Monday, December 31, 2012

Meet Lusca: Our Little Sea Monster

Duncan and I had been thinking about getting a dog for a while, but with our travel schedule we were concerned. Things worked out that we would be spending most of December through March in Bimini and we decided that if we found a puppy this would be the perfect time. We are very lucky because the Sharklab has dogs and our friends Katie and Grant also have a dog and all are happy to puppy sit.

We met Lusca on the north island, caged up with another pit bull. Sadly pits are bred for fighting in the Bahamas and even those that do not fight are often mistreated. We both melted when we saw her and convinced the owner that we would take her. We agreed to come back to the next day and get her. It was a frantic dash to get the house ready. Duncan was heading to the US, so he would be getting much needed supplies. You cannot even buy a dog collar in Bimini, let alone supplies.

The next morning we arrived to take our new baby home. She was shaky, but her first golf cart ride went well. She then had to take her first trip on the water taxi in order to get back to the south island. We then hitched a ride back to our house. We placed a blanket in the corner and she settled in, watching us a bit wide eyed. We loved the name Lusca, so it was an easy decision that she would be our little sea monster. Lusca is a Lucayan word that describes a half shark half octopus of legend that lives in the bottom of the blue holes in the Bahamas. She was covered in fleas, ticks and has an umbilical hernia. There is no vet on the island, so we quickly reached out to a vet that visits to find out if we should be concerned. Apparently it happens a lot with puppies and will go away when she is spayed. Duncan, sadly, had to leave and it was Lusca and I for two days.

She napped a bit, ate a little and then the house was hers. Her first leash and collar was a bandana and rope. I pulled tics off and gave her a mini bath. We spent two days running on the beach, walking and playing. Each night she curled up with me on the couch and was very snuggly. She is mostly pit, as far as we know and our friends that have a pit say they never tell you that they are very snuggly. She has the sweetest little face filled with wrinkles I hope she keeps as she grows.

Duncan arrived back with more puppy stuff than I knew what to do with. She was properly getting spoiled. He and our friend Liam had gone crazy in Pet Co. and Lusca received a new fancy collar, leash, bed, toys, dishes, food and treats. She even got Christmas presents from our friends. She is really settling into her new home.

On Christmas day we headed to Honeymoon Harbor to spend the day with our friends and play with the stingrays. Lusca sat at the front of the boat, ears sailing in the wind and then napped like a champion. She loved the beach and had a long nap in the sun. We made her pose for some pictures and she had the same protest that many kids probably have when mom and dad are being obnoxious with the camera. On the ride back Katie bundled her up in a towel and blanket and she slept the whole way; our little boat dog.

It has been two weeks and she has already grown a ton. She has had her puppy shots and the fleas and ticks are gone. Training is going well, but she is definitely a lot of work. It has gotten us out to the beach a lot, which is nice. She goes everywhere with us and is such a love. So happy we were able to give this dog a home.
The stray dogs of the Bahamas are called “Potcakes,” named for the congealed rice and pea mixture that people in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos feed dogs. They are what we would call a, “mutt,” and they really make amazing pets. They may require some medical care or a bit more attention, but they loyal and loving animals. If you are interested in adopting a dog from Bimini check out Stray Dogs of Bimini.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Big Beautiful Bull Sharks

I love bull sharks. They are big, powerful and have a lot of attitude. They are also graceful, misunderstood and remarkable in the fact that they can travel through brackish and fresh water. Bulls are one of the many species that frequent the waters around Bimini and today we went in search of them.

The team included Lauran from the Sharklab, her family and Katie and Grant who now run the activities department at the Bimini Sands. We headed to the north island to bait off the docks in hopes of getting the chance to tag a big animal. It wasn’t long before two very large sharks began appearing in and out of the shadows. Massive tarpon and couple stingrays showed up as well. Eagles rays jumped in the channel and the energy was building. None of us were very patient, especially when the sharks are in the area. I decided to run to the bathroom, saying we would probably hook a shark while I was gone. As I was walking back down the dock with Katie, people were shouting and we ran to jump in the boat.

The sun was starting to drop in the sky and the clouds were really moody. It was like a scene from a movie as we brought the shark along side the boat with the sun beginning to drop behind moody late afternoon clouds. A seaplane took off and boats were zipping around. We made our way to shallow water and quickly began the workup. We did the standard three length measurements; took a DNA sample and I got to put the Casey tag in her. The total length of our big lady was 2.46m (8 ft) She had a ling running from her mouth a few cuts, no doubt the work of a fishing venture.

