The Coastal Marina Education and Research Academy is an organization in Tampa, Florida that conducts marine research on the shark and ray populations in the gulf. The academy provides opportunities during the summer months for college students to volunteer as research assistants. As one of these students, I attended daily lectures about the marine life in the area then assisted on boats with data collection and shark and ray tagging.
My understanding of the world was altered greatly after this experience, both in the way that I view the animals and ecosystems that I worked with and the way that I view myself. Marine life and conservation have always been interests and passions of mine; however, before this project, the interactions that I had had with aquatic life had been as an observer in aquariums and as a diver. This research gave me an opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of animals, as well as to learn more about their biology and behaviors. Sharks and rays are the focus of the research that I participated in, and in spite of my love of the ocean, I will openly admit that these creatures have made me nervous in the past. There is a strong stigma around these powerful ocean animals, so I hoped to educate myself and learn to appreciate these animals through my project. Upon leaving, I can enthusiastically say that any fear of sharks and rays that I once had vanished by the end of my first day on the boat. This research has left me with a deep appreciation and love of the shark and ray species, and I plan to return to the academy next summer to continue learning about these amazing animals.
In addition to developing a new respect and admiration for marine life, I learned a great deal about myself during this project. As a native Ohioan studying early childhood education, field research on a boat with aquatic animals is quite out of my comfort zone. Before this summer, I had never traveled on my own before, much less done so to an entirely unfamiliar location to complete a job I have no experience with. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist, and I expected to feel uncomfortable in such a different environment – especially since working with wild animals is a very high stakes project. Once I started working, however, I learned that I did not feel uncomfortable at all; I enjoyed pushing myself and trying new activities even when I made mistakes. The experience also gave me an opportunity to practice responding positively to criticism and feeling comfortable speaking up when I was unsure. All of these lessons helped make me a better advocate for the ocean, sharpened my sense of independence, and increased my cooperative skills.
The main reason that I used to be afraid of sharks and stingrays was due to the fact that I had never been truly educated on either subject. The media stigmatizes both dramatically, especially sharks – Jaws, anyone? Although I knew that these stigmas were far from the truth, I had struggled to truly comprehend just how far until I worked with these animals in person and was educated from a place of curiosity and admiration, not a place of fear. After attending daily classes about elasmobranches, I learned that sharks can sense other animals from six kilometers away, that a shark’s entire body is covered in tiny hairs to act as a giant ear, that stingrays appear to enjoy the touch of humans in a controlled setting and have even been known to flap and leap to show off for crowds. I learned that both sharks and rays are much more intelligent than I originally knew; they can be trained in captivity to recognize shapes, memorize patterns, and swim through hoops. Learning about these incredible abilities helped reform the way that I saw these animals and I now feel that they are some of the most spectacular creatures on our planet.
The change in my perception occurred on my very first day on the research boat. After a morning of two-foot blacktip sharks, which helped ease me into the experience, our crew blew caught a nine-foot tiger shark. More experienced volunteers pulled her on board with ropes, restrained her by holding her tail and body, and placed a water hose in her mouth so that she could breathe while data was collected. I and the other new volunteers observed the process in awe, and I initially felt afraid. As I calmed down and watched data being taken, I began to notice the beauty in her almond colored eyes and the unique gray striped pattern down her side. When the captain told us that it was time to release, people began jumping into the water with snorkels and masks to watch her swim away. In the moment, I was incredibly torn – seeing this magnificent animal on a boat was one thing, but floating feet away from her in the water? I gathered my courage and jumped in, and I have not regretted it for a second. Watching her swim away into the depths below was a deeply powerful moment for me, one that made me feel more connected with nature than I have ever felt before.
Watching the interns and experienced volunteers work so easily with the tiger shark on my first day made me more determined to develop my skills as much as possible during my short time with the research team. There was a lot to learn, as volunteering required fishing skills, research techniques, and practices entirely unique to this area of study, such as knowing how to properly straddle a shark in order to stabilize its peck fins. Interns gave quick, sharp directions, and the team functioned in a style that was different from any other group setting that I have worked in before. All of these details created a very challenging work environment for me, but I found myself enjoying the change of pace and learning a lot more than I believe I would have in a familiar setting.
The shift in my view of sharks and rays that I experienced during this project, while they do not have hands-on applications in my day to day life, have been very significant for me. With my newfound appreciation for these creatures, I have begun raising awareness about marine conservation and specific issues surrounding these animals, such as shark finning. In the weeks since I have returned, I have had many conversations with my friends and family about the importance of educating ourselves on these topics and doing our part to help keep our planet safe and healthy. In addition to speaking with the few individuals I have seen consistently during this pandemic, I have utilized my social media to encourage people to see through the stigma that surrounds and harms these creatures. My experiences with CMERA have prompted me to begin seeking more opportunities to expand my horizons. I feel much more confident in my ability to travel and push myself beyond my comfort zone, and I am excited to see what other opportunities await.