Photos & text by Matthew Potenski
Day 1 May 31 - Bimini Arrival PIT 2006
I was really excited to get back out to Bimini for PIT this year. I will be traveling for most of the next 10 months and my lease just expired in conjunction with the start of PIT (perfect timing I think). So after a good friend's wedding I found myself in Ft. Lauderdale with two stressful days to box up everything I own and put it in storage before having to hop on BIA and be off to the lab. I finally took a deep relaxing breath when I got to Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport. I walked in to see Grant, Joey, and Kristine - its always a great feeling seeing old friends and knowing you will be sharing new adventures with them. With a little bit of catching up, a couple phone calls from Doc, and a few extra dollars for my luggage and we were ready to be airborne. We had a smooth flight, but it was a bit disappointing, as I finally was able to see the destruction of the Bimini Bay development firsthand. I also noticed the large channel that was dredged to allow larger boats into the mouth of the Alicetown channel.
The Shark Dive Arena
Steve met us at the airport with the truck and we were on our way. The drive to the lab always makes me nostalgic - remembering the first time I took that ride so many years ago. I remember the excitement I felt then - the thirst for new adventure. I still feel excitement to go to the lab, but now it's a different type of excitement - its more of a warm feeling of coming home than the fresh and nervous anticipation of the first trip. I am particularly keen on this trip to the lab because I will be photo-documenting the entire PIT project. We had lunch and then prepared for a time honored sharklab tradition - the "shark dive" off of triangle rocks.
The BBFS Shark Dive
We grabbed snorkel gear and camera and hopped on the boats. A short time later we were slipping into the waters and looking Caribbean reef sharks in the eye. The sharks seemed to really like my strobe and came in close to inspect it. It's a unique perspective being behind a wide angle lens - the sharks look far away but when you put the camera down they are actually just a few feet from you. I was surprised to look up and see one just a foot or so away a couple times. Having successfully seen and photographed the stars of the show in action, we all proceeded to a well earned dinner. After dinner we had a meeting and Doc asked me to summarize what PIT is. We then went around the table and introduced ourselves and started the team- building experience. Finally we chose teams for the gillnetting the next night and set our general battle plan for the next day. The night ended with a small birthday celebration for our neighbor Marvin, complete with hearty congrats and an excellent cake.
Day 2 June 1 - SharkLand Night 1
Woke up today after sleeping like a rock - guess the lack of sleep finally caught up with me…We ate lunch and began to assemble the gear for the 1st night of gillnetting. We had chosen the teams that would go out for the first and busiest night of the project. Joey and Steve will be leading the tagging efforts and Sean, Tristan, and Jo will be the boat captains running the gillnets. For the first night Grant and I will help out on Sean's net (Net 3) as it is in the southern most part of the lagoon and can serve as a "highway' of sorts - ensuring both a large catch of sharks and sometimes some bigger individuals. The three of us and Kat form the formidable "Team Annihilating Decimation" and are more than ready for the challenge of net 3.
Setting Off to SharkLand
Finally, everything is set and we are off. As we entered the yacht club channel we witnessed two baby lemons swimming up in the shallows…maybe that's a good omen for a great PIT. I get a quick picture of all the boats in the channel and we are off into the lagoon to get set-up. It takes us a little time to mark the tricky channel between the main pen and the location of net 3. Nets hit the water at 19:33 and PIT 2006 is officially underway.
Dinner at the Pen
Net 3 comes in strong and bags the first shark of the project. We manage to get over a dozen sharks before dinner. Tristan in net 1 has also been very busy. All the sharks are coming out of the net strongly and seem to be doing well - so far so good. We have 14 sharks in our pen before the water has risen to the level where we can get over to the main pen. We elect to grab some dinner before shuttling the sharks over and get a small surprise when we see who is on the food boat. Mark -"Kiwi", an old lab manager is on the Proline. The yacht he works on stopped by for the night and he popped in to check up on PIT. After dinner the tides were favorable to catching sharks and we started getting a rush of sharks, 4-6 at a time. We were also trying to dip-net some sharks out of our pen and get them over to the main pen while the water depth allowed it. The night flew by as we continued our haul of baby lemons. All told the nets had a banner night - getting 83 lemon sharks in total. All of the sharks seemed to be healthy and swimming well which is great news. We putted our way home with Day 1 successfully in the books.
