Monday, 28 November 2016

Euphoria - by Jamie DiEdwards

As I step down from the plane and walk across the tarmac, I can already feel the beads of sweat forming on my brow. What look to be swarms of gnats are buzzing around six new volunteers as we wait for our pickup. It didn’t take long to find out that these gnat like critters were actually sand flies or “no see-ems” that pack a mean punch for such a small size. Little did I know this was soon to become the norm, inundated with sweat and pesky insects. Emily arrives in the car with volunteers who have come to the end of their stay on the island. Emotional goodbyes are exchanged as they prepare to go through customs. With tear filled smiling eyes one of the girls wishes us the best as she turns to leave her six month home. Just like that they’re gone and we’re here. This is real, we’re the new volunteers.
The next few days were a blur, packed with classes and fumbling our way around the lab. I can remember thinking that I was never going to remember everything they were teaching us, but in the shark lab there is no time to sit with these thoughts. We are always working, always moving forward. This dynamic makes the transition into a new vol a little less scary. Before I knew it I was immersed into the everyday life of the lab.

Jamie (pictured left) assisting a juvenile tiger shark work up. 

Four months have now passed and I still feel as if this is all some sort of fantasy I’ve made up in my head. Each morning I peak open my eyes and feel a little surprised that I’m not looking at the bright walls of my New York bedroom. I have been waiting for this for so long that I halfway expect to wake up from a dream. I’ve held the dorsal fin of a spritely newborn tiger shark in the dark of night, set and hauled long lines with the rising sun, participated in personality trials conducted on juvenile lemon sharks, witnessed acoustic tag insertions, hand fed southern stingrays in waist-deep water, rodeo captured green sea turtles, and so much more. I’ve repaired gill nets in the heat, inhaled more bleach fumes than may be deemed healthy, prepared more raw chicken thighs then I can count, sprouted copious amounts of mysterious bumps and bruises, all the while never once regretting my decision to accept my volunteer position. I still get butterflies every time I come in contact with a shark. Goosebumps inundate my skin the moment I’m granted the opportunity to be in the water with my favorite critters. I’m writing this for the girl or boy who share my passion for shark science and conservation. I can honestly say with full confidence that volunteering at the Bimini Biological Field Station is a life changing experience. The skills I have gained in my short time here will no doubt put me on a different level when it comes to applying for future jobs. My time here in Bimini has only enhanced my will to want to protect our oceans vital apex predators. I cannot wait to see what the next few weeks have in store for me and the shark lab crew!     

Sunday, 23 October 2016

My love affair with sharks - by Kristin Treat

My obsession with marine life started as a child, a time when I was happiest doing any water-related activity.  My favorite memories are of countless hours spent on our dock catching creatures to examine in my net, snorkeling for hours while on vacation until my parents had to physically drag me out of the water, and spending nights and weekends with family on our boat, appreciating the beauty beneath and around me. As I grew older, my love and fascination for the ocean also grew and I began to realize that the essential roles, played by every organism in the marine ecosystem, were crucial in keeping the ocean’s system in balance. Some of the most important contributors to marine ecosystems are the apex predators, specifically sharks, which help to regulate and prevent the ocean from going into a trophic cascade and collapsing. Tragically, sharks are experiencing a severe decline, due primarily to shark finning and by-catch. I have always been drawn to sharks, and am devoted to learning as much as I can about them, including any methods to aid in their protection. The Bimini Shark Lab, through its hands-on and in depth research, is making numerous contributions in the discoveries about these misunderstood species and I am immensely grateful and excited to be a part of it.

Kristin (pictured right) collecting biological data from a juvenile lemon shark

I have been a volunteer at the shark lab for a little over a month now, and it has been an incredible experience. There is really not a “typical day” at the lab. We have participated in everything from actively tracking juvenile lemon sharks, to mending gillnets and shark pens, to preparing and evacuating for a hurricane. One of my favorite duties is setting our long-lines for various research projects. Incredibly, on my first longline experience here at the lab, I had the amazing experience of tagging a beautiful tiger shark. It was unbelievable to be so close to such a powerful fish, and it is an experience I will never forget! Long-lines are especially exciting during the nighttime hours. Being out on the water in complete darkness, with twinkling stars above and bioluminescence sparkling in the wake of the boat below, is breathtaking. It was such a surreal experience and one that will stay with me forever. Moments and experiences like these make me fall in love with this field over and over again, and make me more determined to become further involved in research and conservation in the future.

