Sharklab 2016

Personally, the only scary thing about an ocean would be to have an ocean without sharks. Having already survived 400 million years on Earth and four mass extinctions, their role to maintain balance has never been more critical. As the apex predator, sharks maintain a healthy food web which supports a much stronger ecosystem. Without them, the oceans we know and love today, would be gone tomorrow. Sharks populations are rapidly declining with approximately 300,000 being killed each day. The shark finning industry is largely responsible for the demise of many iconic and unfamiliar species which sadly we know very little about. We are unaware of exactly how many sharks are in the oceans but what has been estimated is the astonishing rate in which we are losing them, for some species between 90-99% of their population has already disappeared! It is crucial that we learn more about these mysterious creatures in order to protect them and in turn protect the oceans for future generations to come.

The Bimini Biological Field Station (aka the sharklab) was founded in 1990 by Dr Samuel Gruber, who was one of the first to recognise the importance of the tiny cluster of islands located just off the gulf stream in the Bahamas. Bimini is well known for its marine biodiversity, in particularly for its abundance of shark and ray species that make these waters their home. Over the last month and a half, I have also been lucky enough to call this island my home as well. The first time I arrived in Bimini was back in 2013 where I not only learned new skills in marine research but where I also fell in love with sharks and I just knew that I had to return. Three years later and I am finally back!

As a volunteer, I get to dive into the research of so many different shark species. Every day is something entirely different from the last. I have set long lines and deep lines to catch tiger sharks, been free diving with Caribbean reefs, wrangled nurse sharks and even researched the personality of the lemon shark! Whether I spend my days out in the field with my favourite fishes or a day spent inside maintaining the house, I am always learning something new! I know more about who I want to become as a scientist and where I need to be heading to make my own stamp. The research conducted at the sharklab is incredibly important and is providing more and more of an insight into the life of these beautiful animals! It truly is a privilege to be a part of the sharklab family and to lend a helping hand in restoring the balance.

After a late night long line check, I came home and wrote about my experience…

“The sky was scattered with thousands of sparkling stars, which lit up the way to where our longline had been set just hours before. The ocean almost mirroring the sky above, as it too lit up with the bioluminescence from ctenophores which were lying on the surface of the glassy water. It was 2am and we were approaching the first of our five longlines and as we drove along, we counted the 15 hooks which have been baited with various parts of barracuda. Line one, nothing. Line two, nothing. The count began again this time at line three and as we approached hook 8 a dark shadow could be seen lurking on the sandy sea floor only 3 metres below. The excitement as the silhouette emerged to reveal a juvenile tiger shark swimming just below us was simply overwhelming. The team sprang into action preparing for the work up; any drowsiness from the early start was long gone. In a complete awe, I held the dorsal fin of the tiger shark we now knew to be a female and exactly 1-metre-long. We were able to collect biological data (measurements, DNA and isotope samples) as well as placing a PITT-tag below her fin which enables us to identify her. After being given the go-ahead, she was released and I watched her swim off into the darkness until she was out of sight. After checking all other hooks were clear, we headed home for bed but all I could do was lay there, wide awake and pinching myself, asking “did that really just happen?””

Photo credits to Eugene Kitsios.

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