Andros Expedition, January 6-12th 2019
Expedition Leaders: Dr. Tristan Guttridge and Matthew Potenski Guests: Daphne, Elizabeth, Gabby, Jason, Jenna, Katie and Katy
All we want to say is, HAMMERHEAD!!! We enjoyed a whole host of life this week, but seeing a handful of hammerheads was certainly the highlight. In total, we saw six species of shark! We also saw southern stingrays, eagle rays, mahi mahi, turtles, dolphins, and lots of other sea life. Our weeks’ activities are detailed below. Enjoy!
Our Day One rendezvous point was the Sheltair executive airport in Fort Lauderdale, and all guests arrived shortly after the expedition leaders did, around 9:00am. As you can imagine, everyone immediately began talking about sharks as guests enjoyed looking through their ecofriendly goodie bags, while air staff weighed their luggage. Within the hour, we boarded our nine-seater Tropic Ocean Airways chartered plane, and were airborne. The flight time from Fort Lauderdale to Andros is just under ninety minutes, but with insanely beautiful views from the sky, the time flew by as we flew to our adventure!
On landing in Andros, we entered their tiny airport, cleared customs, and were welcomed by local taxi drivers waiting to take us south to our accommodations. We arrived at our lodge, the Andros Island Bonefish Club, offloaded our luggage, and ate a quick lunch as we listened to Tristan give a safety briefing and trip run-down.
As soon as the briefing concluded, guests eagerly collected their snorkeling equipment, jumped on the boat, and were swimming over a stunning shallow-water reef within the hour. Once expedition leaders were happy all guests were comfortable in the water, they made the decision to move out a little deeper, toward a drop off, to place some bait. During the winter months, the Bahamas sees an influx of larger apex sharks, such as great hammerhead, bull and tiger sharks, and we were all excited to see which species we might attract!
The visibility became a little bit gloomy, but the current was moving well, so conditions were good for dispersing scent in the water. After about 45 minutes, Captain Cole and guest Jenna spotted a large dorsal fin and the back of a big shark about thirty feet from the boat. Both shouted with excitement, as they believed it was a big, mature bull shark! Expedition leaders Matt and Tristan braced themselves for an exciting encounter, but as soon as the shark was spotted, it disappeared. It’s incredible how cautious even some of the biggest apex predators can be. Before we knew it, light was fading, and we slowly made our way back to the lodge as the sun was setting.
After this exciting kick-off to Day One, a fresh water shower, and a filling meal at the lodge, we watched the local lemon sharks cruising around the dock in the hopes of some scraps from the fishermen. It was then time for an early night, so we would all be well rested for the next day’s adventures.
Monday blues? Never! Besides, when you’re in the Bahamas, you love the blues! We got an early start with a 7:00am breakfast, and we were on the boat and ready to leave by 8:30am. For our second day’s adventure, we planned to deploy two acoustic receivers, spend some quality time snorkeling, and attempt a shark capture, to contribute towards our ongoing research efforts. Our first drop was an acoustic receiver deployment in just ten feet of water. Tristan used SCUBA to secure it in place. These receivers record data from electronic transmitters that are placed either internally or externally on sharks and rays. The tags can last up to ten years, and if an animal equipped with a transmitter swims within about 500 meters of a receiver, its ID, along with time and date, are recorded and stored.
Receivers are deployed in a variety of habitats from sandy bottoms, to coral reefs, to mangrove fringes, to deep water. The receivers are checked every six months, and the downloaded data reveals exciting information about which animals have been detected within range of each receiver. The receivers deployed by our team are positioned within the middle bight of Andros, with the main objective of determining if the critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish is traveling from the West Side National Park (see www.savingtheblue.org for more details on this important project). Our second receiver of the day was deployed close to a stunning shallow-water coral shoal with large, very healthy-looking coral heads, sea fans, and soft corals, which provided a beautiful snorkel for our guests.
Next up was a visit to a guest favorite: Isla’s Spot, for lemon sharks. Here guests relaxed in super shallow water as six lemon sharks circled their toes, making close passes and providing excellent photographic opportunities. This location is always popular with guests, as the sand flats provide a safe environment to relax and thoroughly enjoy observing the sharks just a few feet away. Guests can see firsthand the physical details of each individual, including the coloration and impressive camouflage these lemons possess.
After our lemon shark encounter, we moved on, deciding to bait in a new spot. Bingo! We quickly had four reef sharks and two nurse sharks join us in very clear, calm water. All guests had the opportunity to snorkel with the sharks as they made their slow, methodical passes near the boat.
Finally, we moved a little further towards the reef edge where we decided to catch a reef shark as part of our food web studies. Within minutes, we had caught a 153cm male reef shark, and our team, with assistance from our guests, recorded length measurements, placed an electronic ID tag, took a genetic sample, as well as a fin clip and blood for stable isotope analysis.
