When Sarah Roberts landed back in the UK after filming around the world, she fully intended it to be a short respite from her global travels. However, Sarah's credentials as an eco-campaigner, journalist and conservation expert soon drew her into the exploding 'plastic-pollution' issue.
As a woman more at home in the bush than the office, Sarah leapt at the chance to get back into the field once her work was done. A chance meeting led to big plans and soon Sarah was sculpting an excursion to the Florida in pursuit of her first love: dangerous predators.
Blacks are delighted to support Sarah's expedition and help her get up close and personal with the kind of animals we'd run away from. Here she offers the first report from the tropics.
I met Dan Abbott last summer. He is an underwater videographer and drone pilot with a background working on white shark boats. It was our mission to escape the Brexit smog currently engulfing the UK and instead to expose some of the lesser-known environmental issues effecting wildlife in the rest of the world. We pooled our contacts, sat on a few skype calls and the place that ticked the most boxes (dangerous iconic predators, insane stories, and huge environmental pressures), was the USA. Perhaps it was the promise of sunshine or perhaps it was the allure of crocodilians, but Florida stood out the most.
With the kind support of Blacks, Dan and I headed out for 3 weeks, aiming to gather as much footage as possible. Then I will go it alone for a further 3 weeks’ self-shooting. I plan to meet up with old friends and contacts to camp, hike and explore some of the conservation issues challenging Alabama and Texas too.
Buzzing with excitement we booked our flights. On 23rd January the expedition began. Here are our highlights . . . so far.
'The Great White'
Although Dan and I had met a couple of times in person before the expedition, we had never spent more than a few hours together. I’ve always liked to work in extremes and luckily, after our 10-hour flight from Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale, any internal hesitance I may have harboured about this working arrangement was safely quashed.
We met the next addition to our team in Florida: a trusty Dodge Transit that we quickly nicknamed ‘the great white’. It would be our temporary home on wheels for weeks. A basecamp, a bed and a way of getting around. The biggest perk about this car, was the ability to roll the entire seats down flat for a semi-decent night's sleep. Usefully, it also had real plug sockets to charge all the many camera batteries.
Despite the weight of our jet lag, excitement fuelled us into the night as we headed straight to our first film shoot in Jupiter. We were to spend the night out on one of Florida’s beautiful beaches, with an old friend Hannah Medd (Founder of American Shark Conservancy) and a group of trophy fishermen.
Hannah is piloting an important and slightly controversial study. This particular beach is a hotspot for catch-and-release shark fishing. The fishermen are not just after any shark species though; they are targeting the highly prized Great Hammerhead species. The Great Hammerhead can grow to over 4 metres in the wild and are notoriously strong when hooked on a line. Unlike some shark species that can rest on the sea bottom and buccal pump (swallow water to breath), these guys have to keep swimming at all times to stay alive. They are classed as endangered by the IUCN, but this status is not particularly recognised by the government out here.
The fishermen come under heavy fire from shark activists who want the sport banned and who blame the fishermen for hammerhead deaths in the area. The fishermen, however, maintain that the majority of their catches don’t leave the water and swim away fine. They have been happy to collaborate with Hannah, who observes and records fishing practices. They have also given her permission to place short term satellite tags on any Great Hammerheads that they catch. These tags will provide the first real insight and scientific data about survival rate and behaviour of the sharks. She hopes to use the data to improve regulation and give the sharks the best chance of survival. We’d been given exclusive access to the study.
We soon realised that the ‘sunshine state’, was not as hot as it was made out to be. 2am found us hiding away from the wind in layers and sleeping bags. Although I was incredibly grateful for Black’s gear contributions, there had been a couple of items in my kit list, that I worried may have been a tad bit unnecessary. As the night went on however, I pretty much wore every single base layer provided to me, including my fancy new Jack Wolfskin down jacket and my Brasher hiking boots too.
As the night rolled on, we witnessed a lemon shark being caught and released and saw multiple shark bites on the baits, but no sure sight of the elusive Great Hammerhead. I had pretty mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to see a Great Hammerhead - one of the most iconic predator species I’d ever worked with - being dragged up to the beach, with potentially fatal consequences. On the other, I grew up in a family of fishermen and I started to question if I would feel so strongly if this were any other fish species. I also really wanted to be there to film Hannah fitting the tag when it inevitably happened. As the clock ticked, gradually my curiosity started to outweigh my reservations. I found myself itching for the reels to go off and make that screech sound. We will definitely be returning.
Swimming with Dinosaurs
I’ve always had a huge interest in human-animal conflict, so one thing that really jumped out the most when I was researching the US was the notion of a ‘problem gator’. Alligators are designated as 'problems' when they come into contact with humans. With housing developments now encroaching further and further into alligator territory, American Alligators habitats are overlapping with humans more than ever before, to the detriment of the gator. When a person calls in a problem gator, a trapper is dispatched and one of two things will happen: either the trapper shoots the gator and sells it for leather and meat, or the gator is brought to a rescue facility to live out the rest of its days in captivity.
The Everglades outpost is a great example of the latter. Chris Gillette, one of the famous ‘Gator boys’ from Discovery Channel, captures and works with problem gators and has created a unique outreach experience to educate and change people's perceptions of these timeless predators. He hopes to reduce human-animal conflicts in future. I met up with him, wetsuit and dive mask in tow, to experience this first hand.
Casper is a large, wild-caught, adult male America alligator. He has been habituated to humans. I’m assured he won’t be too interested in me, as I hesitantly enter his pool. I am warned though, to stay away from the other female gators who share this pool with us as they ‘may get a bit snappy’!
I’m not going to lie, I’m hellishly nervous. Unlike bears or sharks, alligators do not give you ANY behavioural cues; they barely even blink! Casper is probably the most intimidating creature I’ve ever been in the water with and that’s precisely because he does NOTHING and more to the point I have not got a clue how to read if, when or what, he plans to do next! That is why Chris stays next to me at all times.
As Casper glides effortlessly towards me, mouth slightly ajar, Chris instructs me to take a big breath and sink below him. The second I get below the surface though, I am filled to the brim with excitement, wonder and awe! Their skin is amour, their claws are enormous and their tails are pure muscle. I realise in an instant that this is the closest I will ever get to sharing a pool with a real life dinosaur!
While I can’t say that I felt completely relaxed for the rest of my dive, (my head was definitely still on a swivel), it really did prove the point, that these creatures are not mindless killers. If more people took the time to learn about and understand this amazing species, perhaps less gators would be labelled a ‘problem’.
Check back with us in a few weeks for the next update from Florida. Sarah plans to handle some venomous snakes, swim with sharks in their habitat, and even seek out the reclusive manatee.
Here are some links to the people and places mentioned
Dan Abbott @sharkman_dan
Hannah Medd @asc_sharkstudies www.americansharkconservancy.org/
Chris Gillette @gatorboy_chris