Bimini

A satellite view of Bimini and a portion of the Great Bahama Bank
A satellite view of Bimini and a portion of the Great Bahama Bank.
Photo Courtesy NASA.

The Lure of Bimini

The name Bimini evokes exotic images of big game fishing, rum running, mysterious diving destinations and breezy tropical beaches. It has an out island ambiance yet lies on the doorstep of the coast of Florida. If you enjoy aquatic activities, the area is home to world renowned sport fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling and has some wonderful beaches.

Because of its proximity to the United States, Bimini is truly a one of a kind experience. Since it is just a short trip that can be done in a small powerboat in a day, Bimini is considered to be the gateway to the Bahamas. Unlike the more remote islands of the Bahamas, weekend tourism is popular. The American influence goes far deeper into the culture than merely tourism. Television stations from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale have been available in Bimini since the advent of the medium. That brought with it American culture and a view of the world that few other areas in the Bahamas were able to develop until satellite television became available to the public.


A Colorful Past

Bimini has always been a magnet for colorful characters. Early visitors to Bimini included Indians, pirates, swashbucklers and shipwreck survivors. In 1835 Bimini was officially settled by five founding families who were all licensed wreckers. Early pioneers built homes of native materials with thatched roofs. They made their living from both the sea and land. In the earliest days, some of the wreckers undoubtedly helped their business along by luring ships onto reefs and shoals and plundering their cargo. In addition to salvaging wrecks, they fished for conch, turtle, lobster, crab, fish and sponges. On land they grew crops and livestock.

Since the time of the wreckers, many other characters on the periphery of legitimacy have helped form the rich tapestry that has become the legend of this tiny island group. Smuggling became popular due to its unique location just 50 miles off the U.S. coast. During prohibition the economy of Bimini prospered. At night rumrunners smuggled booze across the Straits of Florida in their fast motorboats evading American coastal patrols.

 Rumrunner Captain William S. McCoy
Rumrunner Captain William S. McCoy.

One of the most famous of these rumrunners was Captain William (Bill) S. McCoy, a skilled yacht builder whose business fell on hard times during Prohibition. He sold his business and bought the schooner Henry L. Marshall to trade in Canadian and Irish whiskies as well as other fine liquors and wines. Soon he was able to buy another schooner, Tomoka, and registered her under British registry in order to avoid US laws.

Bill McCoy eventually acquired a fleet of schooners that regularly plied the waters between Bimini and the "Rum Row" just off the coast of New Jersey. His fleet of schooners had an outstanding reputation for always having the finest liquors and wines and neither he or his captains ever relabeled or watered down his product like many of his competitors were known to do. Thus the term "the real McCoy" even today means the real thing.

Another legend from the rumrunning era was the Sapona. During World War I there was a scarcity of iron for building cargo ships, so ferrocement was used instead. Although commissioned during the war, she wasn't launched until hostilities had ended. Post war economics made the heavy ship too costly to run, so her engines and machinery were sold and she languished in the Miami River until the entrepreneurial rumrunner Bruce Bethel purchased her and brought her to Bimini for use in his business.

As fate would have it, a hurricane in September of 1926 drove the ship into the shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank where she broke into two pieces. Fortunately for the rumrunners she still sat upright in the shallow water, so they still were able to use her as a warehouse for rum. Because she was still accessible by small boat, but far enough away from the constraints of any pesky law enforcement from either Bimini or the US, Sapona was also turned into an offshore nightclub while the Bahamian authorities turned a blind eye to any illicit activities.

Since the end of Prohibition, Sapona has been used as a bombing target during World War II. She now is a popular fishing and diving spot for tourists and locals alike.

Geography and easy access to the American shore made Bimini a social gathering place for those who wanted to paint the town red legally. Everyone from scoundrels and scalawags to the most illustrious and prominent people of the era visited the island and money and booze flowed like water in the streets of Alice Town, Bimini's main tourist area.

Biminiís colorful history as a smuggling haven didnít end with prohibition. During the heyday of marijuana smuggling, the region again became alive with modern adventurers who would risk capture for the chance of making a fortune crossing the Stream with a load of bales of marijuana. Bimini again became a popular transfer point for shipments of drugs into the US and the economy once again prospered.

At the present time Bimini relies on sport fishing, diving and yacht tourism for the majority of its income. Over 50 world record catches have been set in the surrounding waters. Dive sites range from dramatic wall dives to shallow snorkeling sites and mysterious archeological formations to wreck dives. The village of Alice Town offers the feel of the authentic out island existence with several restaurants, bars and taverns. As a result, each weekend sees armadas of pleasure craft come over for fishing, diving and the chance to explore the wonders of Bimini.

Deep Sea fishing for marlin.
Deep Sea fishing for marlin.


Fishing

Perched on the bank of Gulfstream, that legendary river of warm water that rushes north between Florida and the Bahamas, Bimini has attracted world class fishermen for decades. Bimini is home to at least a dozen fishing tournaments each year. Fishermen trolling the deep blue waters of the stream catch huge marlin, bluefin tuna and swordfish as well as mackerel, dolphin and wahoo. Wrecks and reefs are home to grouper, snapper and barracuda. Those anglers who endeavor stalking bonefish, permit and blue runners on the flats will be well rewarded.


