Splash! The head of an unfortunate squirrel fish lands within two feet of my masked face. Behind the Squirrelfish head, one of the largest Caribbean Reef sharks I have ever seen and it’s obviously hungry. One quick bite and in the water where once the Squirrelfish head floated there was now only a foggy plume of scale and fish scraps and one happy Reef shark. I have been in Bimini now for roughly two hours. The adventure that is volunteering at the BBFS is one that begins with a startling quickness and begs one to internally ask a seemingly innumerable amount of questions: Is this really happening? Should I be cool with sharks feeding this close to my face? If this is day one, what then could feasibly be next? One thought resounds with absolute certainty however; your time as a volunteer at the Shark Lab has officially begun.
Volunteer Collin has a close encounter with a great hammerhead shark
My entire life, I have been hopelessly enamored with sharks, rays, and the creatures that share their environment. My idols have been the scientists who dedicate their lives to the study of these incredible creatures. Individuals such as Jacques Cousteau (I still have a paper machě statue of Jacques Cousteau – an elementary school project - floating around somewhere in my house back in Virginia), Mike deGruy, and…you probably guessed it…Dr. Samuel “Doc” Gruber, have all been major influences throughout my life, actively living a life that I have always dreamed of living. Sitting here now I cannot even begin to ballpark the number of Shark Week specials and other shark-related programs I have viewed during my life, living vicariously through the experiences of the men and women whose lives are dedicated to the study of these incredible creatures. It is through many of my repeated shark-related program viewings that I discovered, and fostered interest, for the world-renowned Bimini Biological Field Station, or aptly titled, “Shark Lab”.
I graduated on May 14th, 2016 from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia (cool spot, give it a Google) with a fancy piece of paper declaring Bachelors-level competency in studies of Biology and an overwhelming fear of the question “So what’s next?”. It was a fair and logical question, and one for which I had yet to provide a ‘good’ answer. Sure, I had a few interviews here and there, even reaching the final steps of consideration in some instances, but my lack of practical work experience was clearly an obstacle in my intended career path. It becomes very apparent to those interested in a career in environmental science that, while education in the field is essential, relevant experience is equally necessary and crucial to separating oneself from the pack. It was during this exciting, yet confusing time in life that I became determined to set myself on a course to “do something really cool, preferably in a really cool location, that also had some kind of connection to my desired career”. This path sent me to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a beautiful spot on the Atlantic rife with opportunities to surf, dive, and just experience the waterman’s life style in general. Soon after arriving, I found work crewing through Corolla Parasail on the boat Island Express which turned out to be an amazing opportunity. Through this work I was privileged with the opportunity to meet over 4000 people from all over the planet. I was on the water nearly every day from late May through mid-October, racking-up well over 600 hours of time on the water. I learned much, absorbing as much as I could about boat safety, basic seamanship, etiquette, and protocol. In my spare time, I volunteered at the North Carolina state aquarium on Roanoke Island. During this period, in early July, I learned of volunteer/internship opportunities at the BBFS, and began plotting a 3 year plan to make myself a candidate worthy of consideration. I knew it was competitive and my expectations were realistic but, I figured, why not put in an application, right? About a week after applying, I received an email from the lab, asking for a time in which I might be able to interview. I was incredulous; even getting contacted was a victory in my eyes. Soon thereafter I found myself in a Skype interview with lab managers Emily and Chesapeake (Ches), and was treated to the most genuinely enjoyable interview I have ever experienced. Still, as the saying goes, it’s better to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. On the afternoon of September 18th, 2016 after a day of surfing with my brother and father, I decided to check my g-mail inbox and at the very top of the list was an email from the Shark Lab (insert cold sweats). I began to read: “Dear Collin, Congratulations! You have been selected from over 100 applicants to volunteer at the Bimini Shark lab from January 3rd-June 15th 2017” I could not believe what I was reading; it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I exclaimed aloud to my family in the truck the fantastic news and from that moment through January 2nd, 2017, I told everyone I knew that I was soon to be a volunteer/intern at the Bimini Shark Lab!