With an exciting and jam-packed day behind us, we headed home for showers and dinner. We were at the table by 7:00pm, our entire crew were on countdown for the Jonny bread’s arrival (if you know, you know). Dinner is always a special time of day for reflection and discussion. We all slowly made our way to bed, in anticipation of what the next day would hold.
Another day, another adventure! On the morning of our third day, we headed out to the six-mile buoy in search of silky sharks. The buoy is set in the depths of the Tongue of the Ocean, a deep oceanic trench that reaches eerie depths of over 2000 meters.
Simply snorkeling this hot spot is thrilling as you gaze down to the seemingly endless abyss, and more often than not, we are greeted by silkies. These bold, curious sharks are typically present within twenty minutes of our arrival, but not this time; they were nowhere to be seen. We were, however, treated to some deepwater time with some very confident mahi mahi, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, almaco jacks, and an abundance of rainbow runners! After, we said goodbye to the depths and moved on to a reef to see what we could find.
After our swim at the buoy, we arrived at a new reef for a quick snorkel before moving on again to a deeper spot. We often swap locations if currents are too strong or too weak, if visibility is too low, or we’re simply not feeling the site. We settled down on a pretty reef in around 35 feet, with an abundance of soft corals and sea fans. Within ten minutes, we had five reef sharks circling below, and within twenty minutes, a real super star joined the party… a ten-foot great hammerhead rolled in to see what all the fuss was about!
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.
Guests and trip leaders alike could hardly contain their excitement as they gazed down at the silhouette of one of the most well-known and sought-after sharks to see in the wild. This beautiful hammerhead continued to make passes for over an hour, as snappers, Nassau and black groupers, spadefish, cero mackerels, and even a large loggerhead turtle graced us with their presence, it was hard deciding which way to point one’s gaze! For most of those on the trip, seeing a hammerhead was high on the bucket list, and she did not disappoint. Dwarfing the reef sharks, guests saw the sheer size of the hammer, and appreciated the flexibility and maneuverability that these big sharks possess. With our day ending on a MAJOR high note, we cruised back to the lodge, all excited to share the news with those back home. Conversation over dinner was animated and keenly focused on hammerheads, and after another great meal, it was off to bed.
Another early rise saw us all up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a 7:00am breakfast. Each day, guests 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 more. On filling our tummies and gathering our array of equipment, we left the dock before 8:00am. With fair, calm weather predicted, we decided to test our fortunes and head back out to the six-mile buoy; but again, no luck, the silkies were just not there.
So, with not a single silky in view, we decided to play to our strengths and moved on to enjoy our afternoon. Next was more science as Tristan deployed three more receivers, with the help of expedition guests. One receiver was placed at 40 feet of depth at the exit to the middle bight, as Tristan hoped this location would detect any transient predators who are using the channels as a migratory corridor through the middle of Andros.
After securing them in place, the team decided to try their luck again for hammerheads, and with positive vibes being broadcast, we lucked out as eight reefs came in close, followed by ANOTHER great hammerhead! This was a different individual to the previous day, she was a little skinnier, and a bit shorter at around eight feet in length.
Once again, guests had sharks, giant fish, and even another loggerhead turtle all in view at the same time! Andros is truly an incredible location with such an abundance of life. Gazing down on a cocktail of sharks is a hard view to leave, but with light retreating, we were forced to pack up and depart what appeared to be the epicenter of fun!
After another incredible day, we headed back to the lodge to shower, wash our equipment, enjoy a fabulous meal, and watch the sunset with lemon sharks circling below us. The evening concluded with a presentation on great hammerhead research by Tristan, with questions from the guests. As darkness set in, guests had a hit of Wi-Fi to check in with the world back home, followed by another early night.
Due to the early starts for our days in Andros, most guests are up just as the sun rises. Watching the sun rise over the ocean each day really brings a sense of calm and peace, yet we all knew what excitement and thrills the day ahead would likely hold.
On this day, we headed south to explore another piece of the Andros puzzle. On arrival to our location, guests snorkeled the mangroves in search of lobster and conch, and enjoyed watching an array of fish seeking refuge as they moved through the mangrove roots. As guests were calmly swimming and searching beneath the waves, expedition leader Matt launched his drone to scan for any obvious activity nearby, while capturing video of the vast habitat surrounding the team.
