Beautiful Bimini

For quite a while I have been seeing photos appearing on my social media of the clear waters of the Bahamas, usually with a hammerhead or tiger shark casually swimming by the camera or a diver.
If you’re anything like me, seeing photos like these makes you feel two things:

1 – Wow what an incredible photo, and
2 – WHY AM I NOT THERE???

In January I was on a film making course in Egypt, and someone asked me where do I want to go next, and without thinking, I said “Bimini”. From then I had been working out plans to make a trip there, and in March, I got on a plane.

The first thing you notice when you arrive, is that the water really is as amazing as you’ve seen in photos. It’s like looking into a swimming pool, I’ve never seen anything like it.

My plan was to see as much as I could, and get involved with anything going on. The first few days, I had limited chances to be out on the water, as the wind had picked up, so I made the most of exploring both the north and south island. During the first

week me and Jillian spent the day in the local school, talking about shark eco tourism and sharks in the Bahamas.

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I started to get into the swing of life on an island, such as if I wanted to go out for dinner, it would involve a 10 minute walk to the water taxi, a short ferry ride, then a 15 minute walk to Big Game resort, all in the name of a burger, and that buying food for me to cook myself was going to be tricky unless I

wanted tinned pasta. Ok so enough about that, now onto the sharks…

Bimini is world famous for its shark diving, and it also hosts the Bimini Shark Lab, which have featured on various TV documentaries. I was able to visit the lab a couple

of times during my stay, including a special visit with Jillian as we attempted to help the lab feed their recently caught baby nurse and lemon sharks.

The baby sharks will be kept in an ocean pen for 30 days, before being tagged and released. The shark lab rely on donations and funding, so if you are ever in the area, I

would encourage you to make a visit and see what they do.

Being out on the boat with Jillian and Duncan is always fun, but when you get the chance to get in the water with about 6 or 7 caribbean reef sharks, it’s made even better. These are your classic looking shark, averaging out at around 2 meters.

I found it to be very similar to my previous experience of diving with oceanic blacktips in South Africa, these sharks very clearly relaxed with people in the water, probably because they are here all year round, and have a good chance of seeing a few divers in their time.

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One day in particular stands out as being very special, as we were able to take some of the kids from the local school out on the boat to see a few different large fish. First stop was to Honeymoon Harbour, which is a great place to see southern stingrays. You slide off the boat into water about 2 or 3 meters deep, and walk (or swim) over to the beach.

Jillian gave a quick brief as to how they rays will behave, and we got straight to it. Some of these rays are about the size of a beer tray, and some about the size of a large round dining room table. Again they seem quite happy interacting with people, especially when those people have squid in their hands.
It was good to also see the much smaller blacknose shark come in for a look, and also a curious nurse shark.

Next stop of the trip that day was with the reef

sharks, and some of the guys were trying their hand at free diving. They were getting pretty good and it was difficult getting them out of the water!
We also headed to the hammerhead dive site, and I will talk about them in just a moment.

One of the things that really hits you when seeing these kids start to enjoy being in the water with sharks, is that these guys literally hold the future of sharks in the Bahamas in their hands. The Bahamas is a shark sanctuary, meaning you cant catch them, but it doesn’t stop some locals taking matters into their own hands when they see a tiger shark cruising in an area where there are tourists. If these kids can get an early understanding of shark behaviour, and also the importance sharks have in the Bahamas, then I am optimistic for the future of these animals.

Right, now then, the hammerheads.

This shark is the reason hundreds of people head to Bimini in the winter months, as the great hammerhead spends its time hunting for stingrays.
I had two days booked with a local dive operator, Neal Watson, you never can tell with nature, and putting all your hopes on one day is always risky.
As it happened the total number of sighting on the first day was one shark, for about 6 seconds.

Then the second day, totally different.

The end of March is starting to wind down the hammerhead season, and the dive master made it clear we could be waiting for several hours before anything turns up. On the second day we waited about 2 hours, then suddenly got the call, everyone get

in the water. The dive master had been in the water chumming the whole time, and would only give the call if a shark that was known to be a ‘feeder’ turned up, otherwise we might all get the in water and the shark would have been long gone.

However we got lucky, as two known feeding sharks spent around two hours with us. Nemesis and Chaos (all sharks named after greek gods). As well as around 25 nurse sharks, we got to see close up, just how

weird and wonderful these 3 meter sharks are. Great hammerheads are currently listed as endangered, due to demand for their big fins for the soup trade, sport fishing and by catch.