This field may be competitive and tough, but once you are committed you will never be able to turn back. Every aspect is extremely rewarding, with the knowledge of helping a species so close to your heart, while at the same time learning new methods and research. Day after day, I witness the love and passion coming from every single member of the shark lab team working tirelessly for the species, to learn all they can and to ensure their future survival. I feel extremely thankful to be a part of it, knowing that work in this field is something I will continue doing for the rest of my life, and I’m grateful this unforgettable experience at the Bimini Shark Lab has become another important chapter towards my goal. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sharks and Stars - by Megan McCubbin

Personally, the only scary thing about an ocean would be to have an ocean without sharks. Having already survived 400 million years on Earth and four mass extinctions, their role to maintain balance has never been more critical. As the apex predator, sharks maintain a healthy food web which supports a much stronger ecosystem. Without them, the oceans we know and love today, would be gone tomorrow. Sharks populations are rapidly declining with approximately 300.000 being killed each day. The shark finning industry is largely responsible for the demise of many iconic and unfamiliar species which sadly we know very little about. We are unaware of exactly how many sharks are in the oceans but what has been estimated is the astonishing rate in which we are losing them, for some species between 90-99% of their population has already disappeared! It is crucial that we learn more about these mysterious creatures in order to protect them and in turn protect the oceans for future generations to come.

The Bimini Biological Field Station (aka the sharklab) was founded in 1990 by Dr Samuel Gruber, who was one of the first to recognise the importance of the tiny cluster of islands located just off the gulf stream in the Bahamas. Bimini is well known for its marine biodiversity, in particularly for its abundance of shark and ray species that make these waters their home. Over the last two months, I have also been lucky enough to call this island my home as well. The first time I arrived in Bimini was back in 2013 where I not only learned new skills in marine research but where I also fell in love with sharks and I just knew that I had to return. Three years later and I am finally back!

As a volunteer, I get to dive into the research of so many different shark species. Every day is something entirely different from the last. I have set long lines and deep lines to catch tiger sharks, been free diving with Caribbean reefs, wrangled nurse sharks and even researched the personality of the lemon shark! Whether I spend my days out in the field with my favourite fishes or a day spent inside maintaining the station, I am always learning something new! I know more about who I want to become as a scientist and where I need to be heading to make my own stamp. The research conducted at the sharklab is incredibly important and is providing more and more of an insight into the life of these beautiful animals! It truly is a privilege to be a part of the sharklab family and to lend a helping hand in restoring the balance.

After a late night long line check, I came home and wrote about my experience that evening…

“The sky was scattered with thousands of sparkling stars, which lit up the way to where our longline had been set just hours before. The ocean almost mirroring the sky above, as it too lit up with the bioluminescence from ctenophores which were lying on the surface of the glassy water. It was 2am and we were approaching the first of our five longlines and as we drove along, we counted the 15 hooks which have been baited with various parts of barracuda. Line one, nothing. Line two, nothing. The count began again this time at line three and as we approached hook 8 a dark shadow could be seen lurking on the sandy sea floor only 3 metres below. The excitement as the silhouette emerged to reveal a juvenile tiger shark swimming just below us was simply overwhelming.  The team sprang into action preparing for the work up; any drowsiness from the early start was long gone. In a complete awe, I held the dorsal fin of the tiger shark we now knew to be a female and exactly 1-metre-long. We were able to collect biological data (measurements, DNA and isotope samples) as well as placing a PIT-tag below her fin which enables us to identify her. After being given the go-ahead, she was released and I watched her swim off into the darkness until she was out of sight. After checking all other hooks were clear, we headed home for bed but all I could do was lay there, wide awake and pinching myself, asking “did that really just happen?”

