Contemporary Bahamian culture still revolves around family, church and the sea, but the proximity of North America and the arrival of cable TV has had a profound influence on contemporary life and material values.
In Nassau and Freeport, most working people are employed in banking, tourism or government work and live a nine-to-five lifestyle.
The citizens inhabiting the islands outside of New Providence and Grand Bahama, called the Out Islands or Family Islands, are a bit more neighborly and traditional. Thus the practice of Obeah (a form of African-based ritual magic), bush medicine, and folkloric songs and tales still infuse their daily lives. Though tourism is bringing change to the Out Islands, many people still live simple lives centered on fishing, catching conch and lobster, and raising corn, bananas and other crops.
The Bahamas rock to the soul-riveting sounds of calypso, soca, reggae and its own distinctive music, which echoes African rhythms and synthesizes Caribbean calypso, soca and English folk songs into its own goombay beat.
Goombay – the name comes from an African word for ‘rhythm’ – derives its melody from a guitar, piano or horn instrument, accompanied by any combination of goatskin goombay drums, maracas, rhythm sticks, rattles, conch-shell horns, fifes, flutes and cowbells, to add a kalik-kalik-kalik sound.
Rake ’n’ scrape is the Bahamas’ down-home, working-class music, usually featuring a guitar, an accordion, shakers made from the pods of poinciana trees, and other makeshift instruments, such as a saw played with a screwdriver.
Landscape & Wildlife
The Bahamas National Trust maintains 26 national parks and reserves, including large sections of the barrier reef, but outside of the national park system, inappropriate development, pollution and overexploitation increasingly threaten wildlife and marine resources. Although the Bahamas was the first Caribbean nation to outlaw long-line fishing, the islands’ stocks of grouper, spiny lobster and conch all face the consequences of overfishing.
Today, local groups are leading the ecocharge. The Abacos’ Friends of the Environment (www.friendsoftheenvironment.org) organizes community-wide projects and passes the message along in schools. In Eleuthera, the Eleuthera School (www.islandschool.org) is earning kudos as an environmental learning center, drawing US high schoolers as well as adult ‘students’ looking to become environmentally engaged global citizens.
The Bahamas banned hunting and eating of sea turtles, an endangered species, in 2009.
The Bahamian islands are strewn in a linear fashion from northwest to southeast. Several of them – Great Abaco, Eleuthera, Long Island and Andros – are more than 160km in length. Few, however, are more than a few miles wide. All are low-lying, and the highest point in the Bahamas – Mt Alvernia on Cat Island – is only 62m above sea level.
Virtually the entire length of these shores is lined by white- or pinkish-sand beaches – about 3540km in all – shelving into turquoise shallows. The interiors are generally marked by scrub-filled forests and, on some of the more remote islands, the plants found here are still used in bush medicine.
The islands are pocked by blue holes – water-filled circular pits that open to underground and submarine caves and descend as far as 182m.
The islands are a birdwatcher’s paradise, with about 300 recorded species of birds. Only a few are endemic, including the Bahama swallow, the endangered Bahama parrot, and the Bahama woodstar hummingbird, a pugnacious bird weighing less than a US nickel. The West Indian (Caribbean) flamingo – the national bird – inhabits Crooked Island, Long Cay and the sanctuary of Great Inagua.
Iguanas inhabit some outlying isles and cays, and are protected. The archipelago’s largest native land animal, they can reach 1.2m in length.
The region’s marine life is as varied as its islands and coral reefs. Depending on who you believe, the Bahamas have between 2330 sq km and 6992 sq km of coral reef, and countless species of fish, such as bonito, stingrays, sharks, kingfish, jewelfish and deep-blue Creole wrasse.
Humpback whales pass through the waters windward of the Bahamas and blue whales are also frequently sighted.