Shark Bait Ooh Ha-Ha
By Corie Herbert
To know the magic of Bahía is to experience a sunrise. Whether it is lounging in your cot under Finnigan (the resident fin whale skeleton), on a paddle board, sipping coffee in the station or on the water heading out to open waters in hopes of finding wildlife. There’s nothing quite like the sunrise in Bahía—it never ceases to amaze me, and that’s coming from a hardcore self-proclaimed night owl where the stars are equally incredible. Maybe it’s the bold confidence of the sun peaking over the islands in the distance or maybe it’s the excitement of adventure, I always find myself waking up to a breathtaking warm, neon sky.
So, to break it down, this maiden trip was designed as a hybrid between an existing program and a new concept. By combining OdySea Aquarium, The Sulikowski Shark and Fish Lab, and Vermilion Sea Institute, Ocean Desert Alliance (ODA) was born for this hybrid model. With ODA, an additional opportunity could now be offered to conduct tagging and data collection on sharks in the area. The tagging boat would leave when sharks are most active at dawn and dusk (also known as “crepuscular” if you want to be fancy) to maximize the chances of tagging. Whale shark boats also went out every day just like in the Stars to Sea program. These boats went out to search for marine life and whale sharks alike to collect photographic data to input into a global database to identify individual whale sharks through their unique spot patterns. Honestly, you could write a novel about a single trip to the Vermilion Sea Field Station, but for now I’ll focus on one morning that still makes me excited when I talk about it. So, enough of the background-let’s get to the fun part.
In the early…one-handed…single digit hours of the morning (*yawn* I’m a night owl remember), those heading out on “toothy” boats, as we lovingly named them, are packed up ready to hopefully catch and tag a shark. You experience this sunrise on the water, local breakfast burrito and coffee in hand, driving straight into it which is completely different from those that experience it on shore at the station. I could hear Meghann in my head saying “take a breath and be present” like she often reminds me to do. She does know best being a real-life mermaid and all.
Photo by Nicole Drake
I never realized how much preparation it took to catch a shark, nor did I realize it was just a bigger version of the pond fishing I did as a kid. It was a simple set-up of hook, line and bobber just much more advanced and able to handle an evolutionary wonder. Our boat was honored with an experience of a lifetime; shortly after we baited and chummed the water, we had a bite!! If you thought seeing a bobber sink in a pond was exciting, take a seat my friend. Below the surface of this bobber was an absolute mystery and knowing you are in almost 2,000 feet of open water added to the excitement. Watching the pole bend with such force caused an adrenaline rush on the boat. We had no idea what could be on the end of the line, we only hoped it was what we were out there for. Everyone had a role and low and behold, we had our first glimpse of a mako shark just below the surface after Dr. Sulikowski reeled it in. IT HAPPENED!! Once safely secured next to the boat, we were able to collect data and determined that this was a mature male fit to be tagged. This magnificent animal: who in my opinion is flawless for the role they play in the ecosystem; stayed boatside in the water allowing the ocean to flow through its gills. And the TEETH. SO. MANY. TEETH!! After the data was collected, we released the shark and after a few moments he swam away into the depths of the Gulf of California. I don’t know about everyone else, but I went completely limp, legs shaking, heart racing and sweat pouring down my face feeling all the emotions of my first mako shark encounter. Talk about creating a core memory!! We all cheered and high-fived realizing we just lived inside an episode of Shark Week in real life. I’m still grinning ear to ear writing this—I will never forget those 20 minutes of perfection at the end of the line I was holding. And just like that, we reset our fishing line to drift with the current to try again.
For me, I would describe the experience of Expedition Shark as one of mystery. No matter how much planning and preparation was put in place, the result was always unexpected. But we made the best of each day-and every boat trip was different. Will we catch a shark? Where are the whale sharks? Are the sea lions and other marine life active today? The answer is never guaranteed but the magic is the growth everyone makes during their stay here. You connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t meet; you grow your community of people who share similar experiences and create a library of stories to look back on with them. Each person has a different expectation and for me the most rewarding one is watching someone create a core memory right in front of you. I’ve been on a few trips to the Vermilion Sea Field Station, but this most recent trip left a different mark. I saw bucket list things I’ve been silently waiting to see for my entire life that instantly brought me to tears as well as share the happiest “moments” with fellow new friends. If you want to experience the mystery and magic of Bahía (as well as truly live off grid) I highly suggest visiting this biosphere reserve because it is full of magic and mystery and it is never the same twice. For me it’s a feeling of home where the ocean helps me to reset, and I always feel blissfully exhausted at the end of each day looking up at the galaxy of stars right next to Finnigan.
Header photo by Nicole Drake