1: The Arrival
It wasn't until days later, when a local Bahamian (wearing long black pants, shiny black shoes, and a dress shirt with the long sleeves rolled up) spoke to me about how much warmer these islands get in the summertime, that I remembered what season we were in.
The 4-hour flight from Toronto didn't take me far enough south to leave the Northern Hemisphere and therefore, at the end of December, it had to still be winter. My plane took off from a snow-covered runway, with heavy cross-winds carrying flakes of ice through the crisp -10°C air, and touched down the same afternoon in dry and cloudless 21°C weather. That's more of a temperature jump than I'm used to experiencing between two seasons at home... And of course I wasn't dressed for either of the two.
To add to the excitement, I had no cell service and no idea where on the island of New Providence (the largest of The Bahamas) I was staying. The rest of the company had already arrived some hours prior (I bought my flight last minute) and, before boarding in Toronto, I was simply told "look for your name when you exit, Lamont will give you a ride". No, this wasn't my personal escort, but a local taxi driver who was kindly asked to find me at the airport and whom I was to pay upon my delivery to our place of residence. It was a bit unnerving and quite surreal being on this somewhat remote island for the first time ever and not having the slightest clue of what I am about to walk out to once I exit from the baggage claim.
And what if I didn't find my mystery driver as I stepped out of the glass gates? Who knows, but one quick scan of the arrivals foyer and there he was, casually leaning on the nearby railing with a piece of cardboard in one hand, my full name scribbled on it with black sharpie marker (I always wondered what these people with name tags at airports were up to and what made the passengers getting picked up by them so important...) Anyhow, here I was with Lamont; a cheerful, welcoming, and remarkably laid back gentleman. After loading my things into his van and a few minutes of random conversation on the road, I finally blurted out "so where are we going?". Realizing instantly that, with this in mind, he can now take me absolutely anywhere on the island and convince me it's my intended destination.
But what can possibly go wrong? We were only a few hours by air out of Canada driving across a country consisting of 700 islands scattered across the waters of the Caribbean.
2: Republic of Pirates
The year is 1716 and the Golden Age of piracy is at its height. "Queen Anne's Revenge" is moored alongside a Caribbean dock while her pirate crew celebrate a successful cruise. At first light they sail for the pirate haven of Nassau... 
I came to this island with pretty much no plans and for no particular reason, other than to enjoy some heat in the middle of winter and explore another small corner of the world. Little did I know... I have landed in a city that two centuries ago was the pirate haven of the Caribbean, and home to some of the most renowned pirates in history.
Nassau was home to Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach), perhaps the most famous pirate of all time, who was romanticized after his death and became an inspiration for the typical pirate image across many works of fiction, from novels like "Treasure Island" and "Captain Blood" to well known films like "Pirates of the Caribbean".
The traditional pirate flag above (used throughout the "Pirates of the Caribbean" universe) was the flag of John Rackham (known as Calico Jack), another pirate of Nassau. He is most remembered for the design of this original "Jolly Roger" flag (a skull with crossed swords) and for having two female crew members, who also happen to be the most famous (but not the only) female pirates in history: Anne Bonny and Mary Reid. Other big names of Nassau pirates include Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, and Bartholomew Roberts. Known as "Black Bart", Bartholomew Roberts was considered to be the most effective and most feared pirate of his day. He had plundered several hundred ships in the Caribbean and along the coast of North America. His version of the Jolly Roger flag depicted himself standing next to death (a skeleton with a spear), together holding up an hourglass in the centre of the flag.
So who were they and where did they come from?
The vast majority of pirates were young seamen who were either forced into or chose piracy when their ship was captured, or were made redundant by the navy and saw piracy as an easy option. An ordinary seaman in the navy was poorly paid and endured harsh discipline and savage punishment. Life on a merchant ship was equally bleak. Piracy offered the prospect of rum, riches, women, and the warm seas of the Caribbean. Many pirates agreed with Bartholomew Roberts who was prepared to risk death for a life of luxury and ease. His motto was "A short life but a merry one" 
 from the "Pirates of Nassau" museum in Nassau, Bahamas
3: Shark Site
"Hold on to this rope and stop moving your feet!!"
I surfaced with my scuba tank nearly empty. I've gone diving about a half dozen times before, but it has been a while, so it took me some way through the dive to start controlling my breathing properly. Slower and deeper breaths is the recommended practice underwater. This was quickly thrown off as I saw the first of a few grey tail fins whip by - somewhat in the distance (maybe about 20 feet) but still much too close for comfort.
