If you were to ask me at this time last year what my plans were post graduation, an overwhelming wave of anxiety would roll over me. My stomach would fill with butterflies and, against my better instincts, I would likely start to sweat. Though I dreamed of what working at the Bimini Sharklab could be like, I never thought it was a possibility. Until one day, I was offered a 5-month volunteer position.
During my undergraduate studies, I had read countless publications affiliated with the lab, so I was familiar with the progressive studies and research projects being conducted at Sharklab. Yet, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how, and in what capacity, I would be contributing to the projects.
One thing was certain, however: I knew that I would be surrounded by like minded individuals who care deeply about, and love marine environments. This would be a big change, especially having graduated from Bucknell University, a small liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania.
Since I always spent summers abroad, returning to school fall semester where I had to explain my experiences was second nature. My closest friends were lucky. They were constantly hearing stories, so could paint a somewhat clear picture of what I had been doing. Yet, I found it difficult, and could never fully communicate how meaningful my summers were to the average person.
I do not want this to be the case when I leave the Sharklab. I need to give Bimini Sharklab the credit it deserves. Writing this blog has forced me, in a positive and constructive manner, to consider and reflect on all my experiences.
Volunteers Sophie (left) and Lara have a close encounter with a southern stingray.
First, I’m exiting the lab with greater perspective after having consistently worked with people who have an incredibly diverse range of academic training and unique work experiences. The current group of volunteers and staff members have degrees in animal science, finance, marine and conservation biology, and environmental studies. I strongly believe that we have each been trained to think in a distinct manner based on our academic backgrounds. The perspectives that each individual holds are continually shared in group settings. The volunteers are always looking for new documentaries to watch, books to discuss, and recalling different information that we learned in our college courses. The conversations that arise are incredibly natural. It isn’t until after the fact, when I start to reflect, that I recognize how truly special it is to have meaningful, thought provoking conversations outside of a school setting.
Additionally, our team is routinely exposed to opportunities in which we can learn from one another. The Sharklab consists of individuals who have prior experience conducting research, contributing to animal welfare initiatives, and guiding outdoor education and leadership programs. Not only have I picked up on other community member’s skills from simply spending so much time with them, I have gained a broader prospective on how I can translate my values, interests and passion into different careers.
Most importantly, as I gain perspective, I am improving the way to envision a sustainable community. The lab has a full, and often daunting agenda. To achieve the lab’s goals, a community in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts must be established. One where the group is stronger than any one single person’s strengths. Bimini Sharklab is successful, in part, because we all have a level of recognition regarding who possesses certain skills and strengths, enabling us to rely on only individuals here to solve existing problems.
Sophie and volunteer Ellie assist in a sub-adult lemon shark 'work-up'.
I’m also exiting the lab having been exposed to far more than just elasmobranch research. With the constant influx of scientists, film crews, and conservationists, I am continually seeing other ways that I can educate others and serve the underwater world.
The biggest eye opener for me is the film crews and their documentary work. I never fully considered the role that documentaries play in building support for and educating the general public about science. My experience seeing ICON shoot footage for episodes gave me a new appreciation for film crews that value truthful and real science. It was clear that each film crew member was interested in portraying the truth about science, from their genuine interest in gaining ‘naturalist’ information.
My favorite day in the field actually had nothing to do with research, and serves as an example of how I am exposed to such an amazing ecosystem.
I assisted one of the lab managers with a hammerhead dive and dolphin excursion for the founders from I AM WATER Ocean Trust. This non-profit is dedicated to engaging with and educating ocean-users on the surrounding marine environment. We spent the first few hours snorkeling and free diving with hammerheads in water that was only 5 meters deep. Watching the hammerheads swim around the boat was simply a magical experience with such still, clear water. Nothing can really compare to seeing these majestic creatures. In a way, they remind me of dinosaurs, and really proved to me how evolution can develop such unique and interesting characteristics. As they swam within arms reach of me, I could take a close look at their unique features – how their cephalofoil is shaped, the lateral placement of their eyes, and their rather small mouths in comparison to their body size.
Throughout the day, I was engaged in conversation with the visitors. I learned about their organization, and how they use funds collected from boutique travel tours to support locals to connect to their coastal environments. They were amazed by what we had seen in just a few hours out on the water, and I was thrilled explore with other marine enthusiasts.
I am leaving Bimini with more skills and experience than I ever knew I wanted or could gain. While an outsider might believe that it's ‘crazy’ for me to have handled a 372cm tiger shark, I view my experiences as much more than just being positive.
I truly believe that my experiences here demonstrate how some of life’s greatest adventures come out of something that may have once seemed out of reach. As stated briefly above, I never thought I would receive an email offering me a volunteer position. I had spent my spare time reading old volunteer’s blogs and reading the lab’s publications, but never thought I could contribute to such incredible work.
From the moment I confirmed my flights down here, I knew that I was starting a new adventure. It’s incredibly important to explore. This goes not only for aspiring marine biologists and conservationists. It relates to anyone with a passion, a dream, and the drive. If you love something, go and try to obtain it. You will learn more than you ever thought was imaginable. Yes, I wanted to do fieldwork with sharks when I graduated. Did I actually think it would happen? No. Has it happened? Yes, and I could not be more grateful for it.