Friday, 29 September 2017

The Great Sharklab Evacuation - By Rebecca Schijns

The Great Sharklab Evacuation

By Rebecca Schijns

It was the morning of a beautiful and sunny Day Off that we received the ominous news. Gathered at the kitchen table, Lab Manager Ches announced, “Unfortunately, we will be evacuating Bimini… And we have one day to do it.”

Let me explain. This is September in the Caribbean, AKA prime hurricane season. Hurricane Irma had been on our radar for the past week, and we watched anxiously as the projected path aligned directly with Eastern Florida, including our little island of Bimini. The days drew closer and Irma reached Category 5, breaking records as the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic. As much as we all hated to leave our home and all the science we had been working so hard on, we knew it was time to leave.

Standard hurricane preparation consists of an extensive list that is meant to take around three days to complete. However, we had a deadline of 24 hours since the Bimini airport customs decided they would close before our chartered flight (which required stressful reorganization). Volunteers and staff snapped out from their groggy, morning haze into this-means-business mode. Boats were heaved out of the water and tied to surrounding trees. Coconuts were stripped from surrounding palms, unarming the trees of their dangerous ammunition during high winds. All the windows were boarded up and outside paraphernalia was secured inside. Expensive equipment and valuable frozen DNA, isotope, and blood samples were moved to a more secure location. Teams travelled to the field, removing all the precisely placed acoustic receivers. With great remorse, we released eight juvenile lemon sharks from their pens, allowing them to swim to safer waters.  By 10:00pm, the Sharklab crew collapsed on the kitchen floor to eat a much-deserved pizza dinner and share one last evening together for an undetermined amount of time.

The following day we arose early, packed 10lbs of valuables each, and headed to the airport. Flying with four adopted pit bulls proved to be yet another challenge. After exhaustive barking at strangers and a “small” dose of Benadryl, the pups sat, drooling at the window, as we passed over clear blue waters towards Miami. From Miami, the Sharklab crew broke off into smaller groups and headed towards their various destinations across North America.

Caption: Sharklabbers Raquel and Sophia with travel buddies Matthew and Lucifer

Two Weeks Later

After a trifecta of Hurricanes (Irma, Katia, and Jose) passed through the Caribbean, we have returned safely back to our beloved Sharklab! To our shock and relief, the lab remained in one piece through the storm surge. Grateful to be back, we assembled as the new and improved Sharklab crew. While it was strange to wear shoes and have freshwater showers, the short time off the island allowed time to refill on snack supplies and heal from bites and burns. Now, we walk the dock runway in style: flashy new Buff and rash guard, accessorizing with Yeti stickers and Go Pros. Ready to tackle whatever comes our way. Bring on the sharks, Bimini!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Face to Fin by Sophia Emmons

            The most anticipated activity by any volunteer has got to be the reef shark dive.  It’s one of the few times at the Bimini Biological Field Station that we’re not trying to catch and tag every single shark we can see, just observing their unadulterated beauty.  I consider that day to be one of the most amazing days of my life.

            Upon arrival at Turtle Rocks, all the volunteers jumped into the water wearing fins, snorkel, and a mask and lined up along a line floating parallel to the stern of the boat.  When everyone was in place, a staff member on the boats chummed the water.  Any reef sharks in the area immediately raced over to fill their bellies, causing a feeding frenzy just a few meters in front of our eager faces.  My mother was more than a bit concerned when she saw the footage I took!  After the chum was gone and the frenzy was over, the sharks settled down enough to take a slight curiosity in us.  As we swam around these sentient beings, there was no level of fear in anyone’s faces, just pure adoration for the amazing creatures that could take off a limb in one bite.  But of course, they wouldn’t.  They had their fill of fish and professed no interest in our foreign shapes other than the occasional swim by.  The water was once again calm as we became invasive spectators in the shark’s natural habitat.

            That was my first close encounter with a mature shark in the water.  I had held baby lemons and grabbed the fin of a juvenile tiger shark, but being at eye level with a shark as long as I am tall was a brand-new experience for me.  I saw the white of the sharks’ eyes as they passed by me, sizing me up as I did to him.  As one of them swam by, I could see a hook stuck in its mouth, just like a movie.

