On Location With OceanicAll-Stars at SHARKLAB
One of the best parts of being in the Bahamas with the Oceanic All-Stars is the opportunity to make a difference. This week, were able to get involved with the Bimini Biological Field Station, affectionately known as SHARKLAB. Here’s a quick report from our time on the water with SHARKLAB!
The small island of Bimini is located almost 50 miles from Florida and is home to the world renowned Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab). The lab was started in 1990 by Dr Samuel Gruber as a field station for his research on the life history of lemon sharks. Today the lab continues to be one of the most influential shark research centers, drawing scientists, conservation groups and film crews from across the globe. Living on Bimini allows Duncan and I to continue doing various projects with the lab from giving scuba tours to helping with underwater production shoots.
Each month a vertical longline is set in deeper water off the west coast of the island. This is part of an ongoing adult shark census. The longline has 15 baited hooks spread over 600 feet of line, giving a captured animal ample space to continue swimming. Circle hooks are used because they are designed to catch only in the mouth of the animal, reducing foul or stomach hooking. If the hook cannot be completely removed it will rust quickly and fall out. Sharks have an incredible healing capacity and do so very quickly. There is some controversy over fishing for sharks for research, but at the end of the day it is necessary. Catching a shark on a line with a hook is the most efficient way of obtaining the animal and the information needed. Understanding these animals is crucial for helping them survive the battle that humans are waging against the oceans.
The research team members are trained to do the workup as quickly as possible in order to minimize stress on the animal. The workup is fairly standard regardless of the location or species of shark and includes length measurements, DNA sample, sex of the shark, and insertion of tag. The three length measurements are pre caudal length (tip of nose to point where tail fin starts), fork length (tip of nose to fork in the tail fin) and total length ( tip of nose to tip of tail). DNA is collected by taking a tiny clipping of the trailing end of the dorsal fin, similar to clipping your finger nails. Sex is determined by the presence of claspers, the external male sex organs that are a modified part of the pelvic fins. Depending on the research that is being done a specific type of tag is inserted into the shark. The hook is then removed and the shark is released. Each shark is observed to confirm that it is swimming ok as it leaves.
On July 18 Duncan and I joined the crew as they checked the longline. The line had snapped and was drifting, so we all assumed it would be an uneventful outing. Hook after hook was pulled in, most with bait still on them. As the team was pulling up hooks 12 and 13 the tension on the line increased. We all leaned over the edge of the boats to see what was pulling on the line. The electric blue of 700 feet of water was broken by the large shadow of a shark. Guesses at the size began being shouted from one boat to another. There is always a lot of excitement when there is a big shark on the line. The shark was pulled up and secured alongside the boat. 3 members of the Sharklab quickly gathered the data needed and then it was time to get in the water.
Floating next to a 3.3m (10ft ) shark is a humbling experience. We need masks, fins and a snorkels while the animal only needs its perfectly adapted body. I always feel extremely fortunate to get that close to these apex predators As the shark was released we all dove down, holding our breathe, until it swam off to the depths and disappeared. Everyone cheered in honor of the successful capture on a day that we expected to get skunked. On the ride home we came across a 7 ft bull shark and watched it cruise over the flats and then disappear into deeper water. Just another day in Bimini, a very sharky place.
I encourage people to get in the water and see sharks up close. You don’t have to be a biologist or even a certified diver to appreciate these animals in their natural environment. Whether you are afraid of sharks or curious, nothing will give as strong of a perspective on the true nature of these animals as seeing them in their world and on their terms!
About the Author: Jillian Morris is a regular contributor to DiverWire.com. She currently resides in Bimini, Bahamas and is an active part of the Oceanic All-Stars. Jillian also is a popular underwater SCUBA model, photographer and videographer. Watch for more of her feature stories in coming weeks.