The Spanish Wells Fishing Boat from Above
Ryan Neilly and guests in the Spanish Wells Fishing boat in Eleuthera, Bahamas, July 13, 2020. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

Reeling In Uncertainty

SPANISH WELLS, Bahamas — Captain Ryan Neilly, 50, said making an income in the Bahamian out islands is a lot like the tides. Earnings ebb and flow with seasonality.

Because many Spanish Wells residents rely on tourism and commercial fishing, Neilly said inconsistent income is a problem they prepare for. However, he said “there was no preparing” for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Somebody turned the switch off. Everything went dead,” said Neilly, describing the pandemic’s impact on Spanish Wells Fishing, the tour guide and fishing charter business he operates alongside his son Keegan Neilly.

According to the total foreign arrivals summary report released by the Bahamian Government, the Eleuthera area (which includes Spanish Wells and Harbour Island) welcomed over 100,000 visitors between January and March 2020. When the Bahamian government closed the borders in April and May, arrivals flatlined.

2019 v.s. 2020 Foreign Arrivals Comparison Chart

Though Neilly said he’s no stranger to career changes, he never anticipated that anything would force him to work back on land — especially not a global pandemic and government-sanctioned shut-down. The extenuating circumstances brought about by COVID-19 forced Neilly to seek “essential” work. 

“I got to feed the family. I can’t just sit back and not do anything,” he said. “So I started doing construction work.”

Neilly said he traded his original career as a commercial lobster fisherman — the most prevalent occupation for men in Spanish Wells — to work in construction years ago. Back then, Neilly said he had four young kids at home and couldn’t justify the weeks spent at sea during lobster season, which runs from Aug. 1 to March 31. 

About eight years ago, amid his original stint as a licensed contractor, Neilly said he purchased a boat he’d always admired — a crisp white 26’ Panga with a T-Top and a roaring Mercury motor. 

“I only bought as a personal boat,” Neilly said. But soon after the purchase, he said he started taking friends and visitors out to snorkel and reef fish in the crystal-clear Bahamian waters a couple of days each week. 

“It just kept increasing more and more and more, until finally, the pigs come along,” he said. “Then business just boomed.”

A pig in the Bahamas, June 23, 2018. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

 Roughly five years ago, Neilly said the internationally renowned “swimming pigs” made their local debut on a shrubby, uninhabited island south of Spanish Wells known as Meek’s Patch when a local person purchased and placed them there. 

The original swimming pigs are famous for swimming in the striking ultramarine waters that border their island in the Exumas, roughly one hundred miles from Spanish Wells. 

Once the Eleutheran islands got their own swimming pigs, Neilly said the increased demand for tours inspired more Spanish Wells men to abandon commercial fishing (and other occupations) to start tour businesses. 

Until COVID-19 obliterated tourism last March, Neilly said there were plenty of pig-loving tourists to go around. 

In fact, Neilly said 2019 was Spanish Wells Fishing’s best year yet. “Some days in March, I had up to six boats running a day,” he said, even though Neilly and his son Keegan only own two boats. “I just subcontract out to four guys that I trust to do a good job.”

One of those four guys is Nathaniel Pinder, 33, who cofounded Mus’ Be Dreamin Charters with a friend in 2019.

“I was so busy I was ready to pull my roots out,” Pinder said, emphasizing the seemingly endless demand for local tours he experienced before COVID-19 gripped the country. 

Some of the demand, he said, came from visitors who would typically visit the Abacos islands — an area of the country ripped apart by Hurricane Dorian in September of 2019. 

“We had all licensed our boats and paid our big liability insurances and all our legitimate inspections for 2020. And then, we got locked down right before the busiest month,” Pinder said.

Pinder said the pandemic crushed his new business. “The only reason I came out pretty good is because I also commercial lobster fish.” But, he said that wasn’t the case for everyone on the 2 1/2-mile island. 

“Some people were only getting the few bucks the government was providing for unemployment and that as it,” he said. “They could hardly pay a power bill out here.”

According to the National Insurance Board of The Bahamas,  unemployment benefits equate to 50% of the average weekly insurable income with a maximum payment of $200 per week. The minimum payment an unemployed Bahamian can receive is $62.31, and the maximum amount of time a Bahamian can receive unemployment benefits is 13 weeks.

The Bahamian government also deployed a COVID-19 relief package to assist self-employed and tourism-dependent Bahamians, but the additional support was similar to the country’s regular unemployment benefits. 

Considering that the Bahamas is listed as the sixth most expensive country in the world to reside in, unemployment payments don’t stretch very far. In the case of residential electricity, the average cost per kilowatt-hour in the Bahamas is nearly 200% higher than the average rate in Florida

Despite the countless challenges the Spanish Wells residents faced in 2020, Neilly and Pinder said they renewed their licenses, inspections and insurance for 2021. However, Pinder doesn’t believe he’ll recoup his business expenses until mid-Summer, at the earliest.

“It’s either the end of the world or it’s going to get better,” Pinder said. With pent-up demand from international shutdowns and vaccinations underway, he said he’s choosing optimism after a grueling year for Bahamian tourism. 

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