How the famous swimming pigs of the Bahamas came to be

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An excerpt from T.R. Todd’s Pigs of Paradise from Salon.

Whether it is the light bulb or the swimming pigs, the world seems to turn on how people solve problems.

And decades ago, the people of Staniel Cay had a problem. This isolated island floating in the Atlantic, 250 miles from South Florida, occasionally received supplies from the United States, and more regularly from the Bahamian capital of Nassau. While Staniel Cay might have had a post office, a church, a library, and a few retail shops, supermarkets and convenience stores were not exactly around each corner.

The fragile supply chain was dependent on many factors, particularly the weather, so food security was always on the minds of the island’s 100 or so residents. In the 1950s and ’60s, most of the men were domestic fishermen. They drew their livelihoods from the sea. Island elder Vivan Rolle remembers the men being gone for long stretches of time, sometimes more than six weeks, if the weather was bad, as they sailed to Nassau to sell their catch. They would return to Staniel Cay with dry goods and grocery items, items the community would often call “relish,” which would be served with the fish during meals.

“As kids, we learned to go out in the woods to find berries, and we got on the rock to find the scrub, and the solider crab, to eat and survive,” she says. “So that was our way of survival.”

Given the circumstances, just about everyone on the island raised an animal or two, and there is perhaps no animal more suited for rustic island life than the sturdy pig. They are tough, breed quickly, and can eat just about anything, making them an ideal food source of a far-flung island with limited resources.

Rolle remembers a time when just about everyone had a small pigpen in the backyard.

“We would raise pig for food, to eat on the holidays like Easter, Christmas, or New Year’s. Someone would kill a pig so all the families would have fresh pork during that season,” he says. “That was in the late ’60s or so. But then tourists began to come to the island more, and in the summer, when it was very hot, or when it rained, the air with all the pigpens on the island would smell. Or sometimes the pig would escape from the pen.”

And therein lay the problem.

Residents started to ponder other solutions. In a way, it made perfect sense to put them on an island. People don’t generally like to live alongside pigs—a lesson the community had learned the hard way.

Tom Cay, located just a stone’s throw from Staniel, seemed like a reasonable option at the time. They tried putting some pigs on Tom Cay to help with the smell.

“They would swim from Tom Cay right back here,” chuckles Bernadette Chamberlain, who owns a small restaurant on the island. “They would get out of the pen on Tom Cay because they knew where the food was at.”

It wasn’t long before the community started to look further afield.

The sweet spot was Big Bay Cay, a deserted island of no more than twenty acres. It was close enough for the residents to ferry back and forth to ease, but far enough that the pigs were not tempted to make a break for it.

“My family had a pigpen,” says Veronica Rolle, known locally as Ronnie. “My old Aunt Edna, she had a sow pig that she later put over there on Major’s spot. It went over there and got fat, and we later had a feast. And then my Uncle Hansel, he would farm pigs and then he put them over there to get fat, so everyone started doing it. We never put them there to make no money. It was a farm.”

While it kept the pigs away from the community, they soon discovered that Big Major Cay had other benefits: a freshwater pond and plentiful food. A banquet of wild cabbage and berries grew all over the island; it was the perfect place for the pigs.

Local after local gave me the names of people who had a pig or two on that island at one point in time—Sandy Gray, Oliver Munroe, this cousin and that cousin, an uncle twice removed. And the more I delved into it, the more realized that the earliest history of pigs in the area was really a story of agriculture and survival.

But the question is—when did they become the swimming pigs?

The answer you receive can be quite different depending on the source.

Overall, the consensus on Staniel Cay, the very first moment that people really started talking about swimming pigs, can be traced back to Emily the Pig. Sometime in the early 1990s, sailors stumbled into the bar at Staniel Cay Yacht Club with tales of a swimming pig. This is not your typical story of the sea involving mermaids or giant monsters from the deep. Residents, tourists, and yacht club staff chuckled, and some laughed nervously—thinking perhaps that these sailors had lost their minds—as they regaled the crowd with tales of a pig paddling out to their skiffs.

While at the time this might have seemed rather bizarre, there was actually a logistical explanation for this most unusual sight. Funny enough, there is another character in this story named Emily—and she is not a pig.

Emily was a cook at the yacht club who had a soft spot for animals. She knew all about the pigs that had been historically placed on Big Major Cay. But one particular pig always seemed to venture down to the beach more than the others.

Kuenson Rolle, her friend, was the “everything guy” on Staniel Cay. He looked after maintenance, the grounds and the docks, and really anything that needed to get done at the yacht club. And thanks to the constant cajoling of Emily, he also became a waiter for one lucky pig. Every day, Emily the cook pestered Rolle to take her leftover kitchen scraps over to this curious animal on the beach. And as time passed, the pig became so used to Rolle’s visits that she started swimming out to his boat to meet him. It was not long before the pig was soon known as Emily among the staff, named after her number one fan.

Emily passed on many years later. Pigs came and went on Big Major Cay. Sometimes there were many, sometimes were few. Occasionally, there were none.

And as the clocks ticked closer to the new millennium, a new chapter in the history of the swimming pigs was beginning to take shape. Many of the residents of Staniel Cay were feeling anxious ahead of the year 2000.The hype surrounding the infamousY2K bug, expected to infect and reap havoc on the world’s computer system, was being felt all around the world. But for Wayde Nixon, along with 100 or so other souls on the island, this fear went well beyond a technical glitch—it cut to the very core of their survival.

