Sunday, October 5, 2014

Shark Sunday: Caribbean Reef Shark Encounter

There is a popular dive site here in Bimini frequented by not only the Bimini Biological Field Station ( Sharklab) for research and education, but also by local dive and eco tour operators. My first visit to the site was in 2004 while working on a research vessel that was visiting Bimini and I have been there dozens of times since; I am happy to report that it never gets old and you never know what you will see.

The usual stars are Caribbean reef sharks with anywhere from 2 to 20 making an appearance. Like any site frequented regularly, you start to recognize specific animals and I am always happy when old regulars show up.

Although the Bahamas is a shark sanctuary, we have seen people and fishing gear on this site with sharks as their targeted species.

The Bahamas Shark Sanctuary Approximately 243,244 square miles
Shark Fishing Gear Left Near Dive Site

Caribbean Reef Shark with a Hook Scar on the Mouth

It had been about a month since Duncan and I visited the site, so with a beautiful day before us we headed out. As soon as we anchored up a single shark finned at the surface. We threw a few pieces of bait in and very quickly we had 4 sharks. We geared up, got the cameras ready and slipped in.

Happiness! Who Needs Diamonds?! Sharks are a Girl's Best Friend

The water was crystal clear and the sunlight danced in ripples on the gray skin of the sharks; I absolutely love days like this. We spent over an hour in the water diving down and holding our breath, being as much part of their world as we could for a brief amount of time. The ocean is quiet place and I love lying on the bottom and just watching. I love sharks, if you hadn’t already guessed, but watching them never ceases to amaze me. Lost in the moment, my body reminded me that I am a land animal and must return to the surface.

Duncan Filming Caribbean Reef Sharks 

Freediving Shark Selfie

Throughout the Bahamas Caribbean sharks dives and snorkels draw divers, film crews and shark aficionados from around the world. These sharks are also responsible for educating thousands of people and changing fear into fascination and respect. Five minutes is all it takes to create a new perception and shark eco-tourism throughout the Bahamas has not only been good for the economy, but good for the sharks that swim around these islands.

We ended our dive and got back on the boat. I threw in some of the last scraps of bait and chatted with the sharks, as I always do. Duncan giggled, like he always does, amused by running commentary. I absolutely love being around these remarkable creatures.

Shark Geeks! Loving The Gorgeous Day!

I am a huge proponent of getting in the water and having your own shark experience, so if you find yourself in the Bahamas or somewhere offering a shark encounter, I encourage you to dive in! If you are in Bimini check out the Sharklab's Research Experience , Bimini Sands for shark snorkels or the Bimini Scuba Center for scuba diving trips.

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shark Week: Bimini Shark Tales

It’s Shark Week, which means people around the world are thinking about, talking about and watching shows featuring, you guessed it; sharks. Although Shark Week is notorious for sensationalism and “mockumentaries,” there arises a great opportunity to have a real conversation about sharks, shark conservation and the problems they are facing around the world. Here in Bimini pretty much every week is Shark Week. This tiny island chain in the northern Bahamas is home to the first Shark Free Marina in the world and is part of the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. Some of the best shark research in the world has also happened right here at the Bimini Biological Field Station(Sharklab). Despite being small in size, Bimini is truly a world force in shark science and shark conservation.
My husband and I are both Sharklab alumni and have absolutely fallen in love with the island. We spend as much time here as possible and there is rarely a day we do not see sharks. Different species are here seasonally, along with a few regulars we see year round. We spend a lot of our time filming and photographing these amazing animals and occasionally get to assist the lab with research projects.  People travel from around the world to see these sharks, study them and dive with them and for us; we travel to our “backyard.”

Shark Selfie with a Bull Shark Off South Bimini!
My blog has been heavily neglected because all of my time has been devoted to our newest endeavor, Sharks4Kids. We created this non-profit as a means of spreading shark education to kids around the world through curriculum, activities, videos and classroom visits. Please check out the page and feel free to message me for more information. Okay, now back to the sharks.  Over the next few months I will be sharing information, images and videos highlight the sharks we see here in Bimini. I will include our adventures, facts about these animals and notes on shark research and conservation happening on the island. Sharks that will be featured include great hammerheads, nurse, lemons, bulls, Caribbean reef, smalltooth sawfish and the elusive pitbull shark!

The Rare and Elusive PITBULLSHARK!

I hope you enjoy these shark tales each week of the year, because sharks deserve more than a week of global attention! Please feel free to email me any questions you have!  You can also find me on twitter and Instagram @BiminiSharkGirl
Living the Shark Life

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Don’t Kill Sharks Because Children Want to See Them”

Kristen, a 4 year old from Fremantle, Western Australia has beautifully and simply expressed a sentiment we should all take a minute to consider.

 “Don’t Kill Sharks Because Children Want to See Them”

I connected with Kristen and her classmates via Skype in June of this year. We spoke about sharks, shark conservation and the cull happening in their backyard. The kids were excited to make posters and do their part to help sharks. One student had even been to an anti-cull protest on the beach. Despite being young, they are aware of what is happening and they want to save sharks. Mrs. Lewer sent me posters the kids made and it literally brought tears to my eyes. I have said this so many times, but the world of shark conservation can be frustrating and soul crushing on the best days. Posters like these remind me why I do this work and inspire me to keep fighting.

We are all global citizens and our actions have an impact far beyond our own house, yard, state or country. We are in this together and it is our responsibility to make sure kids like Kristen get to see an ocean filled with sharks and other marine life.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I am BACK!!!!!

Wow! My last blog was written on December 20th, 2013! I disappeared for a very good reason, I promise. On November 7, 2013 we officially launched Sharks4Kids. This has been a passion project nearly five years in the making and I am so thrilled it has become a reality. Thanks to my amazing husband Duncan and my best friend Derek, Sharks4Kids is a live and spreading shark education around the world. If you have not checked out the site please do and please share with friends, parents, teachers, students and educators.

Our goal is to bring shark education into the classroom as well as offering outreach and adventure experiences for educators, families and students. We have created curriculum for grades K-6 as well as graphics, image galleries, videos, activities and crafts for kids of all ages. We also offer classroom visits both in person and via Skype Classroom. Skype has changed the way the world connects and has allowed us to reach over 5000 students in 17 countries since last October!

Skype Chat with Orphans in Uganda With CHAT to the Future (

We have collaborated with some amazing photographers, videographers and scientists to create a unique product we are very proud to share with the world. Thanks for all your support and for taking the time to check out Sharks4Kids! You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @Sharks4Kids.

Together we can make a difference and we can save sharks.

Meet Norman the Nurse Shark 

Sharklab Naturalist Course: Diving with Caribbean Reef Sharks