Friday, 27 May 2016

PIT, EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT by Carolina de la Hoz Schilling

 PIT, EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT by Carolina de la Hoz Schilling

Do you ever experience those peculiar moments when you realize you are at a certain place doing a certain thing that you never thought you would actually get to do?

That’s exactly how last night felt to me.

It seems so unreal. 3 years ago, when I first googled “shark internships” and came across the Bimini Biological Field Stations website I thought to myself: “That’s it. That’s love at first sight.” I am a firm believer in intuition and like to believe that the choices I make should first go through my gut before they are being rationalized. Therefore, it didn’t take me long to send in an application as well as closely follow the Sharklab's every move on their facebook group. That was when I first  came across a post on PIT. Obviously, that word meant absolutely nothing to me, but I still took a silent guess on how many sharks the teams might catch, just for fun. Shortly after, my first application got rejected, but I kept taking PIT guesses on the two successive years, just because it appeared to be such a big deal. I reapplied as a volunteer two years later and, despite of almost choking on my own tongue during the interview, I got accepted. 
Carolina holding the incoming Net boat as they drop off sharks to be tagged.

And now, here I am. Ready for being part of a very real/surreal PIT experience and thinking to myself: “I just can’t believe I’m actually here doing this.”

As part of the tagging boat team, we set out to anchor between the three holding pens that we had built for the purpose of PIT, set up our baby shark work up station on the boat and established each team members’ role for the night while playing “Eye of the tiger” over the radio as net boats were setting gillnets by the mangroves. Motivation is key! For us, who held little more than a scalpel and a measuring tape, it was a waiting game... for a “long” 5 minutes before the first capture of the day. Soon, radio calls were just pouring in from all ends, making for a very promising night. Obviously, we had placed a few personal bets ourselves on how many baby lemon sharks we would catch on the first night, so there was a lot at stake, (beer), and all we could do, was cheer for our net teams. As the night advanced and the sky provided us with a magnificent sunset, baby sharks kept arriving at our boat and kept us on our toes. You don’t really understand the meaning of “cute” until you have seen a tiny, newborn lemon shark whose umbilical scar isn’t even closed yet and that, far from looking like a scary, intimidating creature, reminds you of the innocence and fragility of life itself. 
Tagging boat at work by the light of their head-torches

After a few tries, we had a system down among our team members that worked really well. Two people on data, three on shark handling. Altogether, the whole procedure would never exceed 90 seconds and everybody was in sync, which made the night relatively stress free (of course, there is and should always be a minimal amount of stress when handling the delicate life of a baby shark). We’d periodically get radio calls in informing us of more captures and someone would drive the sharks over to our site. At around 11pm a bright, almost fluorescent red light breached the sea surface on the horizon, soon revealing itself to be the  most massive moon I had ever witnessed. The scenery was truly extraordinary with an almost full, gigantic moon rising, a clear, star – riddled night sky and a far away lightning spectacle illuminating the horizon every few seconds. I spaced out for only a few minutes before another radio call brought me back to reality. 

Dropping off a shark to the tagging boat, North Bimini lights in the background.

Another highlight of the night was the arrival of dinner. Clearly, the overall success of PIT is not only determined by our field crews and their skills, but could not take place at all without the incredible efforts of the home crew to take care of us and our needs. That being said, it’s not everyday that you get a delicious dinner delivered by two beautiful drag queens in the middle of the sea with about 50 baby sharks surrounding your boat (it’s a Sharklab tradition having the people delivering the food dress up). What a once in a lifetime experience!

With our energy replenished and 7 more hours to go, the night still seemed young and while conversations started becoming very giggly over the course of the next few hours, shark after shark was measured, weighed, tagged and released healthy into one corresponding pens. You know you’re having a great time when you look at your watch and realize 6 hours have gone by without you noticing or even feeling the fatigue of a 13 hour shift.

