The magical mystery tour

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Eli Fuller is a man on a mission: to help conserve Antigua’s wildlife by showing the island’s secret side to locals and visitors alike. Janet Kipling hops aboard his eco adventure

School finished early when I was a kid,” explained Eli Fuller as we chugged across the sparkling blue water. “In no time we were back at home and onto the beach – that beach, in fact, right over there.”

Eli Fuller grew up in the great Antiguan outdoors; its sugar-white grains and sea salt are in his blood. Every spare second of his youth was spent messing about in boats, on windsurfs or in wetsuits. Now, decades later, this is still where he spends all of his time. Eli was in charge as we skimmed across the North Sound on what might be the Caribbean’s most unlikely boat tour – and Antigua’s best-kept secret. No blaring music, no boozy singing, no drinking games, no limbo dancing. Just a small group of people who’d come together to discover a little bit of local magic.

Man of the sea
Eli Fuller’s Adventure Antigua Eco Tour is billed as the only day trip available in Antigua that explores the delicate balance between man and nature. It was born in 1999, when Eli became convinced he couldn’t be the only one who felt constant wonder at Antigua’s diverse and beautiful environment. His childhood games in the ocean had turned into a serious windsurfing habit. He represented Antigua in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but quickly realised he wasn’t going to attract the sponsorship needed to pay for a career in the sport. He took a business management degree at university and then a series of jobs in bars and retail, finally ending up sitting in a sail loft in Hawaii, wondering how to pull everything together into some kind of career.

“I sat down and thought of all the things I liked – customer service, business, but most of all the sea and the natural environment,” said Eli. “And then it struck me – my grandparents used to take guests out to the islands from their hotel in Dutchman’s Bay. Why couldn’t I put together something similar?”

At first many people thought it was a joke. “All of the tours in Antigua were on big catamarans and glass-bottomed boats,” Eli recalled. “But I knew there was an appetite for something a bit different.” He was right. From running the tours on his family boat out of Dutchman’s Bay, Adventure Antigua now has four boats with three crew apiece, and a portfolio of three different tours.

Underwater wonder
First stop on my Eco Tour was right by the mangroves along the unspoilt North Sound, designated by the government as the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA). The immaculate white sandy beaches of Antigua are what usually draw people to the island, but it’s the mangroves, reefs and turtle grass beds that hold the hidden gems.

“The mangroves are the fish nurseries,” Eli explained, as we explored the web of tangled trees. A huge barracuda gave me a fright, but watching the tiddlers dart around the submerged roots and the gentle swaying of the turtle grass was mesmerising. The quieter we were, said Eli, the more likely we were to be approached by turtles – which was exactly what I was most hoping for.

“I take people on these tours who’ve lived in Antigua all their lives and didn’t know about the places we go,” said Eli. “It’s incredible to see them start to understand how the natural ecosystems of the land and the ocean all work together. The most excited guests we have are always Antiguans.”

On our second stop, the reef between Welch Rock and the north of Bird Island, it was time to get the snorkels out. Jumping in and exploring the underwater world is a big part of Eli’s tours, and an easy way to get intimate with Antigua’s marine life. Before our first dip, he offered a snorkelling lesson for those who’d never done it before or who wanted a refresher. Once you’re used to breathing through the snorkel tube, there’s nothing more peaceful or eye-opening than floating face-first in the blue, looking out for rays and colourful fishes.

Secret treasures
We ate lunch on the boat, and just as I reached for a second helping of pasta salad, there was my turtle. Its head briefly popped out of the water followed by the crest of its garbage-can-sized shell, before a deep disappearing dive.

The hawksbill turtle project at nearby Jumby Bay was started by Eli’s father John Fuller more than 30 years ago. Adventure Antigua staff and crew still lend a hand each turtle-nesting season, helping to record nest sightings on isolated beaches. Eli’s grandfather, Nick Fuller Sr, came to Antigua in 1941 as US Vice Consul. On his second day he asked someone to take him exploring in the North Sound area. He got as far as Great Bird Island and immediately decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in Antigua.

After lunch we hit the shore on that same island for a nature walk up to the summit. While the south side of Antigua was thrown up from the ocean bed in an explosion of volcanic lava millions of years ago, the north coast is limestone – an unusual combination.

Eli pointed out a tiny shell imprint in the rock: “Even though I know this area like the back of my hand, and have done since childhood, I don’t take anything for granted. That little fossil in a rock still fascinates me.”

Lizards skittered off the dry rocky path ahead of us as we descended. There was no sign of the rarest snake in the world, the Antiguan racer, but there were some hermit crabs busy carrying their shell-houses on their backs along the beach. The laughing gulls did exactly that, and a frigatebird circled effortlessly and silently on a thermal.

After a third snorkelling session some enjoyed a natural jacuzzi at Hell’s Gate, while others went off to explore the limestone caves. In the winter months, it’s often possible to see humpback whales heading north through Antiguan waters, although we weren’t so lucky. But it’s not so much the spectacular individual creatures that Eli wants people to remember – it’s how important each and every one of them is to the entire ecosystem.

Spreading the word
As we made our way back at the end of the day, I asked Eli for his much-documented feelings on the destruction of the marine environment. “Over the years I’ve seen so much damage done to islands and reefs,” he began. “What’s the biggest threat? The misconception that Antigua and Barbuda need more development to attract tourists. We need to be very careful not to over-develop and to keep substantial areas clear of development. Pave everything and we will have nothing to market. The places where there are no developments are irreplaceable. Limitless in value. That’s why people come here.”

He’s attracted criticism, which he says is “scary in a small place like this”. But he won’t stop now. In fact, he’ll soon be airing his views on an international stage: Eli will be rowing more than 3,000 nautical miles in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge with the three other members of Team Antigua. The team leaves from La Gomera, in the Spanish Canary Islands, in December. They’re following in the record-breaking footsteps – and, indeed, in the same boat, Wa’omoni – as Antigua’s Team Wadadli two years earlier, who became the oldest team to row across the Atlantic. Eli hopes to raise tens of thousands of dollars and a massive amount of awareness for marine conservation.

With a challenge like this on the cards, and when your office is a boat, you might think his down-time would be spent elsewhere. But no. “The ocean is still my nourishment,” Eli said, squinting into the late-afternoon sunlight as we approached the dock and the end of our trip. “When I find things stressful I get in a little boat and go round to the beach by myself. I look at the little fishes and the sea urchins and the sun setting. It re-energises me. I think: that beach is worth fighting for; those sea urchins are worth fighting for. And so I do.”

Need to know
To book the Eco Tour visit www.adventureantigua.com or call +1 268 726 6355. Pick-ups can be arranged from points all over the island, including hotels and St John’s. The Eco Tour lasts six hours and costs US$115; receive a 10% discount via the online booking form

Across the Atlantic to Antigua
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is arguably the world’s toughest row. Teams have to paddle more than 3,000 nautical miles from San Sebastian in La Gomera to Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour, Antigua. Once the boats leave the Canary Islands, they are at the mercy of the elements – no outside assistance is permitted until the race reaches its final stretch. Boats can be raced solo, in pairs or with four-man teams. In the 2015/2016 race all 26 teams made it to the finish line in Antigua – after more than 80 days at sea. The 2017/2018 race begins in early December. See www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com

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