BBFS PIT Journal 2003

PIT Program 2003 Journal, Week 1

Friday - 05.30.2003

"I'm a good homie." - Marie Gruber

The 22-person strong PIT tagging team met for the first time today at the Bimini Biological Field Station and have spent the majority of the day in crash-course meetings with a veteran on-site staff learning how to keep the station at peak efficiency. We have less than two days to learn all of the processes important to a successful tagging season; because the majority of the juvenile lemon sharks will be caught during the first evening of gill netting, we volunteers will be learning very quickly -- on the job. Although it has been an extremely long day, we are all anticipating even longer days in the coming weeks.

The station itself is modeled after a research vessel, with a few bunked cabins each sleeping 4-6 people, a galley, a large lab, and two heads with showers and toilets. Resources are very valuable because much of what the lab uses is impossible to obtain in Bimini. Most of it is flown in from Florida whenever Doc charters a flight.

When we arrived at the Sharklab, we had a long meeting where I met the staff and the other volunteers (although, I had already met some of the volunteers the charter flight from Ft. Lauderdale). Many of the volunteers have never actually been close to a shark in the wild, so the meeting was followed by an adrenaline-inducing shark dive to get us "in the mood." After the dive, we returned to the lab to begin preparations for tagging.

We have been divided up into tagging/netting teams and a home team that supports the away teams. I have been assigned to the home team with Marta, Rebecca, Tarra, and staff members Jackie, Grant, Doc, and Marie for the first few days of tagging. Our job is to take care of all of the equipment and food necessary to keep the away teams functioning all night. Doc and the staff will periodically rotate us so all of the volunteers get a chance to work the sharks.

The away teams will stay awake today for a few more hours in an attempt to get used to their upcoming vampiric schedule. I, however, must head to bed.

[see photos from today]

Saturday - 05.31.2003

Tonight is the first night of tagging! We spent much of the day touring the Sharklab facilities, practicing shark handling in a lagoon close to the lab, and meeting with Doc and the staff. All of the teams assembled in the inner lab, and for inspiration, Bryan played on the television the President's speech from the movie, "Armageddon." It seemed to have worked! Still freshly energetic (and bright-eyed!), they loaded themselves and their copious amounts of gear onto our truck, and motored off to the dock where the four tagging boats are located. The first night of tagging is always the busiest, so a long night of hard work awaits them.

Tagging the sharks involves setting up a central tagging pen and three gill nets separated by about a quarter mile each along the Bimini mangroves. A special research permit allows the use of gill nets -- normally illegal -- in Bimini. From sunset to sunrise, juvenile lemon sharks are caught in the nets and brought over to the tagging station for measuring, weighing, DNA sampling, and PIT tagging (the tiny tags are inserted just below the dorsal fin). After data collection, the juveniles are gently placed into a large holding pen for the remainder of the tagging operation so they aren't caught again in the nets. By 9am the next morning, the away teams will stumble dirty and exhausted back to the Sharklab, where they will be greeted with a hot breakfast before they head off to bed.

A PIT tag, next to a penny. Each PIT tag broadcasts
a unique ID when it is scanned by a PIT tag reader.

[see photos from today]

Sunday - 06.01.2003

What an exhausting day! (I realize as I write this that I actually have no right to complain, because everyone on the tagging team is soaking wet). It is 2:20am right now, and the entire lab is dark and silent. The away teams are out tending to gill nets and penned sharks, and most of the home team is already in bed. Grant, Marta and I went out a few hours ago to deliver food and supplies. When we arrived, one of the net boats was in the process of delivering the sharks they had penned the prior evening to the tagging team. One by one they transferred the little sharks onto the tag boat to be "worked up." I took the opportunity to slip into the tagging pen with Melissa to photograph some of the juvenile lemon sharks. There are currently approximately 80 sharks in the pen; all of them are juveniles, ranging in age from newborns to three-year-olds. Most of the sharks were clustered in a large group at the deep end of the pen (which was about 1.5 meters deep), and it was exhilirating to see their thin, undulating bodies emerge out of the murkiness a few meters away from me. A tagging team member must walk the perimeter of the pen periodically to make sure that none of the sharks are stationary on the bottom. Weak sharks are usually "walked" to run water through their mouths and gills, and then placed on bottom of the pen, facing the current. If a shark by chance becomes so weak that it stops breathing and stiffens up, a bilge pump is used to force oxygenated water through its mouth, and it is flexed back and forth by hand until it revives.

