with snorkelling gear, we followed him through an unassuming dark hidden passage. What didn’t look like much on the outside opened into a bright cavern where hundreds of fish swam below. We’d arrived at the mystique Thunderball Grotto, which got its name from the 1965 Bond film Thunderball. It was used again in the filming of Never Say Never Again.
— Baxter Media (@CdnTravelPress) January 25, 2020
Where the wild things are: Looking down at the seemingly docile nurse sharks swimming in the shallow water at Compass Cay, I hesitated for a second. “Are you sure you want to get close to those beasts?” Weighing between 200 to 300 pounds, nurse sharks tend to be seven to 10 feet long, but some grow up to 14 feet. A minute later I’ve descended the ladder and sharks like Woody, Hook and Scar are mere inches away. The story goes that the bottom feeders are fed by staff and have become accustomed to the ritual, so they’re mostly harmless to swimmers. Nonetheless, I let out a squeal as one of the carnivores brushed against my leg. Time to get out.
Sandy sandbar: With a rum punch in hand, our boat docked at one of the idyllic sandbars in the Exuma Cays. Digging our toes in the sandy shores, everyone was silent for a few minutes soaking up the views of stunning turquoise waters meeting crystal clear white sand. This truly is paradise. Another exciting and picturesque option is to feed the iguanas at Leaf Cay or Bitter Guana Cay (otherwise known as the Iguana Island) and watch them nibble on lettuce.
Pig out: As the boat turned the corner and the swimming pigs at Big Major Cay come into sight, I already knew that this experience would live up to expectation. The sight of several large pigs immediately swimming towards us, eager to be fed, brought a smile to all the passengers on board. Once on shore, squeals of glee continued as a litter of piglets stormed the beach, and it sealed the deal: Exuma is special.
Where to stay: Sandals Emerald Bay
A popular option for Canadians is Sandals Emerald Bay. The adults-only luxury all-inclusive resort on Great Exuma is set along a mile-long beach complete with hammocks, swings and lounge chairs. The property features three stunning pools, and offers guests 11 restaurants, like Bombay Club, the brand’s latest Indian restaurant concept. There’s also an award-winning golf course and a jogging trail on-site.
Instagrammable moment: Head to the half-acre, zero-entry pool with a fire pit in the middle or to the beach and jump on the double swings in the water.
Feeling peckish? 24-hour room service is available.
Craving something to satisfy the sweet tooth? Visit the Café de Paris for a made-to-order crepe. Options include Nutella and banana, need we say more?