Thursday, December 18, 2014

Carnival Cruise Line Has a Noise Management Issue It Needs To Address

The Carnival Victory at the Pier at Grand Turk Island, October 2013

We returned this morning from a 5-day cruise aboard the Carinval Victory that was almost excellent except for the loud obnoxious and exceedingly rude drunken passengers who felt no compunction about not being loud obnoxious and rude in the middle of the night as they returned to their staterooms from a "fun" night of apparently trying to drink the Victory dry of all adult beverages.  On my return home this afternoon I sent the following email to Carnival complaining about the issue. Given that they are a large insensitive corporation interested only in the bottom line I doubt if I hear from them and further doubt they will do anything to muzzle their "fun" passengers.  Still I had to try.

Dear Carnival

We returned to Miami early this morning from a great cruise aboard the Victory stopping in Ocho Rios and Grand Caymon.  We were in an Ocean Suite (Stateroom 7272) and that enhanced our enjoyment tremendously. 

There was one aspect of the trip that detracted equally as tremendously from our enjoyment and that is why I am writing.

It was exceedingly annoying to the point of infuriating to be blasted out of a sound sleep anywhere between 12:00 midnight and 3:30 a.m. (this morning for example) by loud obnoxious and exceedingly rude drunks returning (I assumed) to their cabins.  I understand that Carnival is all about "fun" but fun works two ways.  We like to get up early and get a full day out of our cruises.  We do not appreciate having those early mornings start six hours early because other cruisers were having "fun" and in their drunkenness failed to be considerate of others onboard.

This annoyance happened all five nights of the trip so it was not an isolated singular issue.  And by the sounds of the voices involved there were multiple people of multiple age groups involved. 

It’s all well and good to print something in the "Fun Times" daily activities sheet reminding people about be quiet after a certain hour.  It’s quite another to enforce your rules.

You have a large contingent of security people on your ship who seem to be visible when people are getting on and off the ship in ports but rarely at any other time.  Why not harness some of that potential energy of theirs and have them actively and frequently and conspicuously patrolling the hallways and confronting (and arresting if need be) guests who are loud and obnoxious like we experienced on this cruise?  Do something!!  We have cruised on the Victory before and on the Paradise and the same issue with noise occurred on those cruises although not at the volume and frequency we experienced this trip.

We have also cruised frequently on Norwegian and once on Royal Caribbean and NEVER was there an instance of loud and obnoxious travelers on any of those cruises.


I'm all for fun and cutting loose - in bars or in the comedy club.  However when it comes time for people to sleep then we should not be rudely and regularly awakened by fellow cruisers who left not only their inhibitions but also their common sense and common respect for others at home while they cruised with Carnival.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cruising Away in Margaritaville



Norwegian Cruise Line was already our preferred cruise line even before this earth-shattering and historic partnership.  Photo by Emily Michot, Miami Herald Staff

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am slightly more than just a casual Jimmy Buffett fan.  I’ve seen him in concert 39 times in venues extending from Honolulu to Boston and Miami.  I’ve edited part of his book “Where Is Joe Merchant” at his personal request.  I dedicated my first book “Somewhere South of Miami” to him.  I maintain a “Buffett Altar” on a window landing on the steps to the second floor of my house.  On it I keep all of his books, menus swiped from his restaurants, a carving of a shark, a stack of napkins that say “Margaritaville” on them, and other things that rabid Parrotheads would keep as a normal part of their abnormal lives. 


The only altar I pray at is this one on a landing by the steps to the second floor of my house



My Buffett altar also contains an "autographed picture of Andy Devine" as mentioned in his song "Pencil Thin Moustache."

I have also been to 32 of the 37 existing Margaritaville Café’s, resorts, casinos, Air Margaritaville’s in foreign airports, and Landshark Landing Bars and Grills.  My goal in retirement is to one day to have consumed a beer in each of his properties and that goal brings me to the beginning of this story.  

In early December 2014 the Parrothead Nation and the cruising world were rocked by the announcement that Jimmy Buffett and Norwegian Cruise Line had formed a partnership that would result in Buffett performing live on a transatlantic cruise when the new ship Norwegian Escape comes into service.  The agreement also called for the eventual establishment of a Margaritaville Café-like bar to be called the “5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar” on each of the ships in Norwegian’s fleet.  If that was not enough one of the existing bars on Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas would be called the “5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar.”

The exciting news of this agreement was released the day before I boarded the Norwegian Sky for a weekend cruise to the Bahamas.  Already the news was making some Norwegian employees giddy or at least as giddy as me.

Laurel, the person who checked me in at the terminal in Miami was beyond elated when I asked if she had heard about the Buffett agreement.  With eyes as wide as saucers she said “I know.  Can you believe it sir?  Jimmy Buffett is going to play on one of OUR ships!  There has to be a way I can get on that cruise!!”

