Dr. Freek Vonk Show, Andros, 4-14th May 2019
Silent Hunter Crew: Dr. Tristan Guttridge, Emily Spurgeon and Captain Cole McVay Studio Freek Crew: Dr. Freek Vonk, Ivo, Bassy and Sander
This excursion was a nine-day film shoot, hosting wildlife presenter and snake expert Dr. Freek Vonk. Freek is a Dutch herpetologist who specializes in snake venom, but has spent the last decade filming wildlife documentaries with his team from Holland, Bassy (soundman) and Ivo (cameraman). These documentaries range in content from swimming with great hammerheads, to following cheetahs, to a close encounter with the formidable Komodo dragon. He joined our team in Andros to showcase the islands sharks and reptiles for his children’s television show, Freeks Wild World.
Our team met up with Freek and his crew, Bassy, Ivo, and Sander, at Sheltair, Fort Lauderdale, ready for our hour flight to Andros via private charter. There was much excitement and anticipation as we flew over the west side of Andros, enthralled by the maze of mangrove creeks and eerie looking blue holes that dot the vast landscape. When we arrived at the lodge, the team prepped equipment, discussed plans for our first day of filming, collected scuba tanks, and enjoyed a healthy dinner of fresh grouper while excitedly talking about the week ahead. Freek and his team are a pleasure to be around. They are always ready for adventure, very professional, and great fun, not to mention that they truly love and respect wildlife!
Lemon sharks in the shallows is always a guest favorite on our Silent Hunter Group trips, and it didn’t disappoint Freek and his team. We arrived to the site on a rising tide, and could see many young lemon sharks eagerly patrolling the flats. With a little bait, we attracted ten lemon sharks, ranging in total length from 100cm to 220cm, which got Freek some close encounters!
This site is unique in that you have shallow sandy flats bordered by a seagrass channel of two to three meters in depth, which serves as habitat for sharks of a diverse age range. Lemon sharks, with their misty yellow coloration, are tough to see against the sandy substrate, and they use their large second dorsal fin and tail to accelerate and execute sneak attacks on unsuspecting prey.
After a short lunch and quick battery replenishment, we headed out to get Freek up close and personal with silky sharks in the Tongue of the Ocean. One of the most unique features of Andros is that it is possible to move from shallow water habitats of less than one meter of depth to deep pelagic zones of a thousand meters or more in a matter of minutes. Silky sharks are open ocean specialists, and soon after of our arrival, we were blessed with four inquisitive juveniles of 130-160cm total length. Freek enjoyed his first moments snorkeling the deep blue, and eventually assisted Tristan in removing hooks from some of the silky sharks’ mouths. This species can travel huge distances of thousands of miles even as juveniles, and are thereby exposed to large scale commercial fishing when outside of the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. Most of the sharks had at least one hook and some fishing line trailing from their mouths, with one hooked in its pectoral fin. By using a unique tail bend method that sends the sharks into a type of deep relaxation or sleep-like state, Freek and Tristan carefully removed hooks. As a snake expert, Freek has worked with some of the deadliest snakes in the world, which requires fast reactions, precise timing and skill. Freek was mindful of the sharks throughout, showing why he is regarded as a one of the best hands-on wildlife presenters. All of the sharks were safely handled and very much respected.
This morning was off to an early start to ensure we arrived at the Tongue of the Ocean with plenty of time for more silky shark action. Our aim this morning was for Freek to join our team in outfitting a mature adult silky shark with a satellite tag. Little is known about this species’ movement ecology in the Tongue of the Ocean and the northwest Atlantic. This outing started off a little slow, but after an hour of baiting, four sleek silky sharks turned up, and they were the same individuals from the day before! As these were a little small for satellite tags, the decision was made to finish off the scene from yesterday with Freek and Tristan trying one final tail bend. It’s a bizarre feeling to see how quickly the shark goes into this sleep-like state when the tail is carefully bent. Why would this happen? We think bending the tail interferes briefly with the shark’s central nervous system, putting them in brief trance. Even more interesting is that after a few minutes’ recovery, they are back at the surface interacting with their buddies again, which demonstrate they are unfazed by the act.
