The next day, when my husband and I jumped into the ocean, it was just us and three giant pigs. The tour boats generally arrive in the afternoon after picking up scraps from lunch at Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The tide was low that morning, so many of the private boats in the area were farther out in the sea. The crystal-clear water and bright sun gave us a perfect view of the cloven hooves sinking into sand in the shallows and gliding effortlessly through deeper waters.
The pigs swim with the natural grace of the fish and rays that inhabit these azure waters. They couldn’t be farther from their farm-dwelling brethren, but they have adapted in a way that makes their surroundings seem completely normal. Their plump, balloon-like torsos bob just beneath the waves as their muscular legs propel and direct them. Their pink snouts, which never fully submerge, tilt out of the sea at perfect 45-degree angles, wiggling and angling at the scent of food. Exceptionally large on land, they’re weightless in the water and can paddle out to boats with impressive speed. Water beads up and rolls off of their thick, bristly hair. Their long, thick eyelashes whisk away drops of water that splash into their faces, and their curly tails lie almost flat on their backs, giving the comical appearance of a propeller.
As I swam, I watched their skinny legs cut through the water like flippers. They followed me for a while, eyeing the cooler on the boat every so often. The occasional stingray and colorful fish came by to investigate, but the pigs ignored them. After all, this happens all day, every day.
The swimming pigs are tolerant but not overly friendly. They enjoy the occasional back scratch, but their interest in humans lasts only as long as the food does. Once they were satisfied that I had given them everything, two of the three pigs paddled off to the beach. No longer weightless, they clumsily trudged around in the sand. The young pink boar heaved himself onto the beach to dry off. The spotted sow shook the water off like a dog and disappeared into the island’s overgrowth, undoubtedly retiring to her shady, well-hidden den.
The pigs’ origin is a mystery to most. Some say a shipping boat crashed offshore, forcing the pigs to swim to safety. Some say the government put them on the island. Most say they just appeared. The Exumas have remained a remote, unexplored jewel of the Bahamas. Residents are so delighted to finally have a budding tourism industry that they don’t dare question how or why an island of pigs became a tourist attraction, as long as it remains one. Divine intervention is as good a reason as any.
Extensive digging led me to Wayde Nixon, a Staniel Cay resident. He told me that he and his friend Don Rolle brought four “lady pigs” and one “man pig” from Nassau to Big Major Cay in 1992. The decline in agriculture in the Bahamas and the Gulf War concerned Nixon, whose father was a pig farmer in Nassau in the 1970s. Because the Bahamas received most of its food and livestock from the U.S., Nixon worried about the detrimental effects of a possible embargo. He and Rolle set up pens on the uninhabited island and would come feed the pigs mush each time a shipment arrived from Nassau.
Sailboats and motor yachts often anchored on the northwest side of Big Major Cay for the entire winter. Once the pigs had grown, they broke out of their pens and started roaming the island. The sounds and smells of people living on their boats enticed them to explore the northwest beach. Over time, they figured out when Nixon would arrive with their food. Eventually, the pigs grew impatient and started swimming out to him. Other boats started to feed the swimming pigs. A strange routine developed on this inconspicuous island.