“If crisis comes to the Bahamas, because we get our food from America, we would need to find some way to feed the village,” Nixon remembers.

So what did Nixon do? Before the year 2000 came, he placed his own colony of pigs on Big Major Cay—four females and one lucky male.

The situation was made easier by the fact that Nixon’s father had a pig farm in Nassau. He could get them to Staniel Cay for $100 apiece. Don Rolle, a long-time friend of Nixon, who also grew up on the island, decided to partner with him on the expense. And one fine morning, those five pigs made landfall on Big Major Cay. Nixon and Rolle salvaged some pallets from an abandoned dock to build a pen.

Of course, the world ticked on after midnight. Life carried on as normal for the people of Staniel Cay.

But the pigs remained. And they started to multiply.

Left more or less to their own devices, without a farmer watching over them all the time, the pigs wandered beyond their enclosure.

“The pen had been really near the water,” Don Rolle recalls. “Every so often we would go out there to water and feed them, and just see how they were doing. And I guess they just got used to the engines.”

Like for Emily the Pig, the roar of engines on that perfectly clean, clear blue ocean became synonymous with a dinner bell.

And they noticed, each time they came back, that the pigs only became more comfortable with the water, as they anticipated the food to come. Each time, they grew a bit bolder after dipping that first hoof in the water, until finally, the piggy paddle was second nature.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Don Rolle laughs.

“I never imagined it would happen because of their hoofs. And their body is not so buoyant. They are heavy. I never thought they could swim.”

Did the first pigs escape off a shipwreck? Were they brought to the Exumas by pirates and explorers hundreds of years before? I suppose it’s entirely possible. We all love a good legend, and these myths persisted for years. What’s certain: the reason the modern pigs we know today ended up on Big Major Cay, and the reason they dived in that water, is indeed one and the same—food. They are pigs, after all.

But the swimming pigs were far from an instant sensation.

Over time, more and more boaters started to notice them as they passed through the area, particularly when anchoring off Staniel Cay. We’re talking hundreds, maybe a few thousand people each year.

It was a fringe attraction, reserved for those “in the know.” In the 1990s, and even in the early 2000s, sophisticated smartphones and constant social media sharing hadn’t quite come of age yet. The first selfie stick hadn’t been invented. The pigs weren’t splashed across websites, YouTube channels, or even in the marketing materials for hotels. So the swimming pigs lived on in the middle of paradise, splashing about in obscurity.

After all, Big Major Cay is just a tiny island in the wilderness of this archipelago. The people of Exuma had no idea what was in store for the swimming pigs. The Exuma chain of islands, with a population of only around seven thousand, is made up of a series of small settlements and towns. Back in the 1990s, the population would have been even less.

Rolleville, Rolletown, Steventon, Forbes Hill, Barraterre, Hoopers Bay, Moss Town, Harts, Roker’s Point, Hartswell, Farmer’s Hill, Bahama Sound, Mount Thompson, Ramsay, Stocking Island, Stuart Manor, The Ferry, The Forest, The Hermitage, and Williamstown: I would be remiss to not mention every single one, because there is such tremendous pride in each and every one of these communities, whether the population is a few hundred or a dozen.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the proud communities out in the cays, such as Little Farmer’s Cay, Black Point, and Staniel Cay.

Many of the communities are just a sprinkling of modest houses, perhaps a basic general store, and a local bar.

There are more churches here than beaches—not literally, of course, but you catch my drift. Bahamians are God-fearing folk, and for the most part, every man, woman, and child gets dressed up to the nines on Sundays, and on Saturdays, too. The service is usually followed by a lunch of peas ‘n’ rice, grits, johnnycake, pork ribs, chicken, coleslaw, perhaps some grouper or snapper, and Bahamian macaroni and cheese (which resembles lasagna).

Or maybe there is a bit of stew fish or stew conch. Soul food after saving your soul.

This religious devotion can be felt in the schools. There is a very healthy respect for authority. When you enter the room, the students stand. Children aren’t texting and snapping selfies. Many of them probably don’t have smartphones or unlimited data plans. Something tells me they aren’t rushing home from school to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians.They probably don’t have the bells and whistles and creature comforts that many North Americans have become accustomed to. But every single one of them wears a crisp, clean school uniform, buttoned up with pride.

There is a quiet, understated sense of pride you feel from all Exumians.

Communities are tight and tend to stick together. When they do converge, it often happens in George Town, where the supermarket, gas station, banks, and other important services are located. Funerals are grand family affairs that also bring people together. Most settlements have an annual “Homecoming” celebration, or a weekend-long party when large extended families and friends eat, drink, and socialize. In more recent years, the Run for Pompey has emerged over National Heroes Day weekend in early October to commemorate a slave who led a famous rebellion on the island back during the cotton plantation days.

And then you have the National Family Island Regatta, staged each year at the end of April, by far the biggest party of the year, with sailing competitions by day and parties across the entire island by night, ending when the sun comes up.

There is essentially no crime in the Exumas. If Mr. Rolle stole someone’s purse, he won’t get far. He would probably be stealing from a second cousin. It just doesn’t make much sense. The same goes for the tourist, otherwise known as the “golden goose,” which makes up nearly the entire economy. Exumians are very much aware that their livelihood depends on people visiting the island. So life here has its balance—a symbiosis. But despite all of that, the swimming pigs were never considered as part of the industry, at least not in a systematic way, for the better part of two decades.

There just wasn’t much thought given to the pigs.

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