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”.


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

For the love of Sharks - by Delana Lee.





“She swims with sharks! She’s crazy!” – One of my coworkers to another, regarding my vacations.

As often as possible, I go to the Bimini Biological Field Station, affectionately known as Sharklab. The Research Experiences are perfect vacations for shark lovers like me. They’re affordable adventures brimming with sharks, rays, science, and fun. Each trip offers its own unique experience, and a return to a place that has totally captured my heart. How could I not go back again and again?!

People always ask me how I got started going to Sharklab. My obsession with the oceans and with marine life began in my childhood. We moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, when I was about five. Since moving back to Kansas just before I turned ten, I’ve been more ocean-obsessed than ever, looking for ways to get back to the ocean, and watching every marine wildlife documentary I could find on television or the internet.

In the late 1990s or very early 2000s, I was watching yet another ocean documentary, this one featuring Doc Gruber and his Sharklab in Bimini. I was sitting wishing to God I’d become a marine biologist, but I didn’t even know that was a profession when I was a child. I was so amazed by what I saw, the work this place was doing, and the beautiful sharks. I wondered to myself, 'Can I go there? Do they let people visit? How can I get there? I’ve got to go!' Then, I thought, 'No, they probably don’t let the public visit.' I dreamed of the place for the next decade.

I’ve never been attracted to resorts or cruise ships. Just like when I was a kid, I want to be in the ocean, not merely admiring it from distance. One of my loftiest dreams had always been to swim with the sharks in their own habitat, and to do so in a way that supported their conservation and environment.
In the early part of 2013, one of the shark conservationists and photographers that I follow on Facebook shared a post about a public opportunity at Sharklab. The station was offering a Naturalist Course open to anyone. Had I, a landlocked shark enthusiast but nobody special, finally found a way to go to Shark Lab? How often do dreams come true? How often does something one believes impossible turn into something one can suddenly just up and go do? What are the chances that I would ever get to spend nearly a week with sharks, shark scientists, and Doc Gruber himself at the Bimini Biological Field Station? Does stuff that I never would have thought I would get to experience something so amazing. Talk about a peak experience!

When I saw the notice, I asked a couple of my adventure and shark-loving friends if they’d like to come along with me. One joined me on that trip and, subsequently, all of the trips that followed; one other friend would join me for my fourth trip back.

Arrangements were made. It was really going to happen! I would be at Sharklab, November 3 through 6, 2013. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but I was completely out my mind with excitement. I was nervous, I couldn’t wait, and I could barely believe I was actually going.

I’ll skip past the small plane ride and picked up at Bimini’s tiny airport, our first sight of Doc, and our short drive to the station. When we got to Sharklab and were given our room assignments, I had just unzipped my duffel when the call came that Doc wanted us to suit up for a swim with Caribbean reef sharks; we had thirty minutes to get ready.  Conditions were windy, the seas less than placid, but I still got my suit on and my snorkel gear ready. Just like that, we were on the boats and headed to the site.

A line was stretched from an anchored buoy to the main boat. Doc was throwing chunks of fish to the circling Caribbean reef sharks. We were to jump in on the opposite side of the boat and swim around to the line, grab on, and be shoulder to shoulder so we could observe the sharks feed. We were to kick with our fins if the sharks came too close to us or tried to pass between us.

When I jumped into the water, I was immediately surprised to be in the company of three passing Caribbean reef sharks. They were a little bit lower in the water column than I was, and their path was perpendicular to mine. Accounting for the way things look closer through a mask underwater, I am guessing they were a couple of meters away. One of them glanced my way. Caribbean reef sharks have beautiful eyes. They were headed toward the area where the food was splashing into the water. I thought to myself, 'Well, you need to swim over to the line, so swim on over.' I just put myself on top of the water and snorkeled over the tails of the passing sharks.








Doc was urging everyone to jump in, as the supply of bait was not going to last forever. He hollered, "WE HAVE TWO SPECIES!" A feisty black nose had joined the fray.

Once you are in the water with these animals, your perspective shifts. Before you know it, you are admiring their grace and beauty, and you realize everything is fine; no, it’s better than fine, it’s amazing. You don't want to be anywhere else at that moment.