The home team spent the day cleaning the away team's equipment, doing laundry, packing up gear boxes, and fixing gill nets. Gill nets usually do not emerge unscathed after an entire evening of catching sharks, because even little sharks have mouths full of sharp teeth. Holes are inevitable, and the home team must spend time each day fixing them by hand. Each net is 190 meters long, so even a single gill net can take hours to fix.

[see photos from today]

Monday - 06.02.2003

"If anyone feeds that dog, I'm shutting the lab down." - Doc

Once again, the entire lab is quiet. The away team is gone again for the evening, but we all have a "rest day" tomorrow to look forward to. The day after tomorrow, Doc and the staff will swap home team members into the field, but tomorrow we spend "resting," which means that we will fix all of the seven gill nets and catch up on maintenance unable to be completed during the relative chaos during tagging days.

I spent the entire day at the lab because I was on house duty (household and kitchen responsibilities), which was a welcome break from the sweltering heat outside. And, I got to spend time with Marie, who has virtually taken me and everyone else here in as children. She leaves on Friday, and I'm sure the entire station will miss her -- and her cooking!

The away team is starting to look a bit haggard. Most of them headed directly to bed after unpacking their equipment when they returned this morning. A day of "rest" seems like just the thing they need after spending three full nights out on the water. We were told that it was a little chilly last night, but tonight there seems to be no wind, so the bugs (biting kinds!) have probably assembled en masse, leaving the mangroves to inflict pain upon the team.

[see photos from today]

Tuesday - 06.03.2003

It is just before 7:00pm, and almost everyone is outside fixing gill nets. Five of them have been fixed already, which leaves two for the rest of today and tomorrow. The away team was roused from slumber at 3pm, after only five hours of sleep (many of them look extremely tired!), but they will be able to sleep as much as they want to tonight. A little puppy named Teabag has been hanging out at the lab a lot. The owner lives down the street, but doesn't seem to be taking care of him because he is so weak that he can barely move by himself, and when he decides to sit or lay down, he sort of just falls over onto the ground. Much to the everyone's relief, Matthias has decided to try to purchase Teabag from his owner.

Doc, Grant and I went to the tagging pen this afternoon to check up on the sharks and to feed them. I took another dip into the pen to take photographs. The little sharks are very cute! I was holding my camera out at arm's length with the focus manually fixed (it is quite difficult to photograph small, fast-moving subjects in a few feet of water if you look through the viewfinder), and at times I had newborns swimming around in the area between my chest, arms, and camera. It's easy to forget that their teeth are very sharp.

On the way back to the lab, we stopped at Batelnet in North Bimini to try to get our phone line working again (it has not been working since yesterday). On the "beach" were three conch fisherman preparing an enormous pile of de-shelled conch for sale. I had never seen a large pile of still-alive de-shelled conch, and I stared with a mildly sick fascination as they occasionally flexed back and forth, feebly reaching for freedom. Doc bought a bunch of them for $1.25 apiece. Looks like we are having conch tomorrow night. :)

And finally, a message to Cheryl, from Jackie and our team here: [message #1] [message #2]

[see photos from today]

Wednesday - 06.04.2003

"Don't hold your radios gangsta style!" - Doc

Today was our "rest day," and all of the volunteers were free to do whatever that wanted to do until 2pm. For many of the away team, that meant more than twelve hours of peaceful slumber. Grant, Bryan, Steve, Lesley, Rebecca and I went out on the water for a bit to run errands, and we snorkeled both at a local plane wreck and near Turtle Rock, where we saw six or seven large nurse sharks, two lemon sharks, and two blacknose reef sharks. I was able to get close to the largest nurse shark (the rest fled when I approached), and it actually lifted off the ground towards me (or towards its reflection in my dome port?) when I was a only a few feet away. They are very cute. :)

