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Big Bad Bulls - Sharing Space with Bull Sharks - by Former Intern Candace Narvaez

The engine roars as our boat glides through the waves, jumping over every swell before us. I look out on the horizon, taking in the bright cerulean Bahamian water and cotton clouds in the sky. I can feel the excitement building in all of us as we drop anchor at the Hammerhead site, our boat swaying in the current while we get ready to bait the water. I grab the raw herring in my hands and gently rub it into smaller pieces, trying to lure in any neighboring hammerhead sharks while also ensuring that the nurse sharks swarming the engine don’t eat all the bait. We bait for over an hour before I hear,

“We got a bull,” being shouted from the water.

I jump up and head to the stern, fish blood still on my fingertips—anxious to get a glimpse of the most notoriously unpredictable and aggressive shark species out there.

“We have a second bull!” is yelled out before I can even think about moving or putting my gear on.

[Bull sharks at the Big Game Marina - (C) Chelle Blais]

I jump into action, carefully washing my hands off in the water and hastily squeezing into my wetsuit. I practically throw my mask and fins on before gently lowering myself into the water, careful not to splash or make sudden movements. I hang off the ladder, letting the current fan my body away from the boat, and when I look down, I see it. The unmistakable short stunted snout and stocky body against the numerous nurse sharks swarming the bait tube and crate. I watch in awe as it effortlessly moves through the water right under me, passing the bait crate and getting extremely close to the only other bull shark in the water. The two sharks make large, arcing circles around the suspended bait and around each other, calmly hugging the sand flats on the bottom. They disappear in and out of view like ghosts over the seagrass beds, blending in perfectly with the shadows. I keep my eyes on them long after they disappear, waiting to see where they’ll re-emerge. Watching the two individuals interact is almost like watching a game of chicken; they maintain eye-contact and swim directly at each other—narrowly avoiding a collision. Over time, they begin making larger and larger circles, disappearing for minutes at a time before suddenly re-appearing from an unexpected direction. I stay in the water for hours, until it seems like they’re no longer interested in the draw of bait they can’t reach. As I slowly make my way back onto the boat, I’m reluctant to leave. The entire experience felt surreal, almost like I was watching someone else, but at the same time, it was my most memorable experience with sharks in the water to date. I didn’t feel scared or anxious. In fact, my admiration for them only grew.

[Bull sharks at the Big Game Marina - (C) Chelle Blais]

Bull sharks have always been one of my favorite species of shark despite their reputation. In fact, some of the things I love most about them are their tenacious personalities that command respect and their ability to thrive in freshwater, brackish, estuarine, and saltwater ecosystems. Bull sharks are the only requiem sharks capable of surviving long term in freshwater, which can be attributed to their physiologic ability to prevent excess salt loss while in freshwater. In addition, studies show that Bull sharks use these freshwater systems as nursery grounds and refuges, giving juveniles a survival advantage by greatly reducing the risk of predation after birth. There have been several sightings of Bulls in tributaries far from the ocean—with resident populations in lakes all over the world, such as Lake Nicaragua—and have even been sighted as far upstream as the Ohio River in Indiana. Additionally, sharks experience the world around them in a completely different way, often taking exploratory bites or investigative bumps at objects or animals that are unfamiliar to them. Since they don’t have hands, their mouths are their only means of expressing their curiosity and learning more about survival and their environment. Sadly, most exploratory bites can be extremely damaging and traumatic on humans because shark jaws are incredibly powerful and are lined with rows sharp teeth. All of these factors combined with their general territoriality and large size (they can reach up to 11 feet or about 3.5 meters) makes Bull Sharks one of the most potentially dangerous shark species. However, this perception is not only harmful but also highly inaccurate since shark attacks are incredibly rare regardless of species. However, humans pose an even greater risk to sharks than sharks do us—more than 100 million sharks are either finned or caught as commercial fishery bycatch every year. Also, it's estimated that thirty percent of shark species are either endangered, threatened or at risk of extinction. This estimate doesn’t include species rarely documented or highly understudied so it’s possible that many more sharks around the world are in danger of extinction.

It seems like even the fierce Bull Shark is in danger of extinction due to anthropogenic egoism and harmful culling and overfishing practices. When it comes to sharks, it’s important to remember that they are predators first, so you should always closely monitor their behavior and maintain a safe distance. Some things to look out for that indicate increasing aggression or territoriality are: swimming speed, position in the water column, darting, and tail beats. An agitated shark will often beat its tail faster and start climbing higher in the water, towards the surface. If this happens, it’s important to stay close to your boat or remove everyone from the water entirely.

[Bull sharks at the Big Game Marina - (C) Chelle Blais]

Any wild animal has the capability to be dangerous, but none of them deserve to be classified as monsters, especially not Bull Sharks.


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