After a successful morning with the silkies, we returned for an afternoon time-out to get ready for a nighttime Andros Boa segment. Having worked with Freek on two filming items with sharks, our team was anxious to see him work with his favorite animal, snakes! The Andros Boa is endemic to Andros Island, and is a subspecies of boa that can get up to seven feet long. Andros boas are constrictors, which means they use their muscular body to restrain their prey. Freek was in his element, introducing us to the species, explaining how to tell the difference between males and females (small spurs on the underside), and discussing diet and predatory behavior. It was a wonderful treat seeing Freek’s passion and knowledge for snakes firsthand.
Our fourth day was off to another early start, as we took smaller boats with local guides to West Side National Park, in hopes of finding flamingos and bonnethead sharks. There is a population of wild flamingos that flock in the flats of a large sound that provides riverine conditions in the middle of the extensive creeks. Our local guides were not too confident of our chances, but the ride was stunning, with almost flat conditions, so we were hopeful. It was quite amusing seeing two giants (Freek is six and a half feet tall, and Ivo is 6’8”) relaxing on their twelve-foot skiff with their 5’2” Bahamian guide! After a two-hour boat ride, we finally arrived at the sound, drove past a juvenile bull shark (which we were all extremely excited to see), and within five minutes, our team had spotted a small flock of feeding flamingos in the shallows near a mangrove outcropping. The boats all slowly moved towards the mangroves in an effort to get close enough to view their behavior, and for Freek to give his flamingo introduction.
All was quiet until the words everyone had prayed to hear were announced by Captain Cole: SAWFISH! A large smalltooth sawfish maneuvered in front of our boat, then turned towards deeper waters. When Freek and our team had discussed shooting in Andros, the sawfish was mentioned as a potential filming option, but we all knew it was a very slim possibility. We had just found a sawfish, but where had it gone? They are so well camouflaged, a hazy yellow color that is a perfect match for the silty shallow waters where they live. Ivo, perhaps the most versatile and skilled cameraman on the planet, quickly launched his drone to locate it! Ten minutes passed, but still no sawfish… then that word came again and we had her! She was at least ten feet long, and was now resting in slightly deeper water, about a hundred meters from our boats. Ivo continued to get close-ups and aerial shots of her resting, while Freek and Tristan geared up to try to film her underwater. The smalltooth sawfish is critically endangered globally, so finding one in the wild is a small miracle. Finding one when you happen to have all the best high-tech camera equipment and a wildlife expert and host… that is pure gold!
Freek and Tristan slowly approached the sawfish. We could see on the drone monitor that they were less than two meters away from her, but could hardly see her, owing to her excellent camouflage. Once she detected them, and with a quick powerful flick of her tail, she was back in the silt and moving on. With limited drone battery left and other scenes to film, we were unable to launch a further search, so we decided to leave the sawfish to her milky waters and take the opportunity to get some close-ups of the delicate flamingos that had continued to feed just off the mangrove outcrop, undisturbed by our sawfish search.
Our sawfish encounter was brief, but the aerial footage combined with some some interview pieces and underwater footage captured, Freek was confident he could make a short story to include it in his children’s series. It’s fantastic for Freek to be able to show the younger generation such a unique and bizarre looking animal, as well highlight its critically endangered status and importance for improved global conservation. That evening we celebrated merrily with a few local beers and rum after our spectacularly memorable day.
Our fifth day was a day off, a well-earned day of refueling, uploading media, and organizing the last few days of the shoot. Freek and his team treated us to a lunch at restaurant near Fresh Creek, and it was delicious!
