Monday, August 26, 2013

Wild Kids: Creating the Next Generation of Explorers and Environmental Advocates

When you are a kid everything is big; cars, buildings, people and the size of the world itself is unfathomable. Our curiosity, compassion and dreams are also massive and as adults we should hold onto those traits for as long as we can.

I cherish my time working with kids and teaching them about sharks and shark conservation. During their formidable years it is crucial to give them facts and the skills the ask questions about the world around them. They are bombarded with media each day either on the Internet or television and a lot of it provides incorrect information. Megalodon is not swimming around and sharks are not man-eating monsters. Just because you see it on TV does not mean it is real. Shame on companies who produce content, knowing full well people are susceptible to believing the hype and hysteria. That being said there is a still a lot of great programming out there and we need to encourage people, kids included, to steer their attention toward it.

We recently had to opportunity to work with the Kratt Brothers while they were filming an episode of their PBS morning show,Wild Kratts. Together Chris and Martin highlight the weird and wonderful creatures of the animal kingdom in real life and as their adventure loving cartoon alter egos. Watching the guys interact with the natural world was a great experience. They do not turn it “on” for the camera, but genuinely love nature and love sharing it with others. Their excitement is contagious and is something every child should be exposed to. Nature is cool. Animals are weird, interesting, gross and remarkable all on their own without CGI or a plot to take over mankind.

During most of my school visits I talk to students about media and the bad reputation sharks get. We talk about movies like, Sharknado or Shark Night 3D and what they think about them. I encourage them to ask questions and be good junior scientists. Just because they are young does not mean they have to believe everything they see or hear. Sharing factual shark information allows them to have a voice and to speak up when something doesn’t seem right. They are the hope for the future of our oceans and we need to arm them with facts and reality, not Hollywood monster myths.

The world of shark conservation can be brutally frustrating, but working with kids always breathes new inspiration into my fight to keep pushing onward, no matter how discouraging present obstacles may be.It always reminds me of Pandora's box. Terrible things were let into the world, but hope was there and children are the hope for the future of our oceans. I recently received this note from a high school friend whose son catalyzed me giving a shark talk at my elementary school Alma mater. To me this is hope, inspiration, drive, passion, compassion and a reason to fight for animals that do not have a voice. We are their voice.

So, cute little story I thought you would like. Dylan had to choose Story Land or the Boston Aquarium for his summer trip. He very quickly decided it was way cooler to visit his shark buddies, of course! We arrived to find that they have an area to touch baby sharks. Long story short they were resting all day then his magical moment came! They moved just enough that he could "pet" them! He tells me beaming ear-to-ear “I waited my WHOLE life for that! And he didn't bite me mom! But there are no such thing as shark attacks anyway, just shark accidents!” Thought you would like that he hopes to work with you one day. Maybe you can hire him on 10 years!

My heart was overflowing with happiness. I have been burning the candle at both ends getting ready to launch a new website and non-profit and this is just the caffeine for the soul I needed!

The very best thing we can do for children is to get them off the couch and outside to experience the incredible world around them. No matter where you live there are things to see and animals to observe. From ants to elephants, every creature has its place and offers something to get excited about. We must teach our children the importance of respecting and caring for the ecosystems of the world and all the magnificent creatures that inhabit them. And if the kids are on the couch we must make sure they are watching programs that encourage them to explore, observe and love the great outdoors.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bimini Shark Week with Deano Cook

In my life every week is Shark Week, but there are definitely weeks more intense than others. A recent visit from photographer, painter, tattoo artist and good friend Deano Cook was one of those weeks. I met Deano in 2007 when I saw him tattooing marine artist Wyland at a convention. As a lover of sharks and tattoos, I knew right then and there I had to have a piece of his art on my body. It took six years of busy dive schedules and missed attempts, but we finally made it happen when he came to visit us in Bimini.

Bimini is one of my favorite places on the planet and I absolutely love sharing my home with people, especially those that have a real passion for the ocean. We wasted no time getting in the water and headed out for a Caribbean reef shark dive. The site here is pretty shallow, which is nice change from most of the deeper shark dive sites throughout the Bahamas. We had about eight reef sharks cruise through and two little blacknose sharks. They are considerably smaller than the reefs, but have no problem getting right in the mix. We spent an hour with these beauties before heading due south in search of stingrays.


