Sharks at the sandbar? Be encouraged, not afraid, say researchers

A blacktip reef shark and a stingray chase the same prey at the sandbar. - Photo: Jessica Harvey

A rare sighting of blacktip reef sharks in the crystal clear water of Stingray Sandbar should be cause for celebration, not alarm, according to the photographer who captured the moment.

Jessica Harvey, of the Guy Harvey Research Institute, was at the sandbar as part of the group’s ongoing surveys of its stingray inhabitants.

Sharks are common in the North Sound but relatively skittish and shy of human interaction, so it is rare to see them at busy sites like the sandbar.

But the pause in tourism traffic appears to have temporarily changed that dynamic.

Harvey said interacting with the two sharks was incredible.

“On occasion, you’re lucky if you see one, as they are fairly shy, but to see two was incredibly special.

“It was one of those moments where you try to contain your excitement in an effort to not spook them. The conditions were just right; calm clear day, no other boats and my GoPro didn’t malfunction.”

Two blacktip reef sharks showed up at the sandbar earlier this week. – Photo: Jessica Harvey

Sharks have been a protected species in the Cayman Islands since 2015. Harvey says it is a positive development if we are seeing more of these apex predators in our waters.

“Sharks are what we refer to as keystone species, meaning they are indicators of ocean health. The more sharks you have, the healthier your ocean,” she said.

For those that are afraid, she has a simple message: Don’t be.

The blacktip sharks in the photos are not harmful for humans, or even stingrays.

“As we had tuna in the water, the sharks were curious, but the stingrays were defensive of their food and so the brief interaction was like watching two basketball players trying to score a basket with a significantly outnumbered team of defenders,” she added.

The Department of Environment also issued a response to some concerns about the images, when they surfaced on social media.

The DoE has been carrying out a feeding programme for stingrays at the site, to keep them habituated to the tourist attraction.

It is illegal to feed sharks anywhere in the Cayman Islands and all feeding stops whenever sharks turn up at the sandbar, as they do from time-to-time, according to the DoE.

“Sharks are a natural part of the marine ecosystem in the North Sound and the Cayman Islands,” a statement indicated.

“Although normally retreating from people, with the reduction in boats and people at the sandbar during the COVID curfew, it is more encouraging than surprising to find that the sharks, like other animals in Cayman and around the world, have become more gregarious in their exploration of areas they would normally avoid.”

Citing comments on social media about the potential for sharks to become habituated to humans at the sandbar, the DoE said this was a legitimate concern, which is why all feeding stops on the few occasions that sharks do show up.

“Although sharks in Cayman waters tend to be docile, they are still wild animals, and potentially dangerous wild animals, and so should not be fed,” the DoE said.

For Harvey and for many nature lovers, the chance to interact with sharks at close quarters is a rare and thrilling opportunity.

She was initially concerned that her photographs, which she did not personally authorise for release until now for this article, would cause unnecessary alarm.

But, she said, the responses she had seen were actually overwhelmingly positive.

“What was encouraging to see was the amount of positive responses the pictures received,” she said. “It shows that education is working, people are starting to understand the value of these incredible creatures, and that’s what we all strive for.”

The sandbar is still closed to visitors for now. The Guy Harvey Research Institute is conducting its bi-annual survey of rays at the site and examining any changes in behaviour brought on by the pandemic lockdown.

Once the site reopens, Harvey says it is unlikely we will see too many sharks.

“Sharks are incredibly shy and very sensitive to their surroundings,” she said. “When there are a lot of people in the water and noisy boat traffic in the area, it’s a place they would normally avoid.”

If a shark does show up, she said, there is no cause for alarm.

“Calmly point it out and if you are lucky enough to get a good glimpse and even get a clear picture, you feel like you’ve just won a $1,000.”

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