Andros Expedition, April 21-27th 2019
Expedition Leaders: Dr. Tristan and Annie Guttridge Guests: Andrew, Delana, Ian, Lindsay, Mina, Pam and Vince
SAWFISH SAWFISH SAWFISH! You guessed it, this trip we found and swam with a smalltooth sawfish! This critically endangered ray was certainly the week’s highlight, but with great hammerhead dives, Caribbean reef sharks, lemons, blacknose, nurse, silkies, blacktips, southern stingrays, eagle rays, turtles, deserted beaches, shark tagging, and so much more, picking a favorite animal, encounter, or moment is just about impossible!
This blog was kindly written by expedition guest Delana.
On meeting the April Silent Hunter leaders Annie and Tristan, Annie handed out thoughtful and inspiring eco friendly goodie bags filled with sustainable, green alternatives such as packaging free soap, a bamboo tooth brush, reef safe sunscreen and more! Please click here to view the companies Silent Hunter supports or works with. This gesture gift and warm welcome started the trip off perfectly as we chatted about the products whilst gearing up preparing to board our nine seater plane. (My personal favorite item, aside from the canvas tote itself and the t-shirt, was the Basin shampoo bar. It has changed my life!)
When we were cruising the west side of Andros in our small plane, the first thing I noticed was all the untouched space. We saw mangroves, sand flats, channels, and many blue holes, but not one trace of human development. That was absolutely wonderful to see on our approach: lots and lots of wild, natural space. The sheer scale of the island was dramatic to me, especially after becoming accustomed to Bimini, which is much smaller. (Many in our group have a special fondness for Bimini, and we quietly snapped photos of it from the plane as we flew over the beloved little island on our way to our new adventure.)
After landing, we were whisked away by friendly cabbies, headed to the Andros Bonefish Club. I am pleased to report that this is not a resort or a hotel, it is a quaint fishing lodge. I would characterize the atmosphere of the Bonefish Club relaxed, informal, and homey. We were one of two groups staying at the lodge, and since we were on a different schedule than the other group, we rarely crossed paths. It was almost as if we had the whole place to ourselves.
We assembled for lunch in the common area after dropping our gear off in our rooms, which were all in detached, single-story buildings. The grounds were lovely, with walkways through areas adorned with trees and flowering tropical plants. The accommodations are casual and comfortable, with common meals shared at long tables, perfect for conversation after a day's adventure.
After lunch and an introductory briefing by Tristan, we geared up and headed for Captain Cole's boat at the lodge's dock. Cole drove us to a lovely reef for a snorkel. There was quite a current, but Cole anchored the boat in just the right spot to give us some shelter from the reef and allow us to have a fast and easy swim back to the boat with the current.
After that, we made our way to the shallows near the island where an episode of Discoveries - ‘Naked and Afraid’ was filmed. Pam had to have her picture taken with the island in the background, as she is a fan of the show. We anchored in the shallows, and Tristan took out a bait fish to create a slick that would draw sharks up the current to our boat. Two southern stingrays made an immediate appearance.
It was no time before we had a very curious Caribbean reef shark checking us out. She came in very close, and took an interest in Vince's camera dome. Soon after, an adult lemon came in to investigate. Then a subadult lemon came in, followed by a slightly smaller one. It really boggled my mind how quickly wildlife would appear.
Even though we were really not supposed to make a lot of noise when these sharks came in, so as not to scare them off, some of us found ourselves squealing when their fins broke the water. There is something about dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water that just brings delight to the heart of every shark lover. We wondered whether the Caribbean reef shark who was the one named Larry by a past expedition, but the jury was out. Another reefie did a quick drive-by and was gone.
Critter Count: Two southern stingrays, one cheeky reefie, one furtive reefie, one adult lemon, one subadult lemon, and one slightly smaller subadult lemon. Not too shabby for half a day.
