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Bimini « Last Stands

Posts Tagged ‘Bimini’

Martin Luther King and the mangroves

June 17th, 2009

Ansil Saunders, a bonefishing guide for 50 years and the builder of beautiful wooden boats, is in no doubt about the value of mangroves to small island communities like Bimini. I caught up with Ansil in his boatshed on North Bimini. He had one skiff at the skeletal stage and one that was finished, awaiting a buyer (a steal at $40,000). The hull of the finished boat was lacquered a deep-sea blue, while much of the interior was an intensely grained blood-red-and-blond timber called horseflesh, or Bahamas mahogany, varnished to a deep sheen. Picking up a big timber “knee” that had been shaped into a bow stem, Ansil remarked: “The hardest timber comes from trees that have faced the strongest winds.”

Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.


A big fan pushed cool air around the shed as Ansil spoke of his love of the sea and respect for its saltwater forests. “We had a hurricane come across North Bimini—Hurricane Wilma. It was not much more than 100 mph, so it was a light hurricane by the time it reached us. But it threw boulders out of the sea and into people’s houses. I went down to the Sunshine Inn and the waves had split that hotel in half. The hurricane took that hotel and knocked its walls down. Then that hurricane went around South Bimini and ran into the mangroves, and it didn’t do one iota of damage to houses behind the mangroves. Those mangroves tamed the waves right down.”

In Grand Bahama, where there are fewer mangroves, Wilma destroyed homes and raised the dead, Ansil said. “Coffins floated right out of the cemetery.”

The hurricane showed what happens with and without mangroves. “They’re not there by accident,” Ansil concluded. “They’re part of God’s creation to hold the land together. They save our boats, they save our land, and even when the water floods them they still do their job.”

He praised the mangroves’ role as marine nurseries, too. “We don’t even know what all kind of fish spawn here and go right out on the tide,” he said. “Conch [larvae] float out north, south, east, west as far as 20 miles away.”

Then he told me something unexpected about the Bimini mangroves. On two occasions he had taken Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the mangroves of North Bimini to think and write. The first occasion, 1964, King was working on his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ansil said he took him to a lagoon in the mangroves (a spot I later visited) and the two of them sat there, filled with the serenity of the place.

The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.

KENNEDY WARNE
The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.


At one part in his speech, King wrote, “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” I wonder if that thought came to him while he sat in Ansil’s skiff in the mangroves.

Four years later, a very different King asked Ansil Saunders to take him back to that mangrove lagoon. Whereas in ’64 King had been jovial and hopeful, in ’68 he looked like a man facing a death sentence. He sought the mangrove tranquility to get his thoughts together for a speech he would deliver to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

In that speech, he linked his own weariness to that of his people. “We are tired of smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking up the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and labouring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life. We are tired of our men being emasculated, so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white ladies’ kitchens, cleaning up, unable to be with our children, to give them the time and the attention that they need. We are tired.”

Three days later King was assassinated. The memory was still fresh in Ansil’s mind, and it moved me to hear him describe it. He was wearing an Obama ’08 baseball cap. I was glad this 76-year-old Biminite had lived to see a day that showed that King’s work was not in vain.

Battling for Bimini

June 16th, 2009

Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

Photographer Matt Potenski from the Bimini shark lab and I are snorkeling among the mangrove roots in the Duckpond, an embayment a short boat ride from the lab. The prop roots of red mangroves (the primary species here) form cloisters and grottoes through which fish glide like birds through a woodland. In a place like this you can understand how effective mangroves are as a nursery area. Fish simply melt into the forest.

The roots themselves are thickly encrusted with brick red fire sponge and other filter-feeders. Clusters of mangrove oyster grow at low-tide level. Many roots are not attached to the seabed, and bob and sway gently in the current, as if the mangroves were dangling their toes in the tide.

On the seagrass beds beside the mangroves are hundreds of upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea—a type of jellyfish which appears to wish it were a sea anemone, because it lies on its “back” (the bell) with its frilly tentacles pointing upwards.

The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.


