Friday, August 22, 2014

Shark Tours and Eagle Rays: Another Week in Paradise

In my previous post I highlighted the fact that every week is Shark Week in Bimini and this one has been no exception.  One of our favorite things to do is share the Sharklab (Bimini Biological Field Station)with friends who visit. Duncan and I are both alumni and still collaborate on projects as often as we can. Dr. Samuel Gruber (Doc) started the Sharklab in 1990 as a base for his lemon shark research. Since its inception, the lab has been at the forefront of shark science and continues to draw scientists, conservationists, students and film crews from around the world. They are now also offering an exciting opportunity to the public with their 5-day Research Experience trips.  For 5 days you get the chance to experience life at the lab and learn all about they work they are doing. This includes a snorkel with Caribbean reef sharks and a trip to a juvenile lemon shark refuge (nursery) in the mangroves. If you have any curiosity about sharks, I cannot recommend this opportunity enough. Bimini and the Sharklab are truly amazing places to visit.

Okay, back to our Shark Week. We had friends in town and they wanted their parents to see the lab, so off we went. Both of their mothers were a bit nervous about the sharks and not sure if they even wanted to touch them. We explained that the pens where the lab holds a few baby sharks are in shallow water during low tide and that they could watch from the outside. I secretly hoped though, that they wouldn’t just want to watch. The previous day they had seen a stingray while floating on rafts off the beach and had both held their arms and legs out of the water until it swam away. “ What about Steve Irwin,” they asked? Stingrays cannot lunge or throw their barb, a common misconception. Most accidents happen because someone steps directly on the barb. After a few minutes of chatting they both agreed it was time to put touching a baby shark on their Bucket List, well maybe.
As we waded out we explained the lab, how it started and the research they are currently doing. The pens are used to hold a few sharks for 30 days or less. The sharks are used in some research, but mostly for educational tours and teaching new volunteers. The sharks are released in the exact spot they are captured. As we neared the pen I could see a southern stingray in the mix, perfect. The stingray was in the pen for a visiting marine biology course and had had its barb removed. This is a great chance to see yet another misunderstood animal up close, so I was glad to see it there. Duncan and I had everyone stand around the edge of the pen while I got a nurse shark. Most people have not seen a baby or juvenile shark, so they are quite surprised to see how small they can actually be. I talked about the anatomy of the shark; its behavior and everyone decided they wanted to feel the shark’s skin. Nurse sharks are very cute when they are small, so they are great ambassadors for sharks and changing peoples’ perceptions.

Talking to the group about nurse sharks 

Showing the nurse shark belly ( a few spots) and the claspers ( male sex organs)

When I finished speaking about nurse sharks we asked if anyone wanted to hold the shark.  I am happy to report that despite the initial hesitation, everyone held the little shark and was thrilled to learn so much about them. We moved onto the lemon shark and as Duncan was talking about them, the stingray decided it needed some attention and swam right onto Judy’s toes. She was bit startled, but no longer fearful. Curiosity and facts had replaced fear. YES! Duncan showed the features of the lemon shark and we chatted about the mangrove nurseries here in Bimini and the fact that juvenile lemon sharks are social and have buddies. This is one of my favorite facts, that and the umbilical scar (“belly button”), to share with people. Words like nursery, baby and belly button definitely change the conversation when referring to sharks. We finished the tour with a group photo and continued to answer questions. Everyone was really excited and the conversation continued later that evening at dinner. My heart melted when Sandy said they had jumped in to swim with dolphins that afternoon, something she would have been too afraid to do before we taught them about the sharks. I have watched those little sharks catalyze a thought change regarding sharks in a lot of people and if you are ever in Bimini you definitely need to visit the lab! If you are not a fan of sharks, you might just become one after the visit!

While we were at the lab Rachel, TJ and Jack (all lab managers) cruise over with a special surprise; a baby eagle ray. We see tons of eagle rays both solo and in schools, but I have never seen one this small. Our friends got to see the little guy and learned a bit more about another one of Bimini’s amazing creatures. The lab put the eagle ray in a large holding pen and had someone keep an eye on it. The visiting course students were able to snorkel with it, again a rare treat. One of the best things about Bimini is that you never know what you are going to see on or in the water! After our friends left we spent a little time with the eagle ray. They are the most graceful animals in the water, gliding effortlessly. This one had a wingspan of about 12-16 inches. This is not much larger than when they are born, so this one was definitely less than a year old.

Juvenile spotted eagle ray

Our Sharks4Kids spotted eagle ray poster
We then headed out to film some upside down jellyfish (cassiopeia) , not the most exciting thing, but still a cool animal. We finished filming and saw a few juvenile lemon and nurse sharks cruising at the edge of the mangroves before heading across the lagoon for home. We stopped for a minute at the edge of a mangrove island to jump in the water and cool off. I noticed a lemon shark behind the boat. I jumped in to have a look and saw two. They appeared to be 1 to 1.5 meters in length and we knew Rob, a PhD student doing his research at the lab, was looking for that size. We radioed him and started to throw some bait in the water to keep the now 5 sharks around. Rob arrived with his crew and put their rods in the water. Within a few minutes they had a shark and got it in the holding tub on the boat. Juveniles are placed a in a large tub with a bilge pump to keep the water moving and the water is replace often so they have a sufficient amount of oxygen.

Lorna, the assistant lab manager, scanned the shark with a PIT tag reader and it beeped. The PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags are injected into every lemon shark caught by the lab and give valuable data about the life history of these animals. They are similar to a microchip your cat or dog may have and give each shark an ID. This is a simple method to gather data about an animal over time. Rob decided the shark was not large enough for what he needed and released it. We decided to call it a day and headed in.
PIT Tags Image: Destron Fearing

I love Bimini and I love days like these.

No comments:

Post a Comment