EXPLORING ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES


Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)

EXPLORING ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES

This post is another in a series showcasing the strange and wonderful world that lies beneath the many thousands of acres of pine forest that cover the majority of South Abaco. Many thanks to expert cave diver and photographer Brian Kakuk and the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation for use permission to bring you some more unique glimpses of Abaco’s crystal visions. You’ll find some additional links at the end. As Brian says, Abaco is an underwater cave photographer’s dream come true.

Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk) copy Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Ralph's Cave, Abaco Blue Hole 4.16 (Brian Kakuk) 1Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1

All photos were taken in Ralph’s Cave and Dan’s Cave – two extensive but separate systems

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These caves lie within one of the recently created protected areas

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To get the ‘live’ experience of exploring these underground geological wonders, here is a 6 minute video of a dive in Ralph’s Cave made in June 2014 by Ramon Llaneza of Ramon Llaneza Technical Diving

RELATED POSTS

ABACO’S ASTOUNDING CAVES (1)

ABACO’S ASTOUNDING CAVES (2)

CRYSTAL CLEAR (3)

DIVERS VIEWS (4) 

PAN’S LABYRINTH (5)

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS (6)

‘RALPH’S OLD BAT’

SAWMILL SINK Industrial Archaeology / Post-apolcalyptic Landscape

Credits: Brian Kakuk, Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, Ramon Llaneza, Hitoshi Miho

PELICAN BRIEF (2): SANDY POINT, ABACO


Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 04

PELICAN BRIEF (2): SANDY POINT, ABACO

The small settlement of Sandy Point is literally at the end of the road. Beyond the limit of the tarmac lies the shallow sea. The Highway – Abaco’s only main road – extends the length of the skinny island, 120 miles roughly north to south with occasional side roads to settlements, dirt roads, forestry tracks, and something a bit more significant for Marsh Harbour – a roundabout, a single set of working traffic lights, the only ones on the island. There’s a second set but I have never seen them working. I don’t think anyone ever has. Maybe they were never even wired up.

Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 7

We went to Sandy Point for lunch with friends at the famous (though not yet world-famous) Nancy’s, with its reliably comforting menu of a choice of the same 3 dishes permanently on offer (fresh fish, conch, or chicken), plus Kalik or Sands beer. Simple yet satisfying. Sandy Point is a great place for birding, both sea / shore / wading birds, and land birds. Ospreys are often around. And brown pelicans. At high tide they dive off the dock (see HERE). At low tide, when the long sand bars are just visible above the water level, the pelicans use them as base for their fishing operations, often some 200 yards from the shoreline.

Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 11

We were watching 5 pelicans doing just that – lazily flapping aloft from the water in their clumsy way, then turning swiftly and diving with some elegance before smashing into the water for fish, returning in triumph or sorrow to the sand bar to eat… or plan the next foray. Then one detached itself from the group and flew closer to us for a single dive in deeper water, before flapping heavily back to the sand bar.

I took a sequence of photos with ‘Hated Camera’ (having drowned ‘Loved Camera’ in a minor marine mishap). As I have since discovered, ‘HC’ was on the wrong setting the whole time – by which I mean several days (some small but important side switch I’d neglected to remember). Hence the pelican images are in small format because I am slightly ashamed of the quality… There’s a theory about cartoons that there are two possible reasons for pairing them together on a magazine page: (1) they are each doubly funny and therefore only need half the space; or (2) they are only half as funny and so two are needed to double the overall chuckle quotient…

So here is the pelican dive sequence – unsuccessful in terms of fish – with the bird then flying back past us to the sand bar to rejoin his 4 buddies. I’ve put 2 images per line – either because (on the cartoon principle above) they are so good they only need half the allotted space or (hint: this is the truth) they are of such indifferent image quality that I am too embarrassed to enlarge them…

Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 01 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 02 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 03 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 04 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 05 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 06 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 07 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 08 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 10 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 11 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 12 Pelican Dive, Sandy Point Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 13

In the final image you can just make out a spooky ghost ship on the horizon. This is the huge vessel moored at the ‘Disney’ island, historically named Gorda Cay but now ‘pirated up’ to Castaway Cay. Arrrrrrrr!

Credits: all images RH & ‘Hated Camera’; Mrs RH kindly being encouraging about the results

SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY… TAKING TERNS ON ABACO


Royal Terns Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY… TAKING TERNS ON ABACO

During a day of deep-sea fishing we put into Cherokee for a short time at the famous LONG DOCK, the longest wooden dock in the Bahamas. There were three royal terns at various plumage stages watching and waiting for fish, or maybe just ‘watchin’ the tide roll away’. Not that there is very noticeable tide at Cherokee, hence the need for the Long Dock to get out to deeper water from the shallows. So this was a good time to take a few photos from the boat with a point ‘n’ shoot, having dumped my proper camera in the sea (by mistake, I should add).

