A Bay of Actual Pigs

A fascinating zoological experiment unfolds near the Bahamas.
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A pig on Exuma Cays (Eric Cheng)

Major Cay is an uninhabited island in the Bahaman Exuma Cays. Uninhabited, that is, by people. On a pristine sandy beach on its northwest corner, there's a colony of around 20 pigs who retrieve food from passing boats and bathe with tourists.

Beyond the opportunity to have your photo taken in a real-life New Yorker cartoon, this phenomenon is both visually stunning and zoologically confounding.

Various theories persist as to how the happy pigs found themselves living a life of tropical luxury.

Some say sailors left the animals there to breed and one day provide a source of food for inhabitants of the island, and they never came back. Others claim a shipwreck dumped them there on the rocks, or that the pigs were introduced by the Bahaman government as a tourist attraction. If the latter were true, it was a wise move -- boat tours from the neighboring Fowl Clay and mainland Exuma run daily, and feeding the pigs is encouraged.

The level of mystery surrounding the swine's origins is somewhat peculiar, since the pigs first appeared as recently as 2001.

Major Cay, or "Pig Beach" as it's locally known, is an anomaly -- pigs do not normally live on beaches. In warm climates, pigs wallow in mud as a way of protecting their skin from UV rays. However, it seems that when there is tourist treat to be had, these animals will gladly risk the tropical Bahaman sun.

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A pair of pigs basks in the Bahaman sun. (Eric Cheng)

For years it was widely believed that pigs could not swim at all because they would cut their own throats with their sharp trotters, a myth perpetuated in Samuel Coleridge's 19th-century poem The Devil's Thoughts:

"Down the river did glide, with wind and with tide,

A pig with vast celerity;

And the Devil looked wise as he saw how the while

It cut its own throat. "There!" quoth he, with a smile,

"Goes England's commercial prosperity.""

But as Major Cay shows, pigs are actually very strong swimmersTheir island home is approximately one square mile in size and has three natural springs that provide fresh water for drinking. The beach is sheltered by neighboring islands from large waves caused by tropical storms, leaving tranquil waters for piggy paddling.

Neighbors include Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, and David Copperfield, all of whom purchased their own islands nearby in the Cays. It's also near Staniel Cay -- a.k.a Thunderball Grotto -- where the 1965 Bond movie was shot.

Most report that the animals are friendly, but caution should be taken when large mammals are chasing food. Eric Cheng, and underwater photographer who has visited the beach twice, described the scene to me via email.

"One thing that isn't obvious from the pictures is that the adult pigs are actually quite big and can run you over as they try to get to the food that tourists bring. While this is typically humorous when it happens, it is only funny because it is rare for a real injury to occur."

The herd has thrived; population estimates have increased from seven in 2011 to 20 today, and recently tourists have spotted three or four piglets on the sand. And although somewhat tamed by the tourist interaction, this wild herd provides an interesting insight into what zoological curiosities can manifest in the absence of man.

The pigs appear to be domestic breed gone feral, and not wild boars gone tame, and so it is likely that man played some part in placing them in their current habitat, as the theories suggest.

"The pigs appear to be somewhere between wild and tame. They are wild animals, but are docile and singularly interested in the pursuit of food, which is why they plunge into the ocean and swim out to boats." Eric told me.

If by some luck these animals are allowed to continue to live and procreate in the sandy saltwater, the long-term results of this unintended experiment could prove even more fascinating. But, for now, they provide a unique and myth-busting sight.

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Andrew Wallace Chamings is a British writer, journalist, and screenwriter in San Francisco. He contributes to the San Francisco ChronicleSF Weekly, and Drowned in Sound.

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