Last Friday was hands-down the biggest thrill of my life. This is going to be a long story but it’s a good one..;)
My marine ecology professor, Aaron (in the Irish jersey and headlight in the pictures... he’s from Ireland), does elasmobranch [shark] research in addition to teaching at the School for Field Studies, and he lets 5 studies come with him every time he goes out “sharking”. Since we are so busy all the time with school, this event is relegated to Friday nights, leaving after dinner around 7:30 and staying out until 11 or midnight. Since we are only on week 3, it is an immensely popular activity and when the sign-up goes on the whiteboard, we all race over to get our names on the list! Someone backed out of this week so I made it… and I think I can safely say that this was the craziest sharking escapade that has happened yet (in the history of SFS sharking)! So glad that I got to go! ;)
It was raining a bit when we headed out, but we were all prepared with rashguards and swimsuits (and leggings for some), plus it was a tropical rain so it was pretty warm. The sky was dark and cloudy, but the water was mirror calm. In our first 10 minutes out, a huge eagle ray jumped out of the water just a few feet off the side of the boat… what an amazing sight! It is so rare to see eagle rays jumping (and no one really knows why they do it), but seeing the white and gray spotted body launch itself a few feet in the air was unreal!
For those who have seen what the Turks & Caicos Islands look like, they are all (except for Grand Turk and Salt Cay) in an area called the Caicos Bank, which is a very shallow area of ocean. Around the edges is “the Wall”, where it drops off to 7000ft, but in and around the islands (and especially South), it only gets down to 70 ft max. Anyway, the path around to the north end of the island goes over some sand flats where it is literally less than 2 feet deep! There are wide expanses of this (and some shallower) and so it is hard to see at night, so we had to go extremely slow and pull the motor up a bit to keep it from hitting sand. Anyway, the trip took longer than expected and we ended up arriving at the site an HOUR later (expected to be 20-25 minutes), with a boat full of at least 4 inches of water from riding so low. But the ride was neat with the stars coming out through the clouds and bioluminescent diatoms in the water… plus you could see the bottom for most of the trip!
Once we arrived, we set up the net: a wide mesh net about 4ft by 300ft, with buoyant float/handles on top to keep one side of the net upright in the water. We all slipped over the side of the boat, trying to be quiet, and waded through waist-deep water to tie one end of the net to some stakes near the mangrove forest. Then we took the other end of the net and walked straight out from land towards the ocean; there was actually a plane wreck directly in sight that stands half above water since it is so shallow. The net was way longer than us students had expected because we made it within 30ft of the wreck before it ended! As soon as we had staked that end, we heard splashing which meant sharks had swam into the net! Aaron took one person with him they could “walk” the shark back to the boat after he had untangled it, holding it in one hand underwater the whole time. We kept a pretty good grip on them, but if we felt them thrashing and we didn’t think we could hold on, we were told to just push them away so they would swim away rather than back at us (and someone did have to let go at one time.. we had a couple feisty ones;). Back at the boat we all helped/watched Aaron measure, weigh (using a hanging scale like you weigh your luggage with), tag, and take a tissue sample. Then someone else got to walk the shark away from our area and get some water moving over its gills, then push it on its way.
During the first shark measuring time, we heard more splashes, and that continued for the next hour… we caught shark after shark after shark. The groups before us in prior weeks had only caught 1 and 4 sharks, consecutively, so we were shocked to keep catching them. And Aaron’s record ever is 9…by the end of the night we had caught 7 (not counting one shark that swam back into the net at least 4 times).
There had been spotty lightning during the whole trip but it was only off-and-on raining, so we didn’t pay it much mind. But at 9:40 it had gotten a lot closer and so Aaron said we could stay 10 more minutes and then we had to leave. At the end of the 10 minutes, the storm had moved much closer and was almost on top of us. Aaron yelled for the whole group to head out to the end of the net to start taking it down, and so we sloshed through the water as the sky opened up and started downpouring. Lauren and I went first and shook the net out between us—to get any seagrass, algae, etc. out of it—and the others and Aaron rolled it back into the tote box. The only problem with our job is that sharks may still be in the net... (which Aaron only told us after we had started;). Soon after he said that I saw a dark shadow under the water by my legs and then another one swam through Kate’s legs, and we were getting a bit jumpy! She screamed, and then I saw another shark stuck in the net and so Aaron had to come to untangle it. He ran over and got it out, and then fake shoved it at me and yelled “Ahhh!!” …needless to say I freaked out! The funniest part about it is that Aaron is such an intimidating and serious professor in class, we are all hesitant to talk to him; but out in his element—sharking—he is a ton of fun. At that moment tensions were already high and then some lightning struck the water just a few hundred feet away, and thunder cracked at the same time…Aaron shouted for us to get moving and so we picked up the pace and tried to get out of there! We were now half-running through the water and Aaron said to stop shaking the net, just pick it up and get on the boat. Lightning was cracking right overhead and I have never seen it so close before…literally it would be blinding white and then back to the black sky and pouring rain. We found 3 more sharks stuck in the net before we had gotten to the end of it, and then we all raced back to the boat to leave.
Aaron and Sophie, the intern, said to get down in the boat so we wouldn’t be the highest point; so we all hunched over on the benches and were now shivering (ironically cold for the first time since getting here. But the rain wasn’t warm anymore and there was a lot of it). Those of us on benches together started huddling together but we had to keep the weight even so we were spread out. Aaron started heading back for the center, but then decided that the path over open ocean like we came would put us as direct targets for lightning so he decided to follow the shoreline. We knew it was serious when Aaron even crouched down; he tried to radio the center but the radio wouldn’t work, so he had Sophie call on a cell phone but even that was cutting in and out. Finally they got the center director on the phone and Sophie said over and over that we needed to get off the water, could they please come in a truck to pick us up at the north end of the island? Heidi, the director, couldn’t hear half of what was being said but finally got the message and said she was on her way. Aaron said we were 10 minutes away from the airport and we were going to pull off there and leave the boat. He dropped anchor in the shallows and told us all to get ashore and then get down on the pavement; we immediately jumped over and waded in, leaving all of our stuff on the boat. We waited for at least 10 minutes crouched on the cement as Sophie told us proper lightning positions so any currents would have the shortest possible distance through our body back to the ground. It was a little nerve-wracking but mostly exciting because I felt pretty safe and knew that God had it under control anyway; it was just cold and hard sitting on the wet gravel and hearing the lightning overhead. Aaron tried to hide the boat closer to shore and then pulled his research equipment to land so when Heidi arrived in the pickup we loaded the bed with his gear and jumped in. It had an extended cab but it was still pretty tight with Heidi and Aaron in the front, us 5 (yes all 5!) students in the backseat, and Sophie riding in the open back. That was pretty much the end of our adventure as we got back to the center and put on warm clothes and made tea (shocker right?! First time in this place I’ve actually wanted something hot) and talked about the adventure. The power didn’t go out and soon after the storm had passed.
(Side note: this night was scheduled to be our camping trip and so while we were sharking, the rest of the group set up tents and ate s’mores and got mauled by mosquitos (no joke actually)….and then got stormed out. After saving us from our lightning adventure, Heidi was going to start making runs to the campsite to pick up all the wet students and wet tents and sandy everything. What fun. Originally we were supposed to meet them camping after sharking, but on our way back we all said no way, we have had enough for tonight; and it ended up that no one stayed camping anyway because it was too dangerous. Ironic actually, that it has rained multiple times since we got here and the one night we plan for camping it gets stormed out. Such is life. ;)
That was my Friday night. Crazy, scary, ridiculous, but tons of fun too. All since God has it in control ;).
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.