Our field season is here and a sperm whale has been sighted off the south coast of Grand Cayman last week. Almost as exciting, Cayman “Pirates’ Week” has begun and I spent the first afternoon on our partner’s (the Department of Environment), parade float dressed as a southern stingray, while Ollie, our project officer, was kitted out as a tiger shark. What made it especially worthwhile was that our parade marshals handed out over 500 leaflets about the project to those watching. The kids were particularly keen on the leaflet featuring our mascot, Tina the Tiger Shark. It was a lot of fun and highlighted how important both sharks & rays (elasmobranchs) and whales & dolphins (cetaceans) are to the seas around Cayman.
Speaking of Tina the Tiger Shark, our three tigers were satellite tagged (so that we could track their movements) a whole year ago now. Since then they have roamed the western Caribbean, but two of the three, Coco and Luiza, have recently headed back to Grand Cayman. You can check out their tracks on our Cayman tiger tracking webpage, http://www.nova.edu/~johnmatt/tigergrandcayman_full.htm, where you will see just how far they travelled. Our two Cayman tagged oceanic white tip sharks, Stella and Chris, have also been covering great distances in the same region, as you can also see on a linked page to the site.
Given the effort behind this work, we are glad to see that public opinion about sharks has begun to change here. When tiger sharks were killed in Grand Cayman about three years ago, the event was highlighted in the newspaper as a threat removed. This summer, a sponsored long distance swim between Grand Cayman and Little Cayman was marred by the accompanying team killing oceanic white tips. The public outcry against this was huge and showed a positive shift in feeling for sharks, as you can see by joining our Facebook group “Sharks & Cetaceans: the Cayman Islands”. There is still plenty to do, however, to sustain this change, as is evident from the project’s recent work with the southern stingrays at the famous Stingray City diving and snorkelling sites on Grand Cayman.
This is a famous but artificial aggregation of stingrays, the result of being fed for many years by tourists, who thus enjoy close encounters with them. The experience has an amazing effect on people, who then begin to appreciate what stingrays are, and that they are not vicious killers as suggested by the unfortunate death of the Australian celebrity Steve Erwin. However it seems the number of stingrays at Stingray City has reduced in recent years, for which the tour operators are inclined to blame sharks or even a lone male bottlenose dolphin that has taken up residence in the area. In response we began a monitoring study last year and Jane, our project volunteer, has been out collecting data to help shed some light on what might be affecting the stingray population.
We will also be checking on our tiger sharks at sea, and hopefully catching one or two more to release with new satellite tags. But the main task for the next few months will be assessing our results to date and drafting recommendations for the Cayman Government on how best to manage and conserve the island’s sharks and dolphins, in order to benefit both the environment and the people of the Caymans. This is not as much fun as tagging tiger sharks, or dressing up as one, but it is key to there being not just tiger sharks, but rays and reef fish too, in the years to come.