I wasn’t prepared for the shark to sneak up right behind me at Allens Cay, so naturally I was surprised. And by “surprised” I mean I rocketed myself up the swim ladder and flopped onto the deck in a terrified frenzy, crushing all prior swim ladder ascent records, if there is such a thing. Let’s just say I got out of the water in a hurry.

My speedy water exit wasn’t necessary. It was just a curious, harmless nurse shark.  My husband saw my new marine friend swim up about a foot behind me and calmly, but with a bit of urgency anticipating my reaction, said “babe, you should get out of the water now, there is a shark behind you.” You don’t have to tell me twice.

Once safely on deck, we all stared in awe at this beautiful, and did I mention harmless, creature swimming around our boat. Moments later a stingray with a wingspan of at least four feet gracefully swam by and semi-buried itself in the sand 10 feet under our boat for us to admire. All of this within an hour of dropping our anchor beside beautiful Allens Cay where we’d landed with the primary goal of feeding lettuce to the rare rock iguanas on the beach.

With the initial animal excitement out of the way, we stopped for a moment and admired the lovely spot we’d landed in. No, there aren’t any amenities on this small reef Cay in the Northern Exumas located next door to the more bustling Highborne Cay, but that is one of the reasons you should go. In addition to keeping a lookout so you aren’t surprised by curious sharks, here are five more things to keep in mind when you visit.

Iguanas at Allens Cay1. The iguanas enjoy lettuce – Knowing that we had a short charter, Ted from Navtours who helped us with our boat check and chart briefing was the one who suggested Allens Cay. He was also an in-the-know resource for sharing how best to appeal to the island’s reptile population. “They like lettuce”, he offered helpfully. We stocked up on a bag the prior day at Highborne Cay in search of fishing supplies and were excited to share our treats not only with these cautiously eager beach dwellers but with the two little girls from a neighboring boat who were also excited to feed our new friends. The Allens Cay iguanas are a rare and endangered species that has been thriving recently due to conservation efforts in 2012 to rid the island of invasive mice and to fortify nesting habitats. If the waters are calm you could easily swim to the beach at Leaf Cay from your boat, but if the currents are stronger as they were when we arrived just drive your dinghy over and pull it onto the beach.

2. Pay attention to tide charts – It is shallow in the area nestled between Allens Cay and Leaf Cay, so you’ll want to not only pay attention to your depth in general, but also to understand where you are in terms of low tide as it can change significantly over a twelve hour period. We arrived just after low tide, so felt good about the two meters of water we were anchored in. Anchoring in two meters at high tide might have left us grounded in the middle of the night.

Highborne Cay to Allens Cay3. Fancier Highborne Cay is close by – We had spent the prior night at Highborne Cay and essentially got to Allens Cay by going through the channel near Oyster Bay and out to the deeper, open water to look for fish. After our fishing mission, we rounded the Northern tip of Highborne Cay and then sailed up and down the West coast of Highborne Cay on a beam reach with perfect wind (this extra fun part isn’t shown on the map but do it if you have time!). We entered Allens Cay through the narrow, shallow opening between Allens Cay and Southwest Allens Cay then turned into the protected area between Allens Cay and Leaf Cay for the night. That’s the long way of saying we took the long way.  Highborne Cay with its fancy marina, dinghy dock, grocery, and apparently a nice restaurant is quite close by if you take a straighter route. That said, if you stay near Highborne Cay for the night, you can pop into Allens Cay for a late lunch first, or they say you can even dinghy between the two spots, although that felt a bit far for us. You can also easily stop at Highborne Cay and look around (you’ll need to pay $25 if you do more than visit the grocery or restaurant) before heading to Allens Cay for the night. In any case, know that while Allens Cay doesn’t offer amenities, its highfalutin right-next-door neighbor does.

4. The weather protection benefit rivals its picturesque charm – What we collectively call Allens Cay is really the collection of Allens Cay to the West, Leaf Cay where the Iguanas live to the East, and Southwest Allens Cay to the, you guessed it, Southwest. If you nestle your boat in between, you’ll enjoy not only the beauty that shallow clear water and white sandy beaches provides, but also wind protection from the sometimes-brisk conditions in this part of the world. Along with the other five boats parked there for the night, we enjoyed significantly calmer waters than were outside our protected bay.

5. Ideal proximity for heading back – When you go to the Exumas from Nassau you have a long sail out and a long sail back. That’s just the way it is. If you are going to spend the night on the boat prior to turning it in early the next day (which we highly recommend), Rose Island about an hour and a half from the Palm Cay Marina is a great choice, and there is no better location to depart from the Exumas than Allens Cay.  In fact, our perfect day sailing from Allens Cay to Rose Island was an experience that deserves its own blog, so stay tuned.

Catching a SharkAnd with these “good-to-knows” about this special place, let’s circle back.

The shark saga continued…

After the initial surprise “attack” Charles and I had headed to the beach on Leaf Cay to see the iguanas and to snorkel. As we returned on our dinghy, we found dad, straining with fishing pole in hand, wrestling with what appeared to be a rather significant fish. As we got closer he explained that he’d inadvertently caught the shark, who apparently had been most interested in his bait – not me – all along.  We quickly came on board, snapped a few photos, then Charles cut the big guy loose and we wished him farewell.

Dinner, sunset, wine, good conversation, and more wine rounded out our adventures – some anticipated, others quite unexpected – at Allens Cay.  We woke up early the next morning, gathered our anchor, said good-bye to this beautiful spot, and headed out on one of the best days we’ve had on the water.


Lea Maxwell

Lea Maxwell is the sailor and scribe behind Escape Under Sail, a web|blog project that connects new and future charter sailors with the resources, information, and motivation they need to competently and confidently sail beautiful destinations around the world.

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