Bahamas 2016 ready for launch!

We have arrived at Cape Eleuthera, a quiet end of a long skinny westerly island in the Bahamas, off the coast of Florida, USA.

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Tomorrow, 26 of our undergraduate students from the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus arrive at Rock Sound airport, a simple sun bleached hut next to a crumbling tarmac strip amongst the Bahamian mangrove forest, ready for what we hope will be the experience of a lifetime. This will be the third year that we have run this field course and every year has been slightly different. The students come from a range of undergraduate biology degrees – Zoology, Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Many of our students might not have been this far from home before, others might not have travelled alone. This experience is likely to be challenging, tough, exciting, sometimes scary but definitely formative. What we hope our students take away from this course is a passion for a real life adventure and some fantastic memories to shape their future career choices and life decisions. We’re here as an advance party to get all the equipment, wet laboratory spaces and excursions set up and organised so that we can get going as soon as the students arrive! During the course, we encourage the students to get as much hands on experience as possible – which might include biopsy-ing a shark’s tough skin, tagging a flappy wet sea turtle, measuring huge piles of queen conch shells, setting an experimental fisheries long-lines and dissecting smelly invasive lion fish. I really believe in “experiential learning” and think that nothing helps you learn about the world as well as a real adventure. And adventures a plenty we have planned!

 

First I have an admission: I think I might enjoy the course more than anyone else. I know I am here to teach the students first and foremost, but I have to stop myself from jumping in the clear turquoise water first and being the last out every time we hit a beautiful Bahamian patch reef! I struggle not to jump off the moving bow of the boat with excitement when someone has spotted a hammerhead shark and I am trying to get everyone else into the water to see it before it swims away. I struggle not to join the crowd of students shrieking with excitement as a spotted eagle ray swims through our boat house. I just love it. One of the huge gifts teaching has given me as a lecturer at the University of Exeter is the ability to share these amazing experiences with the next generation of scientists. Hearing everyone squealing as they spot a huge starfish, seeing the students’ faces light up as a juvenile lemon shark swims past us in the mangrove creek, hearing excited chats over dinner about the coolest thing the students saw each day… it’s all extremely motivating and reminds me of what is so cool about my career.

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Throughout the course, we will largely be ‘central place foragers’ – by which I mean we are so close to amazing marine habitats and species that we can keep returning to base for breakfast lunch and dinner, such is the richness of the marine life around us here in Eleuthera. Only two days will see us leave the vicinity of the Cape – one day in which we will head to an offshore desert island to catch and tag sting rays and another in which we will adventure to other parts of the island sight seeing. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to be in the sort of place where a sea turtle is only a short boat ride away, a lionfish available on our closest patch reef. Such biodiversity is stunning – although we often forget how rich the Cornish marine biodiversity is back home on our doorstep too.

 

In the first week we will learn to identify as many of the species as we can around us. Here in the Bahamas you only need pop to the shore to wash your sandy toes and you can spot half a dozen species of colourful fish from the beach. Just this morning I spotted a juvenile schoolmaster snapper, some Beaugregorys and a barracuda right from the dock. An old sailboat wreck just 100 metres from the shore in front of the accommodation block also hosted two juvenile nurse sharks this morning! We’ll learn the really common species then set to work honing our identification skills on some of the tougher species (there are a lot of black and white striped elongate fish, for example, which can be adults of one species or a juvenile of another!). In the afternoons, we’ll visit some different types of coral reefs and ride the outgoing tide down a mangrove like some kind of natural waterslide.

 

We’ll also use a variety of methods in week one to try to catch speedy little juvenile green turtles. We have an extremely unusual bunch of students at the University of Exeter in that usually at least some of them have been on the Marine Turtle Conservation Project’s nesting beach survey project in northern Cyprus and so have worked with sea turtles before. However this is a totally different game – juvenile green turtles are incredibly fast and therefore incredibly hard to catch. We might catch three in one net and at other times catch none at all. It’s hard work pulling a seine net around a small seagrass patch but the rewards are well worth it!

 

In the second week we will go out to catch and study Bahamian sharks. Sharks are a major draw for visitors to the Bahamas – over the last 20 years shark related tourism is thought to have contributed more than $800 million dollars of revenue to these islands! Several very popular operators charge scores of willing tourists up to $170 a head to feed large wild reef sharks during SCUBA dives. Shark-feeding, and chumming for sharks, is not illegal in the Bahamas but is controversial and attracts passionate advocates on both sides of the argument. Shark eco-tourism proponents argue that by sharing the awe-inspiring experience of seeing these powerful predators feeding up close, we can improve advocacy for shark conservation – and sharks are indeed globally in decline with approximately 25% of species at threat from extinction (and 40 different shark species can be found in the Bahamas). Opponents to shark feeding argue that by associating feeding with humans underwater, we may increase the relative risk of attacks (noting though that the chances of being bitten by a shark are less than one in 10 million). We may also alter the natural behaviour of these amazing animals, which themselves are important parts of their own natural food chains. By eating weak or sick fish, sharks enhance the fitness of the overall reef fish population, by consuming smaller animals they keep other smaller predators in check and lock away Carbon across the food chain. This ‘keystone predator’ role – a scientific term meaning that without them, the animals making up the ecosystem would look very different – means that supplemental feeding of sharks has the potential to affect more than just the sharks that are getting a free meal. Something to think about if you are considering doing one of these dives. We don’t take our students on a shark feeding dive, instead we join in a long-running research programme here at The Island School, which seeks to investigate how sharks here move around using satellite and acoustic tracking tags, how fast they can grow, and how big the population here might be. Research here also looks into how well sharks can survive being caught by recreational and commercial fishermen. This part of the world is a bit of a mecca for anglers wanting to catch some of the largest toughest fish out there and shark angling is big business. However, we don’t know much about the long-lasting effects of catching these animals, even if we quickly release them as soon as we’ve caught them. Research here seeks to find out how sharks might be affected and whether they should be expected to survive catch and release angling.

 

I am so exited for our students to arrive tomorrow and to see their faces as they move into their ocean-front dorm next to the turquoise Bahamian sea. For now, we have geocaches to set, snorkel flags to place and dive preparations to make for their arrival. We’ll be there tomorrow to meet the Bahamas Air flight into tiny Rock Sound airport and to start the adventure of a lifetime!

lh225    January 2nd, 2016    Bahamas archive