A small lemon shark thrashes in a near-invisible gillnet, as a researcher reaches into harms way to catch the flailing animal.
As seen from the radar screen of the Research Vessel SEWARD JOHNSON, Atol das Rocas forms a perfect circle, about a mile across. The other dots surrounding the island's image are "radar noise" caused by ocean swells and breaking waves as they reflect the radar signal.
The island's only trees stand in stark contrast to the surrounding rock and water of the rest of the atoll. A sooty tern flies
above the clear-watered inlet where the juvenile sharks like to gather.
The equatorial sun sets over the mainland of Atol das Rocas, it's few trees barely visible at the horizon.
CLICK HERE to learn more about @Sea correspondent, Mark Carroll.
SHARK BITE UPDATE--Expedition member Dan Cartamil is doing fine after his recent shark bite (see our DAY 8 & DAY 9 coverage). His injuries have required no substantial treatment beyond the first-aid he received at the field station on Atol das Rocas. This shark bite, fortunately, will live on as a great story for Dan to tell long after his hand has healed!
DISPATCH 11: Back to the Corral
@Sea correspondent/photographer, Mark Carroll
Held firmly, but gently, in place by expedition member Jean de
Marignac, a young lemon shark turns to nip at the camera. The shark,
probably no more than two years old, was soon swimming free after a quick
round of tests on dry land.
8:35am, March 22, Atol das Rocas, Brazil -- Young lemon sharks enter Atol das Rocas's protected
inlet with rising tides, presumably looking for food and a bit
of shelter in the island's interior lagoon. Ebbing tides drain the lagoon, causing the sharks to return to the
harsh, surrounding seas.
Just before high tide, I reached the beach with a landing party of researchers focused
on capturing juvenile sharks with nets stretched across the narrow inlet. The team waited eagerly for the tide to recede -- for retreating sharks to entangle themselves. Every shark researcher on the small, tightly-guarded island preserve remained constantly mindful of their obligations to preserve the pristine conditions of Atol das Rocas, and to protect its animal residents. One wrong move, one injured shark, one disrupted bird's nest could mean the end of the mission. And in a scientific study dedicated to learning how sharks live and breed in their natural habitats, the loss of even one baby shark would be an unacceptable blow to the accuracy of the mission's data. While I made preparations to document my second "genetic roundup" of young lemon sharks, the research team redied themselves to work hard, work fast, and work extremely carefully. (See our DAY 9 coverage of Mark's first roundup)
The sharks proved to be much less psyched up for research than the researchers. Maybe they remembered their previous experiences in the channel and avoided the area altogether. Perhaps the tides were off. Regardless, our team managed to capture and sample only three sharks at their beachside field lab. After a while, they called it a morning and returned to the ship.
"You have to adapt to situations like this," said Chief Scientist Samuel
Gruber, standing on the ship's main deck. "We have problems with our boats;
we fix them. We have problems catching sharks; we change locations."
Tomorrow, the crew will, indeed, 'adapt,' moving their operations to several newly-discovered lemon shark
5:58pm, onboard the Research Vessel SEWARD JOHNSON (RVSJ) -- I was warned in advance that our remote research location would be a hard place to describe. It redefines itself as often as
the light changes and the tide shifts.
Atol das Rocas formed millions of years ago as the mass of an ancient volcano
slipped, eroded, and sank eventually into the sea. Countless generations of mollusks and algae colonized this submerged caldera, living and dying on the calcarious skeletons of the their ancestors. In time, they formed a mile-wide rocky circle that now breaks barely above the surrounding ocean. The Atol das Rocas of today, although lovely to look at, is a forbidding environment of rough rocks, rough water, and brutal equatorial sun.
As isolated as it is, Atol das Rocas still harbors an abundance of
wildlife, both above and below the waves. In addition to sharks, a healthy
population of sea turtles and countless tropical fishes swim in the island's lagoon
and in the surrounding ocean. Above ground, thousands of
birds nest on the atoll's sandy knolls...the sound of their calls
overpowers even the waves. Egg shells litter the beaches. Young fledglings
flap their wings in the wind, preparing for flight.
With a tidal range of six feet, water rages through the atoll's
lagoon as high tide shifts to low tide and then back again. Big ocean swells break in the
narrow channels. At times it seems that our expedition is as much about battling the atoll's environment as it is about getting down to productive, scientific inquiry. A mis-timed run through the rocky labyrinth could be
disastrous for boats, crew or both. More than once, team members have been stranded by the receding water or by the hazards of navigating the channel at night.
1:20am, March 23, onboard the SEWARD JOHNSON -- I have just returned to my room to face a challenge that seems to dwarf the hazards posed by Atol das Rocas. Namely, my room smells (exactly) like two waterlogged guys have been living in it for almost two weeks. But, fatigue, an adaptable nose, and the comforting drone of the RVSJ's engine promise to put me to sleep within the minute.