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News : Grand Bahama Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM


Sharks, Friend or Foe? One Student’s Educational Experience
By Gail Woon, Marine Biologist
Jan 28, 2011 - 8:27:06 AM

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Candice Woon feels the dermal denticles of the nurse shark

Grand Bahama Island, The Bahamas - It was July, 2010 and Shark Week on Discovery Channel was showing gory programmes on endangered sharks as well as a few science-based documentaries.  An impressionable 12 year old student, my daughter Candice Woon was watching many of the programmes.   

In August we were fortunate to be able to stay at the lovely eco-resort, Paradise Cove.  The first day we took advantage of many of the amenities, snorkeling, kayaking, the great food, a great day.  On day two, I wanted to snorkel and kayak again with my daughter.  She did not wish to.  It turns out that the night before she had had a nightmare inspired by Discovery Channel’s Shark Week about the giant extinct megatooth shark called megalodon.  So I told her that I would go snorkeling by myself but she said no she would come with me to “protect” me.   In the end we snorkeled briefly but did not go kayaking.   

After the snorkel while waiting for the delicious lunch, Candice said, “Mom, I see a fin.” I said, “ No! really?  Where?.”  She said, “Yes, right there”, and pointed.  Sure enough there was a small shark slowly meandering along in shallow water where we had been snorkeling.  We approached one of the guides who told us it was a harmless nurse shark.  He said, “They have tiny teeth.”  

That evening when we returned home to Freeport, Candice was upset thinking that she had disappointed me.  I had hoped since she was 12 now she might be interested in learning to scuba dive.  But I was most upset with the Discovery Channel and considered writing them a letter telling them how angry I was with Shark Week frightening children with gory shark attack programmes.  

Meanwhile the Bishop Michael Eldon School’s Science Fair was approaching in September.  Candice and her teacher, Ms. Ellis agreed that she could do her project on Sharks.  I realized that this could be a “teachable moment” for Candice.  So I emailed my old friend, on Bimini, Dr. Samuel Gruber, world renowned shark biologist.  He consented to have us visit the Bimini Biological Field Station Sharklab and arranged for the scientists to share their research experiences with Candice for her Science Project.  He was certain that after time spent at the Sharklab Candice would get over the phobia she had developed during Shark Week, (my main concern!).  

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Candice Woon watches juvenile lemon sharks avoiding the humans

We flew in to South Bimini on October 2nd and headed straight to the “Sharklab.”  We were greeted by Tyler Clavelle, Assistant Manager and Emily Marcus, Lab Manager.  Our adventure with sharks began by Emily showing us the 3 types of tags, (NOAA dart tags, PIT electronic tags and sonar tracking tags) used in their research.  After that we went with Emily to the pens in shallow water behind the station where four juvenile lemon sharks and one juvenile nurse shark were swimming lazily in the corral .  Then Emily caught one little lemon shark and Candice was allowed to feel its dermal denticles, tiny scales that cover the skin of all sharks.  If you rub your hand in one direction it feels smooth and in the opposite direction it feels rough like sandpaper or when you rub crushed velvet the wrong way.  Emily demonstrated how to put the lemon and nurse sharks into tonic immobility a trance-like state, a method that Dr. Gruber had discovered decades ago.  Putting the shark to sleep like that is very helpful in handling them for research purposes.  Following that Candice put on a face mask and sat in the pen to watch them gracefully swimming around as they carefully avoided the humans invading their space.  

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Candice Woon kicks a shark in the nose with her fin

After lunch with the Sharklab volunteers, the entire group of young aspiring volunteer-scientists coming from all over the world got into boats and ran the 3 miles south to Triangle Rocks for a shark (snorkel) dive with Caribbean reef sharks.  While the boats were being positioned the sharks started arriving in anticipation of a free lunch.  Each person was fitted with a 2 lb weight belt to keep them vertical in the water column.  We all held on to a rope attached to the boat and suspended by a red buoy to an anchor on the sea floor.  We were shoulder to shoulder forming a human wall.  Emily threw chunks of fish from the boat to the waiting reef sharks.   Earlier during our briefing we were told if we felt a shark was coming too close to simply kick at it with our fins.  Because sharks have very sensitive organs on their snout called ampullae of Lorenzini as well as the lateral line organ which can detect vibrations in the water, kicking ones fin toward a shark tends to surprise and frighten it away.  

I was nervous.  I had done scuba shark dives before but in this instance we seemed a lot closer to the action than I remembered.  I kept asking Candice if she was OK, but I think I was annoying her because she was perfectly fine, paying attention to the sharks and kicking out when she felt the time was right.  At one point Candice saw a shark that seemed to be heading toward her and she kicked it in the nose with her fin.  I heard Emily say, “Good one!”  

After the sharks had eaten their fill, the snorkelers left the rope to swim around, take photos and watch the ones that were still hanging about.   We then moved on to snorkel on a wreck called the Sapona, a concrete streamer that had run aground in the hurricane of ‘26.  

