Exuma Students Become Citizen Scientists, Join Beneath the Waves in Shark Tagging Research

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Seven students from LN Coakley High School in Exuma in The Bahamas get the experience of a lifetime, helping researchers from Beneath the Waves tag sharks. But first there is the quick snorkel trip aboard the research vessel Tigress.

In The Bahamas, one of the first countries in the world to protect sharks, seven students from a small high school jumped aboard and in the water without a second thought to help tag Caribbean reef and nurse sharks under the watchful eye and professional guidance of research scientists from Beneath the Waves. The recent expedition was part of long-term research efforts to monitor the health and behavior of sharks in Bahamas waters, deemed critical to the health of coral reefs, marine resources and the oceans. Beneath the Waves, a non-profit, non-governmental body whose scientists have studied The Bahamas for more than a decade, have assisted with management and creation of conservation policies in the country, including the shark sanctuary legislation making the 100,000 square miles of open ocean in the archipelagic nation a safe haven for sharks in 2011.

The students floated on the surface while Beneath the Waves’ scientists installed an acoustic receiver underwater on SCUBA. The receiver is part of a network around the Exumas that the team from Beneath the Waves maintains year-round, collecting data on the presence and movement of any acoustically tagged sharks in the area.

“What was so interesting was the students’ response. No one demonstrated any sense of fear or fright,” said Jamie Fitzgerald, Beneath the Waves Managing Director. “Students wanted to get close, touch the shark and do their part to advance the science.”

Beneath the Waves lead scientist Dr. Austin Gallagher agreed.

“It was wonderful to see these bright young Bahamian students from a biology class interact with our divers as they retrieved and replaced an acoustic receiver on which we had been storing data,” said Dr. Gallagher.

“They were fascinated by how we could trace each shark’s movements and were even more interested in helping with the tagging itself. Inspiring generational impact with local communities is key in which education can play a role such that sharks are seen as friend not foe.”

That generational difference showed in the contrast of reactions between teacher Keisha Fletcher and biology students. “I was so surprised at how enthusiastic they were,” said Ms. Fletcher. “I think I was the only one who was nervous.”

Student Jaiden Cash called it an “awesome and informative time.”

“I had lots of fun,” said the 11th grader, “swimming, joking around, but most importantly, learning. It was a unique experience because I have never seen a shark so close up before. The thing that I remembered for sure was me helping Dr. Shipley to swab the clasper on the shark.”

For Marvinette Adderley, a 10th grader at LN Coakley High School in Exuma, the 5-hour trip out to sea off the coastline of Emerald Bay aboard the research vessel R/V Tigress was an eye-opener.

“I learned that you have to get the data out of the water to start to track the sharks. I also learned that you can’t just catch the shark without knowing what you are doing. You have to measure the shark and tag it with sensitive instruments and I also learned that it takes teamwork and you have to know how to communicate.”

While most efforts that day focused on Caribbean reef sharks, students from the school in Central Exuma also witnessed the brief capture, tagging and release of a large male nurse shark.

More trips with students are planned for later this year and interested teachers and education. professional are invited to reach out to Beneath the Waves.

More photo highlights below:

Students from LN Coakley High School in Exuma tag sharks with research
scientists from Beneath the Waves aboard the R/V Tigress off the coast of Great Exuma. With The
Bahamas a pioneer in being a shark sanctuary since 2011, students treated sharks as friends not foe.
Photos by Sami Kattan for Beneath the Waves

More students will be invited to participate in shark tagging when
researchers from Beneath the Waves return to The Bahamas this summer. Interested teachers are
invited to contact Beneath the Waves. Here, students from Exuma lend a hand and have the experience of a lifetime.

Data from shark tagging expeditions like this one conducted by Beneath the Waves
provides invaluable information about the health of the seas, marine resources and coral reefs.
Research by the NGO has demonstrated year-round residency for reef sharks whereas tiger sharks
migrate thousands of miles out of The Bahamas only to return later in the year. On this trip, students
from LN Coakley High School in Great Exuma assisted with tagging, becoming ‘citizen scientists’ for a
day.