One of the perks of working on the tagging boat is that you are also responsible for playing a net hauling song in the morning, that will hopefully accomplish to shake out all the sleepiness out of our team mates minds and bodies and will get everybody motivated for the final push. And who better than Justin Bieber to get the job done? It was indeed way “too late to say sorry” when we blasted the song into our radio. One incredible sunrise later, we headed home, feeling drained in the best way possible, more excited than ever for a warm, cozy bed.

Now I’m back at the lab looking at that the drawing of a majestic great hammerhead on the wall, thinking to myself: “I can’t believe I’m actually here”.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

For the love of Sharks - by Delana Lee.

“She swims with sharks! She’s crazy!” – One of my coworkers to another, regarding my vacations.

As often as possible, I go to the Bimini Biological Field Station, affectionately known as Sharklab. The Research Experiences are perfect vacations for shark lovers like me. They’re affordable adventures brimming with sharks, rays, science, and fun. Each trip offers its own unique experience, and a return to a place that has totally captured my heart. How could I not go back again and again?!

People always ask me how I got started going to Sharklab. My obsession with the oceans and with marine life began in my childhood. We moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, when I was about five. Since moving back to Kansas just before I turned ten, I’ve been more ocean-obsessed than ever, looking for ways to get back to the ocean, and watching every marine wildlife documentary I could find on television or the internet.

In the late 1990s or very early 2000s, I was watching yet another ocean documentary, this one featuring Doc Gruber and his Sharklab in Bimini. I was sitting wishing to God I’d become a marine biologist, but I didn’t even know that was a profession when I was a child. I was so amazed by what I saw, the work this place was doing, and the beautiful sharks. I wondered to myself, 'Can I go there? Do they let people visit? How can I get there? I’ve got to go!' Then, I thought, 'No, they probably don’t let the public visit.' I dreamed of the place for the next decade.

I’ve never been attracted to resorts or cruise ships. Just like when I was a kid, I want to be in the ocean, not merely admiring it from distance. One of my loftiest dreams had always been to swim with the sharks in their own habitat, and to do so in a way that supported their conservation and environment.
In the early part of 2013, one of the shark conservationists and photographers that I follow on Facebook shared a post about a public opportunity at Sharklab. The station was offering a Naturalist Course open to anyone. Had I, a landlocked shark enthusiast but nobody special, finally found a way to go to Shark Lab? How often do dreams come true? How often does something one believes impossible turn into something one can suddenly just up and go do? What are the chances that I would ever get to spend nearly a week with sharks, shark scientists, and Doc Gruber himself at the Bimini Biological Field Station? Does stuff that I never would have thought I would get to experience something so amazing. Talk about a peak experience!

When I saw the notice, I asked a couple of my adventure and shark-loving friends if they’d like to come along with me. One joined me on that trip and, subsequently, all of the trips that followed; one other friend would join me for my fourth trip back.

Arrangements were made. It was really going to happen! I would be at Sharklab, November 3 through 6, 2013. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but I was completely out my mind with excitement. I was nervous, I couldn’t wait, and I could barely believe I was actually going.

I’ll skip past the small plane ride and picked up at Bimini’s tiny airport, our first sight of Doc, and our short drive to the station. When we got to Sharklab and were given our room assignments, I had just unzipped my duffel when the call came that Doc wanted us to suit up for a swim with Caribbean reef sharks; we had thirty minutes to get ready.  Conditions were windy, the seas less than placid, but I still got my suit on and my snorkel gear ready. Just like that, we were on the boats and headed to the site.

A line was stretched from an anchored buoy to the main boat. Doc was throwing chunks of fish to the circling Caribbean reef sharks. We were to jump in on the opposite side of the boat and swim around to the line, grab on, and be shoulder to shoulder so we could observe the sharks feed. We were to kick with our fins if the sharks came too close to us or tried to pass between us.

When I jumped into the water, I was immediately surprised to be in the company of three passing Caribbean reef sharks. They were a little bit lower in the water column than I was, and their path was perpendicular to mine. Accounting for the way things look closer through a mask underwater, I am guessing they were a couple of meters away. One of them glanced my way. Caribbean reef sharks have beautiful eyes. They were headed toward the area where the food was splashing into the water. I thought to myself, 'Well, you need to swim over to the line, so swim on over.' I just put myself on top of the water and snorkeled over the tails of the passing sharks.