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Emily Marcus holds a lemon shark in tonic immobility

The following day Jill Brooks, Assistant Manager, took us back to the pens and allowed us to hold the sharks while they were asleep in tonic immobility.  Candice and I snorkeled in the pen with the juvenile lemon sharks and nurse shark then went on to tour the Nature Trail that was created by Grant Johnson and Katie Grudecki of the Bimini Sands resort.  We were amazed to see lush examples of several healthy habitats.  There was a huge termite nest, many lizards of various species, numerous birds, and native vegetation. 

The highlight of this tour was to see and handle the endemic and endangered Bimini Boa.  It was beautifully patterned and had an incredible iridescent sheen to it.  Grant has been instrumental in establishing a research project of this species which is being intensively studied by visiting university scientists.  Thus far over 100 of them have been tagged.  Grant explained how they are beneficial to the environment of Bimini and that one of their favourite foods is rodents.  His efforts include educating residents of North and South Bimini on the value of this species to Bimini especially for keeping the rodent populations in check.  

After returning home, Candice prepared her Science Project on the sharks of Bimini and was chosen to participate in the Bishop Michael Eldon School 2010 Science Fair.  We sent a photo of her hand-sculpted lemon shark (showing exterior of a lemon shark and interior organs), presentation board and the report to Dr. Gruber who was so impressed that he sent it to Matt Rand and Jill Hepp of the Pew Trust’s Global Shark Conservation Group.  

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Candice Woon at the Bishop Michael Eldon Science Fair with her shark project.

Mr. Rand is interested in the possibility of using the project in an upcoming educational campaign as part of an effort to create a national shark sanctuary in The Bahamas. According to Matt, shark populations are declining worldwide as at least 73 million are killed annually for their fins to be used in Chinese shark-fin soup.  “Because of this outlandish luxury dish these creatures are being wiped off the planet,” Mr. Rand said.   

The Pew Environment Group has worked with governments around the world and was successful in encouraging Palau and Maldives to establish the first ever sanctuaries for sharks in their exclusive 200 mile economic zones.  

Recently, James Mackey CEO of Sunco Wholesale Seafood Ltd. announced in a local daily that he is planning to expand his sea-cucumber export operation at Mastic Point, North Andros to include the export of shark fins to Hong Kong.  Considering that The Bahamas is known to support some of the healthiest populations of sharks in the ocean, conservationists throughout The Bahamas and around the world reacted strongly and negatively to his planned taking of fins for export.   

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Caribbean reef sharks at Triangle Rocks Bimini

The Pew Environment Group, The Nature Conservancy, BREEF, Friends of the Environment, EARTHCARE, The Bahamas Sea Turtle Conservation Group, the Bahamas Humane Society, reEarth, Tropic Sea Food, Envirologic Bahamas and the Bahamas National Trust are working hand in hand to educate the public about the value of living sharks to the health of reefs and flats and to our tourist-driven economy.  The end result will be a better understanding of the role sharks play and why it is important to outlaw shark fishing and support the creation of a shark sanctuary in The Bahamas. 

The reason why sharks thrive in The Bahamas goes way back to 1993 when a 3-day sustained demonstration organized by EARTHCARE, reEarth and Ocean Watch in Rawson Square in front of the House of Assembly resulted in commercial long-line fishing being banned by the then FNM Government.  Prior to the ban over 20 long-line boats were going to be brought into the country from Canada.  The first of these, MV Kostakis already targeting sharks for the Asian sharkfin market was videotaped harvesting sharks at a famous shark dive site while horrified shark divers watched.  The hew and cry from the Bahamian people had the right effect—long-line fishing was quickly banned by the government.   

The Bahamas has become known as the “shark diving capital of the world” and attracts visitors to the tune of $78 million a year.  All the afore-named groups have once again vowed to lobby the government for legislation to protect sharks, the ocean’s endangered top predator.  If The Bahamas becomes a sanctuary for sharks we will be the third country in the world and the first in the Atlantic Ocean to make the wise choice that has eluded so many others.  Remember The Bahamas was the first country to establish a marine park over 50 years ago.  It is in this tradition that we call for a continuation of our pioneer marine conservation ethic basically invented in The Bahamas.     
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Candice shows her shark project to Pierre Cousteau during his visit to Grand Bahama to speak on Shark Conservation with the Bahamas National Trust and the PEW Environment Group. L-R: Phyllis Gibson; Gail Woon, Candice Woon, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, Tamica-Rahming, Bahamas National Trust; and Shelley Cant, Bahamas National Trust




(SLIDE SHOW) Cousteau said that one of the highlights of his trip was meeting young Grand Bahama student Candace Woon. "There were some things about sharks that I did not know, and she explained them to me."
ALL Photos courtesy of Gail Woon

    

EDITORS NOTE:

Pierre Cousteau was so taken with Candice and her in-depth project that he included mention of her when The Bahamas Weekly interviewed him a few days later.
Read that article :
A conversation with Pierre-Yves Cousteau


MORE RELATED ARTICLES:


(VIDEO) Shark Conservation in the Bahamas with the PEW Environment Group

(VIDEO) Bahanmas National Trust pushing for amendment to Fisheries Act and shark conservation

New Legislation Wanted For Shark Protection


Shark dives bite off $78m tourism spend

(Learn more about Shark Conservation)www.bnt.bs  


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