That night after dinner, we baited off the dock to see if we could draw in a visitor. Sure enough, a lovely lemon shark came in to see what the delicious smell was all about. We enjoyed our evening encounter with the visitor, and eventually everyone headed to their rooms. So much happened just within the first day, it was hard to believe we'd only been there since lunchtime.
Most of us didn’t know each other when we all got on that plane, but there’s nothing like guzzling coffee to create a bonding moment with strangers. It’s heartwarming how small traditions form over a short period, and shark trips like these attract intelligent, friendly, truly interesting people that it is a pleasure to get to know. All-you-can-drink coffee is a magical thing, and it brings people together.
Our first outing was to a nearby channel where a smalltooth sawfish had been spotted. It cannot be overstated that seeing one of these animals was a top priority on this trip. It had been twelve long years since the last time Dr. Tristan Guttridge saw a member of this critically endangered species, and we were all keen to break that streak. The prevailing thought was that if it was going to happen anywhere, it was going to happen in Andros. Alas, it was not to be that morning, but we were visited by three lemon sharks who were attracted to the shallows.
We then moved on to a place whose name is still just a wee bit up in there air… will it be Isla’s Spot? Or, perhaps, Isla’s Point? This miraculous place, is named for the Guttridge’s daughter Isla, in the tradition of Doc Gruber naming one of the lemon shark nursery areas in Bimini after his daughter, Aya. In any event, it is now one of my very favorite places on the face of our beloved planet. Why? Because it is absolutely teeming with lemon sharks!
Picture this: You are wearing your mask and snorkel, and, if needed, a weight belt. You are essentially lying on a sandflat, perhaps holding a camera, perhaps resting your chin in on your hand, while before you, more than a dozen subadult lemon sharks of varying size zoom in and out of view, hoping for a snack. You have the excitement of being in very close proximity to quite a number of beautiful sharks while also lazing in paradise.
I know a lot of words, and I can’t think of any that suffice in describing the joy in my heart as I observed those darling, agile sharks just be themselves only a few feet from where I was lounging. Yes, lounging. It was utterly amazing.
After lunch, we proceeded by truck to one of the island’s many blue holes. This particular blue hole, however, was actually quite green, nestled in the vegetation at the end of a meandering foot trail. The water there was brackish, so while we needed less weight for freediving than we did in the sea. It was a beautiful and utterly unique environment in which to practice freediving.
Being an inland green hole, the water was absolutely calm. The light streaming in was mesmerizing. When I wasn’t diving into the infinite unknown, I was gazing into it, watching the pink and gold rays of sun dance around my shadow in the greenish water. I tried in vain to capture it in a picture, but just thinking about it now brings a sense of calm.
A very full on, fun day was concluded by another fabulous dinner, reviewing imagery and video from the day, and an early night, ready for tomorrows adventures.
We got up extra early on this day to head out to the Tongue of the Ocean to meet some silky sharks! If you’ve read any expedition blogs on this site before, you have read about how these curious, confident sharks will come in close and check you out, but experiencing it is next level.
At first, we all stayed topside while the water was baited to bring the sharks up from the depths. Annie and Tristan were the first into the water, and we got in pair by pair after that. Silkies ranging in size from three to seven feet were in attendance, up and down in the water column, and taking very close passes at us to see what we were all about. If you’re used to sharks that are conditioned to divers, let me tell you, this is a whole new experience. These sharks are intelligent, charismatic, graceful, strong, and bold. They are not afraid to come up and look you straight in the eye while they pass you within an arm’s length… or closer!
Having been on a number of shark trips over the past six years, I am very careful not to touch wild animals… but these silky sharks may decide they are going to touch you! It’s remarkable how stable they are in the water. I don’t know how any creature can brace itself against water, but silky sharks can. I have heard from more than one marine biologist that this tactility may be a common trait of pelagic species. Perhaps they use the sense of touch to collect more information about an object of curiosity. Not much is known about this species, so I can’t wait to learn more from Tristan and Annie’s research work with them.
