Exuma: An Island A Day by Zach Stadler

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As my flight slowly descends over the Bahamas, I couldn’t help but to gaze out my window in awe at the small palm covered islands sprinkled among the clearest water I have ever seen. That’s when it finally hit me, I would spend the next month living out of a kayak in a secluded tropical paradise. These islands below were about to become my playground.

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 Exuma is a chain of 365 small islands (or cays) located in the central Bahamas. It is considered a hidden gem of the Caribbean due to the fact that most of the islands remain uninhabited. The water is sapphire-blue and generally very shallow. At low tide you can often walk from one island to another. My plan for this trip was rather simple; I would paddle 60 miles north up the islands, then make my way back down while documenting the surreal beauty of Exuma using my camera and an underwater housing.

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   After numerous flights and overpriced beachside hotels I hitched a ride to the local dock in Georgetown where I would launch. I have dreamt of this trip for months now and was more than ready to get on the water, ready, but also a bit nervous. At the time I had little knowledge on ocean currents and little to no knowledge on ocean kayaking. I definitely wasn’t prepared for a trip on this scale, but I couldn’t afford to rent my own boat and had no interest in taking day trips with a crowd of tourists. If I wanted to see the real Exuma, kayaking was the only way.

   My first stop was an island called Normans Cay, it was 5 miles out and appeared as a thin slice on the horizon. After about an hour on the water the sky quickly grew dark and I was met with heavy rain and head-on winds. This kept up for the next few days, leaving me stuck on Normans Cay. The nights were cold, the water was rough and keeping my camping gear dry was next to impossible. One night was so bad I had to dig a whole on the beach and burry my tent a foot deep in sand to protect myself from the wind. I was later informed that winds exceeded 85mph that night. This obviously wasn’t preferred weather, but a part of me enjoyed the struggle. It felt as if my ‘animal instincts’ had kicked in and I had no choice but to become one with my surroundings.

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 I woke early with the sun on day four to clear skies and water so calm it resembled a swimming pool. Without hesitation I ran to the shore and dove in. I spent the whole day diving and exploring the endless glass-like shallows. I was lost in a state of bliss. Most of Exuma is a protected Land and Sea Park, which results in a thriving and healthy marine ecosystem. Within that one day I had the pleasure of coming across starfish, rays, sea turtles and multiple species of sharks.

    From that point on, everything seemed to fall into place. The weather remained clear and conditions for photographing were prime. Many days were spent paddling from sunrise to sunset, while others were a bit more relaxing. I enjoyed hanging out on white sand beaches, exploring inland, building campfires, freediving and photographing. After two weeks in-between constant blue skies and blue waters, I started paying a lot of attention to the Red Cushion Starfish. The way their intense red color pierced the never ending blue water was simply captivating. On a calm day, you could see the vibrant stars from above the surface in all directions, hundreds of feet away. Photographing them became addicting.

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  Still to this day, my favorite thing about kayaking Exuma was that I got to visit a number of untouched islands every day. I would sometimes see passing boats in the distance, but society felt worlds away. Exuma turned out to be the heaven-like water world I had always dreamt of. Since my trip in 2016, Exuma has been put on the maps due to the hype of the famous ‘Swimming Pigs’. Much of it remains untouched, however, Islands are being bought up and tourism has increased exponentially.

  In my opinion, modern times are far too saturated and have overshadowed a time where spiritual insight was prominent. Therefore, I find my inspiration in the natural world. My photography is a visual representation of my connection with nature and I hope my art will inspire others to care and protect our fragile marine ecosystems.

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For more from Zach Stadler click here or follow him @zachstadler