I love the Caribbean reef shark dive. I have been on that dive at least five times, two of which were in absolutely perfect conditions. The sun was out, the water was clear, and it was easy to get gorgeous photos, even with a compact camera with tiny optics.

The Naturalist Course was amazing. We enjoyed lectures on the history of the station and the various Ph.D. candidates research projects. We fished for bull sharks off the north island, caught a large tiger on the long lines, learned how to handle juvenile lemon and nurse sharks, and visited a place I thought existed only in my childhood dreams. Aya’s Spot is a shallow water mangrove inlet where newborn and juvenile lemon sharks seek shelter and grow before venturing into more open water, full of larger predators. The first time I went through the channel that leads to the inlet, it was pure magic, and I was elated. There were lots of adorable juvenile lemon sharks swimming all around in the secluded mangrove inlet.

The six days flew by, and I’ll be honest, I teared up going back to the airport. I didn’t want to leave. Dr. Tristan Guttridge was driving the car I was in, and he said, 'Well, that just means you have to come back.'

When the station started offering Research Experiences, we had our chance to return. My long-time friend and adventure travel buddy Pam James, and a friend we made at the Naturalist Course, Lindsay Deitch, started hatching a grand plan to return! to see great hammerheads in March of 2015!

To those of you still reading this far in, seeing a great hammerhead for the first time will blow your mind. They are very impressive animals, and each individual we saw had a distinct personality. All were curious, though some were bold and other cautious. Some stayed a long time, and others came and went. A big male, named Silverback, tried his hardest to get the bait box open. All the while, nurse sharks were clowning nearby, trying to get their shot at the bait.

This trip provided handling opportunities and photo ops with the little sharks in the education pen again (always a treat!), snorkeling with the hammers, fishing for black tips, and an encounter with a group of spotted eagle rays. We even snorkeled Shell Beach and saw a yellow spotted stingray. This trip proved you just can’t do it all in one visit. So, of course what do you do to fix that? You have to go back. This time it would be the following November!

Each time we return, there are some familiar faces as well as the many new ones. Former Ph.D. candidates’ papers have been published, current Ph.D. candidates’ work continues, and we get updates and hear new lectures. We learn about island development and it’s effects on current research. We have more encounters with sharks and rays, we learn more about the species and their habits. And we start planning our next trip. Each return means more education, more adventure, and more fun.

We went back for hammerheads this past March, as well, and I had the great pleasure of bringing my friend Jason Huck along with us. It was a thrill of its own to bring another long-time friend on the experience of a lifetime. Jason is a shark enthusiast and the timing was, finally, right for him to join us. He was apprehensive about getting into the water with the Caribbean reefs, but we would have just pushed him off the boat like we did in Isla Mujeres, so he knew there was no point in resisting. Once he got into the water with them, he melted into the experience and found it as transcendent as we did. And holy moly, the long line checks we did this trip were legendary! Large tigers, a baby tiger (so cute!), and a big nurse shark from whom I got a delightful tail slap upside my head while I was trying to grip her dorsal fin alongside the boat! Outstanding! She was a cutie!

I am always telling my friends to up their vacation game. You can sit around and drink mojitos whenever you want. It’s high time you hand-fed squid to curious juvenile lemon sharks in a mangrove inlet that’s like something out of a fantasy novel!

Pam, Lindsay, and I are booked to come back for July’s research experience. We’ve never been in the summer. What species will we encounter? What research will we learn about? Who will we meet? Now I need to get Jason back again! hammers in February of 2017, y'all?

Everyone in my life back home has gotten used to me going to Bimini to swim with the sharks. Every time I return and talk about my experiences, I see other people’s attitudes toward these incredible creatures change just a little bit. Perhaps they are not keen on swimming with them, but they start to see them in a different light, as animals worthy of respect and admiration, if from a distance.

I must also mention the joy of meeting other shark FINatics (sorry, it had to be done). There are new friends from around the world on every trip, not to mention the station’s staff, volunteers, PhD candidates, and the doggies! What’s not to love?



It’s the complete package. Simply by going to my favorite place on earth, I support, in some small way, the work being done at Sharklab. I get the chance to help with data collection and tagging of sharks caught around the island. I get to be in the water with free-swimming sharks of various species. I meet other shark lovers from all over the globe, and I learn about sharks and rays directly from the scientists studying them. I get to pet adorable dogs in a Caribbean paradise. I can’t imagine not going back every chance I get. 
 



