Shark Research and Conservation

Trip Start Apr 14, 1992
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
WCS Research Station
What I did
Earthwatch: Shark Conservation

Flag of Belize  , Belize Cayes,
Thursday, July 21, 2011

This 8 day trip was truly an amazing, eye opening experience. As I do not feel like recapping this right now, I'll just share the e-mails I exchanged with my parents throughout this trip.

We just got to the research station and are just getting unpacked now. It was about an hour+ boat ride from the main land. I won't be able to send out any pictures as there is a restriction on bandwith usage. Its gorgeous here. I was talking to a diver who had just gotten done with his trip at the airport and he said everything is very well developed and growth is great which is good news. Caye Caulker is supposed to have great diving. More updates later. Dinner time.

Apparently temperatures here have been consistently over 100 every day so we will see. We are going out on our first research session today and I'm really excited. I did not realize that besides from catching sharks we are constantly hand-line fishing for different species of fish, with a focus on grouper, but are also catching barracuda, snapper, and occasionally sharks on the hand-lines as well. We will also be chumming off the docks at night and hand-lining sharks, which I am also looking forward too.

As today was the first real day, we didn't get a chance to fish for sharks, it's a pretty long process.  We need to have the boatmen use a small 10 foot catch-net to catch smaller sardines to use as baitfish, then we need to cut them up and bait them to a hand-line that we actually fish with. We spent roughly 3 hours hand-line fishing today, and I caught the most fish out of all the other volunteers. There is no professor here, the two people running this operation are actually students at the college of the professor and he acts as their advisor. One of them has quite an amazing story of how he got to where he is right now. Aside from shark research, the other researcher here is working on her Ph. D on a grouper project, so we are also trying to catch lots of grouper. We also went on a short snorkel today off the dock, nothing really that special, we saw a shark from the dock swimming across the reef, but didn't get a chance to see it in the water. There are more barracuda here than i've ever seen anywhere. We saw a very large spotted eagle ray as well. Tomorrow brings more fishing then setting the long lines for sharks hopefully!

The prof. is not going to be here anymore, he has started new projects so one of his students has taken over as of a year ago. He's giving me great information on stuff to do though to get to where I want to be. The trip is not disorganized, it's very weather based as the ocean conditions outside of the lagoon are very rough due to relatively high winds. While hand-lining, we are catching lots of lane, mutton and yellowtail snapper, white grunts, a variation of grouper (the biggest one we caught today was around 40 cm), porgys, and someone caught a triggerfish. We set out the first shark long-line this morning, but unfortunately I was not on the retrieval team, out of 30 hooks, the line brought back 4 Nurse sharks, that team that brought that line up just got back. It's also really hard to take pictures because everything is happening so fast or my hands are always full and I do not just want to leave my camera out on the boat as water can splash up quite easily. 

I have snorkeled twice so far but just off the dock, am seeing a lot of barracuda, grouper, some jacks, bonefish and snapper. Saw one huge spotted eagle ray, and 2 huge lobster and a lion fish as well. They will be taking us out on a wall snorkel where they say there is always a guaranteed goliath grouper in the same spot every time, but it is outside of the lagoon so it is also weather permitting. I had the most surreal experience last night, as we went to retrieve a long line at 9:30 at night last night on our little 26 foot research vessel. It was right after a huge storm that made it the most exhilarating thing because the winds were strong and we all knew there was another storm brewing. We went out to retrieve a 50 hook line that was set 3 hours prior and I got to work on 5 nurse sharks! One was a huge 7 footer that slapped me in the face with its tail as I was attempting to tail rope it. What made this so exciting is that there were no lights on the boat besides our head lamps and one high-focus beam, neither of which were allowed to be on while the boat was in transit as to not blind the captain. The captain was going full speed in pitch black, it was so dark I couldn't see the people sitting on the boat across from me. The only sources of light were the lightning in storms near us, and the bio-luminescents being shot up in the wake of the boat. It was insane. Then today we set out another 30 hook line, then went fishing and trolling for barracuda, caught 2 barracuda and I again caught the most fish on the hand-line bottom fishing. Then we went  back to the lines about two or two and a half hours later and there were 2 more nurse sharks and one caribbean reef shark on the line that we got to work with. Now we are in for the night as there is another storm whipping around out there, hope to go on a nice snorkel and see more sharks tomorrow. 

The weather is perfect today, the water is like glass, we will be going out to the floor reef today to do the wall snorkel. We set out a lot of cameras yesterday and did a lot of fishing, the weather was too poor to set out any lines for sharks. I caught a pretty large yellow tail snapper that put up a good fight on a handline. One of our boatmen had a shark on the line but it just instantly snapped his line. Today we are going to set out some lines and hopefully get a last chance to work on some sharks. Hanging out on the dock two nights ago, one of the researchers threw some chum off about an hour and a half earlier, soon enough we saw 4 sharks just hanging out right off the dock. A huge lemon that was 6+ feet finally came by, and it's one of the researchers favorite sharks, so he immediately threw a hand line with 80lb test and a 5 foot wire leader off the dock to attempt to catch it, but it just circled the bait for about 20 minutes, and swam away. Lemon sharks are extremely intelligent apparently. We also are aware that lion fish are an invasive species, so we always have a spear on hand because we are allowed to kill them even inside a reserve. They are extremely good fish to eat which I was not expecting at all. I definitely have a much higher amount of interest in working inside some sort of marine reserve to attempt to protect it by researching some of the top predators in them (preferably somewhere like Balicasag, or here). 

The trip happened way too fast and I definitely need to look for something a lot more long term than that was. I enjoyed it so much. I hope to be able to go out and do something like this again. I ended up getting some really nice pictures and videos as well. There was a pod of about 12-15 dolphins that just kept swimming by our boat while we were fishing a few days ago as well. It was really cool.
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