Monday, 10 April 2017

Leaving Bimini with Greater Perspectives and Increased Exposure

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. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

To catch a stingray - By Kara Norton

With one skiff patrolling the mangroves, and the other cruising parallel to us on the sand flats, we are perfectly positioned to spot a southern stingray. Jamie and I are standing on the bow of the boat, scanning the surrounding water. Kate guides the skiff directly alongside the mangroves. In addition to collecting data on the shark species of Bimini, the Shark Lab also tracks the movements of southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana). Abundant in coastal systems throughout the Caribbean, very little is known about its movement ecology.
A southern stingray burrows itself in the sand. Photo: Eugene Kitsios
At half past 12, the sun is high and there is no wind. The water in the lagoon is glassy and calm, ideal for spotting the flat, diamond-shaped discs that bury themselves beneath the protection of the sprawling red mangroves. Routinely leaving the safety of the mangroves on a low tide to hunt on the sand flats, we usually spot the rays on a rising tide. Rather than chasing the stingrays around the lagoon, we ideally search for rays that we can corner by the mangroves. With wing-like pectoral fins, southern stingrays can easily out maneuver a skiff over a low tide.
Just off our bow, I see a large patch of raised sand beneath the mangroves. As we get closer I see a whip-like tail exposed above the sand. Two small spiracles are also visible. Pointing towards the particular section the ray is under, Kate understands and puts the boat’s motor into neutral as we try to glide quietly past. Signaling the other boat to come in so we can build a perimeter around the ray, Jamie has her arm pointed towards the ray’s last position.
“Lets approach as slowly as possible and put the boats into neutral,” Jamie said. “Once we are in position we can all get in the water at the same time. Only move in towards the ray once we have a tight circle formed so she can’t escape,” she said.
Dip nets in hand, Jamie and I sit on the bow as Kate guides the skiff towards the ray. Gary, Tyler and Harry are in position, waiting for the go-ahead to enter the waist-deep water. Stingray captures usually involve eight volunteers. With two people on the bow of the boat acting as spotters, and another standing in the skiff ready to hand the two spotters on the bow their dip nets. The last person on the boat is the driver. Arguably the most difficult job to do while capturing stingrays, the driver must coordinate with everyone on the boat, watch what the ray is doing and anticipate its movements, as well as communicating a plan of capture with the other boat.
“Is she still there?” asks Kate. “Yeah, I see her tail sticking out just there,” I said.
Cutting the engine about two meters from the ray, we all look to Kate for the go ahead to enter the water. “Jamie, Anne Marie move more to the left to close out that section,” Kate said. Tyler Gary and Harry move in from the right as I tighten up the circle in the center. Trying not to kick up too much silt, we close in on the ray. “Tyler move in slower so everyone is going at the same pace,” Kate calls from the boat. We are perfectly in position to capture this ray. By the time it begins to shed its sandy camouflage, it is cornered by six dip nets. Attempting to flee through any opening, I raise my net up around it, just before it darts between us. As its pectoral fins begin to flap against the net, Gary quickly puts his net beneath mine to secure the ray. A large female, she is even bigger than I originally estimated. Female southern stingrays can grow to a disc width of 150 cm, contrary to the smaller male stingrays that reach maximum size at 67 cm.
Volunteer Kara holding the barb of a recently caught southern stingray. Photo: Tyler Brun
Kate is already filling up the large transport tub we have on board with fresh sea water. Moving her towards the boat we keep her spiracles submerged in water so she can breathe easily. Pulling myself on board I prepare myself for the hand off. Jamie moves into position holding the other side of the dip net. On three the four of us life the two nets out of the water and into the transport tub. Sliding the exterior net off, we retrieve a protective welding glove to prevent the stingray’s barb from whipping back and forth as we take off the interior net. “Do you have her barb?” Kate asks Gary. “I have her barb,” he said. Slowly moving the net out from underneath her, and away from her barb, we successfully remove the net without her getting caught.
Removing a pit tag reader from the dry box, we set to the task of collecting data on this massive southern stingray.
“She’s a new cap,” Jamie said. We write the GPS location, and time of capture into the data book as soon as we get the ray in the transport tub. When we feel confident that the animal is not under too much stress we begin to take samples and measurements. The data we collect on stingrays is the species, sex, individual PIT tag number, animal’s disc width, disc length, spiracle width, barb length, if the ray has been captured before, if blood, stable isotopes, and muscle were taken, and if an acoustic tag has been inserted. Any distinctive features are written under the comments section.
With Gary keeping the barb covered at all times, Jamie lays the measuring tape across the stingray’s pectoral fins to determine her disc width. “She’s a big girl, her disc width is 100.5 cm,” Jamie said. Moving the tape to the tip of her nose, Jamie runs the tape over her dorsal ridge down to the lower lobs of the pectoral fin to measure her disc length. “I have 89.3cm for disc length,” Jamie said. The next measurement is the distance between her spiracles. Just below the eyes, the spiracles are external respiratory openings that allow the stingray to take in water while submerged in the seabed or buried in sand. Water enters through the spiracles and leaves through the gill openings, which is separate from the mouth on the underside.  “Spiracle width is 16.0cm,” she said. The final barb measurement is taken with a ruler. “I have 9.6 cm for barb length,” she said. With the measurements out of the way we can take muscle and DNA samples. Using surgical scissors, I cut a small triangle—no bigger than my pinky nail—from her right pelvic fin. Cutting the triangle in half, I place one half of the triangle in a vial of DMSO solution and the other in a small plastic bag. Within both the DNA and stable isotope bags there is a slip of waterproof paper that contains the animal’s PIT tag number, species, sex, date, and disc width written down.
With measurements and samples taken, Gary and Tyler head back to their boat to keep patrolling for buried rays. I remove some water from her tub to make room for a fresh supply. Kate directs the skiff back towards the lab. “She seems pretty calm, but we should move her into the pen as soon as possible,” Kate said. Jamie and I both nod our heads in agreement. As a new capture, it is procedure to bring her back to the enclosure located just off the lab’s back beach. She will remain securely in the underwater pen until one of the staff members has taken blood and muscle samples.
Guiding the skiff around the raised sea grass beds and sand flats scattered through the lagoon, Kate parks the boat next to the pen. Removing the tuna clips from the pen-mesh I pull down the door of the pen to make way for the meter-wide stingray. I pull on the protective welding glove to hold her barb as Anne Marie and Jamie place two dip nets underneath her. On three they raise her over the pen mesh and into the water. Gently removing the nets, I release her barb. We watch her do a lap around the pen and bury herself in the sand before we head back to the mangroves to search for more stingrays.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Twelve days a Vol: A look into the life of a fresh Shark Lab volunteer - by Collin Davis

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.

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”.