As we shark dive around the world we rarely have an opportunity to visit a shark research facility. Our two weeks on Bimini Island allowed us to photograph great hammerhead sharks, bull sharks, nurse sharks, blacknose sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, southern stingrays, and Atlantic spotted dolphins. What a fantastic diversity of big animals around a very small island. We got to see baby lemon sharks and nurse sharks at the Bimini Shark Lab.
The research they do here is invaluable. Sharks are under threat worldwide and research is needed to better understand them and protect their nursing sites. One thing that their research has revealed is that the female lemon shark returns to the same mangrove sites that they were born at to give birth to their pups. Knowing this allows researchers to influence governments to protect these critical environments.
We found it fascinating to go to their holding pen to see the young shark pups that they were doing research on. We photograph the adults in the oceans but never see pups. Young sharks reside in the mangroves skirting the islands for protection in their early years but at some point venture away from these safe zones. The shark pup with the barbels is a nurse shark and the other is a lemon shark. So neat to see such young, small sharks.
Bimini Island in the Bahamas is where these photographs were taken. It is a small island 80 km (50 miles) from the Florida coast and has a large variety of shark species. On this trip, we also encountered great hammerheads, nurse, blacknose, blacktip, and bull sharks. They are commonly found in shallow water around coral reefs.
Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) are the most common requiem shark species encountered by divers in the Caribbean sea. They also inhabit parts of the Western Atlantic ocean. If you dive in the Caribbean you may encounter this shark as it is relatively common.
Most of the baited shark dives involve the Caribbean reef shark. This is often the first “shark dive” new divers will take part in and it can be thrilling. We did this years ago with our kids and I must say we were nervous and our adrenaline was sure flowing. However, this made us fall in love with sharks when we realized just how majestic they were. This surreal experience led us to pursue our “shark hobby” and we have been photographing them ever since.
They average about 1.5 to 2 meters (5-7 feet) in length but can reach lengths of about 3 meters (9 feet). They often hang out around Caribbean reefs and it is likely the largest shark you will encounter while reef diving. Their diet consists of a variety of fish, octopus and small rays.
Caribbean reef sharks can evert their stomachs which means the stomach is turned inside out. This is helpful to discard undigested food and plastic. Unfortunately, our oceans are now full of discarded plastic from human consumption. These plastics are often ingested by marine organisms and are responsible for many needless deaths.
Okay, I’ll say it. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny as a kid and loved the cartoons with the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and that bumbling Wile E. Coyote who tried endlessly to capture that speedy bird. I must say that I admired the coyote. He was a persistent fellow and never let failure deter him.
Up until last year, I had never observed a roadrunner and it was different than I expected (too many cartoons). It is in the cuckoo family living in open arid habitats in northern Mexico and in the southwestern United States.
The roadrunner is capable of flight but prefers the ground. We were able to photograph it in a tree which is apparently not common. As you can see, all of our ground pictures are still shots. I did not anticipate the speed of this bird, which can reach speeds of 30 km/h (20 mph). Wildlife encounters are often brief. I had my shutter speed at 1/200 of a second which proved much to slow for a speedster like a roadrunner.
The roadrunner nests in cactus or a thick shrub not far off the ground and will lay 3-5 eggs. These eggs will hatch in about 20 days and the chicks will be capable of running in another 18 days.
Because it lives in an arid environment the diet includes a wide variety of desert organisms including snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, and insects. An adult bird is capable of killing rodents and small birds. It can be seen holding larger prey in its bill and smashing it into the ground repeatedly until its victim dies.
Scuba diving in the dark is always an adrenaline rush because you know that there are sharks near you but you can’t see them until they suddenly appear. We love night dives because they add an entirely new dimension to exploring the underwater world. We photographed these great hammerhead sharks around Bimini Island in the Bahamas.
Sharks are very comfortable swimming in the water at night. To simplify, their eyes are designed to allow light to pass through the retina twice which enables sharks to see in the dark. It is believed that sharks can see about ten times greater than humans in clear water.
They also have a cephalofoil (the hammer) that is full of electrical sensors. These electroreceptors are interconnected jelly-filled pores called ampullae of Lorenzini and aid in hunting as these sensors pick up electrical signals given off by all living creatures including humans. Therefore, a shark at night is very aware of your presence and location in the ocean even though you have no idea where they are.
Another freshwater turtle we found in the Las Vegas wetlands was the Red-Eared Slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans). This turtle is not native to this area. It is bought as a pet but as with many pet owners, they irresponsibly release it into the wild when they don’t want it anymore. We counted as many as 15 turtles in this pond. The danger is that invasive species may out-compete native turtle species causing a decline or eradication of the native Spiny Softshell turtle.
When water temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celcius (50F) turtles are generally not active but brumate. Brumate is a form of hibernation. They will sleep on the bottom of the pond, awaken, swim to the surface, possibly drink water and then proceed back to the bottom. The process repeats itself periodically. During brumation, they do not eat.
Las Vegas had a cold spell with temperatures around freezing at night. There was some snow which is unusual here. This is why we were surprised to see these turtles sunning themselves on the rocks in the early morning. These turtles should not have been as active as they were considering the weather conditions.
Red-Eared Slider turtles can live for 20-30 years. The shell (carapace) averages between 15cm (6 inches) and 30cm (12 inches) in length. Females generally are larger than the males. A large female can lay up to 30 eggs and may lay up to 5 times (clutches) in a year.
It is interesting how your perspective for photography changes with subsequent trips to a game park. Our first trip in 2017 to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania was so overwhelming with all the animal life that our cameras never stopped shooting and we took over 6,000 photographs. In 2018, we took half that number and began to focus more on interesting situations. This lion cub entertained us for a long time.
There are many prides of lions scattered throughout the Serengeti. We were traveling in a more remote area of the park when we came across a very small pride. It was unusual in that there were two males (brothers) instead of one, just two females and only a single cub.
There are advantages to having two males as the head of the pride. If another male attempts to challenge the pride to become the dominant male then he would have to fight two males instead of one. Therefore, his chance of being successful would be severely reduced. However, according to our guide, only one male will mate with the females and the other brother is subordinate.
It is not uncommon for a new male or males, in this case, to kill cubs that they have not fathered. This causes the female to come back in heat and therefore he can mate with her. This female had only one cub. We assume that it was his offspring because why kill some cubs but leave one. Therefore, this female either had only one cub or some tragedy occurred that killed the other cubs if she had given birth to a few babies.
Having no brothers or sisters to play with meant that this little cub easily got bored and continuously harassed its mother. She was attempting to sleep but on numerous occasions when it would look to play with her she would growl at the pesky little cub. It would role in the grass, chew on sticks and feed. All this was very entertaining.
Most divers encounter southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) buried in the sandy bottom during a dive in the open ocean. During our time on Bimini island in the Bahamas, we decided to snorkel around the shallow mangroves in search of juvenile lemon sharks. Mangroves are critical environments for juvenile fish and sharks because it acts as a nursery for many species. Protected from the predators in the open ocean these shallow waters with their massive root systems provide protection.
We didn’t find any sharks but we were surprised to see so many southern stingrays around the shallow mangroves. There is a relatively large population of great hammerhead sharks that inhabit these waters at this time of year. Because the main predator of these rays is the great hammerhead shark we wondered if they modified their behavior at this time of year to try to avoid these sharks.