First shark tagged at SXM!

First shark tagged at SXM!

After our field trip to Statia, we continued our trip to the island of St. Maarten (SXM). However, our time here was limited, we had only four days to deploy an array of eight acoustic receivers and try to tag the first shark for Sint Maarten.

Upon arrival at SXM we were met by people from the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, together we made sure we had all the right materials needed to build the setups which hold the receivers underwater and in place for at least up to a year. After we were finished shopping, I was headed out to my friends and fellow WUR (Wageningen University) students Jurgen and Milco’s place in Phillipsburg, where I would stay during my time on the island. After meeting Jurgen’s brother, Werner (who came over for the week from Brussels), we headed out to have dinner and catch up over some good cocktails (the mudslide).
Side note: Jurgen and Milco’s project focusses on fish abundance and diversity around St. Maarten, an awesome project made even more awesome (and important!) when this baby tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) showed up on their BRUV station footage! Highlighting once more the importance of the region for sharks and the studies currently conducted in the Dutch Caribbean.

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Next day it was time for business, with the receivers activated is was time to head out to the Sint Maarten Marine Park (Man of War Shoal Marine Park) to deploy the first 4 receiver setups at popular dive sites known for their presence of sharks. On the boat (and onshore as well) we were happy to be in the good company of Etienne (Captain/Marine Park Ranger) and Melanie (local dive guide), who both helped us very much during our time on St. Maarten. The first dive was on a dive site called ‘Shark Hotel’ named after its shark presence and recent shark feeding events (which were cancelled due to some allegedly dangerous shark-human interactions), desperate to see some sharks I jumped in to deploy the receiver together with Melanie. Once we secured the receiver on the sea floor, I turned around (knowing from the first shark project I worked on that sharks will approach humans from behind to maximize their own safety) and yes, there were four Caribbean reef sharks checking us out! Since we had to deploy three more receivers that day, the duration of the dive was only 15 minutes, but I managed to get some good pictures of an adult female and a juvenile (sex unknown).

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More than happy that the sharks came close, we continued for a short dive along the adjacent reef. I could easily tell from the sharks behavior and approach strategy that these sharks were used to be fed in the presence of divers. If that is a good thing? There is two sides to that story and both have their pro’s and con’s, a discussion that has been going on throughout the “world of shark fanatics” and of which you can expect a blog post on in the future.

All the other deployments went according to protocol and the next day we deployed four more receivers, two around the islands off the East coast of SXM and two on the West side of the island. The dives, although most of them under 15 minutes, were extraordinary. A Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) feeding in front of a newly deployed receiver, a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) resting on a wreck, another green sea turtle joining us on our safety stop and thousands of beautiful reef fish (from a school of bar jacks (Caranx ruber) inspecting the alien object that we just placed to the rather cute looking spot-fin porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix)).

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Since all the receivers around the Dutch part of Sint Maarten were now in place, there was only one job left: try to catch and tag a shark inside the Dutch Caribbean waters of SXM! That was our goal for our last full day on the island. We waited for Tadzio (Manager of St. Maarten Nature Foundation) to take us out to sea on this special (but choppy) day. We also welcomed Irene and Paddy from the Save Our Sharks project onboard and I am happy that we could take Milco, Jurgen and Werner (which was going to be there first nurse shark!) on the boat to help out in addition to Erwin (lead scientist on the project), Melanie and myself (yeah, not much space left on that boat!). With some vital equipment missing, a bilge pump of one of the outboard engines broken and choppy weather we pulled it off! I am honored that I could catch and help tag a beautiful 130 cm male nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). That’s a first for me (being it the first shark I caught, dehooked and helped tag) and a first for Sint Maarten (being it the first acoustically tagged shark in their waters).

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© Tadzio Bervoets/St. Maarten Nature Foundation

Since all the receivers around St. Maarten were in place and we successfully tagged and released a beautiful nurse shark, we had something to celebrate. It was Halloween after all!

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No, I didn’t kill anyone. Yes, that is fake blood.

After a great night it was time to go back to Saba to work on the Saba Bank, little did we know that the boat we needed for the Saba Bank work needed to go to St. Maarten for maintenance two days later. This caused us to lose some vital time in our schedule (which already was tight), but making the best of the situation this provided an opportunity to go back to St. Maarten with my friends and roommates from Saba. We stayed one night in St. Maarten and we could stay with friends in their luxurious apartment including jacuzzi, swimming pool and sea view (!). After an unforgettable night is was time to head back on the boat to Saba.

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These amazing trips (they were actually two separate trips) to St. Maarten weren’t possible without the help and company of a bunch of amazing people. First of all, huge thank you to the St. Maarten Nature Foundation and its employees Tadzio, Etienne and Marissa for all the help and fun both on land and on sea! To Melanie, Irene and Paddy for the good talks and great help. Special thanks to my supervisor Erwin for giving me the opportunity to learn and assist in this fascinating study. Shout out to Jurgen, Milco and Werner for the awesome nights at SXM and for letting me stay in your apartment. Last but not least to Ayumi, Leonie, Youp, Céline and Jonas for the unforgettable night on our second trip. Good times!

The work on the Saba Bank promised to become a major challenge, more on that in a new blog post.

See you in three weeks SXM!