College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Nutrition & Food Science

Fearless: Swimming with Sharks

Nutrition major pursues life-long passion
Nutrition and Food Science major Daniel Mongeon swims with a 12-foot tiger shark off South Bimini island.
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Daniel Mongeon

For many, the idea of swimming with sharks sounds simply terrifying. But for Daniel Mongeon, a junior nutrition and food science major at the University of Maryland, it was an experience that ultimately helped him decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

Mongeon spent last semester working as a research assistant for three PhD students at the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS) on the island South Bimini in the Bahamas. Specifically, Mongeon was researching the social interactions and daily activities of lemon sharks as well as the caloric output of nurse sharks. Some of his responsibilities included observing, tagging and measuring sharks, taking their DNA samples, as well as fishing for and feeding them.

"I've always loved sharks. I think they're fascinating," says Mongeon, who spent more than 100 hours observing sharks during his three months on the island. "I don't get the fear or disdain that most people feel for them."

Mongeon's decision to go abroad was fueled primarily by a desire to figure out his post-graduation plans. Before leaving, Mongeon had planned on attending medical school after receiving his bachelor's degree from the UMD. However, his love for sharks tempted him to change his major to environmental science, so that he could go on to graduate school and specialize in shark biology and conservation.

“Before I did that, however, I wanted to get a better understanding of what it is like to be a shark biologist, and that is why I went to the BBFS,” he says.

Although he describes his experience in the Bahamas as life-changing, Mongeon ultimately decided that he’s still going to pursue a degree in nutrition and food science and then apply to medical school.

"I will always support shark research and conservation," says Mongeon. "It'll just be a personal interest instead of a professional one."

One of Mongeon's favorite memories from his time on the island is swimming with the sharks. Every month he had the chance to free swim – without cages – with Caribbean Reef sharks and blacknose sharks.

“We would be in the water with 10 to 13 sharks, 5 to 8 feet mostly, and just swim around with them,” he says. "It was amazing. But you always had that knowledge in the back of your mind that this thing could bite you and eat you if it really wanted to."

Other notable experiences from his trip include swimming with wild bottle-nosed and wild spotted dolphins, and a free swim with a 13-foot tiger shark. He also got to swim with some bull sharks he helped catch.

Mongeon recommends the experience to other students interested in sharks, but explains that it might not be for everyone. The island has only 80 year-round residents and an unreliable Internet connection. 

“It's not a resort island, and you are there to work. It won't be a vacation,” he says. “But if you like conservation, living near water, boating and beautiful weather, it is the place for you.”

Mongeon is scheduled to graduate from the College of Agriculture & Natural Resource in December of 2014. He’ll be traveling back to South Bimini next fall to spend an additional four months continuing his work as a research assistant.

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