Honeymoon Harbour is Bimini’s smaller and less commercialized version of Grand Cayman’s Stingray City. We anchored just off shore and it was only a matter of minutes before the troops came flying in. For years, visitors have interacted with a large population of Southern stingrays and the occasional lemon, blacktip or nurse shark at this location and it is a favorite spot for most visitors. On our last few visits a very precocious nurse shark has made an appearance and seems to have no problem begging for a snack amongst the rays. Animals are really clever and I love seeing large species interact with each other. I know nurse sharks do not garner a lot of excitement from diehard shark enthusiasts, but I love them.

Another regular, a ray we affectionately call, “ The Blanket,” showed up to welcome Deano to the island. This female Southern stingray is probably five feet across and has no etiquette when it comes to interacting with people. She is large and in charge, sitting on your lap, knocking you over and completely smothering your camera. She is definitely the matriarch of the group and quite assertively lets everyone know this. We spend a lot of time with these animals and it is incredible to see their personalities become more defined the more time you share with them. Yes, they are all the same species, but they are definitely not cut from the same mold. I always get the giggles at this site because it is impossible to not laugh when a stingray is tickling your toes.

We returned to the reef sharks the following day and got some great shots with our new Oceanic and Lavacore gear. Our dive was cut short by some nasty squalls moving in. They come is fast and hard during the summer months in Bimini and can quickly knock the visibility to zero. They are so pronounced and confined however, you can usually avoid the brunt of them. We headed out and actually lost power in our port engine, which kicked us around hard on a large swell and sent Deano flying across the boat. We turned to head south towards the medical clinic on Cat Cay. What should have been a fifteen-minute ride, took over an hour with the wind and swells. We arrived and Deano was able to move around, but had definitely sustained an injury to the ribs. We made the slow cruise back to South Bimini and headed to the clinic because the doctor was not available on Cat Cay. The doctor told him he should get x-rayed in Nassau, but Deano was not going to miss out on diving, sharks and tattooing.

We took it easy the next day, but Deano did not want to miss out on opportunities, so we made it work and headed to the Sharklab. We spent time in the pens with some juvenile lemon and nurse sharks and Deano was able to get some images as well as hold a few of the little guys. It really is a special experience and I never get tired of hanging out with those cute little babies. Sharing miniature versions of the ocean’s might predators is a powerful tool for education. Deano is a shark lover, but for many people seeing how “cute” a shark can be really changes their perception about these animals.

The mangroves were next on our list because they are the heart and soul of Bimini and a place everyone should take the time to visit. It may not seem exciting, but the amount of life above and below the surface is remarkable. We showed him the mega resort on the north island and explained the damage that has been done and the impending threats that are looming. Bimini is not a bustling metropolis, nor should it ever be, but the quiet of the mangroves really takes you away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I am not sure how excited Deano was about the mangroves to start, but within minutes he was raving about how incredible they were.

As if on cue, a juvenile lemon shark swam out in front of our boat and cruised through the gin clear water just ahead of us. We know the sharks use the mangroves as a nursery for the first 3-4 years of their life, but it is always exciting to spot one. It was really awesome to see how excited Deano got as well. A tree-lined channel is not where you expect to find baby sharks and these encounters are always surreal. We continued onward spotting schools of snapper, small conch and birds. We paused for pictures and to talk about this incredibly diverse forest and why it is vital for Bimini and the oceans of our planet. These nurseries are critical for healthy populations of not only sharks, but snapper, conch and lobster; all major components of the Bahamian economy.

We hopped in for a snorkel in Bonefish Hole and found schools of silversides dancing in the sunlight, giant stingrays buried in the sand along the edge of the mangroves, hundreds of snapper, tiny butterfly fish and sergeant majors peeking out from behind the roots and dozens of small lobster taking refuge under mangrove root ledges. This forest is literally overflowing with life. I watched a crab eating a snail, while delicately balanced on a single branch. The weather was rough at the edge of the channel, so we didn’t spot any turtles for Deano, who was desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the juvenile greens that hang around, but regardless the day was amazing.