One bird has been banded with a metal ring LR. Does this signify anything to anyone?Royal Terns Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3Royal Terns Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2Royal Terns Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 4 Long Dock, Cherokee

RELATED POSTS

CHEROKEE LONG DOCK

ABACO ROAD TRIP: CHEROKEE SOUND

All photos RH, short Musical Digression to be added when I am reunited with my computer next week…

THE PROMISED MUSICAL DIGRESSION

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was co-written by Otis Redding and Stax guitarist Steve Cropper. The song was recorded in 1967, but shortly before its release in 1968, Redding died in a plane crash. The song became the first posthumous single to top the charts in the US (it reached number 3 in the UK), and won two Grammys. It has been covered around 7387 times (or so it seems), most surprisingly (or alarmingly) by T Rex, Pearl Jam, and Sammy Hagar. And Michael Bolton. Grrrrrrr. And not one single cover version – I challenge you to deny it – is half as good as the original…

ABACO’S MAJESTIC SUMMIT (134 ft asl) : ABACO LANDMARKS (2)


Matterhorn from Domhütte - 2.jpg

ABACO’S MAJESTIC SUMMIT (134 ft asl) : ABACO LANDMARKS (2)

The header photograph is in fact nothing to do with Abaco. Apologies for any confusion. You can put away your ice axe, crampons or skis. It’s the Matterhorn, towering over the border of Switzerland and Italy, complete with high altitude, year-round snow and sub-zero temperatures. Abaco has its own skiing, of course, but solely of the watery sort.

I was curious as to the exact location of Abaco’s highest point. There are a couple of rocky hills in the pine forests of South Abaco that I thought might be candidates. All sources I checked agreed that the altitude is a dizzying 134 feet, with some equating that with 40 metres and others with 41. It would be nit-picking to use the straight conversion of 40.8432 metres. I am that nit-picker.

A site called PEAKBAGGER is useful for such queries. Click on the link and it takes you to the Abaco entry; elsewhere on the site there is a mass of remarkable worldwide altitude information that you could easily spend an hour or 2 investigating.

EIGHT ESSENTIAL ABACO SUMMIT FACTS TO ASTOUND YOUR FRIENDS

  • Elevation: 41 meters / 134 feet
  • Name: “Unnamed High Point” [according to John Bethel, it is known locally as ‘Pidgeon Hill’]
  • Latitude/Longitude: 26° 34′ 6” N; 77° 8′ 14” W 26.568399, -77.137319
  • 3rd highest point in the Bahamas
  • 54th highest point in the Caribbean
  • 1014th highest island point in the world
  • Nearest high point is on Eleuthera
  • No ‘ascents’ by registered ‘Peakbaggers’ (this is now on my bucket-list for personal achievements – and it’s an easy start on the way to fame and the conquest of Everest).

THE PRECISE LOCATION OF ABACO’S HIGHEST POINT

Peakbagger’s map places the high point close to the Highway north of Marsh Harbour. Although the land relief shown on the Peakbagger map suggests a higher ridge to the north-west of the red circle, it is in fact only 30 metres high.Abaco High Point Map 1

Quite a while back I contacted Sandy Estabrook, éminence grise behind the wonderful ABACO ESCAPE website. Within a very short time he got back to me with a clipping from a nautical map, confirming the high point’s location as the one given by Peakbagger. Abaco Nautical Chart

Far more importantly, it turned out that Sandy actually ascended the summit in 2009 with a friend and without oxygen. His expedition journal states simply:

“Heading South along Queens Hwy, Frank pointed out a hill on the Sea of Abaco side of the road. It had quite some elevation of over a hundred feet or more it seemed. I have not seen a higher place in all of Abaco. And atop the hill was a tower that I was told was built by real estate interests some years ago for prospective clients to view the surroundings. We climbed the tower and I took a couple pics”. 

The tower will be familiar to travellers passing by on the Highway. I had read that this was a good place to look out for birds, and had assumed it was some sort of fire-watching tower. The use of a tower to scope out land for development is an ingenious one, but the landscape remains undeveloped. Here are some photos from the vantage point taken on Sandy’s expedition.

View roughly south-east from the tower to Hope Town. The lighthouse is visible to the right.Frank View from Tower 84 copy

Looking north-east, with Great Guana Cay just visible on the horizonFrank View from Tower 82 copy

The view north(ish) along the ridge, with the Highway snaking up to Treasure CayFrank View from Tower 83 copy

AERIAL VIEWSMount Abaco 5 copyMount Abaco 3 copy

WHERE IS BASE CAMP?

