When we arrived at Sharklab on Sunday afternoon, we got our room assignments. I was in Room 1, which was right by the kitchen and dining room. My roommates were Amanda the Virginian, Rhode Island Melissa, and Jen the Ontarian. I really lucked out with this roomie combination, because we had nightly fits of uncontrollable laughter when bedtime rolled around. It was a shark enthusiast summer camp slumber party. We had so much fun.
The state rooms were very small, but they all had sinks for the tooth-brushing and the face-washing. Each room had two metal bunk beds. I didn't find out until later that Naturalist Course students had displaced the scientists and volunteers, who were camped out at a nearby apartment so we could have a complete Sharklab experience. It wouldn't be long before I was totally down with my bed and referring to Sharklab as "home."
I won't lie. When I first looked at that bare, blue and white striped bunk bed mattress, I was momentarily beset by an internal surge of my semi-famous snootiness. My pinkies twitched upward when it came time to dress the mattress with a thin sheet from the linen closet, and get my pillows into their cases.
I have talked a little bit already about this, so so what follows is a bit of a repeat, but I'm going to transcribe from my Shark Dreams paper journal that I wrote in every night while in Bimini. I haven't read this since the night I wrote it. Any factual inaccuracies are unintentional, and likely due to me being super tired when I finally did my journaling after my roomies and I quieted down from that night's festival of hilarity. I welcome correction from anyone who was there with me, so I can get my facts straight!
Today was pretty exciting. The morning began in a fairly leisurely way, with an extravagant shower at the Hotel Indigo. Jill, the lab manager, came for us around 9:30am, and took us in shifts to get breakfast at Denny's. I had a hobbit sausage, a chicken sausage, and two eggs over-medium. The only creatures low-carbing it around Sharklab, however, have fins, not legs. I will be carbing it up while here!
After breakfast, we all went up to the executive airport in Opa-locka (I am really simplifying the logistics of all of this, but huge thanks to Jill for somehow making it all work). I was happy as a clam, talking to all my new friends and wondering which tiny-ass airplane we would be on. At the airport, the other six members of our party joined us, including the lone man of the group of fourteen, Michael, a videographer from Florida. He had joined his sister, Monica, for the trip (she has a degree in marine biology, and is the other member of our group that, like Joanne, has been to Sharklab before).
The instant we got our bags dragged into our rooms, the call came that we were to hurry up and get our masks, fins, and snorkels, get into our suits, and get down to the boat dock, because we were going to see the reef sharks!
The bait was in a cooler on board one of the boats. I got onto the Twin Vee that Doc was driving. The other boat was a 20-foot, and could hold fewer students. Doc said to those of us on the Twin Vee that we were not to sit on the bow, or the boat would sink! We sped out to the site where the Caribbean reef shark dives are routinely done, and Tristan jumped into the very rough water to find the feed site off Triangle Rock. Eventually, we got the 20-foot tied to the Twin Vee (I love how I say "we," I was just kind of standing there), and Tristan anchored a buoy at the end of the line that Doc said we were all to hang on while he fed the sharks just a few feet from us.
It was time then to hit the water. The seas were nuts. I have all the boating experience of a marmot, so I am just pulling this out of my ass, but maybe those were
four-foot one-foot seas that felt to me like four-foot seas? It was crazy windy and I just don't even know.
Doc was urging us to jump in, the supply of bait was not going to last forever. He hollered, "WE HAVE TWO SPECIES!" We were to jump in on the opposite side of the boat from where the sharkies were feeding, then swim around and get on the line. When I jumped in, I opened my eyes to see three sharks passing directly in front of me. As I floated up toward the surface (I only had four pounds on my weight belt, I should have grabbed eight), they looked over at me, and I at them. Their eyes regarded me, they seemed at peace. I bobbed up and snorkeled over them as they headed under the boat to get to where Doc's fish chunks were hitting the water.
(It was so thrilling to meet those sharks so briefly, so immediately after jumping in. That would be the moment that I would most frequently recall when being asked, repeatedly, how I managed not to get attacked if I wasn't in a cage.)
Caribbean reef sharks have really beautiful eyes. They are graceful, beautiful animals, with classic sharky silhouettes. Watching them from the boat as they were going after the pieces of fish being tossed into the water, their dorsal fins flapping around on the surface of the splashy water, they didn't seem "frenzied," they seemed quite relaxed. That population of sharks know the boats, and know the boats mean food. When the food is gone, they swim away.
We all held onto the line, shoulder to shoulder. Doc said to kick at the sharks with our fins if they got too close to us, or tried to pass between us. I only felt the need to do that once. I don't think anyone actually made contact with the sharks with fins, the motion was enough to get them to steer away. I am not sure if that was more about increasing our confidence in being in the water with the sharks, or what. If we kicked our fins and they moved away, which is what happened, then we would feel like we had a little bit of control in the situation, perhaps? It was a high adrenaline experience, and I guess I did feel fear, but I also felt excitement, admiration, and reverence.
This is the only picture from this swim with the reefies that has a shark in it. The seas were not willing. Next time, I will have a Go Pro on a stick, like Michael!
I had a terrible time hauling myself back onto the boat. I needed to get my fins off, but the water was too rough, and I couldn't get a grip on them. Doc had to help me get a grip on the boat and I flopped forward right into some bait juice. (Thinking about that makes me smile, actually.) I got the first few of my dramatic bruises in that moment.
Doc said there was a blacknose shark visiting, along with the Caribbean reef sharks. He said that we'd cheated death three times. Once with the weather, once with the sharks, and once with him, because he's deaf, blind, and old. :)
He does drive that boat with significant and memorable zest!
The way to the dock, from the front of Sharklab.
The conch shell-lined path to the back beach.
Sharklab's observation pens.
The beach behind Sharklab.