Tuesday, January 8, 2013
The World’s Coolest Forests: Bimini Mangroovin
In November we received a call from Dony, a member of the OA team, to arrange a film shoot in Bimini about mangroves. His mother created a Canadian charity called Trees for Life and he wanted to produce an educational video in Bimini. The video is the first in a series about the world’s coolest forests and the mangroves are definitely an amazing place to start. The final piece will be shown to approximately 100,000 5th and 6th graders in Ontario, Canada. We will also be collaborating with Eric Carey and The Bahamas National Trust in hopes of distributing the video and curriculum throughout the Bahamas.
Dony and his fiancé Michelle arrived on island just in time to meet a 2.46m bull shark that I was helping tag along with Lauran from the Sharklab and Katie and Grant from the Bimini Sands activity department. We snapped some pictures and even little Lusca got to see her first bull shark. Not a bad way to kick off their visit to Bimini. We wasted no time in laying out the schedule for a very busy shoot. Mangroves may not seem that exciting, but the vast importance of these forests, both above and below the surface, is mind blowing.
Mangroves are saline tolerant trees that are found in coastal areas of the tropics and subtropics. In Bimini, the mangroves are home to numerous endangered or threatened species including the Bimini Boa, green turtles and sawfish. Above the surface snakes, anoles and birds rely on the mangroves for food and habitat. Below the surface the mangroves act as a nursery for juvenile fish, lobster, conch and lemon sharks. The mangroves are not only vital for animals, but also for the geography of the island. The roots act as a natural barrier against the power of the ocean, preventing storm surges from washing away the ground away and acting as a buffer against hurricane winds. The mangroves also provide food for the people of the island as well as economic value in the form of fisheries and eco-tourism. It is surprising how something that seems to just sit there, can do so much and play such an crucial role in the survival of an island.
Day 1: We ventured out with Bimini Sands activities director and former Sharklab manager, Grant Johnson. Grant has also been integral in pushing for the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) in Bimini and is extremely knowledgeable about the mangroves and the animals that inhabit them. Grant answered Michelle’s questions about the mangroves as they cruised through the channels looking for critters and learning about these beautiful trees. These forests are peaceful and truly magnificent. We are very lucky to spend as much time in them as we do. Hopefully the MPA will become a reality in the near future and videos like this, will educate the world on why we need to fight to protect these incredibly diverse ecosystems.
Day 2: We decided to ring in the New Year by spending a day in the mangroves with some baby lemon sharks. We headed to one of my favorite places on the planet and checked out the little sharks that take refuge among the roots. This area is like an elementary school for sharks. The “cafeteria,” provides an ample supply of food. The “gym,” is where the sharks can train, learning to hunt and to hide. These little sharks will also have social time, hanging with their best friends. This “nursery, “ keeps the sharks safe from larger predators, including adult or sub-adult lemon sharks. With a little bait in the water the sharks cruised in and checked us out. It is remarkable to have these moments with completely wild animals and create an understanding and respect for them and their habitat. Seeing little sharks is also a great way to create empathy. They are “cute,” and most people are more likely to gravitate towards cute animals, so these little ones make great ambassadors for sharks in general.
We were all spinning from such a powerful experience. There were specific goals for the filming, but I think everyone was blown away by the day’s events, far more than anyone was expecting. I love sharing this place because you can literally see the excitement that arises in people as any fear or misunderstanding dissipates. Duncan and I are so fortunate that we have such an incredible location in our backyard and we are doing as much as we can to see that it continues to exist and thrive.
Day 3: Dony and Michelle had each gone down with a stomach bug and upon returning from our glorious day with the sharks, I too went down. It felt like food poisoning, but with a fever and the feeling of someone taking a baseball bat to my kidneys. I missed the reef snorkel, but Dunk took the crew to one of our favorite spots and the wildlife didn’t disappoint. Massive schools of grunt and snapper covered the reef and few larger jacks and amber jacks cruised in. The amazing thing about the water around Bimini, you never know what you are going to see. It is important to understand and express the intricate connection between the mangroves and the other ecosystems around the island, including coral reefs.
Day 4: Feeling slightly human again, we all ventured out with Grant to a place called Bonefish Hole. The channel heading in is always teaming with life and this trip was no exception. We saw eagle rays, green turtles and a little shark. We anchored up and the team hoped in. Dunk filmed Michelle and Grant snorkeling and looking for critters in the roots of the mangroves. Most people think of snorkeling as an activity only done on or around coral reefs, but the mangroves are one of the most beautiful places to dive in and explore. I filmed some fish and jellyfish in the sea grass along the edge while Dony filmed topside. Lusca napped in the boat and guarded lunch.
Finally Grant shouted the words we had all been hoping to hear, “ I got one.” He had found a seahorse; a rare treat that we all wanted to see. I waited, less than patiently, well actually like a kid on a car journey that keeps asking, “ are we there yet?” I really wanted to get in and see my first Bimini sea horse. Once Dunk got his shots, Dony and I swam over to see the treasure they had found. I was amazed at how big he was. Probably about five inches in length and a bold orange in color, almost identical to the sponges that can be found on the roots; such a delicate and amazing creature right in our own backyard. This was a first for not only Dony and Michelle, but also for Duncan and I.
Several eagle rays passed the boat as we headed back to port, giving the cameras a good show. They look like stealth bombers gliding effortlessly through the water. Their dark bodies are pronounced against the white sand bottom. Juvenile green turtles raced around, the sun was shinning and the water was flat as glass. We were blessed with another gorgeous Bimini day; a nice treat considering January can be pretty cold. Duncan and I headed out to the beach to watch the sunset and I noted how still the sea was and without any clouds, it would be an ideal night for a green flash. Not seconds after the words passed my lips, the last tiny bit of sun melted into the horizon and bam; green flash. We both stood there shocked and in awe. I was pretty chuffed, as though I made it happen. This was truly the perfect end to an epic day on the water.