They really do capture your heart, even if their initial approach is a little unsettling. I can’t wait to be back in the water with them. They are an absolute treat to watch at the surface, as well. Many of us sat gazing into the sapphire blue depths with silky sharks splitting the surface with their fins.
After a lunch back at the lodge, we set out once more to a site known for beautiful coral heads and loads of tropical fish. We were greeted by calm, warm waters with absolutely breathtaking visibility! We searched the reef wall for shrimp and lobster whilst practicing a little freediving fun in the shallows.
Over the course of our afternoon, we caught, and did work-ups on two large nurse sharks. It is always an honor to be part of collecting samples and tagging sharks for research and conservation- All research data feeds into Tristan and Annie’s non-profit Saving the Blue. Each of these male sharks was adopted by a member of our party: Drew adopted the first capture and named him Jesse, after his father; Vince adopted the second capture, and named him after his father, Ene.
That evening, we enjoyed a lovely dinner followed by an informative talk by Tristan. He covered many species of shark, discussing habitat, reproduction, preferred prey animals, and other fascinating facts. There may have been a disruption during this time, owing to a rather hilarious moment of video which had been captured by Annie, but Dr. Guttridge called the room to order and there were no further interruptions, although a few cheeky smiles were shared!
Another early rise saw us all up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a 7:30am breakfast. Each day, we have the choice of a freshly-made breakfast eggs (scrambled, fried, or an omelet) to-order at no extra cost. Cereals, toast, fresh fruit, yogurt, and other tasty items are also available for guests to help themselves.
This day saw us headed back to the Tongue of the Ocean to see the silky sharks again, in hopes of outfitting one with a satellite tag. The silkies made themselves known the moment we arrived, as three of them were there when we pulled up and doubled in number shortly after we started adding bait. We captured a large female silky shark, and she was strong. We had to be very quick about taking samples once she was secured to the boat. The Guttridges are extremely careful with these animals, which are kept in the water alongside the boat, so the workup was performed quickly by Tristan and Annie themselves, since their research project with silkies has begun so recently.
The satellite tag was affixed to her dorsal fin. Thirty days post-capture, it will decay and come off of the fin automatically, supplying them with data about her travels, including depth and temperature information. We don’t know much about their migratory patterns, so this data is critically important to the research and conservation efforts the Guttridges have begun. If you are interested in adopting this shark and giving her a name, click here. All adoptions will fund important work on this species, about which little is known in this region of the world.
That afternoon, we went to another blue hole called the Coffin, owing to its oblong shape. This blue hole is out at sea, and might be overlooked if you didn’t know it was there. Contrary to its name, the Coffin was full of sea life and sunlight, and everyone in the group enjoyed snorkeling and freediving over and around it. When not diving, I just liked to hang in the water over it and look down into the abyss. When the current slowly pushed me off one end of the Coffin, I would fin my way back into hanging position, or do another dive to say hello to the many beautiful tropical fish sheltering in the corals.
Next up was a snorkel in some of the best corals I have ever seen. An abundance of life surrounded the pretty backdrop. Caribbean reef sharks, stingrays, large snapper, grouper and jacks, and even eagle rays all were seen by our crew.
Our next stop was yet another lovely site for snorkeling and freediving. Tristan and Annie have seen great hammerheads there before, and having spent time on previous trips waiting and waiting for a hammerhead to appear, I was rather stunned that a ten-foot hammer showed up almost immediately!
Two Caribbean reef sharks came in and stuck around for a while, two others of that same species investigated the scene and wandered off. We got to observe the reefies interact with the hammerhead, and we also enjoyed a visit from two black nose sharks, which resemble Caribbean reef sharks, but are much smaller and have a dark smudge on their noses. Some excellent video and exciting images were captured that afternoon, what a treat to see these beautiful animals up close and wild!
