Cay Sal Bank in the Bahamas, located only about 30 miles north of the central coast of Cuba, consists of numerous islets and cays that were first mapped by the Spanish in 1511, and then claimed for the Spanish crown by Ponce de Leon two years later. The remote bank is known mostly for its spectacular diving and snorkeling opportunities - in fact, some claim it offers the best diving in the entire Caribbean.
On one of the islands in the bank, Elbow Cay, stands a ruined 1839 stone lighthouse built during the long period of British rule in the Bahamas. This is not to be confused with the candy-striped Elbow Cay Lighthouse on the east side of the harbor in Hope Town in the Bahamas.
Gregory Gulik, an avid diver, visited Cay Sal Bank in the summer of 2001 with some friends aboard Sea Fever Diving Cruises out of Miami. A shore excursion gave the divers a chance to explore the old lighthouse site. “The lighthouse was quite deteriorated and impossible to climb,” says Gulik. Elbow Cay is the only island in the bank that was ever inhabited. “The only inhabitants of the island now,” Gulik reports, “are several species of birds, crickets and some fuzzy chitons.” (If you’re wondering, chitons are related to snails, and have eight shells.)
The lighthouse was deactivated in the 1940s, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force reactivated a small three or four man outpost on the nearby main Cay Sal island to watch for drug trafficking from the late 1960s until about 1978. During this period the lighthouse was equipped with a small light. Drug smugglers were landing small planes on the island on an abandoned World War II runway, which since has been deliberately riddled with holes to prevent planes from landing.
Oscar Reyes, who has visited the lighthouse, says, “Many Cubans trying to escape Cuba on rafts and small boats have been wrecked on these small islands and many have written their names on the lighthouse before they attempt to cross to Florida, many never to be heard from again. Inside the lighthouse, there are usually a few jugs of water and tins of food left by boaters for their assistance.” He says the beach at the nearby larger island is “littered with homemade rafts remains and pieces of small boat wrecks.”
As the accompanying photos clearly show, this was once a beautiful lighthouse and it was obviously well built to stand for so long with no maintenance.
This story appeared in the
April 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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