I have been at the Shark Lab now for 12 wonderfully surreal days. It would require volumes to describe all that I have learned and experienced thus far, but I will try to convey my initial impressions, experiences, and general thoughts, while answering for those who may be interested some of the questions I had prior to my arrival:
The people here are remarkably interesting; most have life experience that exceeds anything you can dream up. Also, they are sincerely some of the most welcoming individuals I have ever met. I already feel like I have known them for years.
Everyone here has been a new volunteer before. While there are shoes that need to be filled in time, everyone here is patient and more than willing to teach anything you could ever hope to learn. There is an intrinsic trust in the new volunteers to learn and excel which fosters a mutual respect between vols and staff alike.
Bimini is a strikingly beautiful place filled with friendly people who are happy to stop and talk or to provide any needed direction. All necessities can be found at the stores, restaurants, bank, etc., should you find yourself in need of anything.
The food is surprisingly good. Our lab managers certainly take good care of us here: sesame chicken, lasagna, curried lentil soup with fresh Bahamian bread…the list goes on and on. Prior to my arrival, I was legitimately more frightened by the thought of not having good coffee and Sriracha than I was of any shark in these pristine waters. I’m pleased to announce that my fears were unfounded.
Personnel at the lab come from all walks of life; our competencies are wide-ranging and diverse in strength. You will discover there are members of the team who are more accomplished than you at some skills, while they may be able to learn from you in others. Trust me, coming in feeling like a competent free diver only to watch others performing 2-minute breath holds within your first 2 hours certainly puts you in your place pretty quickly. But everyone is friendly and eager to coach and be coached. You will be as grateful for the lessons you learn as you are for the opportunity to teach.
Be flexible. It becomes immediately apparent from the moment you exit the plane into South Bimini that adaptability and flexibility are your two best friends. No two days are the same here at the Shark Lab and you never know what tasks you might be asked to complete until just after breakfast each day. One day you may be fixing gillnets in the backyard while on others you might be assisting the Shark Week film crew get valuable footage of the Great Hammerheads. Naturally, some tasks may not be quite as appealing as, let’s say, tagging massive Tiger sharks caught on a longline, but it is important to remember two things: 1.) everything you do in this place lends to the success of a larger goal and 2.) you absolutely will get to experience moments such as tagging a large Tiger. It may actually be impossible to not have some form of life changing adventure here within a two day span.
Expectation and reality always seem to interconnect and weave their way into our experiences; life is nothing if not unpredictable. Nearly every action is a gamble, the resulting experience weighed in hindsight against expectations. There are experiences that prove to A.) fall below expectation (all flavors of a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans mixed in one mouthful; disappointing to say the least), B.) fall firmly within the bounds of expectation (I’m looking at you gas station taquitos), or C.) surpass expectation (i.e. Season 1 of Westworld on HBO; if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you get a life and stay indoors, in front of a screen, directly out of sunlight for a couple of days). These scenarios are great, or at least enlightening; they add to your life experience in some small way. But consider for a moment the possibility of realizing a lifelong dream. Something you have worked towards, and hoped for, your entire life. It is natural in this situation that your expectations would be sky high, the remote chances of attaining your goal affording the luxury of keeping reality at bay. And what if, just maybe, an experience that qualifies as a personal dream could not only live-up to expectations, but actually far exceed them? This truly rare scenario, kind reader, is the very reality I have come to experience through just my first 12 days at the Bimini Shark Lab. I find myself nowadays swimming regularly with Great Hammerheads, Lemon sharks, Reef sharks, and Bull sharks among others and I am indescribably happy with the great sense of purpose that guides me. I don’t know what I am doing next on this beautiful Bahamian afternoon, but I do know this: I am a Bimini Shark Lab volunteer and I am having the time of my life.