Bahamas’ Salty Sanctuary for the Pink Flamingo


Looking through binoculars, I saw one of the neon-pink birds enter stage left, goose-stepping in its ridiculous fashion atop the water, struggling to reach takeoff speed. The instant I was certain that gravity would prevail over the flamingo’s flapping, the great bird was airborne.

The island of Great Inagua is home to the greatest flamingo show on earth. More than 30,000 of the birds, along with cormorants, spoonbills, herons and egrets, congregate on this remote Bahamian isle.

If Great Inagua isn’t at the end of the Earth, it’s close. The southernmost and one of the least visited of the Bahamas, it is located about 350 miles southeast of the Bahamian capital city of Nassau, which is on New Providence Island. You realize just how close to the Caribbean Sea you are when you climb to the observation tower of the Matthew Town lighthouse and see Cuba in the misty distance, along with Tortuga Island off the north coast of Haiti.


Inagua is not your basic tropical island, unless by “tropical” you mean relentless southeasterly trade winds, intense solar radiation and a paucity of freshwater. Whoever called the Bahamas the “Isles of Perpetual June” didn’t visit Inagua. The island’s name is a corruption of heneagua , derived from a Spanish word designating a site full of salty water, as Inagua was judged by explorers.

Inagua is still full of salty water, an attraction for the Morton Salt Co., which operates one of the word’s largest solar evaporation saltworks here. Dikes hold back shallow but extensive reservoirs that contain water pumped from the sea. The sun glares relentlessly onto the reservoirs, evaporating the moisture. The seawater thickens first to concentrated brine, then congeals into layers of almost pure salt. Morton dump trucks drive onto the salt flats to collect the harvest, some 1 million tons of sea salt annually.

The salt, known locally as “Inagua snow,” accumulates along the edge of the reservoirs and piles into drifts. It stings the face when the trade winds kick up. The salt is brutal on the island’s fast-rusting cars and trucks.

But what is hell for machinery is a heavenly home for the long-legged, long-necked flaming pink flamingo. In 1963, the Bahamas National Trust convinced the government to set aside 287 square miles in the interior of Inagua as a preserve for the birds. A few years ago, the flamingo reserve became Inagua National Park, encompassing almost half the island. The park includes 12-mile-long Lake Rosa and numerous mucky salinas lined With mangroves--all customary feeding and nesting grounds for the flamingos.

Most birds are graceful aloft. The hyperkinetic flamingo is not one of them. The long distance between beak and feet makes it an awkward aircraft. In flight, it appears to be giving itself artificial respiration.

Flamingos are related to swans, but it’s doubtful anyone will ever name a ballet after the flamingo or mistake Inagua’s marshlands for Swan Lake. Though desolate in appearance, the brackish waters of Inagua National Park provide the brine shrimp, mollusks and plant seeds required by the flamingo.


The bird’s manner of eating is every bit as peculiar as its flight pattern. The flamingo may be the only vertebrate that feeds with its head upside down while it is standing right-side up.

Some of the best bird-watching is at Long Cay Camp, established as a flamingo research station by the Audubon Society. You can make arrangements to use the Spartan camp by contacting the Bahamas National Trust.

Some spy-novel buffs claim Long Cay Camp was the inspiration for the 1962 James Bond adventure, “Dr. No.” Agent 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, was an avid bird-watcher and filched the name of his superhero from real-life ornithologist James Bond, author of a West Indies bird guide.

I’ll never forget my hike through Inagua National Park, watching hundreds of flamingos feeding nearby, sending a raucous chorus echoing across the water. I stood transfixed, oblivious even to the attentions of the well-named ferocious sandfly. Nothing stood between me and the edge of the world, it seemed, but pink birds.

To get to Great Inagua Island, you must fly Bahamasair, which offers two flights weekly, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from Nassau to Matthew Town Airport.

Lodging on Inagua is limited to the Main House, operated by the Morton Salt Co., and Ford’s Inagua Inn. Both places have dining rooms with fresh fish on the menu.


You can check at the hotels about arranging tours of Inagua National Park through the Bahamas National Trust, or call the Trust directly before you head for the island.

Inaguans are extremely friendly, though less accustomed to visitors than islanders elsewhere in the Bahamian archipelago. Morton Salt Co., which employs most Inaguans, has brought a relative measure of prosperity to the island, thus Inagua’s economy is not tourist-dependent.

Despite the lack of tourist facilities, increasing numbers of bird-watchers, nature lovers and photographers are making their way to the island, particularly during the flamingo mating season in the spring.

Take a hike with John McKinney’s guidebook: “Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California” ($16.95). Send check or money order to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Dept. 1, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Great Inagua / The Bahamas Where: Inagua National Park. Distance: Probably 2-3 miles over the national park salt flats. Terrain: Extensive salt flats, deserted beaches. Highlights: Preening and posturing pink flamingos. Degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate. Precautions: Wear hat, sun block. For more information: Contact the Bahamas Tourist Office, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles, 90010, (213) 385-0033; Bahamas National Trust, P.O. Box N4105, Nassau, Bahamas, (809) 393-1317; Bahamasair, (800) 222-4262.