With more than 700 islands and some 2,000 cays, The Bahamas spreads over 259,000 sq. km (100,000 sq. miles) of the Atlantic Ocean and encompasses countless natural attractions, including underwater reefs that stretch 1,220km (758 miles) from the Abacos in the northeast to Long Island in the southeast.

The Bahamas is the largest oceanic archipelago nation in the tropical Atlantic, with miles of crystal-clear waters rich in fish and other marine resources. Although New Providence is heavily populated, the rest of the Out Islands, including Grand Bahama, have relatively small populations. Unlike Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean island nations, The Bahamas has large areas of undeveloped natural land. The islands also have the most extensive ocean-hole and limestone cave systems in the world.

The country's approximately 2,330 sq. km (900 sq. miles) of coral reefs include the world's third-largest barrier reef, off the coast of Andros. Reef marine life includes green moray eels, cinnamon clownfish, and Nassau grouper. The Bahamas was one of the first Caribbean countries to outlaw long-line fishing, recognizing it as a threat to regional ecology.

Another act of Parliament, the Wild Birds Protection Act, was passed to ensure the survival of all bird species throughout The Bahamas. Great Inagua Island is home to more than 60,000 pink flamingos, Bahamian parrots, and much of the world's population of reddish egrets. These birds live in the government-protected 743-sq.-km (287-sq.-mile) Inagua National Park.

These islands are also home to more than 1,370 plant species and some 13 endemic mammal species, the majority of them bats. Other resident mammals include wild pigs, donkeys, raccoons, and the Abaco wild horse. Whales and dolphins, including the humpback and blue whales and the spotted dolphin, are in the seas around the islands.

The Bahamas National Trust administers 12 national parks and protected areas covering more than 97,100 hectares (239,939 acres). Its headquarters, which is home to one of the Western Hemisphere's finest collections of wild palms, is in Nassau at the Retreat Gardens on Village Road (tel. 242/393-1317; www.bnt.bs). Volunteers help arrange visits to the islands' national parks, the best of which are previewed below.

Ecotourism highlights of The Bahamas include:

  • Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park -- This park was the first of its kind anywhere on the planet and is a major attraction of The Bahamas. The 35km-long (22-mile), 13km-wide (8-mile) natural preserve encompasses 450 sq. km (174 sq. miles) of sea gardens with spectacular reefs, flora, and fauna. Inaugurated in 1958, it lies some 35km (22 miles) northwest of Staniel Cay (64km/40 miles southeast of Nassau) and is accessible only by boat. The Exumas provide one of the world's most colorful yachting grounds. Its nearest rivals in the Caribbean are the British Virgin Islands and the Grenadines.
  • Inagua National Park -- Located on Great Inagua Island in the Southern Bahamas, this park is internationally famous as the site of the world's largest colony of wild West Indian flamingos. In Bahamian dialect, these birds are sometimes called fillymingos or flamingas.
  • Union Creek Reserve -- This 18-sq.-km (7-sq.-mile) enclosed tidal creek on Great Inagua serves as a captive breeding research site at which to study giant sea turtles, with special emphasis on the endangered green turtle. In the distant past, the waters around Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos teemed with prehistoric-looking green turtles. However, because they were a valuable food source, they were overhunted and their population diminished greatly.

For more information, contact the Ecotourism Association of Grand Bahama (tel. 242/373-2485).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.