The Early Days

By the time of the US Presidential election in 1932, it was obvious that the end of Prohibition was near. One of the planks of the Democratic Party platform was the repeal of Prohibition, and Franklin Roosevelt, the front running candidate, personally promised to work to repeal federal Prohibition if elected. Although Prohibition didn't officially end until December 1933, the first legal sale of beer and wine began in April.

This appeared to be the end of the easy times for Bimini, but as luck would have it, that year Kip Farrington would boat a record blue marlin in the Gulfstream. He was an editor and writer for Field and Stream magazine and well connected among the elite anglers of the time. Word of this fish spread fast and soon other anglers arrived in Bimini to try their luck. In a short time other big marlin were routinely being landed and the news continued to spread in the sportfishing world.

Soon, Michael and Helen Lerner were drawn to Bimini by the tales of this unique fishing spot. In addition to owning the Lerner Shops they were ardent anglers with a commitment to marine biology. After experiencing Bimini, they built the Bimini Big Game Club that provided lodging intended for wealthy and devoted anglers. In the next few years the new lodge drew many of the great sport fishermen of the era to Bimini, but none was more notable than the legendary author Ernest Hemingway.

 Ernest Hemingway poses with his family and four blue marlins in Bimini
Ernest Hemingway poses with his family and four blue marlins in Bimini.
From the John F. Kennedy library

In April of 1935 Hemingway left Key West in his new fishing boat Pilar to experience Bimini for himself. It didn't take long for him to realize that Bimini was a unique fishing spot. Between 1935 and 1937 he spent a lot of time in the islands. When he wasnít writing or carousing with his friends, he succeeded dramatically at the sport of big game fishing. He introduced a new, more aggressive style of fishing to the area and was, for the first time ever, able to boat an unmolested Bluefin Tuna in those waters. His novel Islands In The Stream was inspired by the unsurpassed fishing for which the area is much admired.

Another event helped promote the lure of Bimini as the ultimate tropical fishing destination. As early as 1910, the Long Key Fishing Camp had attracted winter anglers from the US and around the world. They included Zane Grey, the famous author of Old West adventures, as well as wealthy and influential people such as Franklin Roosevelt, William Hearst, Andrew Mellon, Charles Kettering and Herbert Hoover. However, on Labor Day of 1935, the strongest hurricane on record at that time passed over the Keys and completely destroyed the fishing camp.

The void left by the destruction of the Long Key Fishing Camp was soon filled by the Bimini Big Game Club. The infrastructure that had brought rumrunners and tourists to the island during Prohibition was already in place to shuttle well connected anglers to the tropical fishing grounds of Bimini. The sportfishing business prospered until the outbreak of World War II when rumors of German submarines lurking the Gulf Stream discouraged tourism.


Fishing Today

Today the area is well known for its broad spectrum of fishing opportunities. In addition to deep sea fishing for large Marlin, Sailfish, Amberjack, Tuna, Dolphin, Wahoo, Sharks or other game fish, the area also boasts some of the best flats fishing in the world. Additionally there are small reefs and wrecks that produce Yellowtail and Mutton Snapper, Grouper and other species.


Deep Sea Fishing

Depending on the time of year and the kinds of fish that are running, there are various types of deep sea fishing common to the area waters. Trolling the Gulf Stream for Large Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo and Dolphin is common, but deep dropping for Grouper and Snapper can also be productive. If you are looking for Kingfish, Sharks, Yellowtail, Mackerel or Grouper, fishing the reefs, walls and deeper wrecks can be very fruitful.


Fishing the Flats, Banks and Shallow Wrecks

The extensive flats around this island group are home to Bonefish, Tarpon and Permit as well as Conch and Lobster. Moreover there are thirteen species of Sharks that inhabit the shallow waters near Bimini, so don't write off these waters as merely small time fishing. Unlike many other locations, flats fishing is spectacular all through the year.

Stalking the Grey Ghost, as Bonefish are commonly called, requires extreme skill. You have to stalk the fish and get close enough to present the bait before he sees you, or he's gone in a swirl of muddy water never to return. Once hooked they have plenty of fight. Fly fishing for them presents one of the greatest challenges in the fishing world.


Diving

Bimini offers a whole spectrum of diving from shallow water snorkeling to deep wall dives. There are reefs and wrecks that abound with marine life.


Bimini Road

One dive site called Bimini Road or Atlantis Road lies in just fifteen feet of water and is said to be remnants of a road from the lost continent of Atlantis. Discovered in 1968 by J. Manson Valentine, the road consists of flat, rectangular, polygonal, and irregular blocks that appear to have been laid by expert masons. This gave credence to Edgar Cayce's speculation that Bimini was one of the mountaintops of the continent of Atlantis.