            Eventually, the sharks became disinterested in the twelve snorkelers surrounding them.  We became more of a nuisance than a novelty as we shoved underwater cameras in their faces.  We were called back to the boat all too soon, but the smile on my face stayed for the rest of the day!

                                           Caribbean Reef Sharks - Photo by Chelle Blais 

Here is Sophia giving a Southern Stingray a pat on the back after tagging it with a PIT tag! 

Monday, 24 April 2017

A day that didn’t go as planned…By project student Harry Gray

Today did not go as planned, but then sometimes the best days don’t.  We set out to deploy 19 submersible ultrasonic receivers (SURs) that are used to detect the movements of our 14 tagged juvenile lemon sharks in and around the lagoon of North Bimini. We also track these sharks manually using a hydrophone but it can sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a haystack; these receivers are therefore crucial for collecting sufficient data to get a proper idea of where these guys are hanging out. It was cool and breezy out on the water so rock, paper, scissors decided whose turn it was to hop in and bury the base of the receiver housing. At a meter and a half deep the water was just shallow enough that none of us thought to bring a weight belt, but inevitably just deep enough to result in two feet sprouting comically from the surface as we struggled to stay down. One by one we dropped off our precious cargo, forever on the lookout for the tell-tale ripple of a hunting shark or, more often than not, the wing tip of an eagle ray.
The first unusual event was a mysterious red cylinder that we couldn’t resist investigating. As it turned out, a marker buoy had gone adrift and promised to be a very nice addition to our little collection of retrieved and recycled bits and bobs salvaged from the mangroves. We’ve recovered all kinds of debris ranging from barrels to balloons which has the handy advantage of both cleaning up the lagoon and keeping the lab well stocked. What really caught our eye today however was the neon yellow float we usually see attached to fishing lines, only this one appeared to be moving… It dawned on us all at once that the float and hook were in fact still attached to a shark! Due to the long trailing wire it could very easily have become lethally entangled in mangrove roots; so without hesitation we set off in hot pursuit, or at least as fast as you can in 2ft of water.
With myself at the helm and Felicie stretched precariously over the bow, feet held tight by two other volunteers, we slowly made ground. Closer and closer we edged, each time the shark veering away at the last moment until finally in a last ditch grab we were able to catch hold and haul in our quarry, a manoeuvre worthy of the circus I felt. A makeshift tail rope was fashioned from the bowline and the dorsal fin secured, we collectively breathed out. Now what had we caught? It was a very handsome, and now pissed off, sub-adult lemon shark that had obviously ripped free taking the hook and float with it. I marvelled at his lithe, sinuous body and twitching nose, densely freckled with electro-sensory pores. Our elation at his capture was, however, short lived as we realised how thoroughly unprepared we were for a spur of the moment rescue. The only cutting tools we had were a pair of flimsy looking lab scissors, nevertheless we set to work hacking strand by strand through the wire leader. Lemon sharks can actively pump water over their gills and can therefor cope with resting temporarily in one spot, but we were still working against the clock and no one wanted to release him still burdened by the float. With a triumphant snap he was eventually cut loose, free to swim another day. We were ecstatic, and now, pretty stuck. With our attention focused on the shark we had failed to notice the rapidly falling tide that had left us veritably stranded in the middle of the lagoon.

As we crawled homeward the sun abandoned us and dark clouds rolled in. The air grew ominously cool, we donned wetsuits in the weary resignation that it would be a very wet ride. Slowly Resorts World, then the mangrove edge, and finally we were engulfed by a tropical tempest that rendered all landforms invisible save for our little skiff. We danced and yelled in the pouring rain, slightly delirious at the end of a long and eventful day on the water. Drowned rats, the team dibbled back into the lab well after dark to recount the days adventures (which is always far more enjoyable once swaddled in blankets with a hot chocolate). The unpredictability of our work can be frustrating at times, but it sure as hell beats a desk job and means that everyone one comes away with a unique experience. No two days on Bimini are alike, it’s what keeps you on your toes and it’s what makes it so exciting.

    Our unplanned rescue mission.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Just before the storm hits…

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!