Bimini: Islands in the Stream

A juvenile lemon shark Negaprion brevirostris swims along the channel leading to a sheltered mangrove habitat, which young sharks use as a safe refuge from predators, including the adults of their own kind. The mangrove ecosystem of Bimini is the only mangrove area in the entire western edge of the Great Bahamas bank, which is a critical habitat and nursery ground for countless species of fauna.

At Triangle Rock, a spot famous for shark diving, a Caribbean reef shark Carcharhinus perezi cruises below the surface with a school of Bermuda chub Kyphosus sectatrix in the late evening light. As high-order predators of marine ecosystems, sharks are indicators of biological abundance. which highlight the productivity of the waters around these small isles of the Bahamas.

An aerial view of a mangrove island, with the Bimini Bay development in the background. As the only mangrove system on the western edge of the Great Bahamas Bank, this productive habitat makes a considerable contribution to the biological abundance of this region, however a large section of the mangroves of Bimini has already been removed for the large-scale resort and the ongoing development threatens the remainder.

Drainage pipes and an excavator at the construction site of an 18-holes golf course, which used to be the mangrove forest on the western side of North Sound in the North Bimini. The resort project has continued to expanded for two decades, and now the plan to build a golf course could spell disaster for the remaining intact mangrove ecosystem of Bimini.

Newspaper cuttings about the ongoing and controversial resort development on Bimini has been collected by a member from a local environmental group. Although the project has created more than 1,000 jobs for Bahamians, many Biminites fear that its impact on the environment will jeopardise their local economy and livelihoods, which have historically relied on a tourism industry based on the ecological richness of the islands.

Snorkellers stand on the wreckage of a Curtiss C-46 aircraft that crashed in 1986 during a drug smuggling operation off South Bimini. Despite its historical notoriety for smuggling and piracy, The Bahamas has grew to become a world-class travel destination, attracting more than four million tourists each year.

A Southern stingray, Hypanus americanus swims over the head of a visitor during a ray feeding session at Honeymoon Harbour, a secluded beach on an island a few kilometres from Bimini. Unique marine life encounters like this have nourished the ecotourism industry on these islands.

On a humid weekend evening, a crowd enjoys live music at Stuart’s Conch Shack, a popular spot frequented by both locals and tourists. Being so close to Miami, USA, Bimini is an easy getaway for tourists and there are ongoing efforts from developers to accommodate mass tourism on these small islands.

A large pile of discarded shells from Queen conch, Lobatus gigas, a traditionally important source of protein of the whole West Indies region is seen behind a local basketball court, while a young boy performs a slam dunk. Fisheries is another major component of Bimini's economy, in addition to tourism, which highly depends on its productive marine ecosystems, therefore the potential ecological impact could threaten the livelihoods of the Biminites also.

Professor Samuel ‘Doc’ Gruber speeds away from the wreckage of SS Sapona. In addition to having studied sharks for more than 50 years and contributed numerous articles to scientific publications, Doc is the founder of Bimini Biological Field Station, more commonly known as the Shark Lab, and also being a prominent figure, who has been voicing the disagreement with the large-scale development on the islands to conserve the mangrove ecosystem of Bimini for over a decade.

A behavioural researcher from the Shark Lab works inside a shark pen housing a large number of juvenile lemon sharks, Negaprion brevirostris. In addition to being the location where many leading shark researchers gained their field experience in their early careers, Shark Lab's scientific research has been providing critical information to support conservation and has led to the establishment of a shark sanctuary in The Bahamas and lemon shark protection in Florida, among many other successes.

A juvenile lemon shark, Negaprion brevirostris is put into tonic immobility to be closely observed by high-school girls during an educational program organised by Shark4Kids and the Shark Lab in the mangrove forest of Bimini. In addition to their numerous research projects, the Shark Lab also offers numerous educational and outreach activities ranging from guided tour to working with documentary filmmakers to raise the awareness on the importance of these marine predators and their habitats.

Bimini are small isles in the Bahamas, a world renowned travel destination famous for its rich productive sea, which was the inspiration for Earnest Hemingway’s novels, such as The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. Tourism has long been a major industry in the Bimini since the 20’s, contributing largely to the economic growth of these islands. In addition to sustaining the economy in tourism and fishing industries, the productive marine ecosystems of the Bimini, especially the mangroves ecosystem, also provide critical habitats for countless fauna, which contribute largely to the biological diversity and abundance of the Bahamas and beyond. As the only mangroves habitat in the entire Western Bahamas bank, the mangrove forest of Bimini serves as a home and nursery ground to a large diversity of marine life, including a variety of shark species and their relatives, making it a famous location for shark research. Despite the ecological, social and economic importance of the mangroves of Bimini has long been known, backed by scientific evidences, the mangrove forest of the Bimini is far from being protected, and currently being threatened by a destructive developmental project on the islands. With the ongoing large-scale resort development and construction of its infrastructure to accommodate mass tourism in these small islands, the fragile and productive marine ecosystems of the Bimini are at risk of being decimated. On the other hand, scientists and local environmental activists on Bimini have been working in their own way in order to preserve the remaining important ecosystems, which are not only critical for maintaining the biological richness, but also the economy and livelihood of the people in this region.

© 2019 Sirachai (Shin) Arunrugstichai
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