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March 14, 2011

The Bimini Big Game Club Returns

A venerable landmark gets a new lease on life thanks to Guy Harvey

In the sport-fishing world, all roads seem to lead back to Bimini. Many of the sport's top captains cut their teeth in these waters, and their memories of the fishing, the fun and the camaraderie always draw them back to the tight-knit island community.

For years, the venerable Bimini Big Game Club attracted the sport's elite, but after several changes in ownership, the club fell into disrepair. A reversal of that decline began once the resort opened its doors as a Guy Harvey Outpost this past July.

Sitting at the precipice of the Great Bahama Bank and the Gulf Stream, Bimini is a 50-mile steam from south Florida (or a 20-minute flight). Bimini and, more specifically, the Bimini Big Game Club and its famed Bacardi Billfish Tournament, helped launch Harvey's career in the 1980s when he was the tournament's artist du jour. To Harvey, resurrecting one of the sport's most famous venues wasn't just a business venture - it was personal.

Bimini served as the epicenter of Atlantic big-game fishing in the sport's infancy, with sportsmen such as Ernest Hemingway, Michael Lerner, Tommy Gifford, John Rybovich and Kip Farrington traveling there to catch their first giant bluefin tuna, blue and white marlin and the world's biggest bonefish.

"Although Bimini's early allure had to do with its close proximity to the States, the area's unique ecosystem is what has made it one of the great fishing destinations," says Harvey, whose first pilgrimage to Bimini occurred in the late 1980s aboard Bob DeHart's Sintra. "The first major exhibitions of my art happened at Chub Cay and Bimini, where [the late] Ossie Brown bought one of the first of my Old Man and the Sea pen-and-ink series."

To Harvey, Bimini offered everything he needed to create a diving and fishing destination. "The island offers great offshore and backcountry fishing. It has a rich history, world-class diving and a terrific marine research science center that we've partnered with so guests can enhance their experience," Harvey says.

International Game Fish Association founder Michael Lerner created a lake-size aquarium and research lab at his home on Bimini in the 1940s. "This center was the beginning of blue-marlin and shark research," says local historian Ashley Saunders.
 
Lerner's marine laboratory closed in 1978, but Dr. Sam Gruber of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School resurrected the effort in 1990, opening a Caribbean shark-research facility on South Bimini. In the 20 years since, he and his students have developed shark repellents and documented the visual, olfactory and acoustic systems of sharks; they have also researched habitat selection and a myriad of other topics.

Shark research and preservation is a top priority at the Nova Southeastern University-based Guy Harvey Research Institute. The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation also has extensive shark research initiatives under way. "We share the belief that sharks keep the ocean in balance by controlling other species and threats, a good example being the overpopulation of octopus in Tasmania, which contributed to the collapse of spiny lobster populations there," Harvey says.

With more than 40 documented species, the Bahamas is one of the last major nursery grounds for sharks. That's why Harvey and Gruber are working to make the Bahamas a no-take shark zone. The resort's 60-foot Bimini Blue will offer guests a variety of shark-encounter dives that will be developed with Neal Watson, a pioneer in Bahamas shark encounters. "These dives will dispel the idea that sharks are man-eaters," Harvey says. "The dives help people understand the role that sharks play in the oceans."

As for the hotel itself, guests who remember the old Big Game Club will be delighted to learn that restaurants, rooms and cottages have undergone a multimillion-dollar refit. Founded by Nassau entrepreneur Neville Stuart in 1936, the Big Game Club hosted sport fishermen for the better part of 75 years. Mark Ellert, president of Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts, and his team did a great job retaining the out-island character of the resort while vastly improving its amenities.