Day 3 June 2 - SharkLand Night 2
Sunset over the holding pen
We slept most of the day and woke up in the afternoon all ready for Sharkland - night 2. The first night can be tough but now our bodies should be adjusting to our nocturnal schedule. Night two is usually a bit quiet when compared to the bonanza of sharks that occurs on night 1. Since things calm down a little we juggled the teams around a bit, and took a few people off the nets to bolster the home crew. Grant and I said goodbye to net three and hello to the lab and specifically the computer to put together the first of many updates we will do during the course of PIT. I personally have not been on home crew since 2001, and I almost forgot how much work needs to be done "behind the scenes". Katie and crew work like a well oiled machine - making dinner, running around the lab to find forgotten items for the away crew, and setting up the sandwich and drink assembly lines.
Lemons in the pen
With pictures and text ready to go, I dove in to help out with making snacks for the away crew. Some swabs of peanut butter, a little saran wrap, and a labeled name and we had a nice pile of packed snack coolers all lined up and ready to go. A double check on the food request lists and we were looking good. Dinner in pots, bowls, silverware, snack coolers, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and cold sodas - we had everything covered. The food was out the door - Bon Apetit! Away Team…A little cleanup and off to bed so we can get up early and receive the away crew and all their gear when they return from the night's effort. Their work paid off in 22 freshly captured juvenile lemons, bumping the total sharks captured to 105 for Sharkland.
Day 4 June 3 - SharkLand Night 3
Lemon Shark 'Work Up'
Just when you think things may start to get boring Mother Nature can step in and make you sweat…Tonight we dealt with the most dangerous part of gillnetting - lightening. The goal of the project is to get sharks caught, but you have to draw a line somewhere in terms of what conditions are safe for the crew to work in. Storms can sneak up on you in a hurry and being the tallest point in the middle of a lagoon, usually around rebar or at least your boat engine, isn't a comforting thought.
Checking for a tag
Usual procedure when we see a storm coming is to pull the nets and drive out of the lagoon - usually to the Big Game Club, where we tie our boats and wait out the storm. If the storm moves too quickly, we may skip pulling the nets, but we do this as a last resort because if we are unable to check the nets and remove sharks it increases the chance of shark mortality. In a real pinch we run the skiffs up into the mangroves and hunker down to wait out a storm. The decision to pull nets, stay and hide in the mangroves, or pick up and go, is probably the hardest decision our captains have to make in the field. Despite this fact, I have seen and been involved with many of these decisions, and they almost always turnout for the best of the crew's safety. Tonight some weather came up and we were forced into the mangroves. I know many people used my favorite trick - the transport boxes make good rain shelters if you can squeeze into them. A little nail-biting occurred but the passing of the storm revealed an unscathed crew. The storm was so powerful it knocked out the power at the lab. Sticking the night out scored 11 sharks and raised the sharkland tally to 116.
Day 5 June 4 - "Rest Day"
After three long nights of fishing we schedule a "day of rest" where we do not have to go out and fish for one night before starting the final three nights of Sharkland. The term "rest" is somewhat of a misnomer - as there is always plenty to do at sharklab. The main priority is trying to get caught up on gill net repair. Having everyone home will allow for some extra hands to mend the nets so that we are set to finish off the lower section of the lagoon. We will have three more nights of fishing and then have a couple of days to catch our collective breaths before we start fishing the other part of the lagoon, the North Sound. We will need to not only get the nets repaired but release the sharks from the main pen in Sharkland, and move and reconstruct all the pens up in the North Sound.
Day 6 June 5 - SharkLand Night 4
We always seem to get a small spike in sharks after a day of rest. It gives the sharks some extra time to enter the area of our nets and we usually catch more sharks on the fourth night than the 3rd night. The night looked like it could be action-packed and it did not disappoint. Upon arrival at the pen a section of the mesh looked out of place and there were several injured sharks in the pen. We suspect that someone in a boat may have tied up to the pen and tampered with the sharks.
One individual has wounds on opposite sides of its body and look like it may have been "speared". We did have our first bit of truly bad news - we had our first cases of shark mortality for the project. Two sharks didn't survive the capture process - we do get the occasional weak shark which doesn't deal with the stress of capture very well and may expire. These are the only two for the entire project so far, which translates to less than 2% mortality and is actually a very low mortality rate for PIT. This year proves to follow the pattern of past years, as we capture 20 individuals to bring the total catch to 136 sharks.
