Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dispatches from Sharklab: Sharks, Sand flies, and Scrubbing Toilets

Guest Blog
by Annie Anderson

In my first blog I explained how late last year I spent six weeks volunteering at the world famous Sharklab in Bimini, The Bahamas. In this blog I discuss some of the many activities I participated in.

Ok so the glamorous life of a shark researcher isn’t always that glamorous. Some of my first duties as a volunteer involved building semi-captive pens for housing sharks ready for experiments, shark night fishing off the dock, and supporting Ph.D. candidate Jean-Sebastien Finger with his video trials focusing on shark behaviour and personality. Several times however I was able to go on amazing shark dives with over 12 Caribbean reef and Blacknose sharks, which were breathtaking experiences! The not so glamorous duties meant I also had to assist with cleaning the lab i.e. scrubbing toilets and prepping meals; all necessary tasks but thankfully I love cleaning!

Weighting the sharks during Mini-PIT
 The week ahead consisted of helping with the labs Mini-PIT Program. Mini-PIT is an annual, six-day tagging project named for the type of tag used (Passive Integrated Transponder - A rice-grain sized microchip identifier) that involves catching juvenile lemon sharks (Between 60 - 120cm) in gillnets at night within a known nursery ground. Our typical PIT day started at 5pm and ended around 7am! To help wrap your brain around the physical exertion needed for PIT, imagine crouching/lying on small, wet boats for over 12 hours, in TOTAL darkness, checking nets with flash lights every 15 minutes, and jumping in the sea at all hours to remove the sharks, fish and crabs from the nets. Some nights it rained and with temperatures dropping you found yourself counting down the hours for a hot shower!

Checking the gillnet every 15 minutes
 So the PIT nights were cold, wet, and tiring, but fun (We often played Mad Libs over the radio to pass some time!) all of this hard work for a better understanding of these lemon sharks, which will ultimately contribute towards protecting them. All night the fish and crabs were continuously released from the nets, while the sharks were swiftly taken over to the tagging boat for processing.

Sharks in the tagging boat
The volunteers and staff measured the sharks, took DNA samples, and then tagged, weighed, and temporarily placed them in large holding pens ready to be used in behavioural trials in the coming days. Sharks were continually monitored to ensure they all remained healthy and unstressed. A stressed lemon shark quickly changes to a blotchy colour and I was personally surprised at how sensitive these lemon sharks were. The team had to work fast and efficiently, including monotonously checking the nets in order to remove sharks as quickly as possible. Shark safety was paramount and I was in my element being surrounded by people who care as much as me about sharks and their safety.

Repairing the gillnets during the day
For the past 18 yrs the Sharklab has monitored the lemon shark population in Bimini assessing survival, growth and mating characteristics. It is well known that female lemon sharks return every two years to Bimini to give birth and their pups can stay around the Bimini islands for up to 6 yrs! Incredible.

Another reason for their capture is to monitor shark behaviour ‘personality traits’ through various observations. Sharks are held and observed in pens for short periods of time, usually not more than two weeks, and are subsequently released.

Beach cleanup time!
Other than Mini-PIT, some of my other volunteer tasks included: repairing the gillnets (whilst being eaten alive by sand flies!), cleaning and collecting plastic and rubbish from the local beaches as part of the lab’s community outreach programme, data input, and supporting other scientists such as Craig O’Connell with his current magnet project, Rob Bullock with his accelerometer project, and Maurits Van Zinnicq Bergmann with his acoustic receiver testing project. All very fascinating and thought-provoking projects.

Days off
Days off were very welcomed and during our downtime we relaxed on the beach and snorkelled in the sea. Those were the hardest days, I swear!

The world famous Bimini shark snorkel
Towards the end of my time at Sharklab we set a shallow water longline, which is a fishing method using baited lines strung together on a “longline.” We set five lines each 500 meters in length, in 2-3m water depth to attract the ‘Big Guns’ and well, we certainly got lucky! We caught 9 tiger, 1 lemon and 1 nurse shark, and I was lucky enough to see them all! Just like with Mini-PIT, the staff and volunteers measured the sharks, took DNA samples, and then tagged and released them all.

We're gonna need a bigger boat!
What was the largest I hear you say? A huge 350cm tiger! An absolutely beautiful shark. I’ve posted several photos of this experience on my Facebook page, so feel free to add me if you’d like to see them.

Thanksgiving in the Sharklab kitchen
During my last week at the lab I spent an amazing Thanksgiving feast with the team and before I knew it, it was time to leave and head home to the cold UK for Christmas. I was so inspired by my visit that I started a week’s fundraising for the lab and raised $500 within the week which went towards a hammerhead tracking device! A great result.

So I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my time at the lab and that it inspires you in some way. In the coming weeks I plan to blog about my recent great hammerhead free-diving experience so watch this space fellow shark lovers and stay tuned!

Annie Anderson is the founder of Sharks Need Love. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger.  More photos from Sharklab are posted to Shark Defenders Facebook Page.  You can follow Sharklab on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates from the station.


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