Conservation

The life of lemons

Mangroves are a critical habitat for many species - a place where young can thrive before venturing into the open ocean as adults. But are these important ecosystems appreciated as they should be?

Words & photographs by Jillian Morris

 

Over the years the Islands of Bimini in The Bahamas have become well known for their diverse and healthy population of sharks. Iconic species such as Caribbean reef sharks, bull sharks and great hammerheads, draw divers, photographers, film crews and scientists from around the world. Nutrient rich waters feeding in from the Gulf Stream support the healthy coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats surrounding the islands; which in turn allow the shark populations around the Island to thrive. 

Today I want to take you on a journey as I explore my favorite underwater environment – the mangroves. This incredible forest of salt tolerant trees is extremely underrated, but it is actually one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. As I slip my mask on and slide into the warm, waist deep water, I am greeted by dozens of curious mangrove and gray snapper. Caribbean lobsters peer out from under the roots, whipping their antennae back and forth after detecting my presence. The current carries me deeper into the forest; my eyes scanning the tangles of roots for a glimpse of orange; a rare encounter with a seahorse. These incredibly delicate animals can be found at the mangrove edge during low tide when the lack of water forces them out of their protected maze. Like finding a needle in a haystack, I’ve only spotted a few in over a decade on the island. 

Deeper channels weave their way through the forest, lined by seagrass meadows, which are separated from the mangrove edge with pathways of sand. Southern stingrays bury themselves in the sand, with only their eyes and spiracles sticking out. Schools of silversides dance in rhythm under overhanging branches. Juvenile green sea turtles glide along, seeking refuge in the roots when needed. Schools of bonefish move from deeper pockets to the flats to avoid predators. Barracuda and larger sharks including adult lemons and blacktips patrol the perimeter looking for a potential meal.

Removing my fins, I find a place to settle on the sand bottom. I take my camera and nestle in among the prop roots and wait. In the distance, a familiar shape appears. As it moves closer I recognize the two dorsal fins and yellowish hue. It’s a sub-adult lemon shark and at this size, the shark will patrol the seagrass and sand along the edge of the forest to look for food. Soon four more sharks of similar size join. I remain submerged just beneath the surface and watch them interact with each other. Decades of research led by Dr. Samuel “Doc” Gruber and the Bimini Biological Field Station has helped us better understand the social dynamics of this species. Yes, juvenile lemon sharks have friends! These social networks can help the young sharks find food and avoid predators.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this magical world, filming, photographing and observing these fascinating little animals. Sharks are far too often depicted as mindless eating machines, but in reality they are intelligent and have personalities. Some are bold and will be the leaders, while others are shy and prefer to follow. Spending a significant amount of time with any animal allows you a glimpse into their otherwise secret life.

Each time we return to a particular patch of mangroves, we watch for the regulars. We can tell individuals apart by a scar, notch on a fin, coloration or patterning. I remember one particular juvenile we called “Stretch.” He was long and skinny (hence the name) and my husband and I spent hours and hours observing him. We watched as he followed other slightly larger sharks up and down the channel. We watched as he hunted, often times unsuccessful. We watched as he chewed on mangrove leaves and explored his realm. It was fascinating to watch him grow and slowly build up the courage to venture out into the deeper waters around the safety of the mangroves. Stretch was getting old enough to graduate from this protected ecosystem and as the season passed we no longer saw him, but I do hope that he survived and is cruising around the Atlantic Ocean. 

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Issue 20
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This feature appears in ISSUE 20: Antarctica: Cousteau's call of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 20
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