Day 7 June 6 - SharkLand Night 5
Preparing the nights meal
I headed out with the away team today with the goal of getting in the pens and getting personal with 130+ juvenile lemon sharks. I first made a quick stop in Net 2's pen to check on and photograph the "speared" shark. It was definitely not in great shape - had two large wounds and was swimming to one side with very stiff, jerky movements. It was resting on the bottom a lot but seemed like it had a strong will to live. We will continue to monitor it. I then got into the main pen and observed the lemons as Joey threw pieces of fish in to feed them. They became more and more excited as the food kept flying and several of them took a big interest in my gray colored strobe. I would be trying to line a shot up and then felt the vibration of an impact. Taking my eye off the viewfinder, I was surprised to see a small lemon about a foot away working feverishly to try and get my strobe it its jaws. That's what I get for having a gray strobe - very close in color to the cut up fish that was being thrown in for food. Most sharks are also attracted to the electrical impulses given off by strobes. It is one of my favorite experiences to be in the pen and see a battalion of little lemons swimming at you, and probably one of the biggest reasons I try to come back year after year. The sun started setting and I tried for a difficult over/under shot with mixed results. It was tough getting the sharks into the frame but I finally managed what I think is a pretty nice shot. I finally got out of the water and joined the crew of the tagging boat. We had a relatively slow night - just two sharks before dinner. I took some pictures of the workup before calling it a night and hopping in the Proline for the ride home. The crew managed to get 6 more sharks for a nightly total of 8. Just one night left in Sharkland, with 144 sharks already in the pen.
Day 8 June 7 - SharkLand Night 6
The last night of Sharkland is upon us. The team is holding up well and the fishing has run very smoothly. One more night of teamwork and we can call Sharkland a resounding success. Theoretically, we would hope to not catch any sharks tonight, which would allow us to assume we had captured all the sharks in this area of the lagoon. However, this section of the lagoon serves as a kind of highway between the open flats of the central lagoon and the mangrove fringed and more protective waters of the upper lagoon. This causes it to be an area of high traffic, and some of the larger sharks that patrol this area may have larger home ranges. We also catch many sharks that tend to frequent the numerous channels through the mangroves that form the labyrinth that is the east side of North Bimini Island. It may take several days for sharks to work their way around to our nets and raises the chances we may get a handful this last night. I predict we may get 4 or 5. Turns out I was a bit off - we tallied another 8 sharks. One of the sharks was a recaptured escapee. It broke away as the crew was trying to get it into the pen. Getting out the calculator, carry the two…looks like a grand total of 151 sharks captured in Sharkland for 2006. Not bad at all. We better last year's total by 21 sharks. Unfortunately, we did lose another shark. It wasn't doing well when it was removed from the net and expired shortly thereafter. Total mortality of 3 out of 151 is still a very low percentage, if fact it's the lowest of any of the last few years if my memory doesn't fail me. Low mortality can be attributed to the efficient and careful efforts of an experienced crew. Good job to all the PIT 2006 crew on a job well done in Sharkland!
Day 9 June 8 - "Rest Day"
With Sharkland officially over, today we will have one of my personal favorite activities of the entire PIT project, the release of the juvenile lemons from the main holding pen. Grant and I headed a team up to the main pen in the morning while the away team slept. It's an awesome site to see 150+ juvenile lemons fish milling and schooling in the pen. The water is simply crawling with the small sharks, which make a striking image as they appear very dark against the light sandy bottom. Grant took video and I photographed the large school of lemons swimming in the pen. We then started to break down the little pens and move some of the materials to the North Sound for pen building tomorrow. In the afternoon after everyone had gotten some sleep, we all headed back up to the main pen. Doc organized everyone in the pen to drive the lemons out of the widened and open door. Grant and I positioned ourselves at either side of the pen door to document the lemons getting their first taste of open water since their capture. Everything went very smoothly, as all the crew was able to witness the lemons and the lemons cooperated and swam out of the pen with very little hesitation. The crew then took down the main pen and the one small pen that still remained and moved all the materials into the North Sound. We placed materials for each net pen and the main pen at the GPS locations where each will be. When we return tomorrow, we will simply have to construct the pens where the piles of rebar, mesh, and cinder blocks lie. We will then be all ready to start the other part of the lagoon.
PIT 2006 continues in the North Sound, Click Here.