Several days later, the ash had blown away, and we got another opportunity to search for the existing receivers with the beach safety officers. This time the captain himself brought us and two divers out on the official beach safety patrol boat. This boat was built for two things, speed, and surf. Just what you would need to get to a person in trouble or divers out in swells. The divers were unable to locate the old receivers, but we used the day to plan out the placement of our new equipment. Heading in that afternoon, I felt good after the productive day. We zoomed along, almost skipping the water’s surface. Then I got the call. There had been a bite.
We were at NSB for a reason. It is the shark bite capital of the world, and we wanted to know why. However, the bites hadn’t started ramping up that year. This bite was just the start. Over the course of 2021, Volusia County had 17 unprovoked bites, most of which were at NSB. Those numbers aren’t necessarily high for NSB, but compared to anywhere else, they are astounding. So, there I was at the shark bite capital of the world, fishing less than a mile from where this, and soon several other incidents occurred, with no sharks to show for weeks of effort. Field research is funny; we spend the majority of the year planning, writing grants, building equipment, staking our careers on a short window of collecting data in the most natural settings possible. Having a bad field season isn’t necessarily a person’s fault. I once tried doing a project on wild frogs during a drought year. It’s really easy to feel like a failure even if you do everything by the book. But after a year of lockdowns and building this up in my head, I wasn’t able to listen to that advice. My disappointment was compounded by the fact that I couldn’t even catch sharks while they were biting people. So, I took a step back to reset and ask for advice.
After days of finding nothing but catfish and crazy tourists, I needed someone with more experience to take a look at our site. I sent our program director and a collaborator from Florida State an email. I had downloaded a nautical chart and edited it to show boat traffic, habitat types, and the strong undercurrent which weaved its way through the inlet. I included the times and tides we had been fishing. The advice I got was to try night fishing and focus on a small pocket near a jetty. This would have been great news if it weren’t for the fact that our boat had no lights and that jetty after dark was the main meth head hang out… As is the case for solving so many problems, we headed to Walmart for a solution. For the lights…what were you thinking? For under $50, we bought Red/green running lights and a spotlight to see the deck.
As the sun set, the water turned clear with the changing tide. I could see the bottom rather than chocolate milk for the first time since we arrived. The air turned cool as a breeze lifted the humidity. With Joe at the bow and me at the helm, we strategically approached shallow cuts in the mangroves. Joe would fling the cast net, and we would watch it gracefully unfurl before splatting in the water. With live bait in hand, beautiful weather, and clear water, I knew this had to be the night for our overdue success. It was not. My gut feeling officially needed maintenance. There I admit it. But we caught more catfish than you can shake a stick at. I’m convinced somewhere a catfish researcher was catching all my sharks.
On June 21st, with just a week left, Joe had to leave. He had been a big help, and we were sorry to see him go. That last week we only made it out 3 days due to severe thunderstorms. Interestingly, we were never alone, even while fishing at night until after midnight. Commercial, private, and charter boats all moved through the inlet. At least the swerving drunkards usually stopped at dusk. After a month of hurdles and no sharks, we were finally at the last night of the season. “I just need one” became my mantra. We fished around the inlet but decided to camp in one spot 30ft from the mangrove’s edge in the end.
After about 3 hours of rebaiting our lines, a large splash broke the night’s silence. It was just after 1 AM, and all traces of fatigue vanished with that sound. We both froze, afraid to move. I asked my partner if it was her line. It wasn’t, and mine was slack too. Then another large splash. I searched in the dim light, and there it was. Two dorsal fins and a tail was cruising the mangrove’s edge. As it glided closer to the trees, baitfish jumped from the water in a desperate attempt to avoid the predator. We rebaited our lines and cast them 10-15ft from the shark. Every so often, the shark would splash as it lunged at a fish. I shone the spotlight slowly over the water’s surface. The shark was roughly 5ft long, tan-ish, and the first dorsal fin was far back, too far back. It wasn’t a blacktip; rather, it was a lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris). We watched the shark hunt for almost an hour. During that time, a small boat had been creeping along the shoreline. Rather than alter course when they got to our boat, they just squeezed between us and the shore, scaring away our shark in the process. All that water, and they needed to go through that stretch. Even at one o’clock special people seemed to find us.
After our exciting night, it was time to pack up and head home. We hadn’t tagged a single shark. So much was riding on the success of this trip, and I hadn’t been able to deliver. It’s times like this that it’s important to remember what you did accomplish and not fixate on what you didn’t. I deployed a receiver array, got to know the natural patterns of the area, built local relations, figured out what gear did and did not work, and gained valuable boating experience. We are using what we learned to plan for next year’s season. Namely, getting a bigger boat, no pun intended. I did accomplish significant things and am so grateful to Joe, the NSB beach safety crew, and my loving partner. Thank you all.