Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bimini - Barbarians at the Gate?

Check out that pic.
Five people found it fit to send it over in e-mails replete with expletives - and yes this would be the daily fare in the life of an infamous watchdog blogger! :)
Prima vista this is certainly disturbing - but having been accused of jumping to conclusions prematurely, let's maybe hear it from the horses mouth first.
Eli, what happened?

This is obviously one of Bimini's Great Hammerheads.
I was first alerted to their existence by Joe's fantastic portrait and then later, by these stellar pics about the research conducted by Doc's Sharklab. And now that the Hammer is out of the bag, so to say, there are reports that everybody, his dog and the dog of is dog are invading the island in search of those elusive images - foremost of which the infamous twins of Discovery Channel Shark Porn made in the Bahamas, Stuart Cove and Gurney Productions! And of course, I hear, everybody is filming for fun and not commercially, lest they would have to, gasp, apply for the proper permits - I mean, seriously, is Discovery really that cheap?
Actually, forget that question!

But I'm digressing as always.

Don't get me wrong here.
It is great that Bimini is experiencing a growing influx of Shark enthusiasts that may, if properly managed, inject valuable long-term tourism dollars into the local economy.
But at the same time, this is already feeling like the proverbial free-for-all where an excess of exuberance may well end up ruining it for everybody - let alone desecrate the hallowed research sites of what is arguably the world's foremost and certainly most revered Shark research institution!
In brief - don't you go messing with Doc's Sharks!

From an initial missive by Tristan Guttridge, Executive Director of the lab.
For the past 23 years the Bimini Biological Field Station, "Sharklab" has been documenting the occurrence of Great hammerhead, S. mokarran sharks around the Bimini Islands.
In 2003 we located an area, "The Grate" where these animals could be baited in for snorkeling experiences and to facilitate tagging and genetic sampling. Last year this site was used for the first time commercially as a scuba diving experience for tourists and in the past two months a number of live-aboard vessels have begun to explore its potential. Whilst we are delighted to see people from around the globe interact with, and observe up close one of the worlds most charismatic predators we are keen to ensure that such experiences are conducted in a safe and responsible manner.
And there's also this open letter.
I must applaud Grant as this is really as good as it gets - kudos!

Indeed, luckily it's by no means too late.
With a bit more of respect and mutual cooperation, this could be turned into a win-win for everybody: Bimini's tourism industry, the Shark divers, Shark research and most importantly, the Sharks themselves! The solution: some of that good old fashioned self regulation for which the diving industry has always been a shining example!

At the risk of being accused of interfering.
We here at BAD sit very much at the junction of where Shark tourism intersects with Shark research, and are continuously learning and always thinking hard about the best ways of improving and promoting both sometimes conflicting sides of that equation.
Here's what I would suggest for Bimini's Shark viewing tourism - for Hammerheads but eventually also for other sites and species.

First and foremost.
  • Somebody needs to assume the leadership role.
    The natural candidate for this would have to be the Sharklab which is by definition neutral and also disposes of by far the most comprehensive knowledge base about the local Sharks and potential Shark viewing sites. But this would imply their willingness to devote part of their resources to something ouside of their strictly academic purview, and they may not want to assume that responsibility.
    If so, is there some local tourism org (maybe Grant's?) that could do the honors?
Then, I believe that everybody should agree on a common set of procedures.
They should address the following.
  • Snorkeling/free diving or SCUBA?
    This depends on species and possibly also on how the Sharks are being provisioned. Lots of bait/dangerous species = no snorkeling!.
    In the case of Great Hammers that appear to be specialized hunters of Stingrays and smaller Sharks but also Fishes and that as far as I know have never been implicated in predatory attacks on humans, I believe that both is possible and desirable, also in order to maximize the number of potential tourists.
  • Baiting or hand feeding?
    We hand feed as we believe that by doing so, we can control the behavior of the (many) animals by controlling the amount of food we introduce. But we're the only operator on site and our feeders undergo many months of training. Also, Great Hammers tend to be solitary so control is not a primary concern and judging from this picture gallery, baiting via rigged baits is an effective and proven technique.
    But you can't have both!
    E.g., the Sharks in Tiger Beach experience both hand feeding and baiting. The result is that TB has become notorious for its beggar Sharks, i.e. Sharks that when there is no feeder acting as a focal point, approach and bump and even maul (!) unsuspecting clients - which to say it mildly is slightly disconcerting!
    We strongly believe that for the sake of the tourist but above all, the animals, protocols should be kept uniform in order to establish a predictable and thus safe routine.
    With that in mind and because not everybody is as good as Eli who really knows what he is doing, and because many oppose hand feeding for perceived ethical reasons: hand feeding is likely to be a no-go.
    And may I strongly advise against indiscriminate dumping, especially from the surface as this precludes any control over the animals' behavior!
  • No more than one operator on site at any time - meaning that operators should announce themselves and that outings need to be coordinated (like e.g. in Cocos and the Galapagos)
    Compare once again with TB where multiple simultaneous operators have resorted to out-baiting each other in order to draw the Tigers to "their" side! There's also a risk of overcrowding and according lack of control by the operators. And most importantly - there needs to be coordination with the Sharklab not to interfere with their research!
Further suggestions
  • Those bigger liveaboard vessels should install fixed moorings not to unnecessarily disrupt the habitats!
  • Visiting vessels should make it a point to contribute to the local economy, e.g. by docking, buying souvenirs, having a meal at a local eatery, taking local tours, even refueling, much along the lines of Grant's letter.
    Ideally tho, clients should be encouraged to fly in and go out with a local operator - whilst staying at e.g. the Bimini Sands and Bimini Big Game that are Shark Free Marinas and that do not contribute to the destruction of Mangroves (and thus, of the Lemon Shark nurseries) like their principal competitor!
  • Sharklab researchers should be invited to join in in order to add to their data and maybe even make presentations which would be a big plus for the tourists.
  • The Sharklab could develop a simple citizen science questionnaire.
    It could comprise data about numbers, sex, size, presence of tags, simple behavior etc., and operators should encourage their clients to participate. This is valuable science and also great tourism as customers love taking part in research!
  • The Sharklab could offer guided tours of the lab.
    Once again, shark divers love that kind of stuff and will undoubtedly be happy to pay a fee or make a donation!
So much for the Hammerheads and Reef dives

