Meet Sharks4Kids Regional Ambassador Enie Buhler
Enie Buhler has worked in a lot of the same places our team has, so we are excited to finally meet and work with her in Abaco in March 2016. We collaborated for a Save Our Seas funded shark education program to visit local schools. Enie is currently finishing her PhD at North Carolina State University in Dr. Craig Layman’s lab, investigating how structure complexity and the presence of top predators affect patch reef fish communities in Abaco, The Bahamas. Enie will be visiting schools in NC and helping us to spread shark education and teach students about shark science.
1. How old were you when you saw your first shark?
I saw my first shark when I was a toddler. I was born in Marco Island, FL and my father was a Charter Captain. As a two year old, I would be suited up head to toe with swim- floaties on the marina’s docks and look at what everyone caught that day. Unfortunately, shark fishing was still very prominent in Florida, and the ‘prize shot’ with your catch hung up on the deck was a regular thing. I remember seeing hammerheads being hung up from their tail, and although a sad site, I was still in awe of such a beautiful animal. It wasn’t until I was 9 years old when I remember first swimming with reef sharks in the keys on a snorkel trip with my mom. They swam so peacefully, but wouldn’t let me get to close to them.
2. What’s your favorite shark and why?
This is really a tough one for me, but I think I have to go with lemon sharks being my favorite type of shark. I get so excited when I spot a juvenile or sub-adult in the mangrove tidal creeks by observing their color and similar sized dorsal fins. I am fascinated by their complex life history characteristics making a single individual inhabit several different marine ecosystem within their life.
3. What is one species of shark you would like to see in wild?
I want to see the largest fish in the ocean, a Whale shark. I can’t wait to feel like a tiny spec next to one of those magnificent creatures.
4. What made you want to become and ecologist?
I enjoy working with my hands and being able to pursue a career that allows one to seek answers to the curiosities of nature. I have always enjoyed being outdoors from snorkeling in the ocean, climbing trees, hiking, etc. I want to give back to nature since it has been such a part of my life. More so, since I grew up in Florida and had the opportunity to travel to The Bahamas when I was younger, I am very connected to their marine ecosystems and want to make sure they are protected.
5. Can you tell us a little about your work with sharks?
As an undergraduate at the University of Florida I started volunteering for the Florida Program of Shark Research under George Burgess. For the first year, I assisted with cleaning jaws and preparing vertebrae for age and growth analysis and was later hired on to work for the International Shark Attack File. One day I got to go out in the field to help with their shark monitoring program in the Gulf of Mexico and the work was absolutely exhilarating. I decided that day, I wanted to pursue a career in marine science, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant for me. Until that day, I thought I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. The following summer I was accepted to volunteer at the Bimini Biological Field Station in Bimini, That Bahamas. As I am sure many of you sharkies know, I gained many lifetime experiences and field skills for shark ecology research there. That summer I knew I wanted to be an ecologist. To further my work in shark ecology, I pursued an research assistant position with the Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project in Western Australia. There, I assisted a post-doctorate investigating the risk behavior and movement patterns of adult sea turtles in response to the presence of tiger sharks.
Currently, funded from Save Our Seas Foundations, I am testing the use of a personal drone, a DJI Vision 2+®, as a novel, non-invasive method to monitor marine megafauna along the coastline of Great Abaco Island (for more information see Drone Diaries of The Bahamas). With repeated surveys in three developed and three non-developed locations, we are asking whether human activities, e.g., shoreline development and boat traffic, drive the distribution and abundance of coastal shark species. A second motivation for this project is to raise awareness with the general public on shark conservation. With the collaboration of shark researchers, NGOs Friends of the Environment (FRIENDS) and Sharks4Kids, and support from my advisor Dr. Craig Layman at NC State University, we are developing outreach events (see here), videos (see here), and short summer courses (see here).
6. What is it like using drones to study sharks? Why did you want to use drones?
Drones are a lot of fun! I know how silly that sounds but as someone who never played video games growing up, I have a blast with it. I call him Simba, because after a survey we have to hold our hands up in the air to catch it and we end up holding the drone in the air like Simba, the baby lion cub. (Now back to the question more seriously). Having the ability to view shorelines from a bird’s eye view is incredibly beneficial to aid in thinking on a larger scale and it is completely nonintrusive to the animals. As an ecologist, I use a lot of my observations from nature to inspire me for questions I would like to ask and design experiments. Having the ability to see exponentially more habitat in one ‘shot’, instead of what I would see from a boat or underwater snorkeling has been very helpful for me. On the other side, for this particular project, I have found how difficult it can be to work in a remote environment and not be able to use the drone to its full potential. For example, DJI has a program where you can preset a given flight path, i.e., transect survey, however, my locations are remote and some of these functions are not readily available. This is really good information to know and spread to other fellow ecologists.
7. What is the most challenging part of your research? Most interesting?
The most challenging part of the drone research, is trying to quantify large, marine megafauna that have large ranges and therefore, are not highly abundant within a few hectares. Therefore, I must do several repeated surveys in order to get quantifiable data. Their need for large spans of pristine shoreline is important to show and fortunately, Great Abaco Island has just become the home of three new protected parks that will prohibit shoreline development. So, interestingly, now our survey work will be available for baseline survey data on marine megafauna found in the newly developed parks.
8. Why do you think shark education is so important?
Shark education is so important to break the pattern of sharks being thought of as man-eating, devouring machines. Here in The Bahamas it is even more important since they live in people’s backyards and The Bahamas is one of twelve shark sanctuaries in the world promoting the protection of sharks. Sharks are gorgeous animals to understand and respect, not to fear. The only way to help reverse the public’s view on them is through education and gearing a new generation of thought.