Before my grandfather passed away I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with him questioning him about what things were like in Antigua back in the 1940s and 50s. He told me about being taken up to Great Bird Island just after he arrived in Antigua and that experience being the thing that shaped the rest of his life. I knew what he was talking about. The sounds, the smells, the awe inspiring sights.
I’ve always loved history and daydream often about what it would have been like here back a thousand years before the first Europeans and Africans arrived and when only Amerindians lived here.
What’s amazing about our offshore islands and the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA) is that there are so many places within its boundaries that probably look the same as they did back then. It’s one of the last real natural wilderness areas and a place that thousands of visitors journey to each month just to be closer to what the natural unspoiled Caribbean is and was.
My grandparents opened their Lord Nelson Beach Hotel back in the early 1950s and almost immediately started taking guests up into the secluded areas of The North Sound. As a teenager, I would often be asked by my grandfather to take his guests up to Great Bird Island for a swim and some snorkeling. The sheer beauty of the azure waters around the little limestone islands is breathtaking both for visitors and locals alike, and finding a secluded spot to come ashore or to anchor is always easy. Spotted eagle rays, southen stingrays, juvenile sharks, barracuda, herons, whistlers, tropic birds, pelicans, terns, frigate birds and all variety of other wildlife pass you by as they live happily within this delicate but rich habitat. Wonderful vistas in every direction leave the average person dreaming about returning as soon as they possibly can. The North Sound is truly a Caribbean treasure.
Back in 1999 I had the idea of starting an eco tour. Up until that point the majority of boat trips offered to tourists were party catamaran type tours. Having grown up fishing, snorkeling and exploring within the NEMMA I felt that there was so much more to offer and started Adventure Antigua with a small open pirogue boat. Sunsail had just opened up on the western edge of what is now NEMMA and I was able to take up to 4 of their guests at a time on a “eco historical snorkeling and sightseeing trip” of the North Sound. It was a hit at Sunsail because their guests loved sailing, nature and the outdoors. Within a year we had expanded and were able to offer the Eco Tour to guests from around the island, picking up from as far as Jolly Harbour. We had no music on board and only served alcohol as the day finished and we were on our way back to port. The emphasis was in teaching and showing people the natural wonders of the NEMMA and telling them about the history of the area as well. People had music back at the hotel and were happy to listen to the guides.
Back in 1999 one of the stops during our day long Eco Tour was Maiden Island. We’d often see whistling ducks there as well as herons feeding on fish which sought shelter between the roots of red mangrove plants. Rays would often swim past digging up mollusks and other life out of the seabeds. This stop sadly had to be taken off the itinerary when development of the island started a few years later. Security guards asked us to stop using the island in fact, but what really made it unattractive as a tour stop was the construction. Some of the mangroves on the west side were moved so that a landing craft could deliver construction equipment, the eastern shore was dredged and an artificial barrier reef was constructed blocking most of the access. It was no longer a wilderness area.
Luckily there were several other islands within the NEMMA and still on our Eco Tour’s itinerary that we could visit. Little Bird, Great Bird, Hells Gate, Green, Guiana Island, Rabbit all were and still are wonderful. They are parts of the tourism plant that companies like mine need in order to exist. As I mentioned, thousands and thousands of people every year yearn to find the peace and solitude of these natural wonders. There are now many eco tour type excursions within the North Sound and the NEMMA. My company alone employs over a dozen people. Stingray city probably has more. Paddles Kayaking, Antigua Nature Tours, Creole Cruises, Wadadli Cats, Treasure Island, Excellence and Tropical Adventures are some others which all take guests into the NEMMA and directly and indirectly employ a great many people. The economic value of these islands and the surrounding waters is huge and directly adds value to the overall product. Guests from the least expensive to the most expensive hotels all want to visit these islands, and many are lucky enough to make the trip with these many great local businesses. Proud local guides show them our treasures. Having a deserted offshore island with wonderful wildlife or a beautiful offshore reef teaming with colorful fish is valuable to hotels like Carlisle Bay and to Jolly Beach alike. All of our hotels benefit from this amazing area, but none of them put these islands on their balance sheets. I think that this is one of the most challenging things about marine parks and wilderness areas. How do we assign a value to them especially when we often take them for granted. How much of a consideration does a big luxury hotel give to the value of these undeveloped gems? We need to recognize them as hugely important, natural, national assets. Unfortunately quite often the opposite is true of deserted areas. By that I mean developers and government often see them as valueless or at best potentially valuable, only having value when something is built on them. We all know the development threats or implications to these islands is real and unsustainable. I don’t know of any islands within the NEMMA that are owned by the Crown which means that all could be developed. What would that mean for businesses like the ones i mentioned? What would it mean to the overall tourism plant? A holiday at Blue Waters, Sandals or Carlisle Bay would potentially lose value as there would be fewer places to explore, fewer natural places to be happily lost in, and fewer places to dream about returning to.