In some areas the seabed has been turned into volcanoes of sand, each about the diameter of a football. These mini-Vesuviuses are the excavations of a tubeworm which burrows deep into the substrate. The lab manager told me that if you’re really quick with a shovel you can dig up the worm, but usually it retreats to the bottom of its tunnel quicker than the shovel can dig. I figure I don’t need to see a worm badly enough to destroy its home.

Clearly, though, another shovel operator doesn’t share this sentiment. In the middle of the Duckpond a digger and a front-end loader are hard at work building a causeway across the water. They are about two-thirds of the way across. Matt is flabbergasted. Despite the fact that Bimini has been a battleground between developers and conservationists for years, the impression I’ve been getting from Sharklab staff is that progress is being made. At the beginning of this year a marine reserve was declared on the eastern side of the island, which will safeguard a large area of mangroves from a developer’s dreams. Now, almost within earshot of the lab, someone is playing fast and loose with heavy machinery.

Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.


The outgoing tide is picking up speed and carrying a plume of sediment from the earthworks out into the lagoon. Where we were following fish through the mangrove labyrinth 30 minutes earlier, now we can’t see a thing.

In the afternoon we take a boat trip through mangrove areas in North Bimini. (Bimini has two halves, North and South. The town and the largest resort are on North Bimini; the lab is on South Bimini.) Some of these mangroves were slated for a golf course for the Bimini Bay Resort, an upscale behemoth that in its original incarnation would have brought 6000 visitors to an island with a population of 1600. The establishment of the marine reserve may have taken the golf course out of the equation, but most of the mangroves we’re passing do not enjoy reserve protection, so are still “in play” as far as development options are concerned.

Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.

KENNEDY WARNE
Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.


We pass a smart launch on the outer coast, but mostly we are alone in the mangrove channels. From the bow of the skiff I see barracuda and spotted rays, jacks and conch, the shellfish which is a Bimini delicacy, and whose empty shells are a universal landscape feature. A green turtle speeds away from the boat, launching itself out of the water with a splash before diving into the shadows.

At dusk we idle past the manmade islands and marinas of Bimini Bay Resort. On board is a former Sharklab manager, Grant Johnson, who was in the front line of protest against the resort earlier in the decade. For him, it was the scale and inappropriateness of the project as much as its destructive impact on habitat that was offensive. “I found it borderline racist that the developer wanted to turn Bimini in Florida’s playground,” he says. “This is somebody’s home we’re talking about, not a desert island. The attitude was if the land’s not high enough, make it higher, it there’s water where land should be, reclaim it, if there’s land where water should be, dredge it.”

Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.


We pass a dyke meant to confine sediment from an area of current construction. The high tide is lapping over the top. Grant shakes his head, as if to say “Can’t these guys do anything right?” Bimini is far from the Bahamas’ central government in Nassau, and there’s still a frontier flavour to the place—the very spirit that attracted Hemingway in the 1930s. Grant would like that frontier to be a nature one—see the sharks, swim with the dolphins, kayak through the unspoiled mangroves. If you’re lucky, spot a Bimini boa or a sawfish.

I notice that he has the word “Hope” tattooed on his arm. That’s the operative word for the mangrove-lovers of Bimini.

Tagging lemons

June 15th, 2009

Two hours after I arrive in Bimini I’m swimming with 100 sharks. This isn’t as risky as it sounds, because the sharks are less than a metre long, and they’re inside a pen in the middle of Bimini lagoon. They are lemon sharks, charcoal grey on top and white underneath, and they circle the plastic mesh walls of the pen. If I swim in the opposite direction they stream past me like cars on a freeway.

Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.

KENNEDY WARNE
Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.


I’m in the pen with a couple of volunteers from the Bimini Biological Field Station (aka “Sharklab”). We’re checking to see that all the sharks are healthy and swimming properly. The director of the lab, Bryan Franks, has just performed a stomach eversion on a shark caught the previous evening. After knocking out the shark with a mild anaesthetic, he gently pulled the animal’s stomach through its mouth and removed a few fragments of undigested fish from inside it. The procedure, which sounds more drastic than it actually is, took only a few minutes, and afterwards the shark resumed swimming around the pen with its fellows. Its stomach contents will be analysed as part of a study to test the long-held theory that sharks play an ecological role in culling weak and sick animals from prey populations, thereby increasing their genetic fitness.