 Thanks to Delana for the words and images.


For more information on Research Experiences at Bimini Sharklab, go to the following link: http://www.biminisharklab.com/opportunities/researchexperiences

Thursday, 18 February 2016

“The Shark Lab” Way, by Alex McInturf - 18th February 2016


For my entire, landlocked childhood, I’ve wanted to become a shark biologist. The draw to these organisms is obvious. As renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson once stated: “We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…” What I can’t quite explain, however, is the persistence of my obsession; but then, I’ve found that few can. 

There often comes a point in one’s life that this dream seems unrealistic, a realization provoked by the reality of a scientist’s struggling salary, the competitiveness of this field, or even a growing fear of the animal itself. For those who irrationally persist to follow our passion, the path is significantly less glamorous than that portrayed on a typical “Shark Week” episode. If I had some vague notion of this before I arrived at the Bimini Shark Lab, my experience here has certainly cemented my belief that shark science produces a rare breed of individual. We come from all over the world, united by one single purpose: the pursuit of knowledge of the greatest predators in existence. We are unique in our interests, our background, our lifestyle and culture, but collectively we are willing to sacrifice nearly everything for this goal.

Since my arrival at the lab, we’ve been plagued by nearly every obstacle known to research. We’ve suffered from the torrential downpours of winter, rendering visibility nearly nonexistent and producing gusts of over thirty miles per hour, with swells four to five feet high. I’ve spent days fixing gillnets and laying out longlines, or fixing gangions and entering data. Among those for whom the dream of shark science is a passing phase, these tasks likely seem mundane. For the staff and volunteers here, however, perspective is key. How can we sample the abundant juvenile lemon shark population if the gillnet is torn? How can we capture thirteen tiger sharks in a single longline set if we fear for the strength of the line or the security of the gangions? Where would the significance of our work rest if not in the data that it produces?

That is not to say that there isn’t some shred of truth in the initial draw to this type of research. Since my arrival, I’ve been diving over giant coral heads, surrounded by schools of bright yellow fish. I’ve snorkeled through mangroves, admiring submerged spider webs floating gently in the current as I searched for juvenile nurse sharks. I’ve seen a laser photogrammetry session with four giant hammerheads, the green light of the lasers clearly bouncing off of dermal denticles several meters below the surface of the water. Then there are the more poignant moments, those almost surreal. In one such instance, we were out on the boat on a longline check, watching the sun rise in a pink sky, the water turning from dark purple to patterns of royal blue and turquoise in the morning light. It was almost inevitable that the sea produced something extraordinary. Indeed, in a picture perfect sequence, a giant tail thrashed in the air a short distance from the boat and a dark shape emerged on the line only minutes after the set. I would challenge the most objective audience to witness a 3.7 meter tiger shark with anything less than sheer reverence.

Only at the Bimini Shark Lab is this experience even remotely possible. At every level, from the most basic day-to-day activity to the complicated data analysis and profound scientific discussion, we all benefit from an unusual combination of collaboration and independence. We are self-sufficient as individuals but work together as a unit to yield the broadest foundation of understanding that the biodiversity on this island allows us to produce. There is truly no other place with such an extensive history of research, and I have no doubt as to the legacy that the lab has yet to create.


Freediving with sharks, Image © Ches Revell

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Evolution of a Sharklabber by Chris Bolte, 9th Febraury 2016




Evolution of a Sharklabber


© Chris Bolte 2016


Trust is the word that comes to mind.

Almost everything about the situation is normal. I have a scuba tank on my back, one hand pressed over my mask and regulator while my other hand grips my weight belt. I have my eyes on our boat captain, waiting for the captain to give me the signal to tip backwards off the gunwale into the crystal blue water of Tiger Beach, a dive site 20 miles off the coast of Grand Bahama. As air gently rasps through my regulator, I’m a little bit surprised how calm I feel, given the circumstances. After all, there are about 20 adult lemon sharks circling at the surface, not to mention the sharks that are lurking below.

I first came to the Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation, a facility specializing in elasmobranch research in October of 2014 as a green volunteer. In the following months I was introduced to various research techniques, ranging from tracking sharks using acoustic receivers to capturing them with modified fishing techniques and collecting all types of data from them. Following my time as a volunteer, I was offered a position as an assistant manager, a position that I eagerly accepted.