We ate lunch at 4pm, and immediately prepared to go out into the field again. Doc wanted the nets to be set by around 5:30pm, which unfortunately means that the home team must get up at 6:00am tomorrow morning to greet the away team when they return. Dinner will be delivered to the field at around midnight, so much of the home team will be deprived of sleep. The old home team (which I was a part of) has been swapped into the field for the last three days of Sharkland. I decided to accompany the tagging team (currently: Kristene (captain), Joy, and Marta) as a spectator for the first half of the evening (5:30pm until 12:00am) to collect more photographs.

My first tagging boat experience was somewhat bipolar, with bursts of frantic activity (e.g. multiple sharks being delivered at once) followed by periods of extreme calm. Even though it was a nice night, the bugs were definitely out to get us. Although many people spent the evening in mosquito jackets, there is almost no way to completely avoid them. Everyone who has been here for a long time seems to have developed relative immunity to mosquito and sand fly bites, but the rest of us are dotted with red, itchy bumps. Teams bond tightly within individual boats, and there is also a lot of inter-boat chatter via radio -- especially late at night when entertainment from peers is the best way to pass time. There seems to be a common feeling among the new volunteers here, many of whom have experienced a sort of epiphany in finding out that there are people out there who share with them a common passion for sharks and field work. Most people who love sharks are considered to be eclectic in their home towns because of the media-dictated view of sharks as indiscriminately aggressive eating machines.

At around 11pm, Laura was afllicted by symptoms of heat stroke from being out in the hot sun for most of today and yesterday, so Johanna was roused from her home team duties to replace her in the field (she accompanied the dinner boat out to Sharkland). There have been a few other medical issues that have come up so far, but the teams have been very stoic in dealing with the extreme working conditions.

[see daytime photos] [see evening tagging photos]

Thursday - 06.05.2003

How can there be so many mosquitos and sand flies in the lab? I've killed over 15 in the last hour, and they keep coming. I think they are winning the war.

Here's a strange thing about being at a field station (strange, perhaps, only because I have a software engineer/cubicle background and am used to sitting indoors all day in extremely sterile environments): a few days ago I hopped into the shower. As I was showering, I kept tasting salt and thought to myself, "I must be really dirty!" But then I remembered that we use brackish water from taps here. :) Doc said that we should be happy that we have doors and windows, because some field stations out there do not. We even have air-conditioning here. And so, I am grateful. :)

After doing some web and computer work this morning, I went out with Doc and Grant to run some errands and to feed the six penned sharks in the North Sound. Later on, Ruth took Kate, Tarra and I to the pens behind the Sharklab to release the four sharks that were used for handling training. It turns out that if you just open the entrance of a pen, the sharks won't necessarily leave by themselves (while you are in there trying to herd them, I mean). It also probably didn't help that I was perched at the opening trying to get a photograph. Eventually, the sharks left one by one (with the help of herding from a net), and all of them swam in a wide arc around me, heading off in the same direction. The rest of the home team labored in the blazing heat (it was quite hot today!), fixing gill nets and planting palm trees. A boat turned a sharp corner around the point last night, cutting Bryan's net in half. Boats leave huge holes in nets, and huge holes translate directly to a lot of manual labor. Without the home team fixing nets every day, the tagging operation would not be possible.

Dinner delivery to the away team was a little strange this evening. Because the away team had left early again to have their nets set by 6pm, and the home team had dinner ready an hour early. And since the lab has a history of cross-dressing and general untraditional craziness, Grant and Jackie dressed up (with Marie's help) as two very "interesting" characters while Ruth and I donned cow suits to bring a little humor to the away team. When you are looking at the photos, remember that Jackie is a very pretty girl. She was embarrassed that she had the capacity to dress and look as she did tonight. :)


And finally, Tarra has a message for Carlos.

I've received more than five bites since I sat down to write this update.

[see daytime photos] [see evening dinner photos]