A few minutes later I met Adolphus as I reached the top of the steps on Deck 11 of the Sky.  An officer on the ship, Adolphus greeted me saying “How are you this afternoon, mon?”  I was surprised that an officer would greet me in such an informal manner.  However when I looked at his name tag things became much clearer.

His name tag contained his first and last name, his rank, and his home country.  In Adolphus’ case that was Jamaica.  At 6 feet 6 inches tall Adolphus was by far the tallest Jamaican I have ever met.  As he shook my hand he looked at my baseball cap.  Across the front of the cap were the words “Red Stripe” for the famous Jamaican beer.  Quickly doing his own 2 + 2 calculation he correctly surmised that I had been to Jamaica before.

“So you’ve been to my country, mon,” he asked.



The most important highway sign in all of Jamaica is this one on a major road in Montego Bay just half a kilometer from Margaritaville Mo' Bay

I had on several occasions and in fact the weekend following our chance meeting onboard the Norwegian Sky, I would be on another cruise ship bound for Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast. 

“What are you going to do in Ocho Rios?  Go see Dunn’s River Falls?”

I’ve been to Dunn’s River Falls several times and wasn’t interested in returning.  Instead I said “My partner and her daughter are going SCUBA diving and I’m going to sit in the Margaritaville Café by the cruise terminal and drink Red Stripes while I wait for them to return.”



My two personal mermaids, here on a dive off Key Largo, Florida in August 2014, will be diving off Ocho Rios Jamaica on December 15, and Grand Caymon Island December 16

“Margaritaville?  You’re going to Margaritaville?”

Confirming his suspicion he asked, “So are you a Parrothead, mon?”

Confirming that suspicion Adolphus flashed a huge toothy grin and said, “Did you hear the exciting news?  Jimmy Buffett is going to perform on one of our cruise ships!”

I told Adolphus that I’d read it online the day before and then saw a story about it in the Miami Herald that morning.

“So Adolphus, what do you think of having Buffett on one of your ships?”

“It’s going to be a huge money maker for our cruise line.  I told the captain this morning that whatever ship Jimmy plays on the cruise will sell out in seconds!’

Twenty-one years earlier I attempted to purchase one ticket for a Jimmy Buffett concert in Irvine, California.  The venue held about 20,000 fans and the concert sold out in 7 minutes. I read about the concert in the Los Angeles Times the next morning.  Obtaining tickets for other concerts in venues larger than where he played in California is problematic at best and that includes more than 30,000 seats at the amphitheater where he performs in Tampa.  There being only 2,000 or so rooms on a cruise ship I surmised that Adolphus was correct and the entire ship would be unavailable in seconds.  My guess is that Norwegian Cruise Line could offer postage-stamp sized interior rooms on a Buffett cruise for $2,000 per person double occupancy and they will all sell out in moments.





The best part of a Jimmy Buffett concert is that for about 4 hours one evening each year children from 3 to 103 get to play in an adult sandbox and nobody cares


“Did you hear about the Margaritaville Café’s we’re going to have onboard?  We are going to have Margaritaville Café’s on each of our ships over the next couple years!”

Right now the 37 extant Café’s extend from Sydney, Australia east to the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico and within a year there will be one on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.  The specter of a Margaritaville Café on each of Norwegian’s ships excited me as much as it exhausted me especially if I am to fulfill my goal of drinking a beer in each of them. 

 Air Margaritaville - San Juan Airport (Customs there didn't hassle me)



Margaritaville Grand Turk is a huge pool party just inches from where you exit your cruise ship


The Margaritaville Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi


The best party in the Parrothead Nation is at Margaritaville Cozumel.  It doesn't get any better than here

“Right now I’m trying to drink a beer in every Margaritaville on the planet and that task just became more difficult Adolphus.  I’m not sure what to do,” I said.

He smiled again and said, “You’ll just have to buy the cruise line, mon.”

Our conversation drifted back to my upcoming trip to Ocho Rios the following weekend as Adolphus asked me how many times I have visited his country.  “Next weekend will be my eighth trip to Jamaica,” I said.  I then told him that during my 7th Jamaican trip a woman in Montego Bay told me that if I visit Jamaica ten times I would become a hybrid citizen of both America and Jamaica and would be known as a “Jamerican.” 



The Jamaican bobsled team is already my most favorite group of bobsledders.

He snickered and said “You’ve already been to Jamaica so many times plus you like Jimmy Buffett I think I will just christen you a Jamerican right now mon.”  He then shook my hand and welcomed me to Jamerica.  


If only I could find a way to merge these two passports into one I could travel the world as a Jamerican, mon


Now I have to find a Jamerican embassy so I can apply for my passport. 

What Happens When You Don't Go Ashore?