Doc was urging everyone to jump in, as the supply of bait was not going to last forever. He hollered, "WE HAVE TWO SPECIES!" A feisty black nose had joined the fray.

Once you are in the water with these animals, your perspective shifts. Before you know it, you are admiring their grace and beauty, and you realize everything is fine; no, it’s better than fine, it’s amazing. You don't want to be anywhere else at that moment.

I love the Caribbean reef shark dive. I have been on that dive at least five times, two of which were in absolutely perfect conditions. The sun was out, the water was clear, and it was easy to get gorgeous photos, even with a compact camera with tiny optics.

The Naturalist Course was amazing. We enjoyed lectures on the history of the station and the various Ph.D. candidates research projects. We fished for bull sharks off the north island, caught a large tiger on the long lines, learned how to handle juvenile lemon and nurse sharks, and visited a place I thought existed only in my childhood dreams. Aya’s Spot is a shallow water mangrove inlet where newborn and juvenile lemon sharks seek shelter and grow before venturing into more open water, full of larger predators. The first time I went through the channel that leads to the inlet, it was pure magic, and I was elated. There were lots of adorable juvenile lemon sharks swimming all around in the secluded mangrove inlet.

The six days flew by, and I’ll be honest, I teared up going back to the airport. I didn’t want to leave. Dr. Tristan Guttridge was driving the car I was in, and he said, 'Well, that just means you have to come back.'

When the station started offering Research Experiences, we had our chance to return. My long-time friend and adventure travel buddy Pam James, and a friend we made at the Naturalist Course, Lindsay Deitch, started hatching a grand plan to return! to see great hammerheads in March of 2015!

To those of you still reading this far in, seeing a great hammerhead for the first time will blow your mind. They are very impressive animals, and each individual we saw had a distinct personality. All were curious, though some were bold and other cautious. Some stayed a long time, and others came and went. A big male, named Silverback, tried his hardest to get the bait box open. All the while, nurse sharks were clowning nearby, trying to get their shot at the bait.

This trip provided handling opportunities and photo ops with the little sharks in the education pen again (always a treat!), snorkeling with the hammers, fishing for black tips, and an encounter with a group of spotted eagle rays. We even snorkeled Shell Beach and saw a yellow spotted stingray. This trip proved you just can’t do it all in one visit. So, of course what do you do to fix that? You have to go back. This time it would be the following November!

Each time we return, there are some familiar faces as well as the many new ones. Former Ph.D. candidates’ papers have been published, current Ph.D. candidates’ work continues, and we get updates and hear new lectures. We learn about island development and it’s effects on current research. We have more encounters with sharks and rays, we learn more about the species and their habits. And we start planning our next trip. Each return means more education, more adventure, and more fun.

We went back for hammerheads this past March, as well, and I had the great pleasure of bringing my friend Jason Huck along with us. It was a thrill of its own to bring another long-time friend on the experience of a lifetime. Jason is a shark enthusiast and the timing was, finally, right for him to join us. He was apprehensive about getting into the water with the Caribbean reefs, but we would have just pushed him off the boat like we did in Isla Mujeres, so he knew there was no point in resisting. Once he got into the water with them, he melted into the experience and found it as transcendent as we did. And holy moly, the long line checks we did this trip were legendary! Large tigers, a baby tiger (so cute!), and a big nurse shark from whom I got a delightful tail slap upside my head while I was trying to grip her dorsal fin alongside the boat! Outstanding! She was a cutie!

I am always telling my friends to up their vacation game. You can sit around and drink mojitos whenever you want. It’s high time you hand-fed squid to curious juvenile lemon sharks in a mangrove inlet that’s like something out of a fantasy novel!

Pam, Lindsay, and I are booked to come back for July’s research experience. We’ve never been in the summer. What species will we encounter? What research will we learn about? Who will we meet? Now I need to get Jason back again! hammers in February of 2017, y'all?

