Ocean Lover

Meet Our Local Sharks & The People Protecting Them

The Caribbean is famous for being a paradise, rich in colour, biodiverse coral reefs and an abundance of marine life including sharks.  A healthy population of sharks is an indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem and is valuable not only for our marine environment but also for the tourism industry and our economy.  The Cayman Islands is one of the most popular diving destinations in the world and people travel from all over to experience our world renowned underwater world but also for the opportunity to see a shark(s) on their dive.  A survey in 2011 showed that sharks are worth more alive than dead in Cayman. The economic value of an alive shark was estimated to be about US$54 million per year.  So not only do sharks help keep the balance in the marine environment but also add to our islands economy.  The survey also showed that even if tourists don’t want to see sharks while swimming, they do want to know that there is a healthy shark population in Cayman as it is more and more common public knowledge that sharks are threatened but needed for our oceans.  Globally as well as in Cayman, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have proven successful in preserving biodiversity as well as allowing fragile ecosystems an opportunity to recover and declining populations of marine life, including sharks, a chance to replenish. For highly mobile animals such as sharks which have also life characteristics such has slow growth, late maturity and relative few pups, MPAs together with specific shark protection measures have proven to be most effective in order to conserve local populations. Therefore, our island rightly takes great pride in our marine environment, our coral reefs are one of our island’s greatest assets, but we can be equally proud to be a shark sanctuary.  The 100% protection of all shark and ray species within our coastal and offshore waters, under the National Conservation Law, provides the foundation for a healthy shark population in the future.  

Meet The Locals

In the Cayman Islands, 8 species of sharks are commonly found including: Great hammerhead shark, nurse shark, lemon shark, Caribbean reef shark, blacktip shark, tiger shark, Oceanic whitetip and silky shark.  According to Shark Conservation Cayman’s, Sharklogger data, the most commonly encountered shark species by divers are: Caribbean reef shark, Hammerhead shark and nurse shark. Lemon shark, blacktip shark and tiger shark are less frequently seen which is a trend which is also shown by data from Shark Conservation Cayman’s ongoing BRUV surveys.  With such a caring local dive community it is not surprising that some of our island’s resident sharks got names and are welcomed dive buddies.

Scarlett: is a friendly Caribbean Reef Shark. She is an old local resident of East End. She is easily spotted by her dark birth mark on the corner of her mouth, giving her the nickname “Smudge”. Scarlett is known to have a calm nature, making her easy to photograph. She usually comes to say HI when a group of divers enters her home range.

Finn: is a friendly resident nurse shark and is a well-known individual among local divers.  SHE (not he) has a distinctive scar on its mouth probably from a hook encounter years ago. Finn can be found on the West Side of Grand Cayman.  She is known to come very close to divers and sometimes stays to swim along to show divers around. 

The Bash Brothers: are two male sharks found in East End of Grand Cayman, while diving in their home range there is a good chance of seeing them. They are often found swimming together.  One of the Bash Brothers has a distinctive scar on its gills. Sometimes a smaller shark “Little Basher” joins the gang but it’s less common to see it.

The Legend 107: this dominant female Caribbean reef shark is a legend Little Cayman.  The origin of her name comes from her dorsal fin tag number “DOE #107” tagged by Shark Conservation Cayman in 2010.  She is the survivor of a hook that was lodged in her stomach and over the years she has grown to 2.2m.

Big Bertha: is a Caribbean Reef Shark.  She got her name as local divers have watched her throughout her pregnancy.  For over a year, Big Bertha became recognizable by her large growing belly.  Big Bertha gave birth last year.  

Little “Hookie”: a friendly nurse shark on Grand Cayman.  His name as it suggests, is due to a very large fishing hook which was found stuck in his upper jaw for over a year.  He is known to have a very lovely personality and comes close to divers to say “hello” sometimes spending the entire dive cruising around with divers.  Thankfully, at the beginning of June 2018 he got relief from his hook as a dive staff successfully removed it.  Now, he cruises around happily without his once recognizable lip piercing. 

Saving Local Sharks

Shark Researchers have a unique opportunity to work with sharks and gather data to gain a better understanding of sharks.  Sharks come across as one of the most intimidating and feared animals on the planet yet are one of the most misunderstood.  Shark Conservation Cayman is working towards a better understanding of our local shark population since 2008. The shark team works with local communities such as fishermen, divers and children as well as schools to educate and communicate. Their work together with the efforts of caring members from the public, led to the shark protection measures in the National Conservation Law in 2015. Shark Conservation Cayman’s research consists of various methods, including the Sharklogger Network, to study and monitor the local shark population.  Shark Conservation Cayman has also successfully collaborated with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) on a project that deployed satellite tags on Oceanic white tip sharks and tiger sharks.  Research, conservation and outreach done by Shark Conservation Cayman is made possible due to generous donations via the White Tip Conservation Fund from their main supporter the Cayman Islands Brewery, as well as the member of the public and corporations.  Read more details and on their plans for the future in tomorrow’s (Friday) article.

A Career In Shark Conservation

Notes: Johanna Kohler, Dept. of Environment, during the download of the acoustic receiver array on all Cayman islands. Photo Credit: Johanna Kohler

Meet Johanna Kohler, a local shark researcher and conservationist.  Johanna’s work with her team at Shark Conservation Cayman has been instrumental in helping protect sharks of the Cayman Islands, as well as allowing us to have a greater understanding of our local sharks.   

