It’s a boring drive to the Keys. The sameness of mile after concrete mile of the turnpike as it winds its way through the flat Florida landscape is hypnotic. Suburban sprawl punctuated with strip malls. Big box stores. Billboards. Scrub.
© RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program
I’ve done this drive many times, but never with a vanload of teenagers. On a Friday afternoon, after a long day of school, my students, together with fellow teacher Deb, and I piled into two vehicles, fortified ourselves with caffeine, and headed out to the Keys for a shark-tagging expedition. David Shiffman, whom I met at Science Online, is a researcher with the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program (RJD). He was kind enough to invite me to bring some students out to spend the day on the water with him and his crew to tag sharks for research. Partnered with the University of Miami, RJD promotes conservation efforts, marine research, and education. Through outreach, both online and in the field, they educate the public and seek to foster conservationist attitudes while providing opportunities for engaging, educational science research. That’s a mouthful, but what it meant to my kids is they’d have a chance to spend a day on the open sea, handling live sharks. What could possibly be cooler? (I’ll save you some time. Nothing).
The group of students I took have diverse interests. Some are avid sport fishermen, looking for a new experience. Others have college dreams of marine biology or marine ecology, and were eager to get a taste of work in the field. Still others had no idea what to expect, but couldn’t pass up the chance to see a big fish up close. Whether it was a first step on the path of a dream career or part of a quest for the coolest Facebook profile pic ever, the kids were excited, and I was too.
In high school, I did trips like this. A five-day field trip with the SEA Education Association introduced me to oceanography in the field. Divided into round-the-clock shifts, we were charged with everything from navigation to plankton tows. Hammocked in the bowsprit of a 135-foot sail boat, being paced by a pod of wild dolphins seemed an adventure beyond belief. We slept in the gunwhales because it was cooler than the cabin, and ate on the foc’sle to avoid the nauseating roll of the closed galley. The weather cut our trip two days short, but I arrived home salty and exhilarated.
Being in the field breathes life into science in a way that documentaries and museums never can. Field research is a gamble. A long-shot where the risks include the very real ones to life and limb and the more amorphous one of disappointment. The reward of a good day in the field may be as small as a single significant data point for the project, or as grand as a thrilling lifelong memory.
The students were ready and waiting in the parking lot when I left my classroom, that Friday. They chattered and joked while jockeying for position in the car. The drive itself was a chaperone’s dream – uneventful. The ride down to the Keys seemed to go by quickly, and we got through the night in the hotel with no shenannigans. The kids had an early call Saturday morning. I expected to have to pound on doors to get them up, but when I came down to the hotel lobby, 16 expectant faces were there to greet me. Armed with cameras and water bottles, they were ready to go. Like, NAO.
We arrived in Islamorada on time with waivers signed, ready to go. Standing on the dock, I had a good feeling about the day. The weather that had been threatening all week looked like it was going to hold off, and the water was calm. David was excited to be going to an area of the Everglades National Park that is typically thick with lemon sharks. With big fish and low visibility, there would be no chance of swimming that day.
The plan for catching sharks is simple. Cast baited lines in a large circle. Wait about an hour, and then go round and pick them up again. Using a circle hook, ideal for catch-and-release, large pieces of fish on a long line allow any shark to continue swimming freely, and the line is equipped with a timer to let us know how long a shark has been hooked. This is important for evaluating the overall health of the animal since many sharks must swim constantly to breathe, and some species are highly susceptible to stress. The students were divided into teams and assigned jobs. Measurements, muscle and cartilage biopses, and a tracking tag are all used to get information about shark age, relationships, and migratory patterns.
David and Kyra demonstrating measuring and sampling techniques to the students.
We set the first ten lines, and then we waited. We had lunch, and David and Kyra (a former student of mine) took the time to brief the students in the correct techniques for taking the data. As we started to bring up the lines, anticipation was very high. The first ten lines were “intact”, meaning that the timer hadn’t been triggered, though the bait was eaten, in some cases. Each line was re-baited and cast again. Again, every pull brought up an intact line. Sometimes, the bait was eaten, sometimes not. No sharks, though. It’s a sobering reminder that, over the past few decades, shark populations have been decimated. Maybe the weather was keeping the sharks away that day. Or maybe they just weren’t there at all.
By the time we’d set the third round of baits, I could tell everyone was nervous that we might not catch a shark at all that day. In an area and a time of year when sharks were supposed to be plentiful, we hadn’t seen even one. The winds were picking up, and the thunderheads were collecting on the horizon. The kids huddled and dozed just outside of the cabin, but they watched every pull closely, hoping for a taut line.
When the last line came up empty, the disappointment on everyone’s faces was palpable. And, in that moment, I was most proud of my students. They crowded onto benches in the cabin to watch videos of shark tagging from previous trips. They compared pictures captured on smartphones, taken throughout the day. They braved the rising wind and salt-spray on the bow to enjoy their last hour on the water. When we arrived at the dock, they listened attentively, made a sincere show of thanks, and said goodbye. They didn’t try to hide their disappointment, but they didn’t wallow in it either. And, every one of them wants to come back again.
That morning, on the way out, I had turned to Deb and said, “This is the best field trip ever.” She looked at me sideways and asked me how I could say that when nothing had happened yet. And I said, “We’re here. That’s all that matters.”
I can’t wait to do it again.