To complete Freek’s episode about the mangroves and their importance as a nursery habitat to a host of sharks and rays, we travelled to the west side once more. We anchored in one of the main creeks that exits the Middle Bight to west Andros. The current was pumping, and within thirty minutes, we had a few juvenile lemon sharks and blacktips following our scent trail to the surface just behind the boat. Blacktips are simply stunning to see in the creeks, as they have a metallic sheen to their skin, move with ease and purpose, and are a perfect looking shark! Freek completed the mangrove scene in style with some close-ups of blacktips feeding at the surface.
Another day came to a close with locally-caught fresh grouper dinner followed by viewing the creek lemon sharks off the dock at the bonefish club.
We switched from the water to the land on this day and introduced Freek to the Andros Rock Iguana. The morning and part of the afternoon was spent filming this endangered iguana. A miniature dinosaur, as Freek described it, with extremely powerful head and leg muscles, it is capable of fast bursts of speed on land, as well as swimming amongst the rocks and mangroves. They have claws of a centimeter in length, and crazy armor with orange red spines down its back. Sadly, due to human development and humans introducing domestic species such as dogs and cats, these iguanas are under serious threat of extinction, with an estimated population between three and five thousand left in the wild. Cays like those scattered around Andros are important safe havens for this fascinating creature, which deserves its place on the planet! It was great to see a healthy viable population of this charismatic animal with males, females, and youngsters observed in the trees and patrolling the rocky pathways.
We woke to a blistering hot morning with glorious sunshine and light winds; our team could not wait to get out on the water. The plan was to capture a reef or nurse shark as part of our Saving the Blue research project, and for Freek to assist with the work-up. We organized a block rig, which consists of a concrete block with fishing line and hook attached to buoy that marks the surface. We set and began to wait, but within seconds of setting the rig, a dark, ominous storm began to brew. Within ten minutes it was upon us, and we were all enjoying a cool but heavy drenching! A lovely brisk breeze with rainfall was actually quite pleasant. Morale was high after the success of the past few days, and the team discussed what we would do if we were to catch a shark. In that moment, the buoy started to move, and we had our first shark! A chocolate colored, rather sluggish moving shark – a nurse – this was the perfect species to capture as Tristan could work with Freek, showing him tagging, gathering tissue samples and measurements. The nurse shark was filmed from all angles, underwater, drone, Freek-cam as well as topside. It was incredible to watch cameraman Ivo move between all the equipment to ensure the viewers get every perspective possible.
After finishing up some shots on the shoreline, our next segment was to film a coral reef dive. Our team knew just the place: a healthy, productive channel that runs out onto the reef wall of the Tongue of the Ocean. Ivo and Freek geared up, the sun was out, the tide was just after high, and the sun was shining over nearly flat water, so visibility was excellent. Tristan and Emily drifted with the divers, following them from above. Hard and soft corals littered the ocean floor, hosting large sea fans and colorful schools of reef fishes. This channel never disappoints, with lots of large mesopredators using the reef as cover from which to launch attacks, such as cubera snapper, mackerel, barracuda, and groupers, along with resident reef and nurse sharks that cruise into view every so often.
The light soon began to fade, and we returned to the lodge for a well-deserved dinner.
Our final day was filled with lots of pickup shots and two more reef dives to complete the final segment for Freek’s coral reef episode. We were blessed with another stunning day, with sunshine, flat calm conditions, and a rising tide, providing spectacular underwater clarity. Freek and Ivo enjoyed searching the reef area we call White Hole, named due to its patch white sand in between sections of corals that provide a rich habitat for a diverse population of tropical fish and invertebrates. After spending most the morning and afternoon on the water, we returned to the lodge to begin the process of cleaning, sorting, and packing. Once complete, we said our goodbye’s and before we knew it, we were boarding our charter plane home back to the US. An incredibly successful shoot accomplished.
WATCH THE SHOW
The final episodes air November 2019, as soon as a watchable link is available we will post it here.
Thank you to Freek and his team from Studio Freek, Sander, Bassy and Ivo. What a pleasure it was to work with you all! We would not have had such success without the guidance and support of Captain Cole McVay, and our incredible assistant Emily Spurgeon.
Gratitude must also go to all for their generosity in allowing us to use their images in this blog.