Day 5: We met Katie Grudecki, the other director of the Bimini Sands activity department and former Sharklab manager, for a stand up paddleboard session in the morning. Katie, along with Grant, has also put a great deal of work into pushing for the MPA to be established as well as educating children on the island about the ocean and the mangroves. SUP is one of the hottest water sports in the world right now and is also an ideal way to quietly explore the mangroves. Bimini has really shallow sand flats, which provide paddlers the opportunity to see stingrays, little sharks, fish and even sea stars. Katie and Grant offer SUP tours through the mangroves and I am anxious to sign up for one in the New Year. Exercise and adventure in a pristine part of the planet sounds like a great way to spend the day. As soon as we wrapped the SUP portion of the day we raced to the North Island to meet the seaplane. Tropic Ocean Air flies from Miami to Bimini and pulls up on the beach where the old Chalks airline did. Chalks was made famous in scenes from Silence of the Lambs, filmed in Bimini in 1991.
Rob Ceravolo, owner of Tropic Ocean Air, agreed to take our crew for a scenic flight around Bimini in order to get some aerial shots. It is critical to see the expanse of the mangroves as well as the areas that are currently being threatened for removal. I drew the short straw and stayed grounded while Dunk, Michelle and Dony joined pilot Adam Schewitz for the flight. It is really cool to watch a seaplane land and take off. It is also just fits in Bimini. There is a charm and island feel to seaplanes, one that matches the atmosphere of these little islands in the stream. I am anxious to get my turn on a flight, but thrilled with the footage from the air. Lusca was again, a great assistant, keeping an eye on camera gear and giving her approval of the shots.
Aaron Star, owner of the Star Lounge, stopped us as we made our way back to the water taxi. He took Dony and I for a little walking tour of the old casino, the first one in the Bahamas, and also the one who saw its demise at the hands of a hurricane in 1926. Aaron explained to me they didn’t name the storms back then, they were just called hurricanes. A great deal of the structure is still standing and he entertained us with stories about his passion for the island. He was fascinating and shared a beautiful message about preserving the mangroves for future generations. These islands may be small in physical size, but they are massive in character. This is another reason why Duncan and I have chosen to spend as much time here as possible.
Day 6: Michelle headed out with Bonefish Ebbie, a local guide and legend, to find out about why the mangroves are important to him. Ebbie is quite a character and as we settled into a spot to film, he insisted that the mangroves would not be wiped out on his watch. He emphasized the importance of the mangroves as a nursery area for fish, conch and lobster as well as being economically viable for Bimini through tourism and food. Our boat was having some issues and Ebbie came to the rescue with a size 10 wrench. Duncan was able to get the cowling off in order to choke start the boat. We finished our day with Ebbie and putted back towards home. The engine died in the channel just as the new fast ferry was heading towards us. Dunk jumped out and swam us to the shallow edge where we anchored and waited for the coast to clear. Slowly but surely we made our way.
Our plan was to cross the main channel and dock the boat at the Thirsty Turtle. We decided trying to go out in the ocean and get back to the Bimini Sands was a bad idea. We made it across the channel, but the current was too much for our little vessel to handle. Every time Dunk tried to go above idle she stalled. I stood on the bow with anchors ready and tossed one in each time the engine died. Once we were started again, I hauled anchor and we moved about an inch before repeating the process; so close to the ferry dock, but couldn’t quite make it. We shouted to the water taxi for a tow and finally made it to the dock. We were all a little stressed and frustrated, but nothing an ice cold Kalik couldn’t sort out.
Day 7: In the morning Grant introduced Michelle to the largest Bimini boa he has ever captured. Katie and Grant have helped a visiting scientist in capturing, tagging and tracking the snakes. This large female was found, despite the transmitting tag having died, and surgery was performed to remove the tag. The Bimini boa is a very docile snake, one that you can pull out of the wild and hold without any issues. The Nature Trail has a snake for viewing and the Sharklab usually has one on site for tours. They are a rare and beautiful animal very few people get to see. They were popular in the 1970’s pet trade because of their mellow temperament and it is not known how many were around back then or even how many are still around. They are PIT tagged like the baby sharks, but it is still challenge to assess the current population.
In the afternoon six local kids, ranging in age from 3 to 17 joined us to help plant mangrove propagules. The propagules are the seeds of the mangrove and they will float around until they find a spot in the sediment to take hold. We helped the process along by collecting them and having the kids plant them. It was a beautiful moment and being able to capture it on film was inspiring. These kids are the hope for not only the mangroves, but also the future of our environment. Having them actively involved gives them a sense of pride and awareness of the fact they can really make a difference. Katie and Grant showed them how to plant each propagules, while Dony and Michelle joined in to lend a hand. A lot of people came together to make this project possible and this really was the highlight of the shoot. Kids are powerful and can make a difference, which is why is it crucial to give them the tools and instill confidence in them that what they do matters.
A big thank you to Grant Johnson, Katie Grudecki, The Bimini Sands Resort and Marina, Trees for Life, Tropic Ocean Air, Sharklab, Eric Berry, The Bahamas National Trust, Bahamas Tourism, Bonefish Ebbie and B-TAB. You have helped us create something we are immensely proud of and cannot wait to share with the world.
For more information check out SAVE BIMINI and the Bimini MPA Campaign.