The Caribbean Challenge
One Sea & A Sea of Countries
The Pew Charitable Trusts Bahamas event – Feb 12-14, 2015
Thursday February 12
My fifth visit to Bimini, Bahamas, started off with a bit of a rush of adrenaline when I found out my flight over from Fort Lauderdale was cancelled, minutes before boarding. I did not not have much spare time to make it across the straits of Florida so I was lucky to be included in a charter flight over at the last minute to arrive in Bimini just on time for my evening presentation.
A few months ago, The Pew Charitable Trusts contacted me to ask me to join this event as IUCN Ocean Ambassador. I was to be a guest alongside former President of Costa Rica José Maria Figueres, Sir Richard Branson as well as Dr. Edd Brooks of the Cape Eleuthera Institute.
The Pew Charitable Trusts intention was to inspire the invited government officials of the Caribbean states to follow in the same footsteps as the Bahamas and BVI, and pledge to create marine protected areas and more specifically sanctuaries for sharks and rays. A real challenge when you consider that with its more than 700 islands, the Caribbean is governed by 13 sovereign states and 17 dependent territories. A geopolitical puzzle, a giant maze of legislation, a sea of countries.
So, on that evening, after showing a film and answering questions about my involvement in shark tagging using breath-hold, I sat with the delegation from the Dutch Caribbean and we spoke about tagging methods, shark protection and the initiatives they have undertaken in their region. Their motivation and passion was inspiring and they have already committed to expanding their marine protected areas.
That same evening, I had some lovely conversations with Karen Sack who is the Senior Director, International Oceans at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Karen confided in me that she was afraid of sharks but was eager to face her fears. Which is exactly what was the plan for the next day.
Friday February 13
Beyond a conference, The Pew Charitable Trusts felt it was important government officials see what shark conservation is about and why it’s important, in situ. And so after Dr. Edd Brooks talk over lunch, the government delegations were invited for an up close and personal look at sharks. We started the day’s dive with the Caribbean reef sharks – I counted 18 of them – and Karen Sack was quickly in the water, hanging onto the line and watching the sharks swimming around. Throughout the dive I was either watching from the bottom or swimming around checking in on her but she really seemed to be ok with everything that was happening and, from what I gathered, gained a much greater comfort level in the water with sharks than ever before.
After the reef sharks we headed for the Great Hammerhead sharks dive. Almost everyone, although already a bit cold, got in the water to see the great hammerhead shark. We waited some time for everyone to have a look and then I tagged her and sent her on her way with a brand new acoustic tag.
Saturday February 14
Over breakfast that morning, Sir Richard Branson hosted a meeting during which he explained to the delegates the commercial value of sharks alive rather than dead along with the obvious health and vitality that they maintain for ocean ecosystems – basically everyone agreed that without sharks our oceans will not remain healthy and viable.
I really enjoyed the discussions that took place and the overall interest in sharing ideas, discussing issues and finding solutions. The importance of sharks was well recognized as was the importance of a healthy ocean. I was asked to share my thoughts and I touched on the fact that in many marine protected areas (MPAs) the fee for entry is not on a level comparable with the enormous beauty and rarity of the park. Moreover, when you realize that most marine protected areas do not have sufficient funding to allow proper patrolling of their waters and protection for the area it becomes clear that there needs to be a higher cost of entry so that tourists can continue to enjoy these amazing underwater worlds. From what I have learned in speaking to many tourists over the years in different MPAs most would happily pay more knowing that they were contributing to their protection.
It was interesting to hear about the evolution of the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary and how the Bahamian Trust, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Bahamian Government and the Bahamian people helped to make this a reality.
While I was very pleased to have met all of the delegates, I had some wonderful conversations about sharks and conservation with Dr. the Honourable Kedrick Pickering who is Deputy Premier and Minister of Natural Resources and Labour of the Government of the British Virgin Islands. He apologized to me for not being passionate about sharks like myself. It was wonderful to hear that, even though he is not a lover of sharks, he recognizes their enormous importance to the health of the sea and is willing to work on difficult and at times unpopular legislation to protect them.
I was also pleased to finally meet Dr. Edd Brooks, President José María Figueres and Sir Richard Branson. Dr. Edd Brooks is such an amazing inspiration for creating and running the Cape Eleuthera Institute, José María is an eloquent speaker and an extremely intelligent gentleman in the truest sense of the word. I also briefly spoke with Richard Branson about shark tagging and he was truly one of the most humble and genuine people I have met… a true pleasure.
Last but not least, This trip finally allowed Dr. Samuel Gruber and I to meet face to face. Samuel founded the Bimini Biological Field Station in 1990. In 2014, we started a collaboration for the Great Hammerhead research project but were only able to speak via the Internet. It was a great pleasure to meet someone who is perhaps more passionate about sharks than myself! Dr. Gruber absolutely loves anything and everything to do with sharks and his passion is contagious.
I often speak in land-locked cities about the importance of ocean conservation, about the intricate relationship we have with the sea, whether we live by it or in the mountains far away from it. It regulates our weather, it provides our water, all our run-offs however remote on earth, end up in the ocean.
It is my hope that Caribbean governments which are seabound by their geographic nature lead the way and protect what must be protected. The pledging for the future of the ocean starts now.