Bimini Shark Lab: A Trip to a Shark Nerd’s Paradise

In my world of shark science and conservation, the Bimini Biological Field Station is a shark-nerd’s paradise, not only because of its tropical location but also because of its legacy of scientific achievements. The Shark Lab, as it is commonly known, is a legendary place where scantily clad volunteers, grad students and staff buzz around on crystal clear Caribbean waters, heroically troubleshooting boat motors, bravely handling large sharks caught on longline surveys and effortlessly facing the epic yearly gillnet marathon called PIT. At least, this is the picture I have formed in my head after hearing about the Lab from countless alumni. I knew about the Lab because I am a shark science nerd and of course knew about Dr. Gruber. We have all read his bio and read the papers and some of us have been lucky enough to meet him in person. I consider myself lucky to have been chosen to go on a field season with Doc in the Marquesas in 2011.  The boat broke down so we ended up working in Jupiter, Florida, instead. That started my now five year collaboration with the Lab, Doc affectionately calls me Mama, and yet I still hadn't made it over to Bimini. Seemed like a crime and I was pretty sick of watching people get confused when I said I worked with the Lab and yet had never visited the Lab. And I definitely wanted to go see where some of my science heroes like Gruber, Kessel, diBatista, Chapman, and Grubbs, had worked. I wanted to see the place where it was discovered that lemon sharks return to where they were born to give birth to their own pups. Come on, that is awesome. I have long been regaled with stories of amazing experiences all against the backdrop of an incredibly beautiful tropical island. Sure, there are sand flies, maybe a little romantic drama, saltwater showers, faulty equipment but without fail, everyone speaks of the Lab with a smile.

I planned a short trip with a good friend and Lab alumni, Ornella. Her excitement to return to Bimini was infectious. We boarded a tiny plane in Ft. Lauderdale for our 60 mile trip and within minutes, we were already descending and out my window I saw the outline of a large nurse shark in the brilliant cyan waters just meters off the beach. I knew I was in the right place. Rachael, the Lab Manager and dear friend, greeted us at the newly renovated airport arrivals, a space about the size of my bedroom back home. We trundled slowly down the sand road in a golf cart, transportation of choice on the island other than a boat, and arrived at the famous Lab.  As I looked at the brightly colored façade, familiar from millions of pictures, I already felt at home. Stacks of flip flops at the front door, dive gear neatly packed, dozens of bikes parked on the side, longline gear hung between palm trees. The activity never seems to stop: volunteers speedily checking radios and tagging box inventory, PI’s hunched over laptops looking at data, staff fixing boat hulls and nets.

IMG_20150709_132759[1]We made our way to the back beach to check out the baby lemon and nurse sharks in the pen. I have handled a few adult lemon sharks in my time so it was hard to imagine how this little guy I held in my hand was going to grow up, possibly swim across the Gulf Stream and up the coast of the U.S. We sat in on presentations by the Lab’s PhD student, Jean, about his study of shark personalities through captive experiments and the Lab’s Director, Tristan, about the great hammerhead and other on-going projects. We snorkeled with nurse and reef sharks, checked a longline in the middle of the night to find a 3 foot tiger shark on the hook. The Lab’s research experience guests were onboard that night so a father and daughter got to meet the little tiger and help tag it and collect data. The morning longline check also resulted in a 3 foot tiger shark that was brought back to the pen and Rachael surgically implanted an acoustic tag. We ate delicious dinners at the Beach Club, floated in the infinity pool at the local hotel and strolled along Shell Beach. My favorite moment was standing in the kitchen/mess hall, casually brainstorming on research ideas and spin-offs of current projects. What techniques would answer the questions we posed? Were the questions posed worth asking? Our voices raised and everyone was smiling and got really excited about science. These are my people.

All in all, it was an incredible few days to witness not only the beauty of Bimini but to marvel at those that run the Shark Lab, keeping volunteers safe and happy, handling supplies and logistics, fixing boat motors, planning and conducting research, cooking for 25 in a galley kitchen. This place represents one of most significant reasons I was drawn into science, for the adventure. I look forward to no longer confusing people and speaking about the Lab with a smile.

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