“Are you going to survive here?” Chelle, our media manager and one of my new roommates, took in my puffy and swollen body with concerned eyes. Despite my hardest efforts, tears leaked out of the corner of my eyes. Fresh off the plane that landed moments ago on the small island of Bimini, I discovered I was allergic to mosquitos. The new volunteers, eager and looking for adventure, went for a stroll around the island. We were instantly swarmed by the tiny creatures. Cursing and swatting at our heads like madmen, we sprinted back to the lab. Our bodies were riddled with angry, itchy, red bumps. I counted over 50 bites on my face, shoulders, and legs. My reaction was particularly bad, so much so that one of the older volunteers referred to me as “the one with the bites” before they learned all of our names.
In all honesty, that question terrified me. Not just because I couldn’t imagine having this reaction to mosquitos every day, but because I had little to no experience with elasmobranchs. I had no idea what I was doing. What was a longline? What the heck does a BRUV mean? And why do all the volunteers groan when the staff mentions gillnet fixing? It was obvious the extent of my shark knowledge stopped at the end pages of a textbook.
One of our first activities as new volunteers was a reef shark dive. It was my first time swimming with sharks. Seeing them in their natural habitat, without layers of glass between myself and the sharks, was exhilarating. Our lab manager Ben threw chum into the water, and the once calm Caribbean reef sharks swam in an absolute frenzy. But instead of glass, the only object between us and the sharks was our flimsy looking fins. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. It was slightly terrifying, a little alarming, and utterly magical.
Caribbean Reef Shark (Carcharhinus perezii). Photo (C) Chelle Blais
During our second week, we set out longlines. I snipped a fin clip from a juvenile tiger shark, attempted to insert a Casey Tag into an adult nurse shark (man those guys have thick skin), and stared with wide eyes as one of the assistant lab managers surgically implanted an acoustic tag into the abdomen of an adult female tiger shark. On our way back to the lab, with the sun setting and our clothes thrashing in the wind, all four of us whooped and hollered. We had just won the lottery.
A month and a half later I can say I’ve learned more during these past few weeks than I have during a few of my undergraduate courses. I can confidently work up a juvenile lemon shark, including taking fin clips for isotope and DNA analysis, body measurements such as length and girth, and sex ID. I know that gillnet fixing includes boiling in the hot sun, sweat dripping from every pore of your body as your fingers fumble to tie a double sheet bend knot. I’ve learned that watching BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations) videos can be one of the most mundane tasks to one of the most thrilling as you watch a tiger shark rip bait out from a cage. Through trial and error, I now wear copious amounts of sunscreen, even on cloudy days. I’ve realized the importance of protective clothing and layers upon layers of DEET (pro tip: the “natural” stuff does NOT work) to ward off the dreaded blood sucking monsters we call mosquitos. Most of all, I’ve learned that I still know nothing. Whether it be how to decipher the acoustic pings of a tag implanted in a juvenile lemon shark during tracking, or the location of the snips that we use for gangion fixing, every day I’m discovering something new.
Volunteers Kinsey, Molly, Rebecca and Sophia catching a southern stingray to PIT tag and release.