After an absolutely incredible day on the water a hot shower with a cold beer was in order, followed by a tasty dinner and an early night.
To start the day, we explored some of the many mysterious, completely wild channels in Andros.
We saw several eagle rays, some of whom were in groups, as they are highly social creatures, but a few were exploring solo. Drew flew his drone and tracked some of the sea life allowing us to follow them from an unobtrusive distance.
Next we stopped by a large mangrove and had a lovely snorkel around it, scouting for any sea life that might be hiding in the roots. You have to keep a sharp eye to see the smaller critters, such as lobster or shrimp, small fish, and sometimes even a nudibranch! I am always hoping to see another nudibranch. An absolutely adorable baby nurse shark was seen, and I had an encounter with a cute little crab. Other creatures witnessed by our team included tiny harmless jellyfish, a large sea star, a sea cucumber, a parrot fish, some grunts, sergeant majors and a huge school of silversides refuging among the mangrove roots.
Snorkeling mangroves is one of my favorite activities, as the light shimmering through the water in which the mangrove roots are submerged is just so beautiful. I have loaded memory cards with these kinds of pictures, because as you move through and your perspective changes, each view holds its own dimensional, dreamy charm.
BAMBOO OVER PLASTIC
All guests are given a sustainably sourced bamboo toothbrush from MABLE. We hope this gift will encourage them to drop the plastic brushes, and go green. Perhaps you’ll do the same?
CORAL SAFE SUNSCREEN
As we spend a HUGE amount of time in both the sun and sea, we highly recommend Stream2Sea, a coral-safe sunscreen that protects your skin very effectively, but doesn’t damage reefs like so many other options out there!
Thereafter, we visited yet another of the many blue holes of Andros, this one out in open water, like the coffin, but with a very interesting turbulence over top. That blue hole was absolutely teeming with life! There were many, many of the usual tropical fish suspects hanging out in that blue hole, and Pam and Annie even spotted a group of lobster hiding under a shelf. It was truly beautiful.
We moved on to one more blue hole, called Shark Hole, which is about two-hundred feet deep! Those who have dived that blue hole on SCUBA have reported that down past seventy-five feet, the water becomes crystal clear. We enjoyed the view from the boat, then moved on to another stop, where we baited in a total of five energetic Caribbean reef sharks. We enjoyed their display topside as they enjoyed their lovely snacks. Again, those dorsal fins breaking the surface! We love that. Our next activity was to once again cruise more of the undisturbed channels of Andros. The water was just slightly cloudy, and I likened the color to that of a translucent specimen of the mineral chrysoprase, my favorite gemstone. The light, blue-green water contrasted beautifully with the rich, warm green of the mangrove leaves. It was an incredibly peaceful scene as we cruised around, looking for smalltooth sawfish in a habitat that is absolutely perfect for them.
That evening, an announcement was made… the following day would be dedicated to finding a smalltooth sawfish. The excitement with which this adventure plan was greeted cannot be overstated. For Tristan in particular, who hadn’t seen one in twelve years, success would bring immense joy and excitement.
The day started with breakfast and a game plan. Our group was divided into three teams, which would set out into the Bite in three skiffs driven by local captains. We boarded our boats and headed out in silence as the sun was rising. What would today hold? Adventure in Andros is not to be underestimated, the anticipation was felt by all as we planed down the island, and through the creeks. We all felt a hit of adrenaline as we drove for over an hour on the edge of our seats!
In those chrysoprase channels with sea grass and sand on the bottom, smalltooth sawfish are almost perfectly camouflaged. The teams would have to look sharp if they were to be successful in their quest. Drew the Drone Lord was ready to aid the search from above. On the drive out to the target location, flamingos were seen, along with some southern stingrays. Everyone remarked on the beautiful aqua color of the water. They cruised through a number of channels. The bottom became somewhat silty with the wind coming in, and the water became a translucent, milky blue. The boats lined up front to back and entered a channel that looked promising.
