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    Updated: 25-Apr-2006

Taking Pets To The Bahamas
Blaine Parks
(previously published in Blue Water Sailing)

     You know how the daydream begins. It starts with a vision of your dogs running free along crescent-shaped beaches as you walk hand-in-hand with that someone special on a deserted tropical island. Palm trees sway in the breeze, reaching up to meet the day's last glimmer of sunshine. Your toes dig into the soft white sand, waves lap against the shore and crystal-clear waters wash over your feet. Out in the harbor, the sailboat that's carried you across oceans to be here waits patiently for your return. When the sun starts its decline into the distant horizon, you're bathed in the warm glow of red, orange, and yellow light. And then just as it disappears, you see your first 'green flash.' This is no daydream. This is the Bahamas.

     Only 50 miles from the Florida coastline, the Bahamas stretch out hundreds of miles from the northwest tip of the Abacos to Great Inagua Island, just north of Cuba's eastern shore. Most people associate the word 'Bahamas' with Nassau or Grand Bahama Island. Those are only two of the country's more than 700 islands and cays (pronounced 'keys'). The islands of the Bahamas are divided into several geographic and political groupings; much like the states within the United States. Most islands in the archipelago are sparsely populated, or completed deserted, and separated by shallow, protected waters which makes this a cruiser's paradise. What makes the Bahamas even more appealing is how easy it is to bring your dogs with you.

     The process of bringing your pets to the Bahamas begins a few months before you plan to arrive. The first step is to apply for an Import Permit from the Bahamas' Ministry of Agriculture, Trade, and Industry. Applications for permits can be obtained by either writing to the Ministry or by downloading the form from the Internet (See side-bar below). Sending your completed application, along with a $10 processing fee, by Priority or Express Mail appears to increase your chances of a faster turn-around time. In addition to the Import Permit, your pets must be older than six months of age and have a current rabies vaccination. Lastly. a veterinarian needs to certify your pet's health prior to your arrival in the Bahamas. A health certificate form is provided with your pet permit package and must be dated within 48 hours of your arrival.

     The veterinary health certificate was the most difficult requirement for us given that traveling by sailboat requires a careful watch of the weather before crossing the Gulf Stream. Departures are often aborted at the last minute due to changing conditions. Because of this, we arranged for a veterinarian in Florida to complete our form and leave it undated. In return, we promised to make our crossing within two weeks of the exam. We dated the form as we departed Florida and had no problems importing Max and Bailey into the Bahamas.

     This was our first trip to the Bahamas and the crew was anxious to make landfall after an overnight sail. Max and Bailey, our two Golden Retrievers, were especially anxious. We'd promised them long walks on those crescent-shaped beaches, refreshing swims in clear water, and plenty of their favorite tropical treat - coconuts! However, they were willing to wait for all that fun if we'd just find them a piece of Terra Firma where they could answer Nature's call after the long passage. They say you can always smell land before you see it when making landfall. Max and Bailey smelled land long before we did. I guess their yearning was greater than ours. But, we still had to clear them into the country before they could depart the boat. That was something they didn't understand and something we hoped would go well since this would be our first attempt at entering another country with our dogs. As the sun came up we raised our yellow quarantine flag, as required for all new arrivals, and made our way into the marina at West End, Grand Bahama.

     After tying 'Charbonneau' up in the marina and filling out the Immigration and Customs forms, I was off to see the local officials. They were located just around the marina in a small, bright pink building. The building looked extremely 'friendly'. I hoped the officials inside would share that attitude - and they did. Clearing into the Bahamas was very straightforward. After a short fifteen-minute visit and paying our entry fees -- $100 for a cruising permit and fishing license - we were cleared into the country (note: fees increased to $300 per boat in 2003). As he finished filling out forms and stamping our papers, the smiling official passed them back across the counter and said, "Welcome to the Bahamas." I raced back to the boat, replaced our yellow quarantine flag with our Bahamas courtesy flag, indicating our clearance, and we were off to the beaches of West End.