The Norwegian Sky makes two trips a week from Miami to the Bahamas.  Its definitely one of Norwegian's "Party" ships

Over dinner one evening while onboard the Norwegian Star from Copenhagen to Miami I heard a man tell a tale about his around-the-world cruise.  He began the journey in Miami, traversed the Panama Canal and then crossed the South Pacific to Australia.  From the land of dingoes and koala bears he traveled north to Thailand, then further west to India, before making landfall in Durban, South Africa.  Later they stopped in places like Ascension Island and Dakar, Senegal, before crossing the Atlantic and returning to Miami.  His world-circling cruise took up 180 days, almost exactly one-half of a year, and he had enough stories to tell from the journey to last him the rest of his days.

I was fascinated by his tales of the ports he visited, the islands he explored, and the people he met.  However what intrigued me even more was his story about a fellow traveler who sailed around the world with him. This man boarded the cruise ship in Miami, sailed for 180 days and did not leave the ship until it returned to Miami a half-a-year later.  The fellow traveler on the Star was as flummoxed by the port-avoiding traveler as I was.  When I asked him why the port-avoider never left the ship he said, “He wanted to see if he could do it.”

Although we were scheduled to depart Miami in mid-December on a five-day cruise to Jamaica and Grand Cayman, I was tempted by the extremely cheap fare Norwegian was offering the weekend before on their three-night cruise to the Bahamas aboard the Sky.  It was one of those fares that are simply too cheap to pass up and despite my partner being unable to travel with me because of other commitments, I booked the cruise and traveled without her.  One cruise magazine had declared that this 3-night weekend cruise to the Bahamas was “the best weekend getaway cruise” and another said the cruise was “the best party cruise sailing from Miami.”  Our earlier experience on the Sky suggested that both statements were correct.

Earlier that year we had taken this same cruise ship on the same itinerary, to the same islands and to the same ports.  Thus there was nothing new to see on this journey but it was taking me back to the Bahamas.  For more than 30 years I have felt that the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands are more my home than any place I have lived since moving from Wisconsin long ago. A journey back there, if only for a weekend, would be a sweet reunion with where I belong.

As the Sky sailed into Nassau harbour on Saturday morning I was finishing breakfast in the Great Outdoor Café on Deck 11.  All around me weekend cruisers were talking about the shore excursions they had planned during our 10 hour stay on New Providence Island.  A couple from Tampa and their two small children were going to take part in the Blue Lagoon Dolphin Encounter where they could swim with bottle-nosed dolphins in a semi-enclosed area not far from the cruise terminal.  A seriously red-necked couple from Jacksonville was drooling over their upcoming day trip to the super gaudy Atlantis development that has destroyed much of the beauty and character of Paradise Island.  Seated nearby was an octogenarian couple from New York that was planning to take part in the Charm of Nassau bus tour. Having lived in Nassau earlier in my life I never found anything that was particularly charming about the place but remained silent and decided to let them discover that reality on their own.



The Hilton British Colonial Hotel on Junkanoo Beach in Nassau used to be painted pink when it was the Shreraton British Colonial Hotel.  Luckily now someone at Hilton knows a little about what color to paint the outside of a hotel

Others around me were similarly excited about their coming adventures and when the cruise director announced that the ship had been cleared by local immigration authorities and people could leave the ship, the bulk of the occupants on Deck 11 moved like a drove of lemmings toward the stairs and elevators and they began their departure.  I slowly finished my breakfast and watched the occupancy level of the ship decline exponentially in a matter of minutes.  Looking around me I overheard others conversing about their plans for the day.  They had no interest in stepping off the ship and were instead going to remain on board.  A man with a classic Eastern Shore of Maryland accent (You can tell Eastern Shore people by how they pronounce the word “sure”.  While others say “sure” if you are from the Eastern Shore you pronounce it like “shore” and this man was “shore”) stated emphatically that the cost of food and everything else in Nassau was disproportionately excessive so he was going to stay onboard where he could eat lunch for free.

His logic struck a chord with me and I remembered the story of the round-the-world traveler who stayed onboard his ship for 180 days.   My only interest in departing the ship was to visit Bahamas Immigration to get a visa stamped in my nearly virgin and newest passport.  From there I wanted to hike past the gaudy Hilton British Colonial Hotel to Junkanoo Beach to drink a Kalik beer at the Tiki Bikini Bar on my favorite Bahamian beach.  If I walked quickly and drank even more quickly I could obtain the visa and have a beer and be back onboard by 10:00 a.m.  That would give me a full 8 hours to watch and listen to others to find out why some people travel hundreds of miles by ship and never leave its confines. 