Having a large shark like this, totally at ease with you next to it in the water, looking right at you is an incredible experience. I wondered if the shark could tell I was smiling at her through my eyes. They come in to feed then do a big loop, away from all the begging nurse sharks, and then make a B line back to the feeder.

The feeders role is an impressive one, give the hammerhead a fish as it gets within half a meter of you, whilst avoiding the needy nurse sharks and staying vigilante through the hundreds of jacks swirling above you. Also of course ensuring all the divers are safe, and every now and then rotating them round to different positions.

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All in all, an amazing experience.

I have come away understanding the role of the shark in the Bahamas a little better. It’s not just the case of there being great photos turn up on my social media, it’s that whoever took that photo, in some way contributed to the $13.8 million that comes into the islands every year through shark diving. Whether thats directly to the operators, or in directly such as hotels, restaurants, golf cart hire, grocery stores, condo rental and so on.

I am also reminded that the reason all those restaurants are able to serve fresh sea food every day, is because of the sharks, loose them, and Bimini along with the rest of the Bahamas would look very different.

A huge thanks to Duncan and Jillian. For taking me in and instantly including me in their lives for 2 weeks.

Thanks Bimini, it’s been emotional.

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Photo by Jillian Morris

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Review from my visit to the CCHS

Visiting CCHS for the second time, shark conservationist Dan Abbott delivered a talk to over 40 Lower 6th and upper 6th Biologists about behavioural patterns he had observed in sharks as part of his internship with White Shark Africa.

Offering a rare insight into the behaviour of such misunderstood and powerful animals, Dan shared his own photos and videos of a number of Great Whites in Mossel Bay, including several that showed the sharks ‘mouthing’ the cage with people inside. Dan explained that despite common misconceptions, the sharks are not actually trying to rip the cage apart – if they wanted to, they easily could – but they are actually just curiously investigating the strange object in the only way they know how; with their mouths.

Leading on from this, Dan talked about the negative influence that media can have upon sharks when it constantly labels them as vicious killers. A widespread fear of sharks is what is making it increasingly hard to protect endangered shark species – the merciless slaughter of sharks to make shark fin soup is still supported by several restaurants in our own country.

To help with this issue, Dan is part of a Bite-Back charity which runs many campaigns to protect sharks, including one that aims to stop shark finning in the UK. He provided a petition sheet for us all to sign if we wished, as well as more information on how and where to help fight for the safety of sharks all over the world.

Magic Wok

On my way to Nottingham last Thursday to speak at a dive club, I made a slight detour.

At http://www.bite-back.com, you can see the location of restaurants still known to be serving shark fin soup. The Magic Wok is just outside Milton Keynes, and so I paid them a visit as I was passing through, this is what happened…

 

Shark Talk Tours

I had a great time with the guys at alternative dive club on Thursday night in Breaston. Thanks to all who came and Toby for hosting the event.

It’s always good to talk with divers as they already have a love for the ocean, it was a great event with some good questions afterwards.

If you are in the Nottingham area check them out http://www.alternativediveclub.com

 

A few more bookings this week, so I thought I’d put a list of where I’m going to be (so far) over the next few months.

1st & 2nd December – Stanway Federation Learning Centre

6th Jan – Hare Pub in Long Melford (Open to Public)

7th Jan, 7:30pm  – Henry Charnock Lecture Theatre at National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. (Open to Public)

13th Jan – Langham Oaks School

14th Jan – Colchester Scouts

28th Jan – Deben Yacht Club, Woodbridge

4th Feb – Liverpool University

4th Feb, 8:30pm – Wirral Dive Club (Open to Public)

12th Feb – TLA, Colchester

9th March – University of Exeter Penryn Campus

10th March – Cockwood Primary School, Exeter

 

If you are interested in having me in to speak at your school, university, club or group of any kind, send me a message on the contact page.

Why do sharks ‘attack’ humans? More than just mistaken identity…

You may have heard it said that when a white shark attacks a surfer or swimmer in the water, the shark has made a mistake. It has confused its natural food source, a seal or sea lion, with a human. Humans are not on the sharks menu, this has been common knowledge now for many years, but there are still around 5 or 6 fatal attacks on humans each year. So why is this happening? Mistaken identity? Or something else.  The following is my personal opinion.