All this activity is part of an annual census of all the lemon sharks in Bimini lagoon. Over the course of a month, nets are set each evening at strategic locations in the lagoon and monitored by volunteers throughout the night. (The work happens at night because the sharks are most active then.)

Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.


The population study has been going for 15 years, making Bimini’s lemon sharks among the most studied sharks on earth. Researchers now have a full pedigree of the entire population (around 200 animals).

One of the current research goals is to look at the effects of nursery habitat loss on the population. Lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area until they reach about a metre in length and are less vulnerable to predation. On Bimini, the mangrove habitat loss is happening big-time. Resort development, channel dredging, roading and reclamation are steadily robbing the lemon shark—and other fish that use the mangrove roots as refuges—of a vital nursery ground.

A fishing guide I spoke to, “Bonefish” Ebbie, lamented the losses, saying: “Everybody chewin’ into mangroves. Sooner or later we won’t have a fishin’ village no more.”

Bimini has been called the bonefishing capital of the world. Hemingway lived here on and off in the 1930s and wrote about the experience in Islands in the Stream—the “stream” being the Gulf Stream. Bimini, the smallest of the 700 islands of the Bahamas and the closest to the US, lies on the edge of the Gulf Stream. This strategic location gives Bimini an ecological importance that exceeds its tiny size. Marine organisms spawned in its wetlands and seagrass beds may disperse for hundreds of kilometres on the aquatic conveyor belt that lies just offshore. Development threatens that process, and the Sharklab researchers want to quantify its impact.

One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.

KENNEDY WARNE
One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.


A couple of hours before sunset I join one of the net teams for a night of shark catching. One end of the net is tied to a mangrove trunk and the other to a pole sunk into the sediment. The lagoon is shallow, no more than about knee deep—except for soft spots where you suddenly sink to your waist. The water is 34 degrees—three shy of body heat. Every 15 minutes the net teams wade through this bath-temperature water, removing sharks or the occasional fish that gets caught in the nylon meshes. Sharks are whisked to a centrally located tagging boat for measurement and the injection of an electronic tag (which can be read with a scanner like a barcode). They are then released into the holding pen.

It’s a slow night. I’ve come to the island midway through the census, and two-thirds of the shark population has already been caught and corralled in the pen. Our team captures four sharks in the space of five hours. There’s a lot of bonhomie out here on the water. The crews are constantly on the radio, congratulating each other on a capture, ribbing each other, playing music from their iPods, posing obscure trivia questions (one of the catchers is an expert on Pirates of the Caribbean).

The two dozen volunteers come from as far afield as the UK and Holland to spend a sleep-deprived month swatting mosquitoes and being drenched by tropical rainstorms for the shark cause. I ask the crew in my boat if it’s the sharks or the camaraderie that draws them here (some come back year after year, and they pay for the privilege)? With one voice they say: “The sharks!”

Checking the net at sunset.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Checking the net at sunset.


Around midnight everyone is thinking about the imminent food run. The radios are busy with confirmation of people’s burrito orders: One or two? Guacamole or sour cream? The skiff with the goodies is due around 12.30 am, but as the magic hour approaches so does a thunderstorm. The sky rumbles and heavy drops of rain start to fall. Before long we are all huddling under raincoats and plastic net bins as the downpour hits.

It could be worse. If the electrical activity is severe (usually heralded by the net girls’ hair standing on end with the static) crews either crawl into the mangroves and shelter under insulating plastic covers or race hell for leather back to the lab, everyone lying flat on the floor of the skiffs. You don’t mess with lightning in this part of the world.

To everyone’s relief, when the dinner boat arrives the rain eases. Sodden jackets are peeled off and the boat bilge is pumped dry. I leave the net teams to their burritos and join the boat going back to the lab. I tell them I’m feeling guilty for bailing out halfway through the session, but that I’m sure the feeling will pass. In about half an hour, as soon as my head hits the pillow.