The Tiki Bikini Bar was the only one on the beach that was open at this early hour on Saturday morning.  A sign posted prominently on the side of the bar offered three beers and three shots for $10.  When I was in college three beers and three shots for $10 would have been an easy decision to make.  Forty five years afterward I view things a little differently. 



The Tiki Bikini Bar on Junkanoo Beach was open for business early on Saturday.  The Kalik was cold, the coconuts were abundant, and Jill from Wichita was stumbling away from the bar after four coconut milks and rum drinks that Byron made for her

Byron, an expert coconut slicer and bartender summed up families nicely as he sliced open a coconut for a woman named Jill from Wichita.  Byron’s grandfather was puttering around inside and out of the bar making himself look active and trying to get in everyone’s way.  “That’s my drunken grandfather,” Byron said.  “A family isn’t a family unless it has a drunk or a drug addict or both in it.”

A mildly drunken Brit from Kent near London was sitting at the end of a beach bar drinking a pina colada when he tried to shock me saying "You know what the most common name is for a baby boy born in England today?" I didn't.

He said "It’s Mohammed" He then added "It used to be Oliver but now it’s fucking Mohammed!"

Snickering I said "Well if I had a choice between Mohammed and Oliver I'd pick Mohammed any day."

Annoyed that I didn't take his lets-hate-all-Arabs bait he bellowed "Well MY NAME is Oliver!"

I finished my beer and said "And that proves my point."  Saying farewell to Byron and Jill the soon-to-be coconut milk and rum addict, I returned to the ship.  It was 10:00 a.m.

I met Mark, a pretentious New Yorker who sat at the other end of the Outrigger Bar on Deck 11 forward where he nursed a bottle of Samuel Adams as I ordered a 32 ounce oil can of Foster’s Lager, the supposedly Australian beer made famous to Americans (and despised by Australians) in the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” 

“How did you know they have Fosters,” Mark demanded.

“I have sailed on Norwegian several times before and know that they carry Foster’s.  The oil cans are the best bargain for beer on this ship.” 

At $8.00 for a can of beer a Foster’s was the best value by volume especially when a 12 ounce bottle of Sam Adams or Stella Artois was $7.06 with the automatic gratuity added. 

“Well I wouldn’t know about bargains,” Mark smirked, “I bought the ‘Ultimate Beverage Package” and I drink as much beer as I want for one price each and every day!”

Mark’s “bargain” cost $55.00 each day for each person in his stateroom.  Assuming his wife or girlfriend was along he was shelling out $110 per day for the three day cruise, or $330.00 to drink as much beer as he wanted.  At $7.00 a bottle for the Sam Adams he was drinking, Mark would have to consume eight bottles of beer each day just to break even.  There was no bargain involved until after he had swallowed eight beers every day and by the time he reached that plateau of beer volume he likely wouldn’t realize if he was enjoying a bargain or not.

Sheila who lacked the smugness and the New York accent snapped at Mark and told him to not be so rude to me.  To me Mark was just a typical New Yorker whose middle name is “Rude.”

I asked Sheila about their cruise because she seemed more approachable and less under the influence than Mark. 

“We cruise all the time on Norwegian,” she began.  “Usually we sail to Bermuda for seven days but this time we decided to come to Miami and try a weekend in the Bahamas.”

Curious about her activities I asked Sheila what she and Mark planned to do in the Bahamas all weekend long.  Rather matter-of-factly she said, “We plan to drink.”

“You’re not getting off the ship at all this weekend?”

“Not until we get back to Miami.”

Wanting to know more I pressed her further.  “The Bahamas have a really cool history,” I said.  “Plus there are all these beaches to explore.”  As we talked we were looking over Nassau harbour toward Junkanoo Beach from which I had just returned.  Turning our heads the other way we could see Paradise Island and the monstrous Atlantis development that has defiled so much of that once-beautiful island.

“If I wanted to be surrounded by niggers and spics we would have just stayed in New York City this weekend,” Sheila barked.  “We go on cruises to get drunk.  We could give a fuck about history or anything else.”

The ship was about one-half full at lunch time.  Many people were plopped down by the various pools and hot tubs with plates heaped full of food and several drinks ready for quick consumption.  The juxtaposition of the sun-seekers on board the ship with the spectacularly scenic beaches was difficult for me to comprehend.  Not more than a mile away people were luxuriating on crippling beautiful Junkanoo Beach.  However these people were beyond content with staying put by the pool and ignoring the beauty all around them. 

Beautiful Junkanoo Beach was just a stone's throw from the cruise ship yet more people seemed content to look at it from the pool deck on the Norwegian Sky than to walk a few hundred meters to it and explore it on their own

Marsha, from the great cheesehead state of Wisconsin, slurred her words as she tried to explain why she remained onboard.

“It’s so fucking cold where I live (Green Bay) that I don’t need to walk and I don’t need a beach.  All I need is to get away from the fucking cold and that is what I’m doing.” 

