Discovering Rum Cay & Conception Island

Where on earth is Rum Cay? Even many Bahamians have never heard of it. It's between San Salvador and Long Island, and is another cay, like Fortune Island, that time forgot.

That wasn't always the case, though. The very name conjures up images of swashbucklers and rumrunners. Doubtless, it was at least a port of call for those dubious seafarers, as it was for ships that took on supplies of salt, fresh water, and food before crossing the Atlantic or going south to Latin America. The cay's name is supposedly derived from a rum-laden sailing ship that wrecked upon its shores.

Like many other Bahamian islands, Rum Cay once attracted British Loyalists fleeing the new United States. They hoped to establish themselves here as farmers and plantation overlords, but even those brave and homeless immigrants abandoned the island as unproductive. Salt mines were the mainstay of the island's economy before they were wiped out by a hurricane at the turn of the 19th century. After that, most of the inhabitants migrated to Nassau; by the 1970s, Rum Cay's population stood at "80 souls." Today, most of Rum Cay's 100 or so inhabitants live at Port Nelson, the island's capital.

The well-known underwater cinematographer Stan Waterman once described Rum Cay as the "unspoiled diving jewel of The Bahamas." For that reason, a diving club was opened here in 1983, but it closed, regrettably, in 1990.

Some maintain that Rum Cay was the next island where Columbus landed after he found and named San Salvador. He dubbed that second spot Santa María de la Concepción. However, many students of history and navigation believe that Columbus made his second landfall at what is today called Conception Island, which lies northwest of Rum Cay and northeast of Long Island. To get here, you'll have to travel via private boat.

Joseph Judge, a writer whose articles have appeared in National Geographic, believes that neither Rum Cay nor Conception was Columbus's second stop. He holds that, based on modern computer science and oceanography, the island the discoverer named Santa María de la Concepción has to be what's now called Crooked Island.

Still, the uninhabited Conception Island is under the protection of The Bahamas National Trust, which preserves it as a national park; it's a sanctuary for migratory birds. The most secretive scuba divers know of excellent dive sites here, and endangered green turtles use the beaches as egg-laying sites. Park rules are strict about prohibiting littering and removing any plant or animal life -- so don't do it.

With the Rum Cay Club's demise, tourist traffic to the island came to a halt except for the odd yachting party or two. It's gaining renewed interest, however, and you can arrange for boaters on San Salvador to take you to see Rum Cay and Conception, which remain frozen in time.

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.