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When a surfer puts on his/her wetsuit, and paddles out on their surf board waiting for a wave, you could say the shape might resemble that of a seal on the surface, and that would then reasonably justify why a great white shark would decide to attack a human.

However.

From watching these sharks in South Africa, and spending hours upon hours watching documentaries and reading up on these predators, I have a hard time putting the reason down to a simple mistake in identity.

When a great white shark sees a shape on the surface that looks like a seal, it has two options. The first is to attack with full force…

A full on attack occurs when the shark is 100% sure that the object is worth using valuable energy to go for. When this takes place, the 1 ton fish launches its self vertically from the ocean floor, and hits the seal on the surface at speeds of up to 30 mph. Often this is a very spectacular attack, with the shark flying out of the water, sometimes up to four meters high. The reason for this ambush attack is to protect itself, with the seal disabled in one hit, the shark can keep out of the way of its sharp teeth, and return to consume once the seal has bled to death.

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The second is when the shark isn’t completely sure about what it is seeing on the surface, so the shark will slowly swim up from the bottom, and check it out. White sharks have excellent eye sight, and use this sense to get a better idea of what it is they are interested in. But sometimes thats not enough for a shark, they want to feel what it is. When this happens, the shark will place its jaws over the object, scientists call this ‘mouthing’. The shark clamps down with the same bite force as a human, hardly anything to a shark. The reason for this is to get an idea of what the object is, and if it’s worth pursuing further interest.

This is ‘Trix’ in Mossel Bay, showing her natural curiosity on our steel cage. She did this three times in the space of half an hour. Photo by Brian Scott.

Brian Scott

Its worth saying at this point that white sharks are highly curious animals, they love to know what things are. Working on the cage boat in Mossel Bay, it wouldn’t be unusual for a shark to mouth the propeller, or steel cage attached to the side of the boat. Always done with care and gentleness. Perhaps not words you would expect to hear describing a shark.

When we hear of a human being attacked by a shark, the story usually involves the surfer losing a leg, or an arm. If death is a result, it is due to shock or loss of blood. So hang on a min, can that still be called an ‘attack’?  That to me sounds quite tame, when we compare that with whats happening to those poor seals!

If a great white shark, cruising along the ocean floor looks up, sees a surfer and mistakes him/her for a seal, then it makes sense for that shark to attack the surfer, like it would a seal, doesn’t it? If this was the method of attack used on surfers, it wouldn’t be the case of losing an arm or a leg, it would be ‘game over’ in a second. There’s simply no surviving that kind of force.  Fortunately these kinds of attacks are virtually non existent, which in my view rules out the option of mistaken identity.

Once the shark has removed a limb from a human, it usually then disappears, showing no further interested in consuming their victim, which again shows the lack of interest they have in hunting us. We are simply not worth the effort.

There is another theory I heard from a scientist in Simons Town, South Africa, last January.

During the summer months the white sharks are hunting fish and rays in the shallows, bringing them much closer to shore. While hunting they might encounter another predator, a shark, or in another case, a human.

The shark then gives a threat display, by lowering the pectoral fins and opening its mouth, this is to say, “you are on my patch, this is a warning”. Another shark sees this threat and gets out of there as fast as its tail can manage! However usually the visibility is low in these cases, and so the human doesn’t see the shark, and carries on with their swimming or paddling activities. The shark reacts to being ignored by swimming up and giving a warning bite. In Mossel Bay many sharks displayed evidence of shark bites, usually on the flank, these scars could have been made in this way. To a shark this is no big deal, they have very tough skins, however to a human, it is a big deal, again it can mean losing a limb and bleeding to death.

Elton Polly

Elton Polly

The interesting thing about this theory is the fact that these sharks, the apex predator in the oceans, are actually viewing us as another predator in the water. There is certainly lots of evidence to support this by the behaviour of sharks around the cage boat.

There is a respect shown to humans by sharks, and sadly a severe lack of respect shown the other way.

There is a lot to be said of a white shark’s intelligence, when you consider how many thousands of people enter the water each day, and how few cases there are of shark encounters (yes, we will now call them encounters, not attacks).

Just 1 kilometre from Seal Island in Mossel Bay is a very popular tourist beach. There is no recorded attack on a surfer or swimmer by a shark on that beach.

It’s time to respect these animals as the supreme apex hunters they are.