On Monday, breakfast was a little earlier so that we could get to South Bimini. Once there, we had a tour of the Bimini Sands’ Nature Trail. We were divided between a “sweet buggy” and a van with two “sunroofs.” We were followed by two friendly dogs – we can’t see an animal any more without trying to assess its behavior! We saw several lizard species including anoles. A brown racer (snake) was in the brush next to the path and we saw two termite mounds. When the mound was poked, we got to see some come out. We identified different trees and plants, including the poison wood which is often found right next to its antidote! We also got to see a sisal plant, which used to be used for making rope. We also saw multiple invasive species, including morning glories and Australian pines. We heard about iguanas, which are also invasive. It was nice to have some time to learn about the land, since our program is so centered around the dolphins and their environment and behavior. Once the tour was over, however, we were happy to return to the marine creatures and did so with a tour of the SharkLab!
At the Lab, our guide showed us lemon and nurse sharks in pens just off the beach. We learned about their sensory systems and watched the guide put a shark into “tonic state.” We got to touch a lemon shark – in one direction their skin is smooth and in the other direction it was like sandpaper. We also saw two southern stingrays in temporary pens. They were described as “puppies of the sea” and they were affectionate and responded positively to human touch. We did not know that rays can also go into tonic, and this, like the sharks, allows the researchers to do minor surgery on the animals as part of their research, or if one needs medical attention. We heard about the Lab’s long-lining system, which is different from commercial long-lining. The researchers have a strict system of monitoring the lines which helps reduce the injuries and fatalities of the animals on the line. Of course, there are still risks, but the Lab works hard to keep these at a minimum. We also got a brief tour of the Lab building itself and heard about The Bahamas fantastic efforts to establish their entire nation as a shark sanctuary (no sport or commercial shark fishing allowed here!).
Back on North Bimini, some of us cool off in the sea before lunch. After lunch, it was time to get ready for the boat and today it was a new, larger boat. We departed just before 1500 and before we were even out of the harbor we saw a bull shark. The boat turned around so we could all see the shark. As it swam into the harbor, we continued out to sea…and suddenly, there were dolphins straight ahead! Perhaps it was the extra passengers (Dr. Yeater’s children) were our early-luck charms! It looked like there were over 20 dolphins leaping, feeding and traveling. Though the dolphin group was a nice size, 12 of the dark spots were spotted eagle rays! Some of the bottlenose dolphins came to bow ride, which is uncommon for their species in this area. Kel was busy taking surface photos of their dorsal fins as we followed them on their path. The dolphin group was spread out a bit and it was interesting to see how many were in pairs. These pairs took their breaths at the same time and as they cruised, they would weave in and out, swapping positions. The dolphins were on the move, so we could not observe them under water. Still, we were happy to have had such an early sighting. And, since they were in such shallow water, with the sun brightly shining, it was easy to keep track of them from the boat.
As we continued our search, farther from Bimini, we passed two other eco-tour boats. We didn’t need to wait too long (at least, Kel tells us that the wait is often even longer!) before we came upon spotteds. We saw a very tiny calf, which right away was interacting with different adults. The group size got to seven dolphins, including the young calf and an older calf. We noticed one adult with a large dorsal fin notch and another that had a fresh injury in front of its blowhole. One adult gave a loud fluke slap. We can’t be sure why she might have done this, but suspect it was communication with her calf since moments later a calf came rushing to her!
We were able to observe this group under water. Though the two mother/calf pairs did not come close for too long, we were able to see the presumed mother of the younger calf had a large chunk missing from her dorsal fin. We have so much photo-ID work to do back on shore! The dolphins did a fantastic job of showing us all sides of their body. We can’t say they knew one of our goals was collecting photo-ID images, but it sure did seem like it! They were so close and slowly hanging in the water – it was amazing. It was intense the way many of them made eye contact with us; overall this was a wonderful encounter. We have now had several encounters, with two different species, and can already see how different encounters can be. Some days, they were zipping around and then energy was high; today, they were calm and spent more time at the surface. We came back on the boat as our captains tried to give us a chance to swim with them again. We tried for one more swim, but this time, the mothers and calves just cruised past and we knew our time with this group of dolphins was over. Even though the swims don’t last forever, they definitely feel special.
Back at the Sea Crest it was pizza night with a chance for us to sample Kalik, a Bahamian beer. It was sooo yummy! After dinner, we caught up on field reports and set the plan for tomorrow (stay tuned!).