The week was going by way too fast, like it always does when you are doing what you love and it was time to get down to business. We had spent evenings deciding on the size and Deano enjoyed an ocean view office to do some stenciling. I will admit I was hesitant to have a large back piece, but I knew a lot of the detail would be lost if we went too small. Deano was patient as I taped on the images and then looked at pictures of them on my back. We finally compromised on a size and he laid the stencil on my back. Although he started with a stencil, the true artwork is in his eye as he free hands the shading and brings the animal to life. I did not want a shark tattoo, I wanted a portrait of the most amazing animal on the planet; Deano Cook made this a reality. He is not just a tattoo artist, but someone who has spent time with these animals getting to know how they move, how they act and the tiny intricacies that make them unique and beautiful. As we discussed the details to emphasize on the great hammerhead we were continuously on the same page. The eye, the curve of the tail and even a biopsy notch in the dorsal fin; he brought this magnificent creature to life.

This marks my 7th tattoo, but it the first large piece of artwork I have ever had. As I sat on the stool in the make shift tattoo studio we created in our living room, I was excited and nervous. There is such a rush when you get inked. It hurts, yes it hurts a lot and people are full of crap if they say it doesn’t. Deano spent six hours the first day and then we enjoyed grilled conch prepared by my amazing husband. We talked about sharks, adventures and chasing our dreams. Deano and I had never dived together, so the days building up to the tattoo were really special and were definitely brought into the piece. Deano is a friend painting his love of sharks using my back as a canvas. I say, “using,” because we are not done.

We started earlier the next day because we had “Lobster Fest 2013,” to attend that evening and we didn’t want to miss out. Lobster season had opened the day before and our good friend and neighbor Leesa was preparing several dishes including HANDMADE lobster ravioli. Another 5 hours of pain, stories, art and ocean passion went into my back. We rocked out to a great band called Slightly Stupid and some Maroon 5. Lobster fest was beyond words and we all really enjoyed another random and epic night on the island. Bimini is small, but always full of impromptu moments of awesomeness with great people. I love this island!

A final hour long session on his last day left the total at 12 hours of work creating an incredible portrait of, in my opinion, the most magnificent animal on Earth. 12 hours is pretty is a long time, but he did it with FRACTURED RIBS! Yeah, he is a rock star. Diving, playing with sharks and tattooing while he was busted up; now that is dedication. I have to say I was nervous about the size of the artwork, but looking at it now and the way it flows with my back, I couldn’t imagine it any different.

Thank you Deano for an absolutely epic BIMINI SHARKWEEK. Cannot wait for our next adventure.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Shark Week: Shark Babies

Sharks are apex predators that rule the oceans of the planet, but even the largest shark begins life small. Most people only see the gnashing teeth or the massive beast strung up as a fisherman’s trophy, never stopping to think about how the story starts. If a shark reaches sexual maturity (8-12 years on average) they must find then find mate. In the case of lemon sharks they have a gestation period of 12 months before giving birth to live young. The female essentially beaches herself on a high tide, getting her pups as close to the protection of the mangrove forest as she can.

The pups are thrust into a dangerous world and very few will survive to see their first birthday. Sharks, barracudas and even adult lemon sharks will happily make a meal out of these babies, so it is critical for them to find shelter amongst the roots and in the shallows. It is here in this nursery the sharks will spend the first 3-4 years of their life, honing their skills for survival in the open ocean. Juvenile nurse sharks, conch, lobster and snapper also use the protective roots of the mangroves as a nursery area until they too, are ready to move into deeper water. Sharks are the last animals you would expect to find in a forest, but above and below the surface the mangroves are vital for the survival of countless species across the planet.

For over twenty years Doc Gruber and the Bimini Biological Field Station have been studying these tiny predators in the mangroves and lagoons of Bimini in the Bahamas. The Sharklab has done ground breaking research proving these sharks are highly social and even have their best friends. They have also studied the devastating impact the development of a mega resort has had on juvenile lemon shark populations in Bimini. The mangroves are the heart and soul of these tiny islands and without them the people and the ecosystems around the island suffer.

Sharklab director Dr. Tristan Guttridge with a juvenile tiger shark

Sharklab observation tower

A shark with a transmitter being observed in the shallows

I love sharing these little guys with people because it shows them a different side of sharks. Even the most fearful people can find a new appreciation for these incredible animals. It gives them a change of perspective when they are looking at a very small and very vulnerable creature. Don’t get me wrong they still have teeth and still behave like a shark, but seeing the tiny belly button scar of a lemon shark or the spotted belly of a baby nurse shark, will soften even the harshest critic.

As you watch Shark Week and see the iconic shots of great whites with mouths wide open and laden with teeth try and think about that shark when it was small. There is a lot more to the story than what you are getting a glimpse of.
Happy Shark Week