After our relaxed swim, we opted for some wildlife scouting from the boat. This activity is often welcomed by guests as they have the opportunity to gaze out to sea, with nothing but their own thoughts filling their mind. The peacefulness is often short-lived as it’s never too long before someone spots some action! Tristan spotted some movement, and before we knew it, we had four eagle rays within two feet of the bow of the boat! These beautiful, graceful rays blessed us with multiple passes before Matt spotted the dorsal fins of bottlenose dolphins, eight in total, including a calf. Guests Jason and Elizabeth couldn’t resist a quick dip, and enjoyed seeing the dolphins up close underwater. Once back onboard, we followed the pod as they frolicked around the boat. Once they lost interest, we parted ways and wished them well.
Next, we decided to trek across a rocky shore line to an inland blue hole where everyone had fun playing in the picturesque, yet rather eerie rocky-sided location. After a few laps of the circumference, we ventured back to the reef we passed on our way in. Here we saw lots of colorful reef fishes, and decided to bait a little to see what other species we could entice. It wasn’t long before we had a lemon, three reefs, and a nurse shark in attendance. The reef sharks were very curious, making multiple close passes, while the lemon remained cautious. The nurse acted as if we weren’t even there!
With all the sharks comfortable and guests happy with the interaction, expedition leader Tristan made the call to catch one of the sharks by the poly-ball method. This fast process allows the person fishing – in this case, Tristan -- to see exactly what he is fishing for and catch the shark in a quick, efficient manner. Within a short time, we caught the lemon, a 208cm female! Guest Jason assisted Tristan and Matt in securing the shark, then other guests supported them in doing the “work-up,” which includes taking DNA and stable isotope samples, measurements, and tagging. During the process, we were able to explain the components of this scientific work-up to our guests, who all thoroughly enjoyed learning the practices firsthand.
A great afternoon was finished off with another receiver deployment by Tristan and the team. The receivers are a quick yet important part of the day, and once in will not be touched again for six months, when our data downloads take place. What will we detect? Stay tuned… With another great day under our belts, we headed home for showers, a filling meal, and a shark diving presentation by expedition leader Matt. Another tiring, yet incredible day saw us all in bed before ten.
Our final full day had crept up on us, but we had every intention of making it a good one! We were up by 6:30am and headed to the vast west side of Andros to explore the national park.
On arrival we wasted no time in setting up at our blacktip point to see if any sharks were in the vicinity. Jackpot! We had eleven confident blacktips, and two sharp nose sharks, all high in the water column and offering the perfect opportunity to capture some wonderful pictures. The blacktips are classic, perfect looking sharks with pointy heads, beautiful skin, and self-assured personas. Guests saw exactly how these animals interact with and played off each other when competing for food.
With our shark hearts full for a moment, we took some time out to enjoy a few clay treatments at Tristan’s Spa, a natural mud bank found on the outskirts of the canals, while Matt took the opportunity to fly his drone. After our clay spa, we ventured down another creek, where guests enjoyed turtles popping their heads up for a quick breath, fish rolling in the quiet inlets, and the odd lemon shark cruising the shallows. During our return trip, Tristan opted to deploy the three final receivers, completing our new receiver array of nine in the middle bight of Andros!
What a day! As we made our way back east, we stopped in at the renowned shark hole, followed by another baiting session exiting the middle bight, in the hopes of another shark capture.
We got lucky again, as we caught and worked up a 160cm male Caribbean reef shark, which will contribute further data to our food web study. The ease with which we can attract reef sharks of all life stages in Andros is a very positive statement for the health of the shark populations in this area. Clearly, the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary is having a positive impact on this species that displays residency to local reefs.
On arrival back to the lodge, we settled down for a fabulous, locally-caught lobster dinner, then called it a night and headed to bed for the final sleep of the expedition.
On our last morning in paradise, we woke up to winds blowing at 25-30 knots from the east. With the wind limiting our plans to head back out to the six-mile buoy, we chose to end our expedition with the lemon sharks at Isla’s Point.
The lemon gods were very generous! We counted more than seven individuals, including one that was seven feet in length, and another at six feet! Tristan couldn’t resist the opportunity to position his 360-camera (INSTA360) in the middle of the sharks, and was rewarded with some super-fun shots! With our hearts satisfied, our minds couldn’t help but feel a bit blue as we all headed back to the lodge for the last time.
On arrival to the dock, we rushed to our rooms to get packed, grabbed a quick lunch, then met with our local taxi drivers for the trip back to the airport. Our charter plane landed on time and we were in the air right away. Sad times indeed, as none of us wanted to leave. Staying positive, guests enjoyed the vast, pristine, and utterly beautiful Andros habitats from the sky, and before long, we touched down in Florida and were heading through customs. We said our sad goodbyes and finally parted to return to our respective lives. Our shark-filled expedition had finally come to an end, but with some loving friendships formed and some incredible memories created, it was hard to feel too sad. All good things must come to an end… temporarily!
ANDROS JAN 2019 TEAM, YOU WERE THE BEST!
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 January 2019.