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.