     You never know how your dogs will react to a new place. Max and Bailey took to the Bahamas as though they were born there. Once off the boat they raced from place to place, using their noses to investigate every tree, fence post, and grassy knoll for 'doggie emails' left by other dogs. After a thorough investigation, and leaving a few 'doggie emails' of their own, Bailey found his first coconut of the trip. Janet and I laughed as he picked it up and would run a few steps before losing it. Each time he'd lose it, the coconut would roll down the sand towards the water where Bailey would save it just before it rolled into the surf. Needless to say, we all slept well that first night in the Bahamas. I remember drifting off to sleep with thoughts of all the places we'd see as we traveled through the Abacos, Berry Islands, Nassau, Exumas, and the Out Islands. Max and Bailey's Bahamian Adventure was now in full swing!

     The next five months were amazing! We spent our days sailing in pristine conditions, exploring places that see few visitors, and thoroughly enjoying the company of our dogs. Max and Bailey would join us as we hiked along palm-lined paths leading across islands and opening up onto secluded beaches and coves. The dogs would search the shore for coconuts. They quickly learned that if they'd chew off the outer covering, I'd crack open the nut and treat them to some fresh coconut. And, after those long hot days, we'd all go for a refreshing swim. It really was as good as the daydream.

     The people of the Bahamas were exceedingly warm and friendly. The country certainly has that 'laid back' quality you look for in the tropics. Every new town welcomed us with smiles as we walked the largest dogs they'd ever seen. The children were especially drawn to Max and Bailey; taking turns holding their leashes on our daily walks. During Easter weekend in Black Point, Exuma, we looked like the local Easter parade. Over fifty smiling children escorted us on our walk, each wanting to take their turn 'helping' us walk them. The children pointed out their homes and we waved to their parents as we were shuffled through the town. By the end of our visit, the entire town knew the dogs by name and we'd met several new friends. It was a magical moment that was only made possible by having Max and Bailey with us.

     We hadn't known before our arrival, but it seemed as if everyone in the Bahamas has dogs of their own. Households with several dogs were very common. Unlike the US where there are a variety of breeds, the Bahamas is home, primarily, to a single variety -- the 'Potcake'. The Potcake is a medium-sized dog with brown, black and white markings. To our untrained eye, they resemble a cross between a German Shepard and Labrador Retriever. The name Potcake, historically, comes from their diets. In years past, commercial dog food wasn't readily available in the remote islands. The dogs were fed after the family meals where leftover foods, such as peas and rice, were scraped out of the pots and formed into sticky cakes. Hence, the Potcake name.

     We met several Potcakes in our travels. By far, the sweetest was Phoebe, a puppy at the CocoDiMama resort in Alabaster Bay, Eleuthera. Phoebe's owners are two young Italians, Federica and Enrico, who own the resort. For almost a week, they welcomed the four of us to their resort where we'd have lunch, while the three dogs played on the beach or just relaxed under our table. By the time we hoisted the anchor and pointed the bow towards our next adventure, Max, Bailey, and Phoebe had become fast friends.

     The availability of dog food hasn't changed that much in the Bahamas. We still found it difficult to locate food and supplies for Max & Bailey. We planned for this possibility by bringing a six-month supply of food with us aboard Charbonneau. There is a limited selection of dog foods available in the larger, more populated areas such as Marsh Harbour, Nassau, or Georgetown, but the smaller islands and towns often had no pet supplies in the local stores. The best chance of finding supplies was on the days when the weekly mail boat arrived.

     Veterinarians were also in short supply. It was typical to see posters announcing which day the local vet would be in town for a particular month. Our decision to work with our own veterinarian regarding medicines and emergency care techniques prior to visiting the Bahamas seemed very appropriate. We'd recommend the same to others who plan to travel in the more remote areas of the Bahamas.

     There are a few other tips for bringing your dogs to the Bahamas by boat. One of most important is to equip your boat with a bimini or sun shelter. While the trade winds provide a cool breeze throughout the winter months, the sun can be very hot. Max and Bailey enjoyed lounging in Charbonneau's cockpit with the wind blowing through their ears. However, once the sun started peeking under the sun cover, they would run below for more shade.

