What do Crab Cay, jellyfish, blue holes, and Chinese submarines have to do with each other?
This, sadly, is definitely NOT a joke; if you hang in here with me for just a minute, I’ll pull it all together.
We spent several nights anchored in Crab Cay while in the Abacos, I didn’t put it on the blog because of what we learned before I had a chance to upload post and I knew I needed to at least try to confirm what we were hearing and seeing, I’ve been back in the world of Internet and so now here is a belated post of Crab Cay.
On our first night anchored at Crab Cay, we noticed it had changed since the last time we anchored here. The beach had no sand left and underwater we noticed everything covered in a fine silt. The jellyfish were so thick it was almost impossible to be in the water. I read that jellyfish population blooms can be used as baramoters of an ecosystems health and in this case it felt true. But lots of places had changed in someway and from the cockpit in the anchorage it looked exactly the same. It wasn’t until we went exploring in the dinghy the next day that we started to put the first pieces together. We had friends who took us here 15 years ago and showed us a blue hole up in the mangroves that we had swam in. We went off in search of it again, but were confused as we thought it was in the mangroves in the creek at the corner of the anchorage, it didn’t look right though. We kept looking and found a small but very distinctly dredged channel that you could only see from head on. We dinghied in and saw that behind the thin front of untouched strip of mangroves there was an expanse of dredged channels and clearing of vegetation. We hadn’t been able to find the mangroves because they were no longer there. It looked like it was going to be a huge development of some sort. A marina? Condos with slips? But why? Green Turtle just a few miles away couldn’t keep their places filled, why build new construction in an even more remote and not necessarily picturesque spot. The spot is remote by land and boat really. It just didn’t make sense.
Further in we could see one piece of earth-moving equipment that was not in use. Whew, we thought that maybe this would be another run-out-of-funds projects and the poor earth would do her best to heal the fresh scars on her own. We looked some more for the blue hole without luck but did find a scaffolding tower that was obviously placed to see the work site, we climbed up and took a quick peak. We were sad and went back to the boat.
Later in the week while we were in Green Turtle, Keith was talking to a fellow cruiser about how we noticed the new development in Crab. He stopped Keith and said “wait, you went ashore!” , “you’re lucky you didn’t get shot”. Wait, what?! This is the Bahamas! He proceeded to fill Keith in on the story. It is not a condo. He explained that The Bahamas government approved a deal in which the Export-Import Bank of China will back 41 million dollars for a Chinese company, CHEC, to build a state-of-the-art commercial shipping port in the northern Abacos. When the fellow cruiser had poked around, the Chinese company had apparently displayed a very strong security presence. He showed Keith a few photos he took. Armed security and a big flag saying China Harbour. Not exactly what we had seen.
But, why? It just didn’t make sense. There are only two settlements close by, Cooperstown and Foxtown. A large port didn’t seem warranted. A different Chinese company has already built what could be the worlds largest shipping port in Freeport, Bahamas. Our first thought admittedly was that this would be to facilitate the export of seafood from the Bahamas to China. We have run into suspected poaching fleets off the banks before and remembered when a whole Chinese fleet of lobster boats were confiscated for illegally fishing in the Bahamian waters, so this started to make worrisome sense even though it was just wild speculation on our part. Sort of. But why did they stop construction, did the funding fail? Nope, get this- It turns out that during the excavating they came across an unexpected blue hole. Yeah, that secret one that cruisers have been enjoying for decades, that one. I am so glad a thorough environmental study was completed before commencing on the dredging. So the project is on hold while an environmental study can be done. Blue holes are fragile ecosystems and they are tied together with underwater caverns. You can’t just fill one in and there are organisms only found in the Bahamian blue holes. Sadly I doubt one blue hole is going to stop a multi-million dollar project. On this topic, sorry, I am cynical and I just can’t see the hope. While the construction at the Crab Cay site is on hold, the primary construction site further down the coast, where the actual port will be, is still in full swing. We saw the action as we sailed by but were too far away to get any pictures. We may have gotten our picture taken though, there are plenty of security cameras all around the perimeter of the work site. (I also found this blog post from another cruiser who took photos of the main CHES site.)
Curious, we kept asking around. We started hearing things about a 60 foot deep channel being dredged to the new port. That doesn’t make sense. Marsh Harbor is less than 20 feet deep. Why 60 feet of water?! We read an article in the local newspaper about the project, it sounded all positive and like a well supported endeavor, but the feedback we were getting from the locals was anything but. Some were sad and felt like there whole nation was being sold, others knew little about the construction, some were upset to hear the mangroves were being removed and said but they can’t! Sorry, they did. We also heard that even though lots of jobs were promised, that the wage offered by CHEC was so low that it was refused by the Bahamians and that the Chinese workers are not leaving the construction compound. New jobs or a boost to local businesses has yet to be seen. All of this was opinion, gossip, unverified scraps of info but we still kept asking around trying to wrap our heads around the thought that our beloved, secluded northern Abacos as we know it was about to disappear.
One day we talked to two local business owners who were able to make it all make sense. We were talking about the rumors of where they were dredging, and how deep, and how it didn’t make sense. They said “Oh, but it absolutely does. Let me tell you why……” They explained that not too long ago the Bahamian government apparently approved a deal for a Chinese Naval base on Cat Island in the Exumas. The US apparently got wind of it and apparently let the Bahamas know that it would not be in their best interest to move forward with this agreement; the deal fell through. (Note, I have not been able to find a source to confirm this. It didn’t exactly make the front page of the Abaconian or Florida Today). Then they asked us what boat needs that much water. The answer- only a submarine. Making sense? We had friends who saw a survey boat working in front of Allens-Pensacola. We are hoping that we are connecting dots that shouldn’t be connected.
The deal not only involves the shipping container port which is actually going to be located just south of where we saw the construction, more toward Cooperstown, but also the small bridge that connects Great Abaco with Little Abaco Island. Right now it is a tiny filled-in land bridge that unfortunately blocked off flow between the islands. They plan on removing the old bridge and restoring the tidal flow (the only good news I’ve typed yet). Unfortunately, they are replacing it with an opening 150 foot wide bridge. Again, huh? It’s barely a creek between the two islands what boats are going to be going through there. Not very many without a whole lot more dredging.
We kept saying to each other over and over, I’m glad we didn’t wait another ten years. I’m not even sure what to expect when we head back over next month. This sad discovery has lead us to want to stay and soak up as much of the northern Abacos as we can, it might be our last chance before the good fishing grounds are dredged away causing the pristine beaches erode like they have at Crab Cay. Are we overreacting? I hope.
I feel helpless for the blue holes and mangroves (the nurseries and filters of the sea) and I don’t know of a way to help. So, if you do, let us know! If you have more information on this port and what it may be (or not be), we’d like to hear it, we are still sadly curious.
I have added a few links for news presses, articles, and websites on the Northern Abaco Shipping Port if this crazy story interests or worries you too. There are also a few links to photos that I did not want to post here for copyright concerns but are better than mine.
So where is Crab Cay? Here are a few screenshots taken from Google Earth (I think I am allowed to post these here as long as they are unedited and referenced, if you know differently please let me know and I will remove the images)
I took a few photos from the first day we found the dredging sight, they aren’t very good as we didn’t know what we were looking at. With out a reference phot it’s hard to tell what has been done already.
^^ the mangroves are gone
^^large blocks from the dredging blocked the channel into the construction site
^^ the scaffolding on site