Did you know that as part of the sale agreement, Holland America Line promised to maintain the vast majority of Half Moon Cay as a nature preserve and wild bird sanctuary? This wild area is of “extreme importance” as a bird sanctuary, especially for nesting seabirds, according to leading Bahamian conservationists. The lagoon is an important habitat for bonefish and other marine life including lemon sharks, barracuda and stingrays. Several varieties of turtles lay their eggs along the shoreline.
As a nature area, the island did attract some attention among scientists. Noted botanist Nathanial Lord Britton, who co-founded the New York Botanical Garden, visited Little San Salvador in 1905, while surveying dry forests and documenting plant species in the Bahamas as part of a planned conservation effort. He also visited Eleuthera and Cat Island. In 1907, he published a report about the trip in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden.
As a wild bird sanctuary, Half Moon Cay is especially noteworthy for its colonies of seabirds and burrowing owls, according to Shelley Cant-Woodside, director of science & policy for the Bahamas National Trust, a nonprofit organization that since 2010 has been the official advisor to the government of the Bahamas on conservation and the environment. The island was first proposed by the organization as a protected area in 1983. According to the “Avifauna of Little San Salvador,” a 1993 report by Robert Northon of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Little San Salvador was first protected as a wild bird preserve under The Wild Birds (Protection) Act of 1905, under the guidance and cooperation of the National Audubon Society. (Note: The BNT has no record of this designation).
Half Moon Cay is important to the biology of the Bahamas, Cant-Woodside says. At one time, there was a specific program on the island counting white-crowned pigeon, a threatened species. The Bahamas has had success in protecting this bird, due in part to the untouched habitat on Half Moon Cay.
In terms of waterfowl, the island is considered important for white-tailed tropic birds and for four species of terns – Roseate, Sooty, Bridled and Brown Noddies – who nest here in late spring and summer. These seabirds are a species of concern, their population declining globally because they nest in cavities in the ground and are vulnerable to predators including cats, dogs and pigs. They can no longer nest on any inhabited island because of populations of these predators, according to Cant-Woodside. Another important bird on Half Moon Cay is the burrowing owl. The owls are considered a threatened species and protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, the United States and Mexico. They are only about nine inches tall and may be spotted on Half Moon Cay in the pastures near the horse stables, their preferred nesting ground.
The island population includes shearwaters and Bahamian pintails, ospreys (an important predator) and Bahamian mockingbirds, seen only in the Bahamas. Great blue heron, snowy egrets and merlin make appearances, especially in the area around the lagoon. There are also several types of doves including pintail, morning, ringed neck and tobacco doves that have been reported.
The ruins are a good place to go birding, as is the area around the lagoon, salt ponds (where the white-crowed pigeons and burrowing seabirds tend to hang out) and sisal field near the horse stables. The Bahamas mockingbirds might be spotted on the nature trails. Sharp-eyed visitors may also spot hummingbirds. Cant-Woodside suggests visitors help with documentation of the island’s birdlife by posting sightings on social media, especially on websites such as ebird.com and inaturalist.org.
Half Moon Cay is known throughout the Bahamas for its large inland saltwater lagoon, an important wetland and habitat for marine life including bonefish.
Fishermen from Eleuthera and Cat Island come to fish the lagoon. Bonefishing is similar to fly-fishing and a popular sport in the Bahamas (as well as in the Florida Keys). The out islands of the Bahamas are considered the best place in the world to go bonefishing. In the lagoon also are barracuda, who come to hunt the silvery bonefish. The lagoon is a breeding area for sharks, including lemon sharks, and sea turtles. On a glass-bottom boat tour, guests have opportunity to spot a wide variety of species.
Half Moon Cay is in the middle of an area from southern Eleuthera to Cat Island that is considered a marine biodiversity hotspot. In addition to the creatures in the lagoon, there are marine animals in the area including whales.
You may hear a rustle as you walk the paths at Half Moon Cay and it may very well be a little blue tailed or curly tailed lizard. There are also greenhouse frogs and (harmless) brown racer snakes on the island. Visitors might also spot chickens and goats wandering freely on Half Moon Cay.
Shabba the iguana was brought here to make an appearance during eco-tours. He swam to shore, decided he liked Half Moon Cay and is now is so accustomed to humans he lets people feed him by hand. He often shows up at lunch time, especially around the staff area. Shabba is hard to miss since he is about 40 inches long and weighs about 30 pounds. Not to worry, he’s harmless!