And the Bimini Bull Run?
As far as I understand it, it's a caged Bull Shark dive for punters off a dock at the Big Game. If you recall, that's the marina where that jackass hooked one of the resident Bulls, camera running - but those shenanigans are now being contained.
It is totally safe and utterly harmless, and good on them for having set it up.

But - and yes there had to be a but... :)
With experience telling us that it won't be long before some moronic punter will try and do this cageless (to change perceptions and for the Sharks!), may I suggest to prophylactically already develop adequate protocols for dealing with that inevitable eventuality!

As always, just a couple of personal suggestions..
But in the end, these are not my Sharks and this is certainly not my territory - and there are undoubtedly good local people already  looking into this and hopefully, taking charge!

Wishing everybody all the very best of success!


Eli Martinez said...

Great blog Mike, and yes I was sent emails right away about the said photo. Ok for the record here is how it happened, the great hammerhead came up to the bait crate, which I was guarding from any shark that may want to swim off with it, (and yes they do try.) the shark at the last minute decided to swim up towards my head vs. turn and swim off, like they normally do. I picked up my hand, (open palm) to keep the shark from slamming into my face. As usual there are shooters on our trips, and the photo was taken. I love the photo, its awesome. BUT, I had no interest in touching the shark (although I personally have nothing against that, as everyone knows) - out of fear that the shark would spook and leave. I didn't want to lose the shark. I agree with many of the protocols that Bimini may want to put in place there for the great hammerheads, since this is their sites and their sharks. We just want to see, film and photograph the g hammers - like any red blooded shark diver wants too. I sent Grant an email after he sent his agreeing to many of the ideas he shared with us all.

So for those out there that want to scream and shout over the image go ahead, knock yourself out. I am a big supporter of organized shark dives and feeds, I do not have a problem with people interacting with sharks, although I am 100% against riding sharks as I believe it to be disrespectful to these animals.

What I also hope is that in the long term of these dive sites, that Shark Divers get an input into how the research conducted on these animals is done as well. I realize many of the researchers find what Shark Divers do (chumming, feeding, interacting) disrespectful to the animal, but I find it disrespectful when I see images of researchers on their boats hugging, holding or kissing terrified sharks, or posing with half dead sharks tied up to the side of boats. I know they love their jobs and these animals but before things get crazy it would be good to look at that as well. Just my two cents.

DaShark said...

Thank you Eli - all clear!

And I fully concur that making arbitrary differentiations between what is apparently legit if done by researchers vs when it's being done by ordinary people smacks of hypocrisy - shenanigans are shenanigans!

But in defense of the Shark researchers, what is being considered as ethically acceptable is very much in flux (for me, too!) and I must also attest to most of them that they are very mindful of those issues and honestly trying to always minimize any deleterious consequences to the animals - see the tagging of these specific GHHs that is being done as non-invasively as humanly possible.

But it ultimately remains a judgement call and whereas we here situate ourselves at the hyper-conservative end of that ethical continuum, others are more willing to accept a higher degree of risk for the animals in exchange of valuable data.

Now to those who have tried to post comments turning this into some public plebiscite about Eli.

It is not.
I could have as easily posted images of Joe touching a GHH, and there are verified reports of other, far more problematic shenanigans.

This is about trying to find equitable and consensual solutions to what at present appears to be a chaotic situation.
So let bygones be bygones and let's please forget those distractions and instead focus on making this the best new Shark diving destination it can be, for the benefit of all stakeholders and above all, of those Sharks.


jsd said...

Sigh. Alas, the latest shark diving gold rush stampede is at hand. The BBFS team kept its great hammerheads very much secret -- and we can see why.

Let's hope this develops in a sensible, safe and controlled manner. Being of cynical bent, I suspect however, that the Shark Angels et al are already trading in their bikinis for thongs and booking flights.

Bimini has been the centre of a bitter and long-running battle between conservationists and the so-called 'developers' (I prefer the name Destructors) building Bimini Bay Resort -- by bulldozing vast areas of priceless mangrove and dredging inshore habitats (including the crucial lemon shark nursery).

If there is a tourism-damaging incident with these magnificent hammerheads it could play straight into the hands of the Bimini Bay Resort's agenda.

DaShark said...


I never thought of this angle - but you're of course absolutely correct!

So Sharkanatics out there - please please do behave!

There really is much more at stake here than meets the eye!