Monday, February 25, 2013

Great Hammerhead Shark Diving Protocols: Bimini, The Bahamas

Great Hammerheads have created quite a stir in Bimini this year and it is important that some of the ridiculous shark riding shenanigans that happen in other locations not be brought to these sites. Please respect these animals and help protect them. Scalloped, smooth and Great Hammerheads are all listed in proposals for inclusion at this year at the CITES convention happening in Bangkok, Thailand in March.

Below are two letters sent to various members of the shark diving community is hopes that they will respect not only these animals, but the island they are located near.

Greetings from Bimini,

With the enormous amount of interest that the Great Hammerheads are generating around Bimini this year, I wanted to attempt to to set the record straight regarding this incredible situation happening around the island. I don’t mean this message to be confrontational or self-righteous, rather I’m hoping it can be informative and maybe even helpful.

As anyone familiar with Bimini has probably already assumed, the researchers at the Bimini Biological Field Station (SharkLab) are responsible for discovering and determining the regularity and reliability of diving with these big hammerheads. The SharkLab staff began diving with these sharks on a regular basis back in 2003, and since then have utilized various ‘hammerhead sites’ around the island for numerous research projects and related expeditions. Obviously the hammerheads were around long before that, and can be found in more than one location around Bimini, but all of the visiting “shark diving” boats are utilizing sites and situations developed by local SharkLab researchers.

Due to the rarity of interacting with these sharks, and the incredible potential for research opportunities on an IUCN Redlisted species, local guides and tour operators have resisted the exploitation of this yearly “hammerhead season” around Bimini. It was decided that research should be the priority surrounding this event, rather than commercialization.

For better or for worse, and against the wishes of many of those involved with developing this phenomenon, that all changed in 2012. An off-island SCUBA operator caught wind of the situation around Bimini and convinced a former SharkLabber to show him the basics of how-and-when-and-where to attract these incredible sharks. A year later, after the wide publicization of that promised “one time only” expedition, we now have at least 10 off-island dive operations converging on Bimini to experience this event.

Anyone coming to dive with these sharks around Bimini needs to accept that there is considerable amount of responsibility that comes with your expedition. You hold in your power the ability to do an enormous amount of damage to the reputation of this island and to this endangered species of shark, and hopefully you do not take this lightly. I’m a firm believer that under the right circumstances and with the proper insight, any species of shark can be safely encountered in the wild. That being said, I would imagine there is little to no agreement on exactly what those circumstances and insights are. But if you think its acceptable to put yourself, or your guests, or the sharks, at any elevated risk for the sake of photos, videos, or bragging-rights, you are wrong. If you or your guests get hurt around Bimini because of your own recklessness, the tourism industry on this island could face irreparable damage, as could the public perception of these sharks, and we want people to take that very, very seriously.

Additionally, I’d like to suggest that if you are benefitting in anyway from your expedition to Bimini, that you should make a point to patronize some of the local businesses while you’re here so that the island benefits from your trip as well. Go to the local bars at night, take some meals at local restaurants, take a tour of the SharkLab, or whatever else you think is fitting. If you’re looking for a marina to tie up in, please consider Bimini Sands Resort & Marina, the Bimini Big Game Club, Seacrest Hotel & Marina, Bimini Blue Water Resort, Weech’s Bimini Docks, or Brown’s Marina. All of these marinas have supported local conservation measures around the island, and should be rewarded for doing so.

If, for some reason, you’re not willing to spend money on the island, then contribute in some other way. Help maintain the moorings at the local dive sites, do a beach-clean-up with your crew and guests, join and help publicize the Bimini Marine Protected Area Campaign, or something else worthwhile.

We don’t need, or want, this amazing event around Bimini to turn into a circus of competing egos. There is no need to further misrepresent the history of this situation, nor is there any reason that the operators involved can’t coordinate and cooperate in a professional manner, all without interfering with ongoing research.

If you are seeing this message, The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has been made aware of your visit, as have local law enforcement officials. We expect your cooperation in ensuring the safety of every person and animal involved in these expeditions, and also expect your help in maintaining a professional atmosphere around the island with proper diving etiquette employed.

As Bimini emerges as the regional “Hammerhead Headquarters,” we all need to do what is necessary to make sure your excursion not only benefits you and your guests, but also the sharks and the island of Bimini.

Thank you for your time, and please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions or comments.

Grant Johnson

Vice-Chairman, Bimini Tourism Advisory Board (BTAB)
Activities Director, Bimini Sands Resort & Marina (2007 – Present)
Former Manager, Bimini Biological Field Station –SharkLab (2001-2007)

Dear All, 

For the past 23 years the Bimini Biological Field Station, "Sharklab" has been documenting the occurrence of Great hammerhead, S. mokarran sharks around the Bimini Islands. In 2003 we located an area, "The Grate" where these animals could be baited in for educational experiences and to facilitate tagging and genetic sampling. Last year this site was used for the first time commercially as a diving experience for tourists, and in the past two months a number of tourism vessels have begun to explore its potential. Whilst we are delighted to see people from around the globe interact with, and observe up close one of the world’s most charismatic predators we are keen to ensure that such experiences are conducted in a safe and responsible manner. This site is an established research location for Great hammerheads and has already provided some interesting findings. Attached is a document that includes some of these preliminary results, as well as, sections detailing our current understanding of Great hammerhead biology and conservation, planned methods and the significance of our research. Great hammerheads are endangered, declining in numbers and data deficient. To our knowledge there are few places around the globe where it is possible to research free-ranging individuals in close proximity to shore. Bimini therefore gives us a unique opportunity to understand more about these elusive predators and we hope that with this email and detailed description of our project we can open up lines of communication between ourselves and dive operators. We are eager to collate as much data as possible on these enigmatic sharks and would welcome information on the number of tagged / untagged individuals observed, as well as, environmental records of the conditions, such as water temperature during such dives. It would also be particularly useful to know when and for how long operators are using the site so that we can coordinate with our research and educational trips. If you are interested to take such information please contact me for a data template. 

I would greatly appreciate your time in replying to this email with any thoughts or comments.

Thank you for your time and best regards,

Dr. Tristan Guttridge
Director Bimini Biological Field Station
South Bimini, The Bahamas

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