Monday, April 1, 2013

Dispatches from Bimini: Hammertime!

Guest Blog
by Jillian Morris

Kneeling on the white sand bottom I gaze into the blue haze, watching, and waiting. A nurse shark completely decorated with remoras cruises in. He nonchalantly checks out the area before inhaling a small piece of bait. Don’t get me wrong, I love nurse sharks even when most people turn their noses up at them, but today they are not our target species. We are waiting for something greater, the most magnificent creature in the ocean, rare, and elusive. I strain to make out a shadow in the distance. The distinct fin comes into view and soon a great hammerhead is gliding past. This is what we are here for.

March was certainly the month for great hammerheads sharks, especially here on the tiny little island of South Bimini in The Bahamas. January through March each year finds these incredible animals passing in close proximity to the coast and for nearly a decade the Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab) has been developing sites to observe, dive with, and tag this endangered species. Until this year, this aggregation had managed, for the most part, to stay off the radar. This created an ideal research and diving venue, uninfluenced by outside factors. Word spreads quickly though and divers around the globe have traveled and are making plans to travel to see this underwater shark Eden.

The crystal clear water and the shallow depth make this an ideal place for photo and video; It is probably the biggest draw for the masses now flocking to Bimini. The sharks cruise in and circle around the bait. These charismatic predators are bold, but not aggressive. They have comical faces, with their mouth on the underside and large cartoon eyes precisely placed at the ends of their odd heads. They appear to be laughing at a joke or smiling for the camera. They exude power and grace, with a Cheshire cat smile. In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful to witness underwater than a solitary great hammerhead. Beautiful, but almost alien compared to the torpedo sleek body shape of a shark.

Sadly, the elusive nature of these creatures, which has launched a global interest in photographing and filming them, is also the reason why research to better understand them is absolutely vital. For over twenty years the Sharklab has been documenting the occurrence of these sharks around the islands of Bimini and in 2003 they began tagging and collecting genetic samples. The data is deficient on this endangered species and Bimini provides an ideal location for collecting this critical data. Science catalyzes the establishment of regulations to protect animals as well as being the backbone for conservation efforts. The work the Sharklab has done with lemon sharks was integral in getting them protected in Florida waters and will hopefully continue to do the same for other species on a local and global scale.

10,000 people from 135 countries helped bring Shark Stanley to CITES
Early in March, great hammerheads passed the initial stage of approval at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flaura, also known as CITES, in the early morning hours after I surfaced from an amazing dive with three of these incredible creatures. Diving with them is a remarkable experience, but seeing the Sharklab’s tags on them and knowing they might have a better future, solidified this as a dive I will never forget. I have had the great fortune of spending a lot of time in the water watching and getting to know these animals, so the approval of a CITES Appendix II listing was really the icing on the cake of an epic season here in Bimini.

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