Our friends Dony and Michelle arrived from Toronto and Duncan got them over to us in time for them to snap a picture. I think they were a little shell shocked having landed and less than an hour later they were standing in shallow water touching a massive bull shark. So amazing! Unbelievable that our best friends arrive on island and this is how we welcome them!

As the sun painted the sky a beautiful orange we snapped some photos before watching her swim away with power and grace. Everyone was so excited. What a rush. My face hurt from smiling so much. I had wanted to give a bull shark a hug for a while and this was a pretty epic way to end 2012! Not only that, my friends arrived in time to see their first bull shark up close. I am still spinning from the whole experience.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

FLIPSIDE: Me and the Dunkster on Camera

Duncan and I worked with Ulf in 2010 as site guides on a shoot at Tiger Beach. We got chatting about filming, sharks and our lives, as you do when you are on a boat with people. About a year ago, Ulf reached out and asked if he could film us filming and doing shark education for a documentary. It sounded like a fun shoot, but we were not sure it would get approved or funded. Low and behold Ulf rang us up in September and said, “let’s make this happen.” We were shocked, but excited and started making plans. We have been approached by a few producers about filming our lives as a couple that travels, films and plays with sharks together, but we never felt comfortable with what they wanted us to do. We were optimistic that Ulf understood our intentions and passion for these animals.

The shoot date was set for two weeks in October. Ulf arrived in Bimini to find Duncan sick with a strep infection and the weather less than ideal. Every time we made a plan, it was changed. We went north, south, east and west, to try and get some shelter, but Hurricane Sandy was impending and she was relentless. We cancelled a trip to Grand Bahamas and sorted an alternative in Bimini. Sandy had other ideas, however, and she shut down all shooting except for hurricane footage.

Ulf’s crew left, but his flight got delayed, thus he was stuck with us to brace for his first hurricane. We did all the normal prep; canned goods, matches, candles, batteries, water and flashlights. We had access to water for the toilets and a camping stove for meals. The marina has a generator so the bar and showers were still open. Once we were prepared we set out to explore and see the raw power of Mother Nature as she crashed against our little island. We got sprayed, splashed and soaked as we looked for places to film.

We lost power for a few hours, so we organized a posse to climb Mt Bimini; what else would you do when the power goes out? We reached the summit and all got a free microderm abrasion to the face. We washed down our conquest with ice-cold Kaliks. We were very lucky only losing power for a day. Fun and games were had, but the shoot really went to shit, with no place to get away from Sandy’s extensive reach. We sought shelter in the mangroves, but really didn’t have much luck. Usually in Bimini you can find shelter on one side of the island or another, but Sandy was really set on mucking up our plans. We finally threw up our hands in defeat and set about arranging for Ulf to return at a later date to finish the shoot.

At the beginning of December, just over a month since he left, Ulf returned to Bimini in hopes of good weather and lots of sharks. We wasted no time getting after it and quickly got two shark dives under our belts. Ulf was definitely in a better mood, having some footage and a story to work with.

The next part of the shoot was one of the most amazing days I have had on Bimini; we took school kids into the mangroves to feed baby lemon sharks. It is amazing how many kids on the island have never really explored the beauty of the mangroves that are in their backyard.

When we arrived on site the girls jumped in and began the trek. The boys, however, took a little coercion, which came in the form of heckling from their female classmates. Eventually we all made our way through the channel to where Sharklab manager Jill Brooks was waiting with some bait in the water. The little sharks came in slowly and then one by one each student got to hand feed a shark. The teachers, who were standing behind us to begin with, decided they needed a turn as well. There in the mangroves we shared an amazing connection between sharks and people. This is one of my favorite places on the planet and probably one of the most memorable moments I have had there. I think I can speak for everyone involved when I say it was remarkable. Within a few minutes any fear or misunderstanding was replaced with awe and excitement about the sharks.

Still on a high from such a powerful experience, we spent the next day speaking at the local high school about sharks, why they are so important and how the students can help them. Bimini is setting a strong example for shark conservation and as Biminites, these students have something to be tremendously proud to be a part of. It is vital for younger generations to realize how much of a positive impact they can and will have. Reveling in yet another amazing moment in Bimini.

After a Hellish first attempt at filming, the second attempt was brilliant and beautiful. I was relieved that we had great weather, but so blown away by the experiences with the students. Duncan and I were asked to come back and speak to some of the other age groups, so we have that to look forward to in the New Year. We were also able to sign up another marina in Bimini to be a Shark Free Marina. The Bimini Blue Water Marina agreed to make the commitment.

