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Q & A with Keith and Linda Cooper, Co-Founders, West End Ecology Tours, West End, Grand Bahama Island, the Bahamas. Boating, fishing, snorkeling, birding, and marine life encounters. Philosophy of “simple, pure, and natural.”
WHEN DID YOU START THIS ENTERPRISE?
We have lived in West End for more than 10 years. Keith is a native of the Bahamas with a long career in the hospitality field, and Linda is a retired school teacher from the USA. We both served in the US Army and are veterans. In 2008 we developed an ecology camp for Bahamian youth to enjoy fishing while learning to become environmental stewards. It’s a successful program that continues today. Not long after that, we received a request from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism to develop an educational program for vacationers. So we launched West End Ecology Tours in 2010. And last year we added Linda Bird Tours.
Usually we see couples and families who are here on vacation and staying at one of the local hotels or resorts, or maybe in a private home.
SINCE YOU ARE SITUATED SO CLOSE TO THE UNITED STATES,
I ASSUME MOST OF YOUR VISITORS ARE FROM THERE?
Yes, we get Americans primarily - but also some Canadians too. We’ve even given tours with visitors from as far away as China, India, and Australia.
HOW REASONABLY PRICED ARE ROOM RATES IN THE BAHAMAS?
Pricing usually depends on the time of year and also the type of accommodations selected - hotel versus vacation home rental, for example. Rates do vary from one property to the next, so it’s worth the time to shop around online. You can find special deals at reduced rates pretty regularly for less than $100 per night. Compared with many island destinations in the Caribbean, tourists find prices here to be very reasonable.
As the town is named, we are at the west end tip of the Grand Bahama island – about 18 miles from Freeport. We have lovely beaches, the ocean, and some nearby cays [small uninhabited keys] to explore. During the summer months sea turtles emerge from the water to lay their eggs in the sand. If we see a group of spotted dolphin, we’ll observe them for a while. There’s a lot of interesting history around here – centuries ago Spanish adventurers arrived with their Galleon ships – there were pirates too - and during the American Prohibition years of the 1920s, this became a bootlegging town filled with gangsters and other assorted characters. Al Capone’s operation smuggled more rum from here to the United States than anyone else. Today the boats you see are mainly used by sports fishermen.
YOU ALSO GO FISHING.
Yes we do. We go boating and fishing, and it is great fun for everyone - families with kids especially. We provide all the fishing supplies, bait, and lessons. We love to show guests how to land their first fish. If they want to keep their catch for eating later, we’ll clean and prepare the fish for them.
Barracuda - this is a popular food source for Bahamians. We also catch plenty of Amber Jacks, Groupers, Mutton Snappers, Mackerel and Yellow Tail Snappers.
THE LOCAL MARINE ECOSYSTEMS SOUND HEALTHY.
Fortunately our coral reefs and sea grass beds are in great shape and support an abundance of fish, crustaceans, and other sea life. Our main concerns come from sail and motor boat owners when they drop anchors carelessly and in places where they should not be – which causes damage to corals especially - and from fishers who upset the natural balance of ecosystems when they harvest too many conch and lobsters all at once.
HAVE LIONFISH INVADED THE WATERS OF THE BAHAMAS AS THEY HAVE ELSEWHERE IN THE ATLANTIC AND THE CARIBBEAN?
Indeed they have, and based on the ones Keith has seen and photographed, they are getting larger and growing in numbers. They are a threat to our native fish populations. The only way to control them is to hunt them and eat them. Many Bahamians are reluctant to eat lionfish mainly because they believe it is a poisonous fish, which is not the case. It will take time to convert enough people before a real impact can be seen.
Most people know that Steve Irwin [the charismatic Australian who was host of “The Crocodile Hunter” TV series] was killed by accident by a stingray [while filming in the Great Barrier Reef in 2006]. In light of that tragedy, we felt it was essential to demonstrate the true nature of these amazing animals – which is that they are naturally inquisitive but gentle and non-aggressive. Keith spent seven years researching data and getting to know these rays before ever hand feeding them. Now our visitors can enjoy these interactions too and learn that rays are not vicious creatures that will attack you. That’s a myth.
LINDA, PLEASE GIVE US A PREVIEW OF YOUR BIRDING TOURS.
Once introductions are made, we’ll discuss the wide variety of bird species that you can see in the Bahamas – as many as 170 different species - from diving sea birds to wading birds to song birds – and then we’ll proceed to search for as many as we can find. If it is winter, we’ll see a wider range due to seasonal migration. As for breeding endemics in the Bahamas, there are six to know about, including the Bahama Warbler and the Bahama Yellowthroat. Every bird type has its place, and they are beautiful to watch and to photograph.
Collectively, West End plus its three small offshore cays are located within the narrow migratory flyway that runs up and down the Atlantic coast and then in Florida splits off in different directions. There are no mountains or hill barriers to overcome. Also there’s plenty of food and water sources and leaf cover. The wetlands and mangrove forests are excellent habitats favored by ducks, egrets, and herons for stopovers or full wintering. About 50% of the migratory birds here are from the USA and Canada.
WHY ARE BIRDS IMPORTANT TO THE LOCAL ECOLOGY?
Birds and plant life have developed an interdependent relationship. The trees and plants produce nectar and berries to attract the birds. The birds come and consume. Then the birds move around to visit other trees and plants, thereby pollinating them and scattering their seeds. Birds also provide nutrients in their droppings which prepares the ground below for new plant growth.
Batter-fried conch fritters or cracked lobsters are the local specialty, and these are typically served with a side of pigeon peas with rice and coleslaw. Fresh-caught fish of course - grilled, fried, baked, however you like it. You should try fresh coconut water to drink – right out of the coconut! Mangoes are a delicious and healthy tropical fruit we enjoy during the summer months when they’re in season. They’re great in salads or in smoothies. Sea Grape and Coco Plum trees provide exotic fruits that will wake up your taste buds!
PLEASE LIST THE MAIN REASONS FOR VISITING THE BAHAMAS AND FOR RESERVING A NATURE TOUR WITH YOU.
We can think of many good reasons: 1) the Bahamas are in very close proximity to the USA – it is only a short hop by ferry or plane from southeast Florida to get here; 2) we’re an English speaking country;
3) the US dollar is on par with the Bahamian dollar; 4) there’s a variety of vacation accommodations here that are priced from budget to luxury; 5) this is a tropical paradise that will fill your days with warm temperatures, soft sand beaches, and crystal clear waters perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
As for our nature tours, we pride ourselves in our knowledge of the local area and ability to answer your questions about the environment, birds, and animals. We are affordably priced and can customize tours. Many people have also told us they appreciate our “family-friendly” approach that suits everyone from grandparents on down to young kids. Our goal is to offer each and every visitor a fun and memorable experience.
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