 The freighter Sapona as she appears today.
The freighter Sapona as she appears today. Launched in 1920, she has been a cargo ship, rum runner, night club, bombing target and has now become an artificial reef.
© Copyright KR4AH.

Ten thousand years ago, the Great Bahama Bank was a single large island and Bimini was one of its highest hills, so it is certainly possible that man did have an ancient civilization on the island that did sink into the sea. On the other hand, many scientists say that the formations are simply beachrock, a type of limestone composed of carbonate-cemented shell hash that is native to the Bahamas. Dive the Atlantis Road and you will have a great topic of conversation for later.


Sapona

Covered in graffiti above the surface, the Sapona is a wrecked liberty ship that lies in eighteen feet of water. Underwater, the remains of the hull is covered with bright corals and sponges and is home to fish and lobster. Today the forward section of the ship sits upright in shallow water and is a dive and snorkeling destination but at various times was used as a cargo ship, rumrunners warehouse, a target ship and even as a depot for smuggling marijuana into the US. Occasionally divers will still find bullets and other artifacts from the ships past in the water near the ship.

Tuna Alley

Tuna Alley is a pristine, healthy reef system off of Cat Cay and an easy run from Bimini. Washed by Gulf Stream currents, this site is a wonderful drift dive with lots of sea life including turtles, sharks and tuna. There is a canyon, swim-throughs and many crevices that hold an abundance of small creatures. Depths on this site range from 80 to 100 feet.

Bimini Trader

During the 1980s, the Bimini Trader carried supplies between Miami and Bimini but by 1990 the vessel had become abandoned and was left tied to the sea wall near Chalk's Seaplane base. Then in August of 1992 hurricane Andrew paid Bimini a visit and the Bimini Trader broke her mooring lines and came to rest on the Chalk's Seaplane ramp. The ship had to be removed before seaplane service was able to resume. Since it would never be seaworthy again, it was decided to sink it. They patched the holes in the ship as best they could and put aboard as many gasoline powered bilge pumps as they could find.

Fortunately, the bilge pumps were able to keep ahead of water pouring through the temporary patches in the hull. The ship was towed out to sea where the crew quickly removed the pumps and within a half an hour the Bimini Trader ended upside-down in 85 feet of water near the edge of the continental shelf.

A view of quaint shops along the main street in Bimini
There are many quaint shops along the main street in Bimini.
© Copyright KR4AH.

While currents can be strong at this dive site, the rewards are worth it. In addition to the main wreck, there is evidence of another 19th century wreck just to the south of the main site. In addition, divers often see large grouper, sharks and other fish.


Shopping

Unfortunately, Bimini is not well known as a shopping destination. Most goods and supplies are shipped in from the US. Bahamian taxes add to the cost of all imported goods and so bargains on most products are rare.

The exception to this is native arts & crafts, fresh pastries & bread, perfumes and souvenirs. In addition to the Bimini Museum and Straw Market, many of the shops that line King's Highway in Alice Town sell crafts and fresh foods. In the morning, the sweet aroma of baked goods wafts into the street. There is a host of local restaurants and a number of down-home bars and at night the street comes alive with music and entertainment.


Night Life

From the outside the End of the World Bar doesn't look like much.
The End of the World Bar may not look like much from the outside, but don't be fooled. It is one of the legendary bars in Bimini where tourists and locals mingle in a friendly atmosphere and enjoy a fantastic view of the harbor.
© Copyright KR4AH.

Despite its proximity to Florida, Bimini has the ambiance of a remote Caribbean island. Life is more relaxed than back home and you can feel tensions melt away as soon as you arrive. This carries over into all aspects of the culture including the nightlife. Each of the resorts has a bar, but to really immerse yourself into the island way of life, you really need to visit the establishments where the locals congregate. By the way, every bar in Bimini was Ernest Hemingway's favorite, even the ones that were built after his death.

End of the World Bar

This perennial favorite watering hole is the last bar King's Highway. It appears to be an old shack on the waterfront with a sand floor, graffiti on the walls and underwear hanging from the rafters, but it is one of the local's favorite places. People are friendly and there is a great view of the harbor from the back porch.

Kings Highway

The only way to truly experience Bimini is to stroll King's Highway in Alice Town and drop in to a few of the local restaurants and watering holes and hobnob with the natives. All of the places welcome tourists and you can really converse with locals in a setting far different from that at your hotel or marina. Bimini's culture is a unique blend of Caribbean philosophy with a unique world view that has developed over the years due to its close ties to the United Stated over the last century.

Bimini Big Game Club

A few years back the Bimini Big Game Club was going through tough times. The food was mediocre and service was bad and it was obvious that the establishment was going through death knells. However, environmentalist, fisherman and diver Guy Harvey has taken over and re-opened the property as the Outpost Resort & Marina.

The service is excellent, food is top notch and the ambiance has an extremely artistic island flavor. All in all the place now seems to have just the right blend of laid back character, good food, professionalism and the desire on the part of the staff to make your visit just right.




copyright © 2010 KR4AH. All Rights Reserved.