All of these moments were very special to be a part of, but even better because Duncan and I did it together. It is one thing to find someone who shares common interests, but Duncan and I share the same love of the ocean and passion to share it with others. We are excited to see what we sound like in German. Watch this space for updates.

Bahamas Weekly Article

Sunday, December 9, 2012

From Florida to The Bahamas: Sharing Sharks with Students

As we anchored the boat just outside the entrance to the mangrove channel there was a lot of giggling and excitement on the boat. Fueled up with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (official field work lunch) and chocolate cupcakes, the students were ready for adventure. Duncan and I, along with Jill, Michael and CJ from the Sharklab, were embarking on our epic day in the mangroves.

We warned the students and teachers about the bottom being a little squishy and to be mindful of sea urchins. We lead the charge and checked for critters as we made our way to the entrance. The four female students jumped off the boat, squealed a bit as their toes squished and sunk, but they giggled and charged on. The boys however, were a bit more reluctant. Everyone was en route and they were still on the boat. Finally, after a bit of heckling from their female classmates, the boys made the leap and followed us. They politely insisted, “ ladies first.” Nice to see such young gentlemen- ha!
As we neared the entrance we warned everyone about the center part getting pretty deep. This beautiful tunnel to paradise is about three feet wide and the mangrove branches wrap around it from top to bottom. This adds to the sense of adventure as you swim through like explorers charting a new path. As the water got deeper the giggles returned, but all made it through unscathed.

The tunnel pours into an opening in the mangroves that is truly paradise. This is by far, one of my favorite places in the world. It is wild, untouched and feels as thought you are on a different planet. The only reminder of civilization is the occasional plane passing overhead. It is here where we were going to share with the students and teachers, a beautiful moment with wild baby lemon sharks.

Sharklab manager Jill had made her way up to the spot and put some chum in the water. The baby lemon sharks head up the channel on the high tide to look for food and take shelter. The channel is a dead end, so we hoped that a few sharkies had ventured in and would come looking for a snack. Before too long, the tell tale wake on the surface indicated a shark heading our way. The kids immediately started imitating the, “ Jaws,” impending doom music. We all had a good laugh. The little sharks are always cautious, as you would be with a bunch of potential predators loitering about. Slowly, but surely they came to check us out. The first shark that approached had a green tag, showing it was one of the sharks currently involved in a Sharklab research project.

Finally the shark with the green tag came in for a snack. Word spread quickly and pretty soon we had five sharks cruising around. The excitement level rose as students anxiously waited for their turn to feed a shark. Fear and misunderstanding were replaced with laughter and a little competition to see who could feed the most. As their comfort level increased, the teachers decided to get in on the action. They each nudged their way to the front and shared a moment with the baby sharks. It is an amazing thing to witness people and sharks sharing a simple, but powerful encounter with the capacity to change a person’s entire perception. I watched, in awe, at the beauty of the moment. This is hope for our sharks and hope for our oceans. These little sharks are ambassadors for sharks all over Bimini and the world.

It was hard to say goodbye, but the tide changed and it was our time to go. Every student and teacher had a grin from ear to ear as we swam, stumbled and waded back to the boat. Everyone was glowing from such a unique experience, one most said they never expected to ever have, especially right in their own backyard. I can only hope that these students and their teachers will carry this experience with them and speak on behalf of sharks and how amazing they are.

The following day Duncan and I visited a group of students at the Louise McDonald High School on the north island of Bimini. We wanted to talk to the kids about sharks, their importance and the war built on greed and fear that is being waged against them globally. We also wanted to emphasize the standard for shark conservation Bimini is setting as part of the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary, Shark Free Marinas and a proposed Marine Protected Area. These students have a voice and they are a part of something that is making a difference for sharks. It is crucial for them to understand the value of the role they play and can continue to play on behalf of these amazing animals.

Earlier in the week we visited a group of first graders at the St Jerome school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My mom’s godson is seven, and like many 7-year-old boys, he has a healthy curiosity about sharks. We made arrangements to visit his class and it was a blast. First graders are one of my favorite ages to work with because they are excited, curious and manage to ask some pretty cool questions. They know more than one would expect, but so are so open to facts and positive information about sharks.

Whether is it high school students or first graders, the message is the same. Each one of us has a voice and the ability to help sharks. We can and should take action as a single part of something that impacts our entire planet. Without sharks there will be no oceans. Kids are the hope for sharks and the hope for our oceans.