In Paul Theroux’ excellent tome Happy Isles of Oceania he describes an encounter with two American tourist couples somewhere in the South Pacific.  He listened to their conversations and realized that these people had been in many places but they did not have a clue about where they had been.  Theroux called them the “Been There’s and the Done That’s” because, in his mind, that was all these couples were getting out of travel.  He summarized this encounter by saying “A tourist doesn’t know where he’s been.  A traveler doesn’t know where he’s going.”

I was a tourist when I first came to the Bahamas because I took no time to get to know where I was.  I found more joy in sending postcards back to someone with a cute little note about where I was, than I did in digging into where I was and learning about why I should not leave.  It did not matter at first that the Bahamas had a robust history filled with tales of pirates, and gun runners, and booze runners, and more recently, with cocaine runners.  To me, all the Bahamas were, was a warm place away from an ex-wife that came complete with pretty beaches, and pretty post cards and lots of drinks to keep me numbed from most of what was around me. 

Marsha was that same sort of a tourist.  She could care less about what was nearby as she soaked half-drunk in a hot tub.  In Marsha’s view it could just as well have been the hot tub at the Hilton Garden Inn on Lombardi Avenue back home in Green Bay.  The beer tasted the same here and her buzz was the same as back home.  To Marsha all that mattered was that it wasn’t cold outside as she became drunker. I view travel, even a cruise, through the eyes of a traveler and overlook the fact that most other people on a ship or in a plane view things through their eyes.

Norwegian Cruise Line had an active afternoon planned for its guests who chose to stay onboard.  At 12:30 there was a shuffleboard tournament on the sports deck.  At 1:15 there was a card making class in Captain Cook’s lounge.  Afternoon trivia was available in the same lounge at 2:00 and at 3:00 there was a seminar on relieving back pain in the aerobic studio.  At 3:30 that same studio had a class on bicycling and at 4:00 there was a dance class for single women pool side.  And also at 4:00 there was a “win, lose, or draw” card contest at Captain Cook’s. 

These and other activities were available to keep people active and engaged and I walked up and down the steps and traversed the length of each deck for four hours to learn if anyone took part in what Norwegian offered.  Most of what was offered was being offered to empty rooms although four people probably in their 80s sat in Dazzles lounge watching the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  The movie had the best turn out of all that was offered.

The rest of the people who stayed on board were in the pools and soaking in the hot tubs beer and liquor drinks in hand and a plate piled high with carbohydrates waiting for them in their beach chairs.

Taylor, Tracy, and their son Travis from Fort Lauderdale were wallowing in one of the hot tubs on Deck 11 when I arrived.  They had been on a morning tour of Nassau and had apparently seen all they wanted to see.  Now Taylor and Tracy were going to get drunk and Travis was the designated watcher.

I asked Tracy if they made it to the west end of the island with its exclusive homes and thick growth of trees.  They hadn’t. 

I asked if they saw the fuel docks on the south shore of the island or the Kalik brewery nearby.  They hadn’t. 

Did they stop by to look at Lake Cunningham?  “Where’s that,” Tracy asked.

Did their tour guide point out the U.S. Embassy as they drove down Bay Street?  He hadn’t.

What about Potter’s Cay that sits beneath the bridge to Paradise Island?  “Where’s that,” Taylor asked.

The T family had taken part in the “Grand Tour of Nassau” but it appeared the only thing grand was the price. 

“We saw the hotels on Cable Beach,” Taylor proudly added.  We could see those same hotels and the beach in front of them from where we sat in the Deck 11 hot tubs. There was no need to pay a tour guide to take them there. 

Tracy said “The best part of the tour was the Straw Market.”  She pointed at the three identical t shirts they had draped over their pool chair they had purchased in what is most likely Nassau’s largest and most famous tourist trap.  Each was white with the words “I (image of a heart) The Bahamas.”  Apparently that was all they learned about the Bahamas from their grand tour.  

The T family didn’t have a clue.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Birding on Great Stirrup Cay - My New Most Favorite Bahamian Island



My first look at the Bahamas was from a port window on a gigantic Delta Airlines L-1011 aircraft as we lumbered southeast from Atlanta toward Nassau.  Not many minutes after passing over Jacksonville, Florida we came onto the crystalline green waters of the Bahamas Bank.  Some years later singer Zac Brown used the phrase “a lovely shade of margarita green” to describe West Indian waters; he may have received the inspiration for that verse from the Bahamas Bank.

It was June 3, 1984, and I was to spend several days in Nassau on New Providence Island.  The purpose of my trip was two-fold.  First I was the newly appointed project leader on a research project designed to discover if conditions in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands were restricting the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler and keeping its population from expanding.  At the time there was an estimated 211 singing males in the population – way too close to extinction for comfort.  I traveled to Nassau to meet Bahamian and US Embassy officials to help ease our research effort into place the coming winter.   My other purpose, unknown to me at the time, was to find a place to lick my wounds and heal after a very painful divorce. 

