This post was contributed by Thomas Wiegand.
Let me set the scene for you. You’re trudging through the inner bush, arms and legs scraping against thorns and unfamiliar plants, all to reach this tiny little oasis at the corner of nowhere and lost. You get out the collection kit, strap on your dive shoes, and make sure your snorkel is secure before squirming between the mangrove branches to dive head first into the pond. This was me and my friends for a solid week. We were visiting San Salvador Island in the Bahamas to do research on the state of the environment there following a severe hurricane that hit the Bahamas a few years ago. Our task? Find out anything and everything there is to know about the animals and plants living on the inside of the island.
I had basically signed up for the next season of Survivor. Why do this to myself? Well, in short, I love everything about the natural world. I study the environment and how ecology and evolution play into the way that rare plant species thrive in their natural environment. So, for me, this trip was the Holy Grail. However, not everyone on this trip with me was a scientist. It was an eclectic group of students from very different backgrounds coming together to accomplish what sometimes seemed impossible.
The Bahamas was a world unknown to me before this trip. I had never seen the Caribbean, and I had no expectations for this little island other than a beautiful beach and a golden tan to take home with me. Of course, The Bahamas turned out to be so much more. I want you to erase any preconceived ideas of The Bahamas you may have while you read this – forget the time your cruise ship might have stopped over in Nassau or the time you stayed up too late watching the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix. We’re not on Providence Island or Great Exuma; this is a small island that is relatively un-developed save the Europeans vacationing on one end of the island. The atmosphere in San Salvador was drastically different than what I experienced when we landed in Nassau.
Our layover the first day lasted forever, but when we finally touched down at San Salvador’s tiny airport, it was like a different world. I can’t describe the smell of the ocean and the sand in the air when I stepped out onto the tarmac. I’ll never forget loading our suitcases into the back of a huge truck, jumping in and cruising down a tiny road lined with mangrove trees that just barely offered a view of the crystal-clear water lining the shore. Every part of this trip from start to finish was reminiscent of a scene from a movie. We pulled up to the research center we would be based out of, and to be honest, I was shocked at first. The cement block walls painted coral blue vaguely reminded me of military barracks, and when I saw the tiny cot each of us had in our room, it really set in.
This place has been a part of San Salvador Island for decades, and it definitely seemed like a lot of scientists had seen their fair share of time at the center. Even though some might be reluctant to give up the comfort of a hotel or an Airbnb for a meager bed on this compound, to me it made the experience all the more real.
I was doing everything I daydream about in the middle of my classes– waking up surrounded by palm trees and throwing on a wetsuit to make a trip down to the reef, hiking the overgrown trail into the interior part of the island, and crashing into the waves trying to hold my breath to dive back down for a final look. The best part of the trip? Probably the fact that nearly every afternoon, we would walk just a few minutes down to the shoreline and be able to set our towels down, run the length of the beach looking for life between the tidal pools, and jump into water so blue that it made you question if this was reality. The feeling of seeing pastel colored fish swim next to you and chasing the families of sea turtles around the docks was otherworldly. I mean, this was Animal Planet in the flesh.
Spending my days in the blazing sun collecting samples, identifying species, and snorkeling really made me feel like it was me against the wild. We had to be careful not to brush up against the bark of Poisonwood while cutting a path through the trail, and I came way too close to touching venomous coral in the reef – even my wetsuit wouldn’t have saved my body from blowing up like a balloon had I happened to touch it. I remember swimming out into the center of this pond one day and losing my breath at the sight of a gaping blue hole beneath me that seemed to lead to the bottom of the Earth. It’s moments like these that continued to take my breath away.
Every part of this place, even down to the tiniest details, shook me to my core.
We made the same trek out of this pond countless times during our stay, but one afternoon while trying not to lose my balance on the huge mangrove roots and oysters below my feet, I heard a menacing cry from what I could only assume was a very large, angry bird. I look to my left and all I see is a bright green bird stretching its beak out, ready to attack. I spent the next half hour trying to get my friend to safety before this heron took a chunk out of one of us. I had to scream and flail my arms to try and get it to fly away, but nothing I did worked. The bird looked me dead in the eye as if to say “This is my island, and you’re just visiting.” After a while longer, we were able to make a break for it and hightail it back to the base with birds swooping over us, obviously angry that we had disrupted their nest while swimming. These experiences may seem more than enough wild for some, but it was a new excitement to travel that I had never experienced before. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a café allongé on the terrace at a Parisian restaurant, but I sure was enjoying island life to the fullest.
The people living in San Salvador are some of the most kindhearted people I’ve ever met. Bahamian people have a way of making you smile and feel invited in every situation. It’s a tight knit community that values family and their island over everything, and it was easy to fall in love with these people. They were always eager to field our questions about the history of the island and their own life growing up in in such a pristine environment, and we enjoyed most nights mingling with locals at Da Almond Tree Bar (yes, that is the name) or the local fish fry just down the street. We’d head out after the sun had set for the short walk down the road, but it seemed to take a lifetime to get to this little bar because you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the clarity of the stars above you. In a place situated in the middle of the ocean and nearly void of light pollution, the night sky is like a direct view of the Milky Way.
To be entirely honest, I’ve never experienced a harder goodbye. In just one week, I felt like this place had become a part of me, and it was painful to see our little plane fly over the edge of the island as we headed back to Nassau. Every time I leaf through my field journal and read the entries or come across the flowers pressed between the pages, it takes me back immediately.
My time on this island made me really question everything about my life. I found a love for this place that I never thought I would have, and I grew closer to so many people who I already considered friends but who I now share a bond with that’s indescribable. Few people outside of our little research family know what it’s like to brave the wilderness in this hidden place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A huge thank you to Stephanie Swart for capturing our best moments. If you like these beautiful sunsets, check out her portfolio here.
Until next time,
Meet Thomas: I’m a 20-year-old college student from Chattanooga, Tennessee studying French and Environmental Science. I’m a researcher, language enthusiast, and travel junkie of course. Travel pet-peeve: When you try your hardest to speak the language and they still reply in English. Keep up with me on IG.