Thank you to the St Jerome School, The Bimini Biological Field Station ( Sharklab) Ulf Marquardt, The Louise McDonald High School and Miss Lisa Wallace for making these incredible days a reality.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Save the Mangroves of Bimini

Mangrove forests are one of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems on the planet. In Bimini, above and below the surface they provide food and shelter for birds, snakes, fish, sharks, lobster and conch. They provide a vital nursery area for juvenile animals and habitat for numerous other threatened species. Mangroves also stand solid against the wrath of Mother Nature, holding strong when hurricanes ravage and destroy areas. The mangroves in Bimini are facing an enemy that they cannot stand strong against: human greed.

There are those people fighting to protect this precious natural wonder though and they are pushing for the establishment of a marine protected area. Although it was discussed as early as 2009, there has been no movement is establishing parameters or enforcing the area.

Below are three videos from a town meeting held in 2009. The MPA is discussed and shown to exist, but in 2012 there is still nothing solid in place. For more information or to find out how you can help, please check out the Bimini MPA Page.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Conservation is for Everyone

Every time I scroll through my social media pages, I am bombarded with problems that face our amazing planet and the petitions that are trying to help. My heart lies with protecting sharks and our oceans, but I am sympathetic to all the other issues. It is overwhelming though, when looking at how many problems there really are. It is difficult to be hopeful and not just throw in the towel. I honestly believe that people are good and that we can, and are making a difference. I see this when a 9 year old tells me how much they love sharks or an 11 year old shares with me the letter he wrote to a cruise ship company asking them to stop serving shark. There is hope and it is in each and every one of us.

I spoke to nine classes of 4th graders on this past Wednesday and aside from shark education we had a discussion about what they could do to help sharks. A lot of the things they are already doing help sharks and they were excited to find this out. I encouraged them to speak up and share their ideas, ask questions and know that they have a voice, even thought they are young. The world seems massive as an adult and for a child it is really incomprehensible. I want kids to know that they matter and they are more powerful than they realize. Whether it is the bottle they bring to school for water instead of buying a plastic one or the influence they have on their parents purchasing, it all matters.

Kids are raw and real without the Cynicism that inflicts all of us as we age. They are yet to be burdened with the ever-present stress that can kill off our sense of hope and creativity. They have unbridled passion, empathy and compassion that really can and will change the world. This energy gives me hope and drives my continued push to save sharks and our oceans.

Adults can learn a lot from kids and should look to them for a bit of inspiration. Kids keep it simple and go all in. As adults we tend to over complicate and hesitate, often stifling our own ability to create and do. Many adults ask me what they can do for sharks if they are not a diver, biologist or expert. The list is too long to mention, but I always emphasize keeping it simple and to realize that small steps are powerful tools. You do not need to be an expert; you just need an idea and some heart.
I had a woman write to me and ask if making shark cupcakes and selling at a craft sale was silly. She wanted to take the money she made and donate it. Definitely not silly, pretty cool idea if you ask me. I had another man who loves diving and wanted to share this passion on hobby night at his daughter’s school. He had some pictures and video, but reached out to myself and other shark conservationists for materials and ideas. Catalyzed by his own love, he was able to create a table of shark info and reach a lot of people that had no idea about sharks or diving. This took a little bit of time and effort, something everyone can do.

I wish that I could visit classrooms every week, but my schedule just does not allow it, plus I need to pay my bills. Because of this I encourage others to make a visit to a local school. The kids will love it! They will not care that you are not an expert; they will notice the person that took time to talk to them and share something they are passionate about. If not a school then a church group, book group, cooking group or scout group. The options are endless. Everyone has it in them to be a conservation minded individual and everyone should.

If you are interested in doing a shark presentation please email me for materials, guidelines and information.

Best Fishes,

Sharky Jillian

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Great Works School: Great for Sharks

I love visiting schools in random places to talk to kids about sharks, but it is always special walking the halls of schools I attended as a child. The Great Works School in South Berwick, Maine was the junior high when I attended, so things have changed a little bit.

On this visit I spoke to nine classes of 4th graders, broken into 5 groups. I have an outline with images, but I love how each presentation varies based on questions the students have and what they are interested in. I want to give them facts, but I also want to listen to what they have to say. Children, although small, have amazing questions and a lot to say when we actually listen. I challenged each group to name more sharks than the last and each one rose to the occasion. They get so excited. I think cookie cutter and goblin shark are always my favorites. Nice to see they know more than the standard answers.