All volunteers undergo training so that they are comfortable using GPS, tying knots, piloting our small boats, along with other Sharklab necessities. Among the most exciting of these classes is shark handling, where you venture out to semi-captive pens with the other volunteers to learn how to safely handle juvenile lemon sharks. For a new volunteer, stepping into a pen with 6 sharks seems like less than stellar idea, though volunteers quickly learn that the only interest that these sharks have in people is actively avoiding them. The sharks are not aggressive and pose almost no risk of delivering an unprovoked bite.
© Chris Bolte 2016
© Chris Bolte 2016

Perched on the side of the boat, I focus on this very experience. Though the sharks that are circling me are same species as the sharks in the pen, instead of being 60 centimeters, these sharks are closer to 250 centimeters. Alarmingly, these sharks are on the small end of the spectrum for what we are anticipating. Nonetheless, I remember how little the baby lemon sharks were interested in me, and hope that sort of behavior continues to be exhibited well into maturity.

The captain nods his head to me, and I tip backwards off the boat. The sensation that I feel in those minutes of anticipation followed by a quarter second of falling is more than just that, more than an anticipatory period. It is a moment that represents a year of immersion in a world of water, science, and sharks. A feeling of serenity, a void that formerly would have been occupied by fear and agitation.

Unsurprising, the first thing that I notice as I plunge into the water is exactly what you would expect. Sharks, so numerous that they take up more of my field of vision than the water does. They jostle and bump each other to get out of my way as I immediately begin to descend.

As I sink towards the bottom, the water begins to take a more sinister appearance. The lemon sharks milling about the surface are replaced by dark blue water, and as my knees touch the sand, the sharks that we have come all this way to see begin to arrive. They emerge from the water, slowly, confidently. Unmistakable in their appearance, with black vertical blotches punctuating their flanks, the tiger sharks approach us. They look small at first, approaching us from the sea grass. As they get closer and closer, the sheer magnitude of this predator becomes evident.  The largest of the three is probably about 15 feet long, thicker around than an oak barrel. Black eyes gaze at you, seemingly apathetic as these gigantic sharks make easy passes past us, circling. They are nothing short of gorgeous, their species easily ranking among the most impressive predators in the world.
© Chris Bolte 2016

It seems a culmination of my experiences at the Sharklab, a test of whether or not I have gained some measure of composure interacting with these creatures. Except for the size discrepancy, it’s an experience remarkably similar to those first few days with the baby lemon sharks. Trusting that the sharks are going to go about their business while I sit in silent awe. Unsurprisingly the tigers continue to cruise around, exhibiting nothing more than a passing interest in me and the other divers, never threatening. Though I always remain cautious, I feel like the trust that I had given to these predators is well placed.

I only wish that they could say the same of us.



Words and images by Chris Bolte.  

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Haulin’ by Alex McInturf, 5th February 2016


My life has become “The Deadliest Catch”. This thought was surprisingly poignant in the wordless blur of pure instinct that took over my brain. I was staring out at a scene mirroring the Discovery Channel television show that mesmerized me back before I truly understood what it meant to be hauling lines in massive waves and torrential rain that seemed quite intent on teaming up to sink our research vessel. Of course, I was being dramatic – relatively speaking, the open Alaskan seas experience far worse conditions than I could even imagine. I almost chuckled to myself at the comparison, but was immediately thrown into a seated position by an unexpected wave, effectively ending any romanticized view of the present reality. Small as they may be, two-meter swells are significant when your boat is only twenty-feet long and your personnel expects to be operating in relatively calm Bahamian waters. We don’t often endure fieldwork in such poor weather, as the winds eliminate sufficient water visibility. Then again, I’m not quite sure we anticipating what would happen this morning.  
            My alarm went off at around 06:00, and after filling a quick mug with tea (the prospect of tea time, in retrospect, seems laughable), we left the dock at 06:30 sharp for a longline haul at the aptly-named Tiger Grounds. I’ve been spoiled thus far in my time here. The last time we set the lines in this area, we caught a total of 13 tiger sharks, one of which was a massive pregnant female with a 3.7-meter total length. February wasn’t treating us quite as well, unfortunately, as we had only found two small tigers in twenty-four hours. We weren’t expecting much better during this final check, and indeed ultimately found only one small juvenile, barely one-meter long. We performed our standard work-up as the sun rose in a sky that was an appalling shade of red, a fact I pointed out to fellow volunteer Jo: “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning!” I joked as I put on my sunglasses to see through the glare into the water. All humor aside, we couldn’t quite ignore the massive wall of grey behind us, a series of very distinguishable rolling clouds. As we began to haul in the first longline, the scene was threateningly beautiful – a blood-orange sunrise splitting the sky with the contrasting storm, the water glowing turquoise underneath. Perhaps due to our naïve faith in the weather forecast, we weren’t quite as efficient as we probably should have been as we leisurely pulled and coiled, chatting and joking, ironically enough, about the weather; joking, that is, until it hit. 
            We felt the first raindrops as we began the second line haul. “Alright, guys, let’s try to pick up the urgency a little bit,” instructed Chris, our skipper. As the lab’s resident “longline guy”, Matt reached to take the lead on the line. Then the first raindrops struck our faces. Rain wasn’t an issue, and because we scientists like to picture ourselves the very embodiment of toughness in the face of such adversity, we pressed on. As if to mock our lack of respect, the wind escalated from two to twenty knots in approximately thirty seconds, and the light rain became a sheer force of sleet. The white caps began slamming into our hull, washing over the bow and threatening to knock us off of our feet as we simultaneously tried to re-establish the laws of gravity in the waves that lifted our boat. Chatter transformed quickly to commands and urgent calls as we painstakingly made our way through the second line. With the last buoy pulled onboard, a call came through the static of the radio: “Hey, longline crew. We are just taking a look at the forecast here at the lab….” We didn’t even let it finish before we started laughing. We didn’t need a forecast – we were living it. And we still had three more longlines to go. 
            The next two hours were a hard lesson on the role of focus in seafaring; focus on balance using all necessary parts of the body, focus on coiling ever quicker, focus on bailing and bilging and balancing to prevent our boat from sinking. By the time we hauled in our last line, we were thoroughly soaked, battered, and bruised, and personally, I was fairly certain I had pulled a hamstring. What’s more, we were also vision-impaired - the clouds blocked our view of the island, and the rain attacked our eyes with such vigor that I was convinced Chris would go blind as he tried to search for the impossibly small channel markers that lined our route home. It wasn’t until we arrived in the shelter of our back bay that the characteristic humor of the Shark Lab began to re-emerge as the chill of wind and rain sunk into our bodies. Teeth chattering, Matt commented dryly: “This is one of those hauls that make you happy to just get home…glad we didn’t die.” And as the rest of the lab, considerably less haggard-looking, arrived on the dock to unload our water-logged gear, we whooped in celebration of our survival. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

"When in Rome, do as the Romans." by Maria Paz Gutierrez - January 29th 2016


                        "When in Rome, do as the Romans."

My Experience as a Volunteer in the Sharklab





Somebody once told me that proverbs reflect the way people of that culture think about the world.  A well-known proverb  of English-speaking cultures is "When in Rome, do as the Romans",  meaning that you have to act in the same way as the people around you.

For me, a foreign girl coming from Chile (a tiny third-world country) to the Famous Sharklab, inhabited by people coming from first-world countries (U.S.A, France, Australia, Canada and England), understanding and practice this proverb has been very useful.

Seeing a rice maker and a drone for the first time and watching BBC documentaries with actors that were in the Lab only hours before at first took me out of my comfort zone. This was heightened by the fact that I am still learning how to speak English, so I really didn´t understand anything about the house rules, duty list, packing practices , etc. The good thing is that any time that I made a mess, I would just say "I do not speak English."

Now that I have been here for 24 days, I am almost one Roman more, almost reaching a first-world understanding.... thinking about the postgraduate program in which I will enroll in two more years, the model and price of  the GPS that I will deploy with acoustic tag receivers to find sharks easily, or maybe even getting my own drone to find them without getting out of the boat.

Only a few weeks have passed and I have learned a lot more than what I was expecting, not only in a "fun-shark-work" way, but in a "do-and-fix-everything-that-you-will-need-to-do-the-fun-shark-work" way, from making a shark pen (see Alex McInturf blog: "When life gives you lemons...take DNA) and fixing gillnets to tagging tigers sharks and swimming with hammerhead sharks. This is a once-in-a-lifetime great opportunity with genius Romans, living, imitating and trying to understand them. What a great experience!


The Sharklab at dusk.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

'Home Economics with the Shark Lab' by Alex McInturf - January 24th

Home Economics with the Shark Lab


When referring to the act of sewing, most have a very classic cultural image in mind: perhaps cross-stitch, needlepoint, or maybe weaving a tapestry on a loom. Thanks to my most recent experience here at the Sharklab, it is unlikely that my definition will match that of general society for a quite a long time after my return to civilization. A few days ago, staff member Anthony handed me, not a needle and thread, but a broken stick and spool of rope as we stood on the beach, confronted by a stretch of green mesh thirty-seven meters long. Upon closer inspection, my team of volunteers and I could tell that years of use had taken their toll – the mesh was spotted with tears and gaping holes of all sizes, held together by spare pieces of old line and the occasional zip tie. As the sun sporadically peaked through a layer of clouds, we learned that our task for the afternoon was to completely dissemble the patches, removing any remaining ties or lines. From there, we were to move on to our ultimate goal: a new shark pen.
            As the first hours passed, we bent over with intense concentration, our fingers fumbling with knots and clipping with reckless abandon. Thirty-seven meters, however, began to stretch longer and longer, the knots more and more complex, as the sun began to set and the mosquitoes attacked our vulnerable ankles. By the end of the day, we saw before us now two pieces of mesh, each riddled with holes that seemed even larger. In the waning light, with the smell of dinner wafting from the Lab across the road, Anthony then taught us to sew, overlapping the two pieces lengthwise and securing them with an alternating loop and knot pattern. By the time the dinner bell rang, our loom barely had its first strands.
            For the next several days, the rain and wind continued a concerted effort to impede our work, but for Sharklab personnel, weather is not a worthy adversary. As the drops fell on our faces we transported our mesh to the yard, sewing morning and afternoon. Those who chose to stand felt the soreness of hamstrings too long stretched, while those seated on boat cushions were forced into the occasional head roll to relieve the growing stiffness in the upper back. Amidst laughing chatter and soft music, the minutes and hours blended into days, and the mesh began to sport bright white lining around newly repaired patches. The sewing continued until evening, four days after we had begun. I tied my last bowline and took my last stroll down what I had begun to consider my very own pen mesh, bending down and testing for strength in the line as I went. By the time I rose, satisfied, I had essentially forgotten the purpose behind the sewing; that is, until I heard the plan for the next day. It was time to build the pen.
            Under most normal circumstances, experienced pen builders can complete the task in a morning or afternoon. “Normal circumstances,” however, were too much to hope for in this case. Naturally, I was assigned to the pen-building crew, presumably because this had become my adopted project. We were directed by the fearless Chris Bolte, who seemed to know what he was doing, though after a mishap with rebar placement, we began to assail him for his questionable leadership. The mocking continued, bouncing between volunteers and Chris alike, heightening as the sun tried to warm the chilly air of the late morning. By lunchtime, we had only assembled half the pen mesh. Our afternoon was even busier, and somehow more filled with testosterone-fueled jokes. By the time we settled into a rhythm and finished tightening the security around the net, we were joined by three more volunteers, some of whom began the process of moving the baby lemon sharks and newly acquired ray from the old pen to the new. From the new pen location in the shallows, we could hear singing and laughter as paddleboards were loaded with cinder blocks, rebar, and tuna clips, floating alongside tubs of animals in the transition. The sun was sinking on our fifth day by the time we shed our wetsuits and ran inside for coffee, tea, and a hot dinner. Before we left, however, I stood in the new pen for a few minutes. As the water settled, I looked down. Two of the three baby lemons were snaking around my ankles. One had a small dark spot on its head. The ray would occasionally smack its wing on the surface of the water along the interior mesh, as if admiring our handiwork. Much as one might admire a sewn pillow, a knitted scarf, or a woven rug, I can’t imagine any better feeling than knowing that I have created a home, one that serves as a classroom as much as a refuge.


Image of a shark pen © Charlotte Sams