By Beau Marsh, RJD Inter
We enjoyed yet another beautiful day of shark tagging. The RJ Dunlap team had the pleasure of taking out the 360 Destinations group. Since the group was rather large, we had the added excitement of sending out two boats, in tandem. Spirits were high as everyone assembled at the Crandon Park as it was a gorgeous day. Plus, there was some playful jesting between the two crews over who would see more sharks. The competition would be fierce! Today’s destination for both boats was Soldier Key, a brisk 30 minute boat ride away. As we were preparing to depart the marina, we were met with a pleasant surprise. A friendly manatee graced us with its presence in order to get a drink of freshwater from the dock hose. Our sirenian friend was a great preface to a fun day, and saw us off to Soldier Key.
In route to Soldier Key our enthusiastic guests were given a rundown on the kind of research our program conducts. They were excited to know that they would be assisting in collecting real data that actively works toward the education and conservation of shark species. Everyone was engaging and friendly and showed a true interest in the work our team does. It was a treat getting to know some of our guests. I even met a fellow Chicago native (Go Blackhawks!). Upon our arrival at our fishing spot, both boats spread out and deployed our respective drum lines. Of course, the helpful guests of 360 Destinations assisted us in deploying our lines. I was impressed with their willingness to assent to our very serious superstition of kissing the bait before deployment. Anyways, they were intrigued to interact with our specialty gear and learn how our drum line system allows us to safely catch and release sharks with the animal’s health in mind. Once our 10 lines were in the water, we allowed them to soak for an hour. This gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the process involved with working up a shark once we catch one. We displayed all of the tools we would be using and explained what kind of samples are collected (e.g. nictitating membrane, measurements, fin clip, blood). We also showed them how we insert our tags into the dorsal fin. It was great to see the whole group getting involved by asking questions and getting a good look at all of our gear. Our trainees were well prepared.
Once the obligatory soak time was up, we headed towards our first line. We demonstrated the proper form in pulling up lines, and then let our excited guests take have a try. Unfortunately, our first set of lines did not hook anything. Although, we were still having a great time on the water in beautiful weather. We had been in communication with our other boat that was out, and they informed us that on their first set they were lucky enough to catch a nurse shark. The pressure was really on now! So, we put new baits on our lines in hopes of better luck on the next set.
We returned to our lines for our second (and final) set of lines. We had 10 more chances left. It was a slow start. Our first five, again, rendered nothing. We pulled up these lines and stowed them away for the day. Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for came on our sixth line. Like the other boat, we caught an amazing nurse shark. Its total length was about 2.3 meters, and she was feisty until we carefully restrained her. Everyone from 360 Destinations was standing by and ready with their instruments. They did a fantastic job, and helped us to collect each sample without error. It was a successful workup, we safely released the nurse shark in a timely fashion. It was a great experience for everyone involved, crew and guests. We retrieved the rest of our lines and returned to the marina.
Over the course of the afternoon, each of our boats caught a nurse shark. That is two new sets of data RJ Dunlap can use in our research. Also, it is two rare opportunities for people to safely interact with two amazing animals. We should all feel fortunate that to have had such an experience. Thanks to all the 360 Destinations guests. RJD had a great day on the water with everyone, and we hope you a memorable time.