     In addition, be prepared to be adventurous when trying to get your dogs to shore. Most remote, uninhabited, islands have beaches to land your dinghy on. Some islands are more rocky and lined with what the locals call 'ironshore'. The jagged edges on this type of shore will quickly turn your inflatable dinghy into a porous boat. You should check your charts for shore conditions. Even the populated areas can prove challenging. Most have docks with ladders for your use. If your dogs are as big as Max and Bailey, you will want to look for cement stairs at the base of these docks. It seems to be fairly standard to have steps leading up to the dock on the very inside of the docks. To help other boaters with this problem, Janet keeps a running list of dog friendly anchorages under the Sailing With Pets section of our website.  Sorted by location, she lists the anchorages and gives specific advice for getting your dogs to shore.

     November through June is probably the best time to cruise the Bahamas, with March through June bringing the finest weather. Last winter, daytime temperatures averaged around 80-85 degrees while evening temperatures hovered close to 70 degrees with lower humidity. December and January present the greatest chance of foul weather as winter cold fronts move across from the east coast of the US. The summer months promise longer days, warmer nights, afternoon thundershowers, and the chance of getting caught in the path of a Tropical Storm or Hurricane. If lobster is high on your list of culinary delights, arrive before April 1st when lobster season closes for the summer.

     On this particular journey, we arrived in the Bahamas on January 10th and after five months of exploration we turned Charbonneau's bow towards the western horizon. We had traveled through the Abacos, the Berry Islands, Exumas, Nassau, Eleuthera, and several of the out islands. It was a full winter.

     Our return trip would take us from the northwest Abacos directly to Charleston -- a three-day sail. On our first night out the ocean's surface resembled a still pond. And, just as the sun retreated over the horizon, we were treated to another 'green flash.' With the Bahamas over our shoulder and the deep blue ocean in front of us, we promised Max & Bailey that we'd return again soon.

     While this article was written about our experience with dogs in the Bahamas, the same importation process applies for cruising kitties. Instead of long walks on the beach, they might enjoy a few scraps as you filet a four-foot Mahi Mahi. Either way, the Bahamas is a great destination for cruisers and their pets. We saw several Island Packets there last winter and enjoyed the camaraderie of an impromptu Island Packet Rendezvous in George Town, Exuma. We're heading back to finish our explorations of the Jumento Cays, the Exumas, and other out islands this winter. We'll hope to see you there.

Additional Information

Embassy of the Bahamas
(202) 319-2660
Fax: (202) 319-2668
2220 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008

Cruising Permits Boats entering Bahamian waters must check in at the closest Immigration and Customs office upon arrival. All crewmembers are required to provide a valid passport or two forms of identification (drivers license, birth certificate, etc.). In addition, you will need to show proof of boat ownership and registration. A fee of $300 per boat is charged for cruising permits of up to one year. This fee includes all costs for immigration, cruising permits, and a one-year fishing permit. If bringing your pets, see the pet importation information below.

Bahamas Pet Importation Requirements An import permit is required from the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry (Nassau) for all animals being brought into the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. Applications for permits, along with a $10 processing fee payable by money order or cashier's check only, must be made in writing to the Director of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, P.O. Box N-3704, Nassau, The Bahamas. For more information, call 242-325-7502 or 325-7509.

Applications forms for these permits can be obtained via the Internet at: (Select 'Documents/Forms' from the menu)

For the U.S. and Canada, the following are the main provisions of the import permit as it applies to dogs and cats:

(a) The animal must be 6 months of age or older.

(b) The animal must be actively immunized against the following diseases: Distemper, Hepatitis, Parvovirus, Leptospirosis, Adenovirus and Coronavirus.

(b) The animal must be accompanied by a valid certificate which substantiates that it has been vaccinated against rabies within not less than 1 month and not more than 10 months prior to importation. Three year vaccines are acceptable within 34 months prior to importation.

(c) The animal must be accompanied by a Health Certificate completed within 48 hours of arrival in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas by a licensed veterinarian.

IMPORTANT:  The permit is only valid for 90 days from the date of issue. Your stay in the Bahamas is not limited to this 90 days. However, you must either arrive in the Bahamas within that 90 days or apply for a new permit.