We talked about shark parts, shark myths and why our oceans need sharks. Many of the students had their own stories about sharks and a few had been lucky enough to see one or two. I am sure they will get some strange looks from parents when they go and say to their parents, “ the shark girl that talked to us today said I should swim with sharks.” It is true. No matter how old or young, swimming with sharks is something everyone should do! No, a 9 year old probably won’t go to South Africa to cage dive, but they could go for a snorkel and check out some nurse sharks. This is the great thing about sharks and swimming with them, there are so many options and opportunities.

At this age, any fear and misconceived notions they have from sharks have come either from their parents or television. It is still possible though, to break through that loosely established knowledge base and shape is with fact and empathy. This ability to generate a new perception is why working with children is vital for our oceans.

The highlight was how many great ideas the students had when I asked them what they could do to help sharks. A lot of the ideas, like picking up trash on the beach, are things they already do, but they had not ever thought about how it might help sharks. It is important for them to see how things connect and that helping the planet is definitely something they can do. It makes them feel important and have pride in the fact that they do make a difference.

Thank you to Pamela Starkey for making this happen and to the Great Works School for caring about sharks.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

“Sandy, Sandy, why-yi-yi-yi-yi. Oh Sandy”

What do you do when a hurricane knocks the power out for a while? Obviously you climb the highest point you can find and get blasted with sand, wind and water. We made our ascent up Mt. Bimini, a 131 ft high pile of sand that has been dredged from the channel, and triumphantly stood at the top. I know the height because our sense of adventure attracted a passerby with an iphone that had an app for that. Our group of thrill seekers (boredom makes you do crazy things) included Duncan and I, our German producer friend that got stranded on the island and Grant, a former Sharklab manager. I highly recommend eye protection if you attempt this. As I write this there is no doubt still sand stuck under my eyelids and in every orifice on my body. I could have erected a sand castle with the amount of sand that I washed out of my hair and ears alone.

We arrived at the top with wobbly legs and an exhilarating sense of accomplishment; a similar feeling I am sure to those that summit Kilimanjaro or Everest. Ha! We had 4 cameras and did our best to capture the moment as well as each other falling down and getting pelted with sand. The view was beautiful and we will definitely make the climb in better weather. Video will be posted soon.

For two days we watched as boats moved into the marina at the Bimini Sands, a great hurricane hole. We gathered water, food and candles in preparation for the expected power outage. We made a quick cross to the north island on Thursday for supplies before the ferry stopped running. Supplies included beer and wine. UI laughed when my dad said, “ don’t you get all your supplies and once you are ready start drinking?” Yes, there is some drinking involved. Activities are limited and the bar is a great place to gather and get the latest gossip, plus they have a generator. We had a producer friend on island and his flight was cancelled because the airport on Bimini, like most in the Bahamas was shut down. Duncan and I have been through a few hurricanes, but this was our friend’s first and our first as a couple. How romantic?

We geared up and ventured out a few times to check out the island. A lot of people were out doing the same thing and the bar was quite busy as we waited for Sandy to give us her best shot. Sideways rain and splattering clay made the ride home quite an adventure. Gusts of wind nearly stopped our trusty golf cart in her tracks. I do love having all the doors and windows open though, not having to use the air conditioner. We broke out the cameras to film and snap pictures of the waves crashing against various areas on the island. Spray flew in the air as 10 to 15 foot swells charged the shore.

Sandy strengthened from a tropical storm to a category 2 hurricane and then dropped again before hitting our little island home with gusts up to 65mph as a category 1. Coconuts flew, palm fronds were shredded and Australian pines disintegrated. Many a lawn chair and gutter met their demise. The power went off for a bit on Saturday, but we managed to hold onto for most of the day. It finally went off on Sunday, but was only out for 13 hours. The wind was still relentless after the heart of the storm had passed and switched directions. The sheltered side of the island is still getting pounded. The channel markers that sit almost a mile off shore are now rapidly approaching the beach about a half- mile south of their designated location. Mother nature is raw and wild. Amazing to witness when you are safe and have shelter.

When the power finally gave way for the day and seemed like it might be out for a while we broke out the gas camping stove and candles for a romantic dinner. Our producer had made a flight off island and the winds had receded a bit, but the power was shut down to do repairs. I cooked a lovely couscous with veggies and tomato sauce. It was certainly nothing gourmet, but fairly impressive considering the situation.
The world is getting back to normal as Bimini relaxes on a Sunday and Sandy moves towards the Eastern United States coastline. She has been dubbed, “Frankenstorm,” due to her expected Halloween arrival. Hurricanes are no joke, but I am glad we know we can deal with them on our little island. People came together to check on boats, houses and make sure everyone was okay. It is scary, but also exciting to watch the power of the ocean.