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Protecting Paradise

Nassau

When was the last time you saw a sea turtle? I live a city life, juggling meetings, kids, screens—the only sea turtles I ever see flash by are on Twitter. This may be why the whole issue of plastic drinking straws seems so distant—some say they’re bad, some say they’re not a big deal. It all flashes by and I fail to take sides. After all, sea turtles are mythical creatures, like unicorns, right?

“No!” says Eric Hall, who I meet at Atlantis, Paradise Island, famous mainly for its aquariums and lagoons that combined have 11 million gallons of seawater, with two water slides threaded through the shark tank. Atlantis dominates little Paradise Island, ringed in white sand, studded with palm trees and reached via bridge from Nassau, Bahamas, a one-hour flight southeast from Miami.

Hall grew up in the Bahamas, and he wants me to understand the culture of the place. The first thing I need to know, he says, is that there are four species of sea turtles that call the Bahamian archipelago of nearly 700 islands, isles and cays home. Seven hundred islands? Yes, explains Hall. Bahamians think of the Bahamas like this: There are 30-odd “home islands” where most people came from back in the day and where they may retire. A handful of busy islands like New Providence, location of the city of Nassau, are where everyone works. The rest of the islands? Only the sea turtles, crabs, parrots and fishermen know them well.

An earlier generation might have taken sea turtles for granted, Hall tells me, but the younger generation thinks of these sea turtles as something like their distant cousins’ cousins or their free-running pets or at least as the canaries in the coal mine of the Bahamas’ environment. If the sea turtles die, what will that mean for the 400,000 Bahamians who need clean drinking water, clean swimming water and tourists on these famous white sand beaches?

That’s why Atlantis switched all of its 44 restaurants to paper straws, because plastic straws in the water can kill turtles. That’s why it established a marine habitat for endangered hawksbill turtles. And why it opened the Caribbean’s premier sustainable seafood restaurant, Fish by José Andrés, where tourists can order a plate of lionfish for the table. It’s all part of the Atlantis Blue Project. Lionfish, you see, is an invasive fish that experts think people, for as many as 25 years, have been dumping out of their aquariums into the Atlantic Ocean, where it began to gobble up the native fish. Now that it’s served in a high-end restaurant, Bahamians are going out and spearing these bad, bad fish—and serving them as ceviche or filleted, with char-grilled Brussels sprouts.

“For so many years, there was just bad environmental news coming and coming, and there was nothing you could do; it was depressing,” Hall says. “The first time I got a lionfish put on the table in front of me, I was like: Yeah! Score one for the good guys, finally. It’s such a palpable sense that you’re doing something good for the environment.”

The next morning, I get up early to explore the resort before my appointment to swim with rescued dolphins. Darting about, I note the white, cotton candy clouds tinged with pink above and the shallow pools between banks of hotel rooms where the nurse sharks curl together like spoons, sleeping. Then I see it: A wire mesh enclosure on the white sand, protecting buried turtle eggs from prying bird beaks. In the adjoining pool: enormous sea turtles! Big as beanbag chairs, green and gray, with warm eyes and wise, grizzled faces. These turtles have injuries, such as wounded flippers, preventing their return to the ocean.

After lunch, I take the most delicious nutmeg-coconut-rum drink to the soft, coral sand beach and sip it through a paper straw. Poking up in the sand near where I sit, I see the crinkled head of an old plastic straw. I snatch it up to protect my newly made friends. How astounding, to see the picture-perfect Caribbean the way the Bahamians do—not merely gorgeous, but alive and supporting an infinite future because a group of folks care and are working at one luxury resort to make it so.

Where to Stay

If you want to feel as if you’re on the set of Entourage, stay at Atlantis’ The Cove for an over-18 pool where they serve fresh coconut milk rum drinks and the rooms are spare—Soho-chic spare. The Ocean Club at the Four Seasons will be familiar to James Bond fans as the site of the 2006 Casino Royale remake—but you’ll have to bring your own Aston Martin. 

 

Where to Eat

Fish by José Andrés is where to get your selfie with a fried lionfish—and a lot more sustainable seafood, too. Hit McKenzie’s at Marina Village on Paradise Island for the most Bahamian food of them all: salad with a giant mollusk that’s pried from its shell, thinly sliced and served “scorched” with fresh sour orange, onion, green bell pepper and a finely minced Scotch bonnet pepper. Frankie Gone Bananas is a classic Bahamian fish-fry shack; don’t miss the “cracked” local lobster—it’s sweet, crisp-fried and fresh as Caribbean sunbeams. atlantisbahamas.com, 

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