I was diving with my nephew Tom Walmsley off the reef at Paradise Point, ogling the parrotfish and baby sharks, when the 48-hour hurricane warning came. Tom is an underwater wildlife cameraman; he’s been working in the Caribbean for the past month. I’d just flown down to join him on North Bimini, a Bahamian islet in the Gulf Stream, sixty miles from the Florida keys.
As Hurricane Georges came closer we wondered if we should leave the island. The last sea-plane was leaving for Miami that afternoon; it wasn’t due to return till the hurricane had passed. But it seemed a shame to pack up so soon after arriving. So we stayed on. We watched as the locals secured their boats among the mangroves—redoubtable plants whose aquatic roots break the huge force of the waves—then stocked up their refrigerators, filled plastic barrels with fresh water and boarded up their houses. We did our best to emulate their forward planning. Then we settled in for the storm.
The big wind whirling up from Cuba turned us into compulsive TV watchers. Weather forecasts are gripping if you’re in the path of trouble. Like following the course of a yacht race in a high wind—while you’re clinging to a buoy. Listening to the weathermen backing their bets on the direction that Georges was likely to take through the Florida Strait I could see why meteorologists anthropomorphize these overgrown tropical storms, naming them—one can only imagine—after their loved ones, or their pets. How proud little Georges Forecaster must be of his eponymous hurricane, though it lives only as long as a Tamagochi.
US television reporters presented the weather as though it were a small war. At times like these, it seems, coast-dwelling thrill-seekers in the United States rush to the beach with their surfboards to catch the shore break, while TV crews record their folly. Sensible folk stay indoors and channel-surf. But not for too long. The satellite pictures on Miami’s Channel Seven were so hypnotic they had to interrupt the broadcast to tell viewers in the Florida Keys to switch off and start packing.
An island in the stream
Bimini has a louche reputation. It’s the setting of Hemingway’s fishing and drinking novel, Islands in the Stream, and it’s where the first black US congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, fled in the 1960s to escape charges of libel and tax evasion (accompanied by an aptly-named companion, Darlene Expose). Twenty years later, another US politician, the presidential hopeful Gary Hart, was photographed here with Donna Rice, a woman-not-his-wife, an affair that ended his hopes of the 1967 Democratic nomination.
The picture of Donna Rice and Gary Hart now hangs in the bar at the Compleat Angler, the island’s most celebrated drinking place. The barman points out to visitors—without prejudice, he says—that President Clinton has yet to make a trip to Bimini.
The island continues to draw the blue marlin crowd, rich rednecks whose idea of fun is a life-and-death struggle with a big fish. (They live; the fish dies.) There’s a scattering of minor showbiz celebrities. And these days Bimini has a novel lure: it’s become a global mecca for new-age dolphin lovers. A pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins hangs out in the shallow waters off the north shore. Many tourists, including some whose visit was cut short by Hurricane Georges, visit the island to seek spiritual communion with these wondrous aquatic mammals. For the votaries of oceanic pantheism Bimini has become a sacred site, a place of pilgrimage, the location—not the first to be so identified—of the lost city of Atlantis.