by Michelle Martinek, RJD Intern
This most recent trip on Captain Curt’s trusty vessel is likely one that the RJ Dunlap team and guests will not soon forget. What started as a bleary eyed, early morning trip to the keys turned into quite the adventure courtesy of our unpredictable friend Mother Nature. In the span of only an hour, we saw beautiful blue skies give way to a lightning storm that relentlessly pelted our faces with warm rain and rocked the boat with large waves. To a native Floridian, this changeability is no surprise. Our steadfast team and all the students from St. Thomas Aquinas braved the elements and had an extremely successful day, catching and collecting data on 6 sharks! Even wet and chilled, we returned a very happy crew.
The day began with a carpool of the RJD team with two new interns, myself included, setting off at 5am from RSMAS. After our trip leader David introduced us to the wonders of a deep fried breakfast burrito called the “tornado” and the following discussion of the recent “Sharknado” film, we arrived a little more alert to Captain Curt’s house at 7am. Our relief was great upon seeing that most of the supplies were still onboard from the previous expedition that weekend. Curt made sure we didn’t have it too easy however by informing us we would be going to the shallow waters of the everglades, meaning we had to completely re-rig all of the drumlines since they were set for far deeper water. After preparations were complete, we welcomed a wonderful group of students from St. Thomas Aquinas High School, most of whom are part of their school’s marine science club, and set off.
About an hour later they were kissing bait and tossing the first rig into the waters. The morning started slow but quickly picked up. We caught 3 blacktips and one lemon shark, allowing every guest the chance to have very hands on experience with our research. I speak for the whole crew when I say we were very glad for their help!
A light rain began to fall as we began reeling in yet another taught line. As we brought a beautiful and very large female nurse shark onto the platform, the storm intensified. All hands were on deck to carefully restrain her as she tossed and turned. The rain made every small task difficult; I could barely hear our teammate Pat as he shouted measurements even though I was standing only two feet away! It was cold, challenging, but above all exhilarating! Even faced with miserable conditions, including waves that threatened to sweep the platform, we quickly and efficiently did our job. Sadly there are no pictures from this bonding experience since our media intern for the trip, Cat, does not yet have a waterproof camera. We love her anyway.
After the lemon shark was released in good condition, we dropped anchor and waited out the storm. Typical of southern Florida, it was blessedly short. Whereas some people may have lost morale after a struggle like that, our awesome guests were all eager to get back to work, so we did! We were rewarded with one more blacktip, an adorable adolescent about 3-5 years old. For every shark, the students were well organized, ready, and performed their tasks wonderfully. The lab is now stocked with many more tissue samples, fin clips, and blood vials that will go towards our ongoing research projects. We couldn’t be happier to have sailed with such a good group!
Even though we arrived home late, tired, and exceptionally smelly, I can’t imagine a better first trip as a new intern. There’s nothing like a good storm on a little boat to remind you of how small you really are. The ocean is an enormously vast space; it’s easy sometimes to pretend little creatures like us can’t possibly be having huge impacts on the ecosystem. Seeing these sharks up close is a reminder of their gentle beauty and vulnerability to our hazardous ways. I’m proud to be a part of such a dedicated, fun, and hard-working research team, and can’t wait to see what we catch next trip!