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Mariah Falls In with The Sharks!

Mariah Milano Visits UNEXSO Shark Lab in Bimini, Bahamas

I just returned last night from 9 days in Bimini which is a very small island in the Bahamas. It’s actually the closest Bahamian island to Florida being only 53 miles from Miami and one of the most beautiful places on earth. The water is a blue I have never seen other than maybe Polynesia but I would say it’s every bit as clear and blue as Bora Bora or Fiji.  But it was the people and the energy and of course, the UNEXSO Shark Lab that made my trip worthwhile.

I went over to shoot my 2012 calendar and spend some time relaxing and getting some sun away from everything. Cell phones don’t work and wifi is scarce to say it nicely so it ended up being a great break from the “real world”.

I flew over in a twin prop charter from Ft Lauderdale and after sixteen minutes in flight we began our descent into Bimini. The water was so amazing from the plane and I didn’t realize just how tiny the island is. Bimini is made up of 3 different islands with an estimated population of around 1,600. The biggest being North Bimini that is a total of 7 miles long and 700 feet wide and is the most populated part of Bimini with restaurants and shops and hotels along the on main street,  Kings Road.  Everyone uses golf carts and there are very few cars which is nice and it took me a few days to get used to driving on the left side of the road again!

A little but of Bimini’s history:
Bimini was home to Ernest Hemingway for 2 years in the 1930’s where he wrote and fished on his boat and supposedly a 500 pound Blue Marlin he caught was the inspiration to his famous book “The Old Man and the Sea” as well as “Islands in the Stream”.  After Hemingway, Dr Martin Luther King spent time in Bimini in 1964 writing his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The Fountain of Youth:
I had read online about the myth of the fountain of youth being in Bimini but once I got there and spent time speaking to the locals it took on a much larger tale. I actually visited the “Healing Hole” as it’s named that fills with fresh water during outgoing tides and took a drink as well as soaked in it for a bit. I can say that I felt amazing when I got out and I don’t have the usual back pain I have been so used to for a while. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not!

**Bimini is believed to be the beginning of the fabled undersea world of Atlantis. On September 2, 1968, while diving in three fathoms (5.5 meters) of water off the northwest coast of North Bimini island, J. Manson Valentine encountered an extensive “pavement” of what later was found to be noticeably rounded stones of varying size and thickness. This stone pavement was found to form a northeast-southwest linear feature, which is most commonly known as either the “Bimini Road” or “Bimini Wall”.  I went snorkeling along the Bimini Road and it’s one of the most popular tours on the island. After Valentine, the Bimini Road has been visited and examined by geologists, a vocational archaeologists, professional archaeologists, anthropologists, marine engineers, innumerable divers, and many other people. In addition to the Bimini Road, investigators have found two additional “pavement-like” linear features that lie parallel to and shoreward of the Bimini Wall. The stones have been carbon dated and are reported to be more than 3,500 years old!

But aside from all of this factual stuff the greatest experience I had while there was my day at the UNEXSO shark lab. UNEXSO stands for “Underwater Explorers Society” and is one of the world’s most prominent research facilities for sharks, which was started by Dr. Samuel Gruber. The lab is located on South Bimini Island and when you see it you think, “this is THE shark lab?” as it’s basically a very small building with a few rooms including a communal dining area and a bunk room as well as a meeting room complete with schedules and tons of information (see photo), but the main research is done in the bay behind the lab in the water where they have their subjects in open water pens. Most of their research is on Lemon sharks as they breed and mate and are abundant in the waters of Bimini. They study juveniles tagging them so they can be monitored for the rest of their lives. Bimini is also home to Tiger Sharks, Reef sharks, the fierce bull shark as well as a variety of other sharks.

I went on a snorkeling trip that took us to the SS Sapona wreck as well as Honeymoon Harbor to feed sting rays and then to a rock formation called Triangle Rocks where reef sharks are commonly seen. I have been terrified my entire life of sharks but after a day at the shark lab I found myself the following morning in 30 feet of water swimming with 7 coral reef sharks and the smallest being about 6 feet long and 180 pounds! I saw a black tip shark in Turks n Caicos last month but I was a good 20 feet away. Here I was literally almost close enough to reach out and touch them, in the wild on their turf and they were every bit as cautious and uninterested in having me for lunch as I was assured they would be. They were curious and even followed us back to the boat but never once did I feel uneasy or threatened but I will admit to having a severely increased heart rate at first!
I was taken out to the bay where they have the pens with the juvenile Lemon sharks that they catch and rotate out every 3 weeks after collecting DNA and adding the tracking device very similar to the one implanted in dogs. I got to touch and hold a baby Lemon shark and I have to say I am in love. They are so amazing and when you realize how fine-tuned they are you really get sick to think of the people that do nothing but destroy these amazing creatures.

I want to note that the UNEXSO lab is the place that first discovered catatonic immobility in sharks. I don’t want to continue to bore you with my jabbering enthusiasm more than I already have but Google “sharks tonic immobility” or look it up on YouTube. It’s amazing and I know because I was fortunate enough to witness it in person. The effect of touch on a predator as fierce as a shark was amazing and one of the great experiences of my life.

Do yourself a favor and visit Bimini and request to take a tour at the UNEXSO Shark Lab. Generally they require you to have a referral but I think they are trying very hard to get the information out to save the sharks that they are willing to educate anyone interested.

Be prepared for the expense of Bimini though! A case of Corona is $90 and a golf cart rental is around $100 per day and is a necessity while there. You can charter a flight for around $1400 each way or you can check with some of the airlines who will only fly over if they have enough passengers to make the trip.   xoxoxo, Mariah Milano “Always a traveler, NEVER a tourist!”

You can see Mariah’s video here
**Some factual information from Wikipedia

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