Everyone in my life back home has gotten used to me going to Bimini to swim with the sharks. Every time I return and talk about my experiences, I see other people’s attitudes toward these incredible creatures change just a little bit. Perhaps they are not keen on swimming with them, but they start to see them in a different light, as animals worthy of respect and admiration, if from a distance.

I must also mention the joy of meeting other shark FINatics (sorry, it had to be done). There are new friends from around the world on every trip, not to mention the station’s staff, volunteers, PhD candidates, and the doggies! What’s not to love?

It’s the complete package. Simply by going to my favorite place on earth, I support, in some small way, the work being done at Sharklab. I get the chance to help with data collection and tagging of sharks caught around the island. I get to be in the water with free-swimming sharks of various species. I meet other shark lovers from all over the globe, and I learn about sharks and rays directly from the scientists studying them. I get to pet adorable dogs in a Caribbean paradise. I can’t imagine not going back every chance I get. 

 Thanks to Delana for the words and images.

For more information on Research Experiences at Bimini Sharklab, go to the following link:

Thursday, 18 February 2016

“The Shark Lab” Way, by Alex McInturf - 18th February 2016

For my entire, landlocked childhood, I’ve wanted to become a shark biologist. The draw to these organisms is obvious. As renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson once stated: “We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…” What I can’t quite explain, however, is the persistence of my obsession; but then, I’ve found that few can. 

There often comes a point in one’s life that this dream seems unrealistic, a realization provoked by the reality of a scientist’s struggling salary, the competitiveness of this field, or even a growing fear of the animal itself. For those who irrationally persist to follow our passion, the path is significantly less glamorous than that portrayed on a typical “Shark Week” episode. If I had some vague notion of this before I arrived at the Bimini Shark Lab, my experience here has certainly cemented my belief that shark science produces a rare breed of individual. We come from all over the world, united by one single purpose: the pursuit of knowledge of the greatest predators in existence. We are unique in our interests, our background, our lifestyle and culture, but collectively we are willing to sacrifice nearly everything for this goal.

Since my arrival at the lab, we’ve been plagued by nearly every obstacle known to research. We’ve suffered from the torrential downpours of winter, rendering visibility nearly nonexistent and producing gusts of over thirty miles per hour, with swells four to five feet high. I’ve spent days fixing gillnets and laying out longlines, or fixing gangions and entering data. Among those for whom the dream of shark science is a passing phase, these tasks likely seem mundane. For the staff and volunteers here, however, perspective is key. How can we sample the abundant juvenile lemon shark population if the gillnet is torn? How can we capture thirteen tiger sharks in a single longline set if we fear for the strength of the line or the security of the gangions? Where would the significance of our work rest if not in the data that it produces?

That is not to say that there isn’t some shred of truth in the initial draw to this type of research. Since my arrival, I’ve been diving over giant coral heads, surrounded by schools of bright yellow fish. I’ve snorkeled through mangroves, admiring submerged spider webs floating gently in the current as I searched for juvenile nurse sharks. I’ve seen a laser photogrammetry session with four giant hammerheads, the green light of the lasers clearly bouncing off of dermal denticles several meters below the surface of the water. Then there are the more poignant moments, those almost surreal. In one such instance, we were out on the boat on a longline check, watching the sun rise in a pink sky, the water turning from dark purple to patterns of royal blue and turquoise in the morning light. It was almost inevitable that the sea produced something extraordinary. Indeed, in a picture perfect sequence, a giant tail thrashed in the air a short distance from the boat and a dark shape emerged on the line only minutes after the set. I would challenge the most objective audience to witness a 3.7 meter tiger shark with anything less than sheer reverence.

Only at the Bimini Shark Lab is this experience even remotely possible. At every level, from the most basic day-to-day activity to the complicated data analysis and profound scientific discussion, we all benefit from an unusual combination of collaboration and independence. We are self-sufficient as individuals but work together as a unit to yield the broadest foundation of understanding that the biodiversity on this island allows us to produce. There is truly no other place with such an extensive history of research, and I have no doubt as to the legacy that the lab has yet to create.