Ultimately we discovered that the issue affecting Kirtland’s Warbler was not enough nesting habitat in north-central Michigan (there are now more than 2,000 nesting pairs and the species should probably be down-listed to Threatened under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act).  I also discovered that despite my most dire personal predictions I could actually survive the pain of a divorce and the Bahamas, along with the Turks and Caicos Islands, (and at this link) were where I made that discovery.

Kirtland's Warbler is the bird that first brought me to the Bahamas and now I seem unable to stay away from the islands.  Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

From 1984 to 1986 I searched for Kirtland’s Warblers over the length and breadth of the Bahamas from Grand Bahama and Little Abaco islands in the north, to Great Inagua in the south.  Because of emphatic warnings by a Drug Enforcement Administration undercover special agent who had an office next to mine in the US Embassy in Nassau, we were strictly forbidden from traveling to Andros and the Bimini’s.  It wasn’t until many years later that I finally traveled to the Bimini’s on my own.   We also did not search the Berry Islands because (foolishly) I thought their small size would preclude the presence of any Kirtland’s Warblers.  My assistant Paul Sievert (now the Assistant Leader of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Massachusetts) traveled to the Berry Islands (near Chub Cay) to go fishing for 3 days with  Pericles Meillis, a Nassau attorney.  That was the closest any of us came to exploring the Berry Islands.  Paul and Pericles caught fish and drank Goombay Smashes and didn’t pay much attention to birds.

Great Stirrup Cay looking west toward Little Stirrup Cay. This image shows the harbor area where tenders bring guests ashore and the heavily developed beach area.  Native habitats beyond the beach are largely untouched and provide superb habitat for a nice assemblage of resident and migrant/wintering birds

Thirty years after my first look at the Bahamas on New Providence Island I finally made it ashore on Great Stirrup Cay in the Berry Islands.  Cathy and I were aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship the Norwegian Sky on a three-night cruise to the Bahamas from Miami.  Unfortunately I didn’t listen to my cardiologist’s advice before the cruise; I drank too much caffeinated coffee and had my fourth episode of atrial fibrillation.  Doctors on board restricted me from leaving the ship while we were at anchor offshore from Great Stirrup Cay although I did sneak on the island for an hour or so allowing me to say I had been “on” Great Stirrup Cay.  Cathy spent the entire day tromping around the island and absolutely loved it; I longed to return to find out what I missed.

The Norwegian Sky, an excellent ship and home away from home on the ocean, is the simplest way to travel to Great Stirrup Cay

Recently Norwegian offered a ridiculously cheap rate on their December 5-8 weekend cruise to Nassau and to Great Stirrup Cay and despite Cathy not being able to travel that weekend, I went by myself making Great Stirrup Cay the 19th Bahamian island I have explored.  The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism says there are 700 islands in the islands so I have a long way to go before I step on all of them.

Birding

The ship arrived offshore from Great Stirrup Cay long before sunrise on December 7, 2014.  Tenders were scheduled to begin transporting passengers to shore at 8:00 a.m. and I sat on the balcony of my room looking for birds at sea until 7:45.  The typical assemblage of gulls was present foraging in the waters being churned up by the massive propellers of the ship.  There were maybe 20 Laughing Gulls, 7 Ring-billed Gulls, 8 Herring Gulls and a remarkable 8 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (all adult) squabbling among themselves for the scraps of whatever fishes were being chopped up by the ship.  When I was on the island in January, I found 8 adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls perched on the rocks at the entrance to the harbour.  I thought they were a fluke then but their presence 11 months later, coupled with a third-year bird observed on the island, suggests that they may be of regular occurrence here.


Great Stirrup Cay in the Berry Islands is a perfect patch of largely untrammeled paradise barely 2 miles long and not very wide.  Its an excellent island to search for birds and forget about whatever may be bothering you back home







Tenders ferry passengers from the ship to the island at 15-20 minute intervals between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  Don't miss the 4:30 tender or you'll be stuck on the island for 3 days until the Norwegian Sky returns.  Come to think of it being stuck on this island isn't a half-bad idea

Following standard hurry up and wait procedures on the ship and the smarmy warning of an officious prick who works in the Norwegian Cruise Line security office, a quick ride on a tender brought the first guests to the cruise “terminal” on the island about 8:30.  There I showed a satellite image of the island to Wayne, a South African who apparently was the onsite manager of the island for Norwegian Cruise Line.  Wayne told me that he had the enviable position of living on the island with 60 or so other Norwegian employees and that he returns now to Durban every six months or so.  I showed him the satellite image and asked how to find the obvious east-west running trail that extends the entire 2 miles or so length of the island.  From the cruise dock area it was a simple hike over a small wooden bridge to the tram stop.  I turned left (east) and followed the trail to its end just past the abandoned lighthouse (that has an Osprey nest on its top).  Also near here is a helipad that has been named the “Great Stirrup Cay International Airport.” 