Q&A with Johanna Kohler

1. How long have you been working in shark conservation?
Since 2010, I’ve worked as a volunteer before and during my studies to help various organizations with their shark conservation efforts. In Cayman, I’m working in shark research and conservation with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment (DoE) and Marine Conservation International, under the name Shark Conservation Cayman, since 2.5 years.

2. What do you love most about shark research?
I love the work on and in the water. Getting to know the shark’s individual character and seeing them in their natural environment. I love finding out how sharks work, what they are up to, how and why they migrate on the big and small scale and how it all fits together to a bigger picture. Sometimes you look at one thing and are able to connect it with another and suddenly you get an “Aha – moment” and are able to explain one aspect of your research questions. Ultimately, I love that with research we are able to understand our shark populations better and better which leads to effective conservation management. In my opinion research is key to a healthy ocean and happy co-existing of all creatures.

3. What are Shark Conservation Cayman’s key methods to protect sharks in the Cayman Islands?
Our research methods include Baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys, acoustic telemetry (acoustic tags), public shark sightings and the Sharklogger Network. We also collaborate with the GHOF to satellite tag oceanic white tip and tiger sharks. These various research methods complement each other leading to answer our research questions. We also work with our local communities, such as divers, fishermen, schools and children to educate, share research findings and keep continued open communication. Our work together with the efforts of caring members from the public, led to the 100% protection of sharks and rays within Cayman coastal and offshore waters. The DoE has a conservation unit who enforce our National Conservation Laws in the Cayman Islands, including the protection of sharks.

4. What is biggest struggle in shark conservation?
Human perception of sharks may be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Many years the media and blockbuster movies have mis-portraited sharks as mindless, man-eating monsters. Everyone who has seen a shark in real life knows that this is not true. Sharks don’t deserve this bad reputation but we need to start appreciating the benefits sharks bring to our communities and to the overall marine ecosystem. However, to change the public attitude towards sharks is challenging and needs constant education and communication. In general, a community that perceives sharks as something negative or as nuisance brings various negative consequences for shark conservation such as limited funding, continued fishing globally, accidental catch being killed rather than released and continued fear and myths kept alive.
In Cayman we have been working continuously towards educating our community to help everyone understand that we need sharks in a healthy marine environment for our island and that they do bring socio-economic benefits as well.

5. What is one of the most interesting things you have learned about sharks?
Personally I’m fascinated by behaviour and reproduction. In terms of behaviour not every shark is the same. Every species and every individual within that species has a unique character and behaves differently, like in dogs. Some are curious and come close, others are shy or ignore you and are hardly seen.
When it comes to reproduction, I think it’s pretty cool that different shark species have different ways of reproduction. Some shark pups have even belly buttons! Also, females can store sperm for a long period of time if conditions aren’t right to become pregnant when she mates. She can choose to become pregnant when it suits her. And in some species females are able to clone themselves! That’s a pretty cool super power.

6. Is there a particular species of shark that you most enjoy researching?
To be honest, not really. My favorite shark species are tiger sharks, but all sharks are interesting. Each species is unique and interesting things are yet to be discovered. In Cayman, I love that we are able to dive and see the sharks live in their natural environment as well which is not possible everywhere.

7. What advice would you give to students interested in facilitating real change in shark conservation?
Become a marine biologist, have a passion for sharks and work hard. It’s also important to keep in mind that research needs to go hand in hand with outreach and conservation management in order to effectively work towards shark conservation.

8. How can our local community help contribute to protecting sharks in the Cayman Islands?
There are various ways how everyone on island can help with our research and conservation efforts. If you see a shark, anywhere, during a dive, while on the beach, while fishing, or on the boat, please call it in to the DoE (949-8469) or report it via our website (https://www.sharkconservationcayman.com/report-a-shark/) or Facebook page (Shark Conservation Cayman). Especially fishermen on island are very helpful by telling us when they accidentally caught a shark. They get a really good look at it and are able to give us a lot of great information. The local diving community is also amazing. Local divers, diving centers and dive staff have joined the Sharklogger Network. By participating they help to keep track of our shark populations all year around. Any diver, snorkeler or diving center is welcome to join. Email sharkloggers@gmail.com for more information.
Everyone on island can contribute to protect sharks by not buying or eating any shark meat or shark products (e.g. liver, oil, fins). Also, you can help by raising awareness. Tell your friends and family about the shark protection measures as well as the ecological and socio-economic benefits of having sharks in our ocean.
Lastly, if you are of drinking age, drink more White Tip! The White Tip Conservation Fund from Caybrew is our main support, hence the more you buy the money for our sharks!

9. Why is shark conservation in Cayman so important?

In the Caribbean and worldwide, sharks are indirectly and directly of socio-economic importance. Not only are sharks, as keystone predators, vital in keeping the marine ecosystem healthy and balanced but can also generate direct revenue though tourism. In Cayman our surveys have shown that most tourists come for our pristine waters and vibrant marine ecosystem. Most divers love to see sharks when diving and even tourists that don’t want to see a shark while diving or swimming appreciate knowing that sharks are present because it is a publicly well known fact that sharks are important to our oceans. In Cayman sharks are worth more alive than dead with an estimated yearly economic value of US$ 54 million per year.
Indirectly sharks have further socio-economic benefits. By helping to keep the marine ecosystem in balance, sharks benefit local fisheries and communities.
Therefore, local shark protection measures benefit the Cayman Islands in many ways and has positive effects for local communities as well as tourism.

Article Written by: Laura Butz and Johanna Kohler

Photo Credit: Johanna Kohler