It was Christmas day. We descended to 18 metres (almost 60 feet), my deepest dive to date and the limit of my PADI Open Water certification. We were now near the ocean floor and making our way towards the remains of a small ship. Most of the divers floated around its exterior but, for a lack of adrenaline, I decided to swim right through what used to be the ship's cabin, now just a dark metal wreck covered in greenery. This was a bit of a stretch for my level of dive trailing, not to mention my comfort zone: the space was tight and the interior pitch black. With small circular windows and a very narrow entrance, almost no light was reaching the depths of the ship cabin. I went in following nothing but a single source of light - a large flashlight sitting on top of the photographer's camera. And immediately got a flashback to one of my first ever dives in the Black Sea, when I got the regulator (mouth piece supplying oxygen) kicked out of my mouth in an underwater cave...
Back to the surface. After an exhilarating experience underwater, I took a breath of fresh air above sea level, took off the big blue fins off of my feet and threw them into the boat. I was looking around treading water while waiting my turn to climb up the ladder and get out of the heavy scuba gear. Then I heard a sudden "Stop!!", quickly turned back to the boat and saw the captain running towards the back of the deck. It took me a second to realize he was yelling at me. "Stop moving!" he snapped again, while I stared in confusion.
Then he picked up a thick yellow rope and threw it down in my general direction: "Hold on to this rope and stop moving your feet!!" which is when I finally clued in... More calmly now, when he saw that I followed his instructions, he firmly said "We're at a shark site. Hold still until you're out of the water."
And all of a sudden it made perfect sense. The sharks had whipped right by us, several of them, while we were underwater, and one or two were somewhere just beneath us even now. But it's one thing for them to see a few people swim by, dressed in synthetics and with a metal tank on their backs, clearly minding their own business, while it's another to see raw flesh (in the form of feet without fins on) moving around above them in the water...
My heart skipped a few beats between the time I had come to this realization and when I was finally back into the boat but all was good and I learned a valuable lesson.
4: Sky juice
We pulled off the road along Nassau's downtown waterfront strip and parked in the small lot of one of its many bars. It was barely past breakfast time so, not surprisingly, they all appeared closed. But my taxi driver companion knew just the right place. We walked in to loud greeting and excitement from a man who could've been the owner, and the lady bartender. The greeting and excitement of course addressed at my taxi driver friend who seemed to be aquatinted with everybody in the town. They were still some time away from opening but were happy to see an old friend and were more than ready to serve us.
"Two glasses of sky juice please." - I pulled out my last few US bills to pay for our drinks. It was something like $12 for the two. The process was quick but delicate. The selection of gin was extensive, but she reached for a specific one - Gordon's.
This particular gin, coconut juice, and a touch of condensed milk are the three ingredients making up the original recipe of Sky Juice, which was born here in the Bahamas. The result is a cloudy looking mixture, very similar to the look of the water in the above shot.
Very smooth and sneakily powerful.
5: Few more snapshots
One of the first photos I took on the island, on the evening of my first night: a crescent moon way up in the sky with silhouettes of a large palm and some other vegetation in the foreground.
The next day I woke up and decided I was going to make a round trip around New Providence.
After walking some long miles along Bay Street, the largest road of this island, which runs along the entire northern coast and through downtown Nassau, I decided to take a stroll off on a random side street. As I got away from the coast, the engines of cars and the general busyness of the harbour, filled with the jumbled voices of locals and tourists, all faded away, until all you could hear was the rustling of the surrounding trees and the distant sound of the water. Here I ran into a pretty cool mural on the side of an abandoned building (above). The other wall to the left had a painting of a bar counter, decorated with bottles, with another group of people standing at it and chatting while waiting for their drinks.
And above is a basketball court somewhere on the west side of New Providence, a few steps off the island "highway" that is Bay Street, sitting in a field of grass and palms. Across the street is a make-shift little shop-tent just off the road, where a local elderly lady sold cans of juice and snacks for a dollar or so each (which I couldn't pass up in this kind of heat).
A ceiling full of deep sea creatures, where more and more of them seemed to emerge, the longer you looked... This was somewhere inside one of the massive vestibules of Atlantis, a giant resort on Paradise Island, just off the coast of New Providence (connected to it by a bridge).
A pair of coconuts high up in a palm. If you found one of these lying around under a tree (or made your way to the top), you could crack one open and drink some of the fresh juice from inside.
The only other place I've seen starfish in their natural habitat was on a beach of Vancouver city. But it has been over a decade since I've gotten this close to one. Marvellous creatures.
With that in mind, a note on starfish: if you happen to come by one, remember that it can't survive long outside of the water so best observe from above (or from underwater). And if you must get a closer look, be gentle with it and don't take it out for more than a few minutes.
See these photos and more from the Bahamas in the adventure and prints galleries.