The surprises that Andros holds for adventurers really can’t be exaggerated. The place is a wonder. Tristan had barely uttered the words that they’d found “prime sawfish habitat” when he saw a shape fly past the water near the boats, out of the channel. “I think it was a sawfish,” he said, keeping his quintessentially English cool. Drew launched his drone. The animal might have fled back down the channel, or gone out onto the shallow flats. It was up to Drew’s incredible skill with the drone to locate the shadow that had sped by them. There it was! The drone found a big object and focused in sharply. Everyone tried to stay calm as the distinctive rostrum became apparent... THEY HAD FOUND A SMALLTOOTH SAWFISH!
With Drew, ‘The Drone Lord’, tracking the sawfish by air, the skiffs proceeded in a very low gear so as not to frighten away the furtive creature as they drew near. The sawfish was zigzagging around, but seemed to realize that the skiffs were not predators, and eventually decided it couldn’t be bothered to flee. Everyone then completely lost their minds with excitement.
Annie dropped in carefully with her camera, to see how the sawfish would respond. Other members of the team dropped in carefully to swim with this critically endangered animal. As they kept company with the sawfish, Tristan shot video, which he calmly narrated, until you hear his excitement break through.
“We are currently following a critically endangered smalltooth sawfish, on the west side of Andros. Oh my actual Lord, it’s swimming right in front of us! That is incredible! Absolutely incredible!”
Needless to say, “Oh my actual Lord” became the catchphrase of the entire trip, and I am smiling broadly recalling the happiness in Dr. Guttridge’s voice as he was watching this incredibly rare animal swim. #OMAL can be found on Instagram HERE, if you should like to see and hear the amazing moment as it unfolded.
With emotions and spirits high, we stopped off at a secluded beach in an attempt to bait in some bonnet head sharks. Within minutes we had both a lemon and nurse shark, a sting ray and a turtle show up, but unfortunately no bonnets. Nothing could reduce our nature high though, we’d just seen a SAWFISH!
During our ride back we back we all relived the sawfish encounter over and over, whilst spotting endless amounts of turtles. What a day, we couldn’t have asked for more.
Needless to say, dinner that night was accompanied by repeated viewings of Tristan’s short video and all of the aerial footage captured by King Drew of Drones. It was an incredible day that left everyone absolutely over the moon!
By now, I am sure you have gotten the idea that every day with Silent Hunter is a complete adventure. What you do in one day on these expeditions is what you might do in a week elsewhere. Andros is absolutely amazing, and we want it to stay that way. Eco-adventure tourism such as this helps support local Bahamian businesses and further our knowledge of amazing marine animals with minimal impact to habitat.
So, you’re flying out this afternoon, that doesn’t mean you can’t get back in the water with the silky sharks in the morning! We were back on the boat to the silky site soon after breakfast, everyone still on the smalltooth sawfish high from the previous day.
Again, the silkies were there when we arrived. Lines were tossed into the water from the boat for those who wanted to hang on. We all got in and stayed a long while, watching the silkies enjoy their snacks, and again check us out. Seas were calm and vis was spectacular. It was the perfect finale to an utterly amazing trip.
So, back to the lodge we ventured for some speedy, last minute packing, a quick lunch and sad ‘see you soon’, not goodbyes. Saying farewell to Andros was terribly hard, however with the flight out absolutely breathtaking, it was a bitter sweet ending to a remarkable trip.
Special thanks to Annie Guttridge for allowing me to write this guest blog, and for leading this spectacular trip. I would also like to send my gratitude to friends old and new.
ANDROS APRIL 2019 CREW, WHAT A WEEK!
We would like to take this opportunity to thank our wonderful guests for joining us, the incredible Andros Island Bonefish Club for their hospitality, the hardworking and ever professional Cole from PFO Charters for his top class boating and captaining skills, and everyone that made this trip as awesome as it was: an entirely unforgettable April 2019.