Freediving with sharks, Image © Ches Revell

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Evolution of a Sharklabber by Chris Bolte, 9th Febraury 2016

Evolution of a Sharklabber

© Chris Bolte 2016

Trust is the word that comes to mind.

Almost everything about the situation is normal. I have a scuba tank on my back, one hand pressed over my mask and regulator while my other hand grips my weight belt. I have my eyes on our boat captain, waiting for the captain to give me the signal to tip backwards off the gunwale into the crystal blue water of Tiger Beach, a dive site 20 miles off the coast of Grand Bahama. As air gently rasps through my regulator, I’m a little bit surprised how calm I feel, given the circumstances. After all, there are about 20 adult lemon sharks circling at the surface, not to mention the sharks that are lurking below.

I first came to the Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation, a facility specializing in elasmobranch research in October of 2014 as a green volunteer. In the following months I was introduced to various research techniques, ranging from tracking sharks using acoustic receivers to capturing them with modified fishing techniques and collecting all types of data from them. Following my time as a volunteer, I was offered a position as an assistant manager, a position that I eagerly accepted.

All volunteers undergo training so that they are comfortable using GPS, tying knots, piloting our small boats, along with other Sharklab necessities. Among the most exciting of these classes is shark handling, where you venture out to semi-captive pens with the other volunteers to learn how to safely handle juvenile lemon sharks. For a new volunteer, stepping into a pen with 6 sharks seems like less than stellar idea, though volunteers quickly learn that the only interest that these sharks have in people is actively avoiding them. The sharks are not aggressive and pose almost no risk of delivering an unprovoked bite.
© Chris Bolte 2016
© Chris Bolte 2016

Perched on the side of the boat, I focus on this very experience. Though the sharks that are circling me are same species as the sharks in the pen, instead of being 60 centimeters, these sharks are closer to 250 centimeters. Alarmingly, these sharks are on the small end of the spectrum for what we are anticipating. Nonetheless, I remember how little the baby lemon sharks were interested in me, and hope that sort of behavior continues to be exhibited well into maturity.

The captain nods his head to me, and I tip backwards off the boat. The sensation that I feel in those minutes of anticipation followed by a quarter second of falling is more than just that, more than an anticipatory period. It is a moment that represents a year of immersion in a world of water, science, and sharks. A feeling of serenity, a void that formerly would have been occupied by fear and agitation.

Unsurprising, the first thing that I notice as I plunge into the water is exactly what you would expect. Sharks, so numerous that they take up more of my field of vision than the water does. They jostle and bump each other to get out of my way as I immediately begin to descend.

As I sink towards the bottom, the water begins to take a more sinister appearance. The lemon sharks milling about the surface are replaced by dark blue water, and as my knees touch the sand, the sharks that we have come all this way to see begin to arrive. They emerge from the water, slowly, confidently. Unmistakable in their appearance, with black vertical blotches punctuating their flanks, the tiger sharks approach us. They look small at first, approaching us from the sea grass. As they get closer and closer, the sheer magnitude of this predator becomes evident.  The largest of the three is probably about 15 feet long, thicker around than an oak barrel. Black eyes gaze at you, seemingly apathetic as these gigantic sharks make easy passes past us, circling. They are nothing short of gorgeous, their species easily ranking among the most impressive predators in the world.
© Chris Bolte 2016

It seems a culmination of my experiences at the Sharklab, a test of whether or not I have gained some measure of composure interacting with these creatures. Except for the size discrepancy, it’s an experience remarkably similar to those first few days with the baby lemon sharks. Trusting that the sharks are going to go about their business while I sit in silent awe. Unsurprisingly the tigers continue to cruise around, exhibiting nothing more than a passing interest in me and the other divers, never threatening. Though I always remain cautious, I feel like the trust that I had given to these predators is well placed.

I only wish that they could say the same of us.

Words and images by Chris Bolte.