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.


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