Alberto Puente-Rolon (Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Arecibo) and I were incredibly fortunate to spend a week on the Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas. Cay Sal is a partially emergent island bank situated about 100 km south of Islamorada in the Florida Keys and about 50 km north of the Cuban Bank in the vicinity of Sagua la Grande. Politically part of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, the bank is separated from the Great Bahama Bank by the 47 km-wide Santarem Channel, and is about 175 km west of the southern tip of Andros Island. Cay Sal Bank is a shallow carbonate platform with dozens of small emergent islands around the edges of the roughly triangular-shaped bank.
A note before we launch into the narrative of our trip. The Cay Sal Bank is an area known for a significant amount of illegal activity. This largely involves illegal fishing fleets and human trafficking. While a typical visitor to the area would not likely be in great danger from these activities, there is always the possibility that you might run into the wrong people at the wrong time. Illegal fishing vessels have been known to harass, intimidate, and attempt to board cruising vessels on Cay Sal, while happening upon a human or drug trafficking exchange could be extremely dangerous. We saw evidence of all of these activities during our cruise, and mention some specifics in the narrative below. In addition, the Cay Sal Bank is remote. There are occasional Coast Guard planes in the area, but keep in mind that there might not be many vessels able to monitor emergency radio channels (channel 16) or respond quickly to an emergency. We cruised to the region with a highly experienced crew and a very well maintained and outfitted vessel, and we recommend anyone else planning to visit do the same, as well as consider taking all available safety precautions. I am happy to discuss my experiences in detail with researchers interested in visiting the area.
We arrived on the bank at dawn after an overnight cruise from Bimini, where we had cleared Bahamas customs and immigration. Our first stop was Dog Rocks, where we were able to disembark and swim ashore for a short walkabout on the largest of the small rocks jutting out of the ocean. The Dog Rocks mark the eastern edge of the Cay Sal Bank, and as far as we were aware there were no herpetofaunal records from these islands. Most are rocky and jagged, likely washed over during hurricanes and largely devoid of vegetation. Great Dog Rock is quite small, with a patchy covering of ground vegetation. There is a single large, pyramid shaped stand of Cocoloba uvifera near the center of the island-
approximately 5 meters high and 10 meters wide. Quite a few Sooty Terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) and Brown Noddies (Anous stolidus) nest here. Even in this very isolated and largely barren stretch of rocks, we managed to locate Anolis sagrei. The large males and robust females were mostly occupying the Cocoloba stand, though we did find juveniles, young males, and females on the ground near the scrub vegetation. We even located a juvenile underneath a discarded conch (Strombus gigas) shell. We spent about two hours here, plenty of time to survey the entire island. We did not find evidence of any other terrestrial reptiles, and it is quite remarkable that even A. sagrei could persist there.
Our next stop was at the Damas Cays, a small group of narrow, high-walled islets jutting out along the spine of the eastern Cay Sal Bank. Like Dog Rocks, we are unaware of any herpetofaunal records from Damas, and for good reason. We took a rigid inflatable boat out for a brief survey of the largest of the Damas Cays. There are no easy landing spots on the island, so landing would require a swim. There was very little vegetation, we spotted a single small shrub and some very sparse groundcover. As we approached the island to land, we lost power on our outboard engine and were losing daylight, so we opted to repair the engine and not to clamber ashore.
We then cruised across the bank to the southwestern edge, about 80 km from Cuba. Continue reading Anole Surveys on the Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas