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!