I can see them finning before I enter the water. Even without bait the reef sharks are already in position. Anchoring just off Triangle Rocks, we set up our perimeter. Using two floats and stringing them between two skiffs, we form a line that acts as an artificial human boundary for the reef sharks. Putting on my mask and free diving fins, I slip into the water, and take in my surroundings. There are three adult reef sharks darting around the volunteers. Not in an aggressive or territorial way, but in anticipation to be fed. They have little to no interest in the heartbeats in the water. Once the first piece of bait is thrown, more sharks emerge. Just beyond the line in front of us sharks dart in from every direction. Bobbing shoulder to shoulder we form a tight line, keeping the sharks from exiting the melee.
Even amidst the frenzy you can see that there are personality differences between the sharks. Some are bold and dart out towards pieces of bait without hesitation, while others are more skittish, choosing to hang back on the perimeter to confirm the meal is free and does not come with a hook.
This is one of the first field activities I have been a part of since I arrived at the Shark Lab. Looking down the line at my fellow volunteers, I feel extremely lucky to be surrounded by individuals who are also invested in marine conservation and shark research. This is one of the first times I have been surrounded by people who are dedicated to the same dream.
“The shark dive at Triangle Rocks is a highlight for the lab’s staff and volunteers. The researchers began feeding and studying the Caribbean reef sharks there in 1990 and continue unabated. To date some 2,500 students, volunteers, ecotourists, photographers, and film production teams have floated on the surface in snorkeling gear to observe these elegant sharks in their natural setting,” wrote Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch in his authorized biography on Shark Lab founder Samuel ‘Doc’ Gruber.
With a background in journalism and environmental policy, I’m interested in how people connect with nature. Another aspect of getting volunteers in the water with sharks is to make people feel comfortable in the water with sharks. De-sensitizing them to fantasies of a Jaws like super predator.
While it is important to remain vigilant in the water with these apex predators and to not underestimate them, I see them as guardians. They are far from the mindless killing machines they are often presented as. Their presence is responsible for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Without them, the natural order would crumble.