The end of the road on Great Stirrup Cay is impossible to miss



Looking at the tranquil waters on the south side of the island was like being rocked to sleep as a baby


The abandoned lighthouse at the east end of the island now supports an Osprey nest.  Thick coppice vegetation surrounding the lighthouse drips with wintering warblers plus native species such as Thick-billed Vireo and Red-legged Thrush



The helipad is referred to jokingly as the Great Stirrup Cay International Airport. Its "runway" is about 100 feet long and the terminal is non-existent.  At least arrivals and departures are easy to find.

As expected this time of year the thick West Indian coppice produced a nice assortment of warblers that nest in North America including Palm Warbler, Cape May, Yellow-rumped, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula and Yellow Warbler.  


The thick coppice vegetation that blankets the island supports many wintering warblers

In his excellent bird finding guide to the Bahamas, Tony White states that a Kirtland’s Warbler was once recorded on Great Stirrup Cay.  This totally destroyed my earlier prediction that the island was too small to attract one or more and I’m glad that my prediction was incorrect.  However based on the habitat used by the 9 Kirtland’s Warblers that Paul Sievert found during our research in the Bahamas 30 years ago, the coppice on Great Stirrup Cay appears to be too tall and robust for Kirtland’s Warbler.  Further, our observations of a male Kirtland’s that we color-banded on Eleuthera one winter (it returned to the same place two more winters) wintering Kirtland’s forage extensively on the fruits of a shrub named Lantana involucrata that I did not see anywhere on Great Stirrup Cay.  


A dirt road traverses the spine of the island 

From the lighthouse I walked along the road the entire length of the island to its western tip at the inlet separating Great Stirrup Cay and Little Stirrup Cay (Royal Caribbean International has renamed Little Stirrup as “Coco Cay” for its marketing purposes with its guests).  

Well-placed and frequent signs along the road make orientation simple

Returning toward the harbour I detoured from the road to the various beaches that Norwegian has developed for its guests.  I also followed a trail to their “Water Adventures” area where people could rent jet skis (too bad they don’t issue jet ski hunting licenses there also – I would have bought one).  



The only positive use I can think of for jet skis is target practice

A robust growth of Red Mangrove and Black Mangrove occurs here and this is where I found the singing Mangrove Cuckoo and had a fly over Belted Kingfisher.


A robust yet small growth of mangroves provides habitat for Mangrove Cuckoo and Yellow Warbler

Norwegian has cut several hiking trails through the thick coppice vegetation which facilitated easy access to the interior of the hammocks.  In here I was able to spish out an Ovenbird and two Northern Waterthrushes.   Later a Merlin flew over me in hot pursuit of some hapless bird that forgot to stay hidden.  


Several excellent hiking trails provide access to the interior of the coppice vegetation where Ovenbirds and Northern Waterthrush were found

A small tidal pool near the water slide was where I hoped to find shorebirds other than Ruddy Turnstones but no such luck. Maybe next time


The beach areas and the region around the outdoor lunch area were heavily occupied by Laughing Gulls.  I found a group of 4 Ruddy Turnstones on one beach and 2 more foraging under people’s feet at the outdoor lunch area.  Someone had earlier found an American Oystercatcher here and I wonder where it was because Oystercatcher habitat is in very short supply as is habitat for almost any other shorebird.  One site near the water slide supported sea water that washed over the beach during high tide and I was hoping for a yellowlegs or something similar but found no shorebirds. 





Several beach areas provide habitat for gulls and Ruddy Turnstones not to mention several thousand flipper-less mermaids of various sizes and shapes and nationalities

Occasional grassy areas along the main road held Black-faced Grassquit and at one place I found an Indigo Bunting already in alternate plumage and ready for the nesting season to begin.  A Zenaida Dove foraging at the edge of the road and two White-crowned Pigeons in a patch of Poisonwood were the only Columbids observed.  



Poisonwood provides important food for White-crowned Pigeons. However if you are allergic to poison ivy then you don't even want to think about coming close to these leaves!

Bananaquits were everywhere (as expected) and were the most numerous bird recorded.  Two Western Spindalis were heard giving their Cedar Waxwing-like calls and later seen perched in a low branch of an Australian Pine.  One Bahama Woodstar was zooming around in the coppice looking for the few plants that were in flower and producing nectar.



