Photo Credit: Kris-Mikael Krister

Hammerhead High

Leif Johnson
May 4, 2018 · 7 min read

Confusion, it’s not a look I’m used to seeing on Dr. Jeff Schmid’s face. At this point, there’s not much he hasn’t seen out here after three decades of sea turtle research.

Gullivan Bay — near Goodland, Florida — is more like an old friend with few secrets left to tell. But, even old friends can still surprise you and on this otherwise normal afternoon, as we rocked in the midday sun, something seemed to catch his eye.

He stood up and stepped slowly towards the stern, peering through the ocean glare. A squinted look of bewilderment radiated out from under his glasses telling me it wasn’t the animal we were looking for — he could spot a sea turtle head a mile away — but rather something else altogether.

Conservancy Research Manager Dr. Jeff Schmid

I tried following his gaze, looking to the water then back to his eyes struggling to match the spot. Wave after wave slipped before us and I began to doubt he had seen anything at all when something unexpectedly broke the surface. It was a fin; a small one, twisting about for a brief moment before disappearing again. I stood up myself, searching for a better angle. Again it broke the surface.

“What is it?” I asked, unable to look away, but the silence of my colleagues told me they didn’t know either.

As we watched, a brown, disc-shaped object no more than 3 inches across appeared at the surface. It seemed to be floating atop the fin, frantically moving about. We all began to squint now. Our brains wracking past experiences and field guides for something to reference when the disc was abruptly lifted out of the water. “It’s a catfish” someone said. “Trying to eat a baby flounder?” The confusion was evident in the question but before we could say much more the two vanished into the clouded waters below.

Turtle fishing “is said to be the dullest of all fishing, and unending patience and considerable skill are required to make it successful.”

Jeff’s favorite quote from an 1887 book on U.S. fisheries came to mind as I stepped onto the back bench to resume my post. So true, I thought to myself as we’d now spent the better part of five hours on the water today with a catfish being the most excitement we’d seen.

Radar image of Hurricane Irma making landfall. Our study area is along the right eye wall.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma (Irmageddon), these waters had become seemingly devoid of our study species: also the world’s most critically endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley. These areas have historically been feeding grounds for young ridleys and over the years we’ve had a lot of success catching them. Unfortunately though, these islands were some of the worst hit areas with much of their mangroves still lying bare seven months later. In the months following the storm, the wildlife was slowly returning, but the ridleys still seemed to be missing.

Left: Green sea turtle. Right: Loggerhead sea turtle

Bobbing in the waves, I attempted to clean my sunglasses, removing the blind spots of salt spray and sunscreen that had been smeared across the lenses like I was in need of new windshield wipers. Sea water spilled through the scuppers with each rock of the boat, threatening to slowly sink us while a chorus of distant outboard engines harmonized with Jeff’s shirt whipping in the wind.

The three of us were all scanning with our backs to each other when something new grabbed my attention. Amongst the far-off white caps and buoys, something was out of place. Its sporadic movements made me think I was just seeing things, but it persisted nonetheless. Dolphins don’t typically stay up that long, I thought, nor are they that light in color. Turtles don’t move that quickly and it didn’t seem to be a low flying bird; it was too erratic in motion…

It must be a shark.

“There’s something at our 3 o’clock.” I said without looking away, hoping someone could verify my suspicion. “It’s way out towards the tip of that island, maybe 2 to 300 yards out,” but before the words were carried off on the breeze the fin sank below the surface.

In the months I’ve spent out here, sharks rarely seem to show themselves and as the seconds ticked by, my eyes constantly flitted back to the spot, hoping it would resurface. I only had to wait a few seconds before something boiled the water ahead of me. This time much closer, maybe 50 yards out and heading toward us. I focused in on the boil scouring the ripples for more clues when a massive Jack leapt out of the water. Its silvery flanks glared in the sunlight as it careened through the air and directly behind it, in hot pursuit, was a long dorsal fin slicing through the water. The two swiftly disappeared then resurfaced again, this time right off the stern; no more than 10 yards away. The water rolled all around us with the burst of activity as predator and prey began their dance.

“It’s a hammerhead!” Jeff yelled out. “Look at that long, sleek dorsal fin.”

Left: Biodiversity Heritage Library, Right: Allie Caulfield

I’d never, firsthand, seen a hammerhead before and couldn’t help wanting a better look at that iconic head. The shark twisted and thrashed about giving only small glimpses of its roughly 8 foot length as it cut through the water. I found myself thinking back to a poster of one I had at home as I tried to fill in the gaps being concealed by the ocean.

Jeff releasing a Hammerhead that was caught in the net.

Suddenly, the lazy waves seemed dangerous, causing me to take a precautionary step back, but I felt no fear of what I was watching. Only feelings of pure elation came over me as I looked on, astonished at how this animal was able to track its prey without presumably seeing it.

Boats drove by all around, unaware of the spectacle just below the surface. It seemed as though this moment was for us alone and we watched with selfish intent. No one reached for their phones or cameras. The thought never even crossed our minds.

After a few adrenaline filled minutes, when the hammerhead finally seemed to lose track of the jack, it swam around the boat in odd criss-cross patterns, disappearing then reappearing as it continued to search. Each time it resurfaced we’d point it out like a game of whack-a-mole.

When it all finally ended and the shark much to our dismay, disappeared, two loggerhead sea turtles emerged just off our bow almost as if to say, “What just happened?!”

As the excitement wore off, the ripples and boils quickly faded, falling back in formation with the rest of the waves on the last leg of their march to the islands. No mark was left on the world. All signs of what happened completely ceased to exist. Everything that is, except for the unending smiles on our faces and the mark of an experience that would shape our view of this place for years to come.

On our way back, we all rode a hammerhead high.

The feeling of being so completely present, even if only for a few minutes, stuck with me for hours afterwards. I thought about how easy it is to take the beauty of nature all around us for granted, especially when nothing of note seems to be happening. I could look out over those waters 1,000 times more and never see something like that again, but that doesn’t make this place any less incredible. The fact that the ocean can still surprise even those who have spent their lives attending to is truly humbling.

I didn’t earn that experience. For all the time I’ve spent out there, Nature owes me nothing. It doesn’t owe anyone anything, in fact. It just is. And if you’re lucky enough to live and work in its full and unbroken embrace for long enough, you just might see something amazing. It’s that unpredictability that makes each revealed moment that much sweeter.

Environmental Science Department

Scientists at the Conservancy have an active research agenda aimed at enhancing our understanding of ecosystems and associated wildlife in Southwest Florida.

Leif Johnson

Written by

Biologist working to change perspectives and speak for nature

Environmental Science Department

Scientists at the Conservancy have an active research agenda aimed at enhancing our understanding of ecosystems and associated wildlife in Southwest Florida.

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