Tuesday, May 14, 2013

STOP - Hammertime!

Guest Blog
by Annie Anderson

In my last blog you read about my experience volunteering at the Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation (BBFSF).  This time you’re going to hear about all sorts including a very epic shark dive!

In February this year I was fortunate enough to head back over to Bimini to help support the Sharklab with a few projects, to indulge in some relaxation, and to dive with sharks!

Whilst at the lab one of the Ph.D. students Jean Finger hoped to capture Lemon sharks for his project on personality traits. He decided to place a gillnet in a popular ‘hot spot’ hoping that we could capture some sharks for his behavioural trials. So with the sun shining I headed out with a crew on one of the labs skiffs to assist with a day's gillnetting. As mentioned previously the Sharklab check the nets every 15 minutes to release any bycatch such as crabs, rays and other fish. With the net set it was a waiting game. Sitting on a boat for hours in 28 degree heat with no shade can be both relaxing (For those who desire a tan!) and draining (For those who get hot and bothered!) Drinking water, sunscreen and a hat were total necessities.  For 5 long hours we waited with not a single shark in sight!

We did catch two very cute turtles though, which we released a short distance away from the net. So an unsuccessful day meant Jean would be heading back out within the week to try again. Needle in a haystack? Not entirely, these juvenile lemon sharks have quite a small home range when young so they rarely venture too far.

One of my other tasks while at the lab was to assist with data processing and input. You may remember in my previous blog how the lab takes small fin clips for DNA and stable isotope analysis when ‘working up’ sharks?  All data taken needs to be entered into the labs database so every clip (a finger nail size piece of shark fin) is placed into small bags with a piece of paper stating crucial information such as shark species, length, sex, location, and date of capture. Samples are refrigerated before being shipped to New York and Canada for analysis by collaborators Dr. Demian Chapman & Dr. Nigel Hussey. As you can imagine this is quite a smelly job. To date the Sharklab has collected over 4000 DNA samples from lemon sharks.  That’s a serious lemon shark family tree expanding by the day!

You probably want to hear about the hammerheads, right? Well, how can I possibly explain how it feels to see the odd looking, yet extremely impressive great hammerhead swimming towards you for the first time? Ok, well picture the scene.. You’re snorkelling in 5m of crystal clear water, patiently waiting. Looking. Waiting. Looking. Waiting. Looking. You see something.. It looks big. Your heart rate increases and you’re flooded with mixed emotions.. Oh, it’s just a Nurse shark (and I LOVE Nurse sharks!) You see another Nurse, and then another, and another! … You’re still waiting for ‘The one’. You’ve been in the water for over an hour now, you’re getting cold and your eyes are flicking left to right, left to right as you concentrate on any movement in the distance. Then you see her. A huge ~3.3m Great Hammerhead. She glides in effortlessly and the Nurse sharks are dwarfed in her presence.

The dorsal fin of a Great Hammerhead is MASSIVE and that along with her huge ’Hammer’ demands your attention. Everything blends into a blur as your focus is solely on her. She’s beautiful. She moves so graciously and smoothly turns and manoeuvres on the sandy bottom almost like she was dancing for us. It couldn’t get any better right? Wrong, another Hammer turns up. This one’s a little shy, he stays for 15 minutes and leaves after his curiosity is satisfied. The big female however stays for over an hour allowing us to free-dive down to the bottom where she accepts us and lets us take a closer look. She even stuck around after the Director at the station Dr. Tristan Guttridge tagged her with a external dart tag! The Sharklab have now tagged 28 Great Hammerheads in the past 4 yrs - one returning from 2.5 yrs ago! Using this unique location they have plans for tracking these sharks to see if they travel to Florida or other Bahamian Islands. Such information is crucial to help conserve and manage this endangered and enigmatic species! I felt blessed that these sharks let us share their space in such peace. It truly was a magical a experience.

So how do I follow that? I simply can’t! After a day like that a few drinks, a good dinner and a game of ‘Ring toss’ (The only game at the local bar!) doesn’t really cut it! But it did because the amount of adrenaline exerted on the dive meant we all slept well that night!

In my next blog I’ll be writing about my recent experience with Blacktip sharks, a little more on some of the BBFSF team and how YOU can help support their work, even from your armchair :)

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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