It has been exactly two years since my last expedition to Tiger Beach. The goal then was to make the (award winning) documentary “This is your ocean; Sharks” with Jim Abernethy and Wyland. The timing was important as the documentary became a useful educational tool for the people of the Bahamas and specifically the Bahamas National Trust in helping have sharks in the Bahamas protected from commercial exploitation.
The main reason why the Bahamas has so many sharks compared to anywhere else in the western Atlantic is because long line fishing was banned from the Bahamas 200 mile EEZ twenty years ago.
Shark interactive programmes or shark ecotourism in the Bahamas currently generate eighty million dollars per year in revenue. This is a sustainable use of the resource that does not kill a single shark.
The dive team on this expedition was made up of Kent Ullberg NA, America’s most famous wildlife sculptor, my close friend and mentor. Jessica, my daughter, Chris Peterson owner of Hell’s Bay Boat Works and GHOF board member, 15 year old Madeleine Ryan and Andi Marcher, restauranteur from Grand Cayman. Shooting this follow up documentary was George Schellenger.
Jim Abernethy’s crew was captain Matt Heath, with Michele Heller and Chad Shagren. Michele had worked with us before on a bluefin tuna shoot in Nova Scotia last year where she was the assistant to Dr. Molly Lutcavage in tagging giant bluefin tuna.
The first three days were very windy, with rough conditions and poor visibility generally over the area. The first morning we released several dozen juvenile green and ridley turtle for a study being conducted by Florida Atlantic University (FAU). We were limited to a couple of dives on an incoming tide with lots of reef sharks, lemon sharks and a few nurse sharks coming to the bait crates. It seemed the tiger sharks were not comfortable in the adverse conditions. By the afternoon of the third day, the wind switched to the east and the remaining four days were under ideal conditions, so we could go to work.
Kent has had limited exposure to large sharks, only completing one monumental piece, the mako shark at the Nova South Eastern University’s Taft Building. This expedition was important for him to get close to tiger sharks in their natural environment to better understand form and function, ecology and life history.
After a couple days of 25 knot winds which stirred up the water and limited our diving we got into the rhythm of multiple dives per day. We spent two days at a 60 foot deep site called “Hammertime”. Bait crates were deployed at the surface and on the sand near the reef. The results were good attracting several dozen Caribbean reef sharks, a dozen big lemon sharks and then the tiger sharks started coming in, one, then two, four and five. The well trained crew kept the tigers off the bait crates and we were afforded many great photographic opportunities. Jim or Matt would set up shots so Jessica could shoot the sharks with beautifully coloured sponges and corals in the fore ground and different species of sharks in the middle distance and the background.
One of the tiger sharks had a SPOT tag on its dorsal fin. Unfortunately, the tag was fouled by algae and it had rotated 90 degrees to the aft so the antenna was pointing at the tail. Jim was able to clean off the tag. He took a bunch of photos of the tag placement and we later identified this shark as Christina which we tagged at tiger beach on our December 2010 expedition. The close ups show that the fin had been damaged (in mating when the male holds on to the dorsal fin) and the healing process had caused the tag to rotate so it was no longer performing according to Dr. Mahmood Shivji of the GHRI.
The last two days were flat calm and we stayed at a site Jim calls “Crystal Beach”. This is the closest part of tiger beach to the drop off, so the water is clearest here particularly on an incoming tide. We left the crates soaking overnight and got going early, before breakfast with the first of five dive dives for the day. A couple of tigers were already on site. One had three long line hooks and leaders in its jaw. Jim hatched a plan to catch this shark and remove the hooks. Unfortunately the shark was too shy to come in as close as this project required.
The chum line attracted a large number of baitfish including yellowtail snappers, blue runners, horseye jacks, groupers, and ballyhoo. These species added lots of colour to the shots we were taking. Jim was coaching Jessica in her photography while Kent and Maddy were absorbing all the shapes, anatomy and postures of successive tiger sharks as they came and went. Their subtle skin colours and vivid stripes separate this species from all other large sharks. Andi and Chris got used to having tiger sharks all over them and took hours of great footage in pristine conditions. George kept all the cameras going and we loaded up on new footage.
For me it was particularly gratifying sitting on the bottom in 20 feet of water for hours and hours with unlimited visibility surrounded by four species of sharks now protected in law by the Bahamian government.
Matt Heath, our captain said it was wheels up at 4.30pm on the last day. We enjoyed the last dive, got squared away and you know me…. if the boat is going forward I am going to put out a couple of lines.
Andi and I put out a spread of four marlin lures, two short, one medium and one long. We were crossing the Gulf Stream with 82 degrees water temperature so there was chance of seeing a marlin or a wahoo.
Not 20 minutes later, a fine blue marlin crashed the stinger lure but did not hook up. It made two more attempts and I dropped the lure back as it ate. Hook up! From the bill thickness and height of the dorsal, I could see this was marlin around 250#. I passed the rod down to the main deck and under Andi’s critical eye Chad took the job of working on the fish. The marlin did not jump and the line kept peeling out and down until there was very little left on the reel. Oops! Finally the marlin stopped and there was 500 yards of line out and down. Chad had the daunting task of working the marlin back up from great depth, but he is young and strong and in the next 45 minutes did a great job.
Andi wired the marlin and we all took photos of it at the boat side, its vivid neon fins glowed in the dark evening conditions, before it was released. A good expedition just became a great expedition.
Thanks Jim and crew. Another great adventure! The close encounters were very inspirational for Kent and myself to say nothing of the thousands of images captured by all the photographers.
—Guy Harvey PhD.
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