Gumbo limbo is known throughout the West Indies as the "tourist tree" because just like newly-arrived tourists its skin is red and it peels

Other species that would excite a North American birder were the 4 Bahama Mockingbirds, 17 Thick-billed Vireos and 2 Red-legged Thrushes that were found at various places around the island.  As is typical for Thick-billed Vireos they responded quickly and aggressively to spishing, approaching within a foot or two of me in once instance.  I think one of these days I’m just going to reach out and see if I can grab one off a branch!

I ended the day with 33 species and wished that I had more time on the island than I was allowed.  The last tender back to the ship departs at 4:30 p.m. and you don’t want to miss it or you’ll be there for 3 more days until the Norwegian Sky returns!  Thus if you time things correctly you can be onshore by 8:30 a.m. and stay a full 8 hours before catching the last tender back to the ship.

Birds Observed on Great Stirrup Cay, December 7 2014

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Ruddy Turnstone
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Royal Tern
White-crowned Pigeon
Zenaida Dove
Mangrove Cuckoo
Bahama Woodstar
Belted Kingfisher
Merlin
La Sagra's Flycatcher
White-eyed Vireo
Thick-billed Vireo
Red-legged Thrush
Gray Catbird
Bahama Mockingbird
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Bananaquit (most numerous bird observed)
Black-faced Grassquit
Western Spindalis
Indigo Bunting

There are several areas away from the heavily impacted beach site where invasive Australian Pines (Causarina) grow.  It’s unfortunate that they have not been removed before now.  Norwegian has about 60 employees on the island who, other than conducting regular maintenance on facilities have five days of the week when there are no guests on the island, could do some habitat management.  Perhaps with the right amount of persuasion Norwegian could be convinced to remove the distant Australian Pines to enhance native habitats.  It would also be nice if they did some fire management or cut down some of the existing tall coppice to encourage the growth of Lantana involucrata, hence providing habitat for wintering Kirtland’s Warbler should one decide to pass through on its way to larger islands in the islands.


I wonder if active habitat management including the removal of invasive Australian pine away from the tourist area wouldn't enhance the growth of Lantana involucrata that might attract more Kirtland's Warblers in winter?

Logistics

Norwegian Cruise Line is our preferred cruise line so I’m a little biased in promoting their cruises to the Bahamas but what the hell I’ll do it.  The Sky travels to the Bahamas twice weekly.  One cruise departs Miami at 5:00 p.m. on Monday arriving Grand Bahama (Freeport) on Tuesday, Nassau on Wednesday and Great Stirrup Cay on Thursday before returning to Miami at 7:00 a.m. on Friday.   

The other cruise, a 3 night journey like the two I have taken, departs Miami at 5:00 p.m.on Friday with stops in Nassau on Saturday and Great Stirrup Cay on Sunday.  Why the cruise line isn’t blasting “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” from its public address system as it leaves Miami Harbour is beyond me!  This is especially true now that Jimmy Buffett and Norwegian have entered an agreement where eventually all Norwegian ships will have a Margaritaville Cafe- like bar called the "5 O'Clock Somewhere" bar and one of those bars will also be on Great Stirrup Cay.  As if Norwegian wasn't already our preferred cruise line the Jimmy Buffett connection only cemented our preference.  

Away from holiday periods when the cost of a cruise is ridiculously and disproportionally expensive, the three night cruises are as cheap as $99 per person double and the four night cruises are as cheap as $109 per person double.  I booked this latest cruise on Tuesday for a Friday departure and received a fire sale rate for a single in a balcony.  Floridians are able to take advantage of those sorts of last minute sales designed to fill the ship.  Folks from further away don’t generally have that luxury.   One word of warning if you go with an inside room…Stateroom 7114 (where Cathy and I stayed on the first cruise) is slightly smaller than a postage stamp.  If you are assigned that micro-sized room beg them to give you another one.  It is ridiculously small.


All in all a trip to Great Stirrup Cay is an excellent way to spend a weekend and for those who haven’t birded much outside of the United States it is the perfect introduction to West Indian bird life. I have now arrived in the Bahamas on 55 different occasions (52 times by plane and 3 times on a ship) and I’m looking forward to the 56th arrival, and the 57th and the 58th and with luck they will all be aboard the Norwegian Sky anchored offshore from what is now my most favorite Bahamian island.

List of the 19 Bahamian Islands I have visited - only 681 more to go!


Island
First Visit
Cat Island
1985
Elbow Cay
2003
Eleuthera
1985
Grand Bahama
1985
Great Abaco
1985
Great Exuma
1985
Great Inagua
1985
Great Stirrup Cay
2014
Little Abaco
1985
Little Exuma
1985
Little San Salvador
2013
Long Island
1985
Man O’War Cay
2003
Mayaguana
1985
New Providence
1984
North Bimini
2002
Paradise Island
1984
Rose Island
1984
South Bimini
2002