Everything to Know About Swimming With Pigs in the Bahamas
Here it's iguana tails, not human footprints, that leave marks in the sand, and stumbling upon a gleaming pink conch shell the size of your head is as common as having a new shade of blue catch your eye each time you survey the surrounding waters.
But as your boat approaches Big Major Cay, you're awoken from this daydream by some rather boorish inhabitants: loud, snorting pigs paddling out to greet you like a jolly bunch of golden retrievers rushing to the door when their owner finally gets home from a long day of work.
The locals at Big Major's “Pig Beach” are transplants rather than native islanders, just like many of the people you'll meet in the area. And though they've clearly taken to their tropical digs and rising popularity — spurred in part by a dramatic appearance on “The Bachelor” and more than a few well-liked Instagram posts — the rewards of fame (read: free food) have come at a cost.
At least seven pigs were found dead in February, and while many reports speculated booze-wielding tourists did them in, government officials blamed sand ingestion after receiving autopsy results.
Since human visitors have become a fixture on the island, the pigs have mostly abandoned foraging in the forest in favor of eating the food that's thrown to them from boats and on the shore. Swallowing sand amidst the feeding frenzies, coupled with a dry January that depleted their already limited supply of fresh drinking water, was likely the true cause of death, a Humane Society inspector told National Geographic. Healthy pigs have been brought in to replace their fallen comrades, and the friendly sunbathers are still splashing their way onto the bucket lists of animal-loving travelers everywhere.
Here's what we learned on a recent visit, including how to get there, what to expect, where to stay, and, of course, how to responsibly interact with the animals.
Where are the swimming pigs?
The pigs live on Big Major Cay, one of the over 365 islands in Exuma, a district of the Bahamas. Also known as Pig Beach (for obvious reasons), the island is about 82 miles southeast of Nassau, and about 50 miles northwest of George Town. It is entirely uninhabited by humans.
How do you get to Pig Beach?
The only way to reach Pig Beach is by boat, so you'll either have to charter one or take a guided tour.
A popular tour company in the area is 4C's Adventures, which offers a full-day tour that includes visiting the pigs, swimming with nurse sharks, meeting iguanas, a sandbar picnic, and snorkeling in the famous Thunderball Grotto (a scenic spot that has been in two James Bond films), for $160 per person.
If you're willing to venture out on your own, you can rent a boat from exumavacation.com for as little as $250 for a full day (or include a guide for an additional fee).
You may also want to weigh your options with your hotel. At nearby Fowl Cay Resort, daily boat rentals are included in the price of your stay (as is an orientation for novice skippers).
How did the pigs end up at the beach?
Even for their neighbors, the swimming pigs are shrouded in mystery. Local legends abound, from a tale about a shipwreck to one about hungry pirates who dropped them off and never made it back for their meal. But a man named Wayde Nixon claims to have brought the first pigs to the island with his business partner, Don Rolle, in hopes of starting up a pig farm in the late 1990s. Nixon told the Today show he was preparing a sustainable food supply in case of the feared Y2K computer meltdown. If his story is true, the pigs may have been even more relieved than we were when screens didn't go dark on New Year's Day 2000.
Can you feed the pigs?
You can give the pigs food for now, though V. Alfred Gray, minister of agriculture and marine resources, told the Nassau Guardian rules would be put in place after tourists were eyed in the pigs' untimely deaths. Nixon and Rolle also said in February that they were working with the government on new regulations.
Meanwhile, the deaths are a solemn reminder to think before you feed. If you do feed the pigs, limit the snacks to pitted fruits and vegetables, and feed them in the water instead of in the sand to avoid more sand ingestion. A good alternative to food would be attempting to feed them fresh water, as their supply on the island is limited.
Another thing to note is that the bigs will chase you if you're carrying food, and some are quite large, so if you scare easily, you might want to roam the beach food-free.
When is the best time to visit them?
Most tours to the island run between 9 a.m. and sunset, a local guide told Travel + Leisure, so if you're taking your own boat, go early in the morning for the most uninterrupted attention from the pigs. By late afternoon, you'll usually find them tuckered out with full bellies, and they're more likely to lounge in the sand than to paddle through the water with you.
You can visit any time of year, but know that June through November is considered hurricane season, and when a dangerous storm is coming, the pigs are usually taken to shelter by a local water sports company.
How do you get to the Exumas?
If Pig Beach is your destination of choice, you're best off flying into the tiny airports on Staniel Cay, Black Point, or Farmer's Cay.
Watermakers Air offers per seat fares starting around $250 one-way with hassle-free, private jet amenities — like skipping security lines, relaxing in a quiet lounge with snacks and beverages pre-flight, and flying in a nine-seat plane — from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to Staniel Cay. (But yes, you do need a passport.) A Memorial Day weekend sale has fares at $135 one-way.
You can also take a major U.S. carrier to Nassau and then fly FlamingoAir to any of the above destinations daily, with rates starting around $123 one-way. Daily tours to Pig Beach are offered from Nassau and Great Exuma by boat, but it will take an entire day with a lot of travel time.
Where should you stay?
For a romantic, secluded getaway or an unforgettable group vacation, Fowl Cay Resort sits on its own private little island minutes from Pig Beach. The resort's waterfront villas offer stunning views and top notch amenities (think seaside rocking chairs, private paths to secluded beaches, and stocked pantries), but the real appeal is the authentically low-key island vibe that encompasses the grounds, from the friendly staff to the regular visitors mingling over cocktails and karaoke. Villas start at $1,657 per night including all meals, drinks, airport transfers by private boat, and daily bicycle and boat rentals. If you can't swing a few nights in a villa, stop by the Hill House restaurant for a sunset cocktail and fresh seafood dishes sourced from local waters.
Nearby Staniel Cay (the most accessible option due to its airport), is also minutes from the pigs. There are a few different accommodation options available, the most popular of which is the Staniel Cay Yacht Club's private bungalows (starting at $185 per night for two, with fees for additional guests). The colorful retreats are perched above the marina, steps from the yacht club's lively yet relaxed beach bar, one of Jimmy Buffett's favorites. If you'd rather feel like a local (and save some cash), stay at the Isles Inn, located above the Isles General Store, where rates start at $125 a night and come with free use of a golf cart, the island's preferred mode of transportation.
What other animals can you meet?
They might be the most famous, but the pigs far from the only animals you can get up close and personal with in the area. Compass Cay is home to nurse sharks just waiting to swim with daring humans, and Bitter Guana Cay is home to the endangered Exuma Island iguanas, though you'll feel like there are plenty of them when they coming running towards you across the sand.
Cocoplum Beach is known for its sand dollars, which often become easy to spot on its sand bars during low tide. You can swim with sea turtles and feed them conch at Little Farmer's Cay, and snorkel with an array of fish at some world-class spots, including the Thunderball Grotto and The Aquarium.