Bermuda is one of my favorite places. I love the small island vibe, the lush sub-tropical landscape and the local culture. The island has incredible weather, white beaches and turquoise waters, great shopping and dining, and wonderful colonial architecture. It’s a great all-around vacation destination. But, we’re not here to vacation. We are here because Bermuda also has tiger sharks – lots and lots of tiger sharks.
My last trip to Bermuda was in August 2009, when I joined my dad and brother on a Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation Expedition in support of the Bermuda Shark Project, which is an ongoing study that tags tiger sharks at a place called Challenger Bank (located just off the island’s southwest coast). Last year’s expedition was a huge success, and many of the sharks that we tagged are still being tracked by satellite. When plans were made to return to the same area for more tagging, I eagerly volunteered my services again, as did my brother, Alex – also a veteran of last year’s expedition.
The goal of this year’s trip was much the same as the previous one – deploy as many tracking tags as we can so that scientists can gather as much data as possible about the tiger shark population in the western Atlantic. The scientists are particularly interested in learning about the sharks’ migratory patterns, which we know now ranges at least from Bermuda to the Caribbean and back, which is much more extensive than anyone previously thought until we began tracking our tigers over the course of the past 12 months.
We made the trek from our base in Bermuda to the Challenger Bank area on board Bones, a 34-foot Prowler owned and captained by Dr. Neil Burnie. Neil is a local vet who also serves as director of the Bermuda Shark Project. Local filmmaker Choy Aming, Neil’s partner in the project, also joined us. The seas were rough that day, and the 5-foot swells slowed us down. Though I’ve been on boats most of my life, the rough seas were starting to get to me and I felt that familiar feeling coming on. Of course, having 1,000 lbs. of rotting marlin on board didn’t help! The marlin was there to serve as chum for the attracting the tigers. Unfortunately, the stench was suffocating; even pinching the nose wasn’t enough. “That would gag a maggot,” Dad said.
When we arrived off the bank, we chummed the waters with chunks of the marlin, as well as wahoo, barracuda, and amberjack. Then, we sat around and waited for the tigers to show. We waited some more, and then waited some more. Not much of anything was happening, so I took a break to grab a quick snack. As luck would have it, I heard the unmistakable sound of 130-pound test line zipping off the reel just as I bit into my sandwich! Very quickly, the scene onboard the boat went from quiet to chaotic:
“Get the rod, Jess!!
” Alex, that’s your fish!”
“Jess, just take it!!”
“Dad I don’t have the strength, you take it!!”
“Oh, for f&*@ sake!”
Like a champion, dad began reeling in a really big fish – without a harness! Neil maneuvered the boat like the expert captain that he is – around the line, back, back, left, forward. About 30 minutes later we saw him, a brown shadow silhouetted against the deep blue just below the surface of the water. Tiger shark! Slowly, the shark made its way to the boat, and Neil, Choy, and Alex got the shark harness ready. Dad reeled the tiger in all the way to the boat and the team sprang into action.
With the leader still attached (with a barbless hook for easy extraction), the shark – which we christened “Keith” – was tail-roped and then strapped to the side of Bones. After we made sure the shark was safely secured, Neil skillfully applied a tag to the shark’s dorsal fin* and the crew collected other data, including measuring Keith at 10 feet long and approximately 750lbs! As we readied the shark for release, Dad and Neil jumped into the water to unhook the leader and make sure the shark swam away without a problem. After a minute or so, Dad and Neil broke the surface of the water, exchanging smiles and high-fives. “He swam away beautifully,” Dad reported. “Only had a couple seconds with him before he was gone!!”
We went on to tag and release several more sharks that week. In all, we have tagged almost 20 sharks off Challenger Bank over the last two summers – with a 100% survival rate!
Expedition Photo Albums:
* THE TAGGING PROCESS: In order to tag and release the shark as quickly and safely as possible, the tagging procedure is a well-planned, finely choreographed routine. Once the shark is secured, Neil uses a homemade template – which is just an old credit card with four holes in it – to mark the locations where the tags screws will be placed. I stand nearby, holding the tag and ready to pass it off to Neil when he calls for it. The tag is inserted into the pre-drilled holes (the screws and lock washers are already glued into place on the tag) and then I pass the washers and lock nuts to Neil. While he secures the lock nuts, Choy records the tag number, takes a small DNA sample and notes any signature markings on the shark. Since sharks are made of cartilage and not bone, the tagging process is pretty easy and painless – kind of like a person piercing their ears.