Turn east off the Highway and take the spur road to the right. Park at the wider area near the end. Prepare for a scramble up. If there is – or was – a path to the top, I expect it’s overgrown now, unless for some reason it has been cleared. And if anyone undertakes the challenge, it would be fun to post your account of the adventure plus views from the top – especially looking west.

Thanks to Sandy Estabrook and to Peakbagger

 Abaco Escape logoPeakbagger Logo

This is a rijig of a post I did in 2013, because it fits in with my new ‘Landmarks’ series. Also, I (luckily) have loads more followers these days. If there have been any significant changes to the location, I’d be pleased to hear and amend accordingly. And if there are any other local names for the hill, I’ll add them. 

CHEROKEE LONG DOCK: ABACO LANDMARKS (1)


Cherokee Long Dock Aerial (David Rees)

CHEROKEE LONG DOCK: ABACO LANDMARKS (1)

Cherokee Long Dock has a significant claim to prominence on an Island that has, with its Cays, a good few docks to admire. The impressive 770 foot wooden dock is the longest wooden dock in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, as its plaque proudly proclaims. The waters of Cherokee Sound are very shallow in places, and as the tides retreat, so sandbanks appear and the rest is barely covered by the sea. Hence the need arose for a very long dock to serve the very small community of Cherokee.

Cherokee Long Dock, Abaco, Bahamas (Larry Towning 1)Cherokee Long Dock, Abaco, Bahamas (Larry Towning 2)

Before the roads were built – in relatively recent memory – Cherokee was an isolated settlement. There was a shortcut connection by boat to a now-abandoned dock at the nearest community, Casuarina, across the Sound. However, non-tide-dependent access from the open sea was vital for supply boats and mail boats. Access to the sea was needed by the fishermen.

Cherokee Long Dock 4 (Amanda Diedrick) Cherokee Long Dock 2a (Amanda Diedrick) Cherokee Long Dock 1 (Amanda Diedrieck) jpg

The plaque documents the history of the dock, the damage inflicted by hurricanes, and the ‘countless hours of labour’ by local people- ‘men, women and children’ – to preserve the dock.Cherokee Long Dock: the plaque (Amanda Diedrick)

Royal terns and other seabirds use the dock to rest; and as a safe place from which to fishCherokee Long Dock (Velma Knowles)

Cherokee Long Dock 3 (Amanda Diedrieck)IMG_3013

Photo credits: David Rees and his wonderful drone (header); Larry Towning (2, 3); Amanda Diedrick (4, 5, 6, 7, 9); Velma Knowles (8); last image from a FB friend with thanks and many apologies – I’ve lost my note of who took it…  to be added if possible; short vid from Youtube.

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (6)


Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (6)

The photos you see in this post were all taken by Hitoshi Miho during an amazing 3 days of diving with Brian Kakuk deep in the pine forests of South Abaco. It’s not the first time they have explored together the wonders that lie beneath those hundreds of acres of pines and scrub; I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

The most spectacular cave systems are the adjacent Ralph’s and Dan’s Caves. These systems are believed to be linked, and I know Brian has been trying to find where they meet – a difficult and dangerous task carried out underwater many metres below the forest floor, and requiring sophisticated diving equipment and great expertise. 

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

The latest 3-day exploration involved 12 dives and nearly 30 hours underwater in Ralph’s Cave. Narrow passages open out into massive caverns filled with wonderful and complex crystal stalagtites and stalagmites formed over eons. I hope you enjoy examples from the ‘Rooms’ and passages, many with exotic names (Glass Factory, Ninja Passage, Erabor); some more prosaic (Fred’s Room). Then try to imagine that you are actually swimming there.

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

I shall be posting some more photos in due course showing some of the details of the cave formations – intricate patterns, delicate tracery, irridescent colouring, pencil-thin rods, ‘rock’ folds that look like the finest linen. As always I am immensely grateful to both intrepid divers for use permission. I won’t pretend that these thrilling caves are easily accessible – this is emphatically not an adventure to try unguided with a snorkel and flippers. But as you drive along the highway past miles of forest, it’s worth reflecting that far below you are some of the most magnificent cave systems anywhere in the world – right there, on your very own island… 

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk) Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk) Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

As it happens, the Delphi Club is very close to these caves, which lie within the boundaries of the newly created ‘South Abaco Blue Holes Conservation Area (see map). This is one of several such conservation areas on Abaco and in the wider Bahamas that are designed to protect the natural resources of the islands from development and exploitation. The second map shows how tantalisingly close Dan’s and Ralph’s caves are… and suggests that further exploration may lead to the missing link.

