Sunday, August 19, 2012
Dolphins and Sharks and Rays oh My
Our most recent adventure was quite a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, but the shark moments were amazing and will remain the highlight for me. Duncan and I were set to lead a conservation trip aboard the M/V Indigo around our island home. The underwater wildlife surrounding Bimini is incredible and this week was designed to offer guests a great insight into the animals that we love to interact with. The focal point of the week was the wild spotted dolphins. Just north of Bimini lies a stretch of white sand bottom and crystal blue water that is known as the dolphin grounds. Atlantic spotted dolphins travel in ever-dynamic pods, playing, feeding and being promiscuous in this area. Spotted dolphins are highly intelligent and curious and will spend hours interacting with humans. I obviously prefer sharks, but the experience is pretty amazing. A random mix of guests including one of my former co-workers and one of my former dive students joined us.
When the guests arrived we did our intros and talked about the goals we had for the week. Our first stop was the Sharklab to get everyone ready for the shark dive that would happen the following day. The lab is an ideal place for people to see sharks and have a chance to process their own personal experience. Duncan and I corralled everyone into the pen and began talking about the amazing sharks that are found around Bimini. I always find that showing people baby sharks is a way to elicit an empathetic reaction. They are really cute and this distracts from the monster mentality that some many people posses. Each person took a turn holding the little nurse shark. A few of the guests were nervous, but actually holding a shark and connecting with it usually breaks even the strongest adversaries. I could spend hours just wallowing in the pens and watching the lemons cruise and the nurse sharks pile up on the bottom.
The next morning we headed to Honeymoon Harbor to get everyone in with some of the friendliest animals in town. The stingrays that hang around the harbor have been fed for years and have no hesitation in bestowing love and the occasional goose on unsuspecting visitors and by goose I mean a stingray face to your backside. Stingrays are another species that gets a bad reputation, especially with the Steve Irwin accident. They are not malicious animals and unfortunately his sad demise could have been prevented. Predators attack stingrays from behind and the minimal movement of their spine is really their only defense. If a predator sneaked up on you and grabbed you, your reaction of self-defense would no doubt be similar.
Although the animals are given a small amount of food, the interaction is predominantly wild. Even after the food is gone the animals hang around and weave around snorkelers effortlessly. People argue that the animal’s behavior is being altered and yes to some degree it is. They are aware that people bring food, but it is nowhere near enough food to survive. Like shark dives, this site is the epitome of breaking stereotypes about these gorgeous creatures. Having a massive stingray sit on your lap is a pretty unique experience and even the biggest tough guy usually lets out a little giggle.
Our next destination was the reef known as Triangle where we were heading to do a snorkel with Caribbean reef sharks. The site was established about twenty years ago and has been used for research, filming and teaching. The sharks have become conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, but again there is not enough food introduced for them to be lazy and no longer seek out their own meals. This is one of my favorite places on the planet because I have had the opportunity to introduce so many people to sharks for the first time. It usually takes 3-5 minutes to break down the barriers and for fear to evolve into excitement and aw. That change in perception is what continues to give me hope for the future of sharks and our oceans.
As with life, sometimes things don’t work out as expected and the boat had some issues positioning where we needed it to be. We made the best of it and guests enjoyed 3 curious sharks that hung out as we explored the reef. The highlight for me was when Bonnie, who had just learned to swim before the trip, said, “ holy crap. There is a shark. I am swimming with a shark. “ Her face lit up with a great big grin. This woman had not only jumped in the ocean for the first time, but also loved the sharks that were sharing the space with her. This is a huge success in my book; an inspirational story that everyone can and should swim with sharks. Although the encounter didn’t go as it was planned, it was a still a beautiful day in the water.
Duncan got a last minute shoot and Nassau and had to leave us after the second day. On our way out to the dolphin grounds the boat grounded out on the sand bank. They are dredging the channel between the two islands of Bimini and are making a bit of a mess. We spent most of the day stuck on the bottom. Obviously not ideal, but guests enjoyed some sunshine and swam off the back of the boat. One of the guests had homemade dolphin tarot cards so we each got a reading. I got a goddess card, so I was pleased with the outcome.
The next two days included some amazing interactions with the spotted dolphins. The weather was perfect and the sea was like glass. The finally day found dolphins just after breakfast. On the way into port we came across a pod of feeding bottlenose dolphins. We were able to slip in and hang out with them as they fed in a circular pattern. It is pretty incredible to watch as a massive dolphin drives its head into the sand after a razor fish. Nurse sharks frequent the same area, so I happily watched them feed.
Despite a few mishaps on the boat, Bimini shined once again for our guests. The dolphins were beautiful, the weather was perfect and people walked away with an unexpected love for sharks, one I know they will pass on at home.