abaco-caves-map-jpgAbaco Caves Ralph & Dan jpg

Finally, here is a 4-minute video of one small part of the exploration, which gives a very good idea of what is entailed in investigating the narrow passages and huge cathedral-like caverns. Welcome to the Fangon Forest…

Hitoshi Miho, Ralph's Cave, Abaco

A RARE SPOONBILL VISITS GILPIN POND, ABACO


Roseate Spoonbill, Gilpin Pond, Abaco (Keith Kemp)4

A RARE SPOONBILL VISITS GILPIN POND, ABACO

In past posts I have mentioned what an excellent birding place Gilpin Point has become. There’s the large pond; and right beside it, dunes, the other side of which is a fine secluded beach and the ocean. The place is a magnet for birds of all shapes and sizes, from brown pelicans down to the tiny endemic Bahama woodstars. There are water birds, wading birds, shorebirds and coppice birds. It has become a place where Abaco parrots regularly congregate. You can reach the Gilpin FB page HERE.

A while back, there was a rare visitor, a Flamingo that stayed a few months then disappeared again. It was in some ways a sad reminder of past flamingo glory days, when they were commonly found on Abaco. Now they are confined to Inagua apart from the occasional vagrant. For more on the the topic, with wonderful photos by Melissa Maura of the breeding season on Inagua, click HERE. Another rare vagrant – formerly quite plentiful on Abaco – was recently found at Gilpin by Keith Kemp, who skilfully managed to get photos of it from some distance away: a Roseate Spoonbill.

Roseate Spoonbill, Gilpin Pond, Abaco (Keith Kemp)2

I have featured spoonbills before in a post IN THE PINK, but the photos were taken on New Providence by Woody Bracey. I had no Abaco spoonbill photos. To be fair, we did once see one while we were bonefishing far out on the Marls. It was on the edge of the mangroves a good distance away, and the pale pink tinge caught my eye. My photo with an iPhone 4 (the one with the risibly cr@p camera – remember?) was so utterly pathetic that I dumped it (the photo, I mean, but the phone soon followed). But we knew what we had seen, and that was enough.

roseate-spoonbill                roseate-spoonbill               roseate-spoonbill

STOP PRESS 1 I should add that a friended visited the pond after the side-effects of Hurricane Joaquin had receded, and the spoonbill had gone. So the spoonbill alone would not make the journey worthwhile!

STOP PRESS 2 A check of eBird reveals that a handful of spoonbills have been reported in Northern Bahamas this year, about 6 in all. Almost none before that. I have the impression that birding intensity in The Bahamas, coupled with the ease of uploading reports to eBird, will increasingly make a difference to the incidence of sightings of uncommon and rare species, cf the recent WHIMBRELS of Grand Bahama.

Spoonbill, Gilpin Pond, Abaco (Keith Kemp)3

GILPIN POINT LOCATION

Gilpin Point is just south of Crossing Rocks. The brackish pond – sometimes an alarming reddish colour that I assume is algal – is just inland from the shoreline and provides a wonderful haven for birds. It’s a long mile from the highway. There is no vehicle nor even human traffic apart from occasional birders and walkers. Please note that the drive and the property are private. However Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who (as I have written elsewhere) bring only enthusiasm and take only photographs (though a picnic on the beach is worth considering. And maybe a swim…). 

Helpful location mapsGilpin Map 1 Gilpin Map 2 Gilpin Map 3

WHAT SPECIES MIGHT BE FOUND AT GILPIN?

A brief list includes regular visits from parrots. It’s the only place we have found a furtive little sora skulking in the reedy margins. It’s a reliable spot for herons and egrets of every kind, white-cheeked (Bahama) pintails by the score, black-necked stilts and lesser yellowlegs. Occasionally a northern pintail, ruddy duck or merganser. Turkey vultures. Limpkins. We’ve seen belted kingfishers, Bahama woodstars, cuban emeralds, american kestrels, Bahama swallows, doves, pigeons, western spindalis and many more coppice birds besides. One flamingo. One spoonbill. Pelicans have been seen on the rocks on the beach. Shorebirds include turnstones, sundry plovers & sandpipers, and oystercatchers. You may well see tropicbirds and frigate birds off-shore, and assorted gulls and terns. I can’t personally be more species-specific  because I have never ‘shorebirded’ properly there, but I have noticed an impressive mix…

When we launched THE BIRDS OF ABACO at the Delphi Club, we were delighted that Pericles was able to come to the party. He took a few photos and I’m sure he won’t mind my including a small gallery to end with, featuring a couple of the Gilpin entries in his signed copy.

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Bahamas birding nobility: Tony White with Caroline Stahala; Woody Bracey & Bruce Hallett
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Credits: Keith Kemp for the great spoonbill photos; Perry for the Delphi photos