As a law professor, I write for a living – hundred page articles dealing with lofty issues such as rights, justice, and freedom. I “crank out” these expositions regularly, so why do I find it so difficult to write this short piece on the Shark Lab? I suspect that for most of the contributors to this book, the shark lab represents a formative piece of time in their lives: an unforgettable experience, the base of their career path (or a portion of their career), and, for several, where they met their future spouse. For me, however, looking back at 25 years of the shark lab forces me to look back at 25 years of my life, and that ain’t easy. Especially for those of us involved with the lab over extended periods of time, the BBFS has been constitutive of our identities. Before the shark lab there was only a Dr. Gruber, Sam, or Sonny. Today, nearly everyone calls him “Doc” or “Shark Doc,” even his wife (who herself is often referred to as “Shark Mom”). But I still call him Dad.
I had spent plenty of time with my father as a child. I even participated in many of his field experiments as a preteen (remember Moses sole, frilly octopus, 200 foot death dive). But I think it is fair to say my real and adult relationship with my Dad (not to mention with myself) developed in and because of Bimini. In my high school years, my father was extremely sick with lymphoma and undergoing a series of painful experimental procedures, many of which occurred in Boston. I was a disaffected punk rocker, far more interested in stage diving than free diving. Suffice to say, we did not spend much time together, and certainly no time on the ocean. But in 1989, in what seems like a blink of an eye, everything changed. My dad went into remission; I went off to college; and the shark lab came into existence.
My first summer back from college coincided with the first MBF 514 class, taught by Jon Morrissey and T.A.’d by Julian Zaragoza. Without a lab manager/cook, we ate Jon’s concoction of canned mushroom soup, tuna, and nacho cheese chips – ostensibly a casserole. Without a TV/VCR we would amuse ourselves at night through Pictionary, Yahtzee, and the occasional cross-dressing. With so few people, there were few rules. This was before the “duty days,” before volunteers and staff, and even before Earthwatch. “Shell beach” was not yet scoured daily by staffers for nacred treasure and still called something like “Pirate Cove,” its dilapidated Tiki hut not yet christened the “love shack” (through distinctly un-Christian behavior). It would be a few years until Licky and I pulled-out the big map of Bimini and start giving mangrove clusters uninspired names like “sharkland,” for ease of shark tracking. It was during this first MBF class that I met my first love, who over the next several years would be swapped for a second, third, fourth . . . But it was also where I met more enduring loves: Bimini, the ocean, and, of course, sharks. This tiny triangular island, ringed in deep green mangroves and the azure of the Grand Bahama Bank, so close to the bright lights of Miami but a million miles away in soul, was to become one of few enduring presences in my somewhat peripatetic life.
Once I caught “Biminitis,” for a time I became a permanent fixture at the shark lab. As for the relationship between my dad and me, let me paraphrase an already hackneyed Dickens saying: It was often ¬the best but sometimes the worst of times. The highs were high – speeding on the brand new Aquasport through the gulfstream, the setting sun casting an orange glow on the still silver water, high-pitched sounds echoing from the small pod of bottlenose at the bow, and my dad calling me his “gulfstream buddy.” One time an engine went out halfway between Bimini and Miami, and with night rapidly approaching, we were loath to put-put home. Instead, my dad and I both lay down, full-bodied on the bow of the boat, one to each side, our figures making a triangle, so that the boat could get on a plane (and go fast). We did this for hours, running aft only when the need arose to adjust the steering trajectory and then scrambling fore to lie down again. But there were also lows. I remember, at 24, lying fetal for hours under the rough blanket of a top barrack bunk, errant spring jutting into my back, crying my heart and soul out because my father had chewed me a new one for running the not-so-new Proline directly into the decayed engine of a plane wreck in the dead of night. Upon impact, the boat promptly expelled its cargo of vituperative Swiss Germans shark “experts,” whose heavily accented threats to sue and make “you work for me, ya” still ring in my ears. This combined with the cringe-worthy fact that my ex-boyfriend called in the mayday and his hyper-masculine friends came to “save” us (we were, after all, in thigh-deep flats water), arriving with barely concealed looks of contempt. I can still remember my feelings of deep shame over the accident, guilt for letting my dad down, and utter confusion for how it all happened. (It turned out there was a misplaced strobe light marker – thanks Allison! – so it wasn’t totally my fault).
Now, at 43, I am in the twilight of my relationship with Bimini. I come to the island only about once a year, primarily so that my now-3-year-old daughter Misa can spend quality time with her “Jiji” and “Baba” in a place we all love. I have swapped private houses for the barrack bunks and the company of our prodigal neighbor Doug Norris (and his cast of lovable ne’er-do-well Biminites) for the shark lab staffers, whose ingenue status, youthful enthusiasm, hard bodies, unending tolerance for sunburn and mosquitoes, and lab-mandated sobriety are no longer so consonant with my lifestyle. My shark lab days live in memories, and, in the last few years, frequently in dreams. It is primarily those very early days and firsts that come to mind. I recall the first day of the “pit tag” project, which is now a 25 year study of the life cycle of the lemon shark, full with DNA mapping, like it was yesterday. Me, a freshman philosophy major post-punker, barraging the tagging crew with endless chatter about moral dillemmas, music, and so forth, my attempted humor mostly falling flat. “Do you ever shut up?” affectionately asks Charlie Manire, our burly, sleep-talking, gentle giant of a team leader. How many “pits” did I do back in those days? There was that November that Liz Cowie and I huddled Everest-like in the garbage can that had housed the gill net we set because we were just that cold (in what was a 60 degree Carribbean winter night).
I can vividly recall the time we were short on boats and personnel, so Dean Grubbs and I manned the net at the mouth of the North Sound ourselves. The night was overcast, windy, and pitch black. Worse, around 2 am at high tide our flashlights all burnt out, leaving us only with the “Q beam” that attached to the battery of the boat. We caught 3 juvenile lemons in the gill net at the turn of the tide, who needed immediate transport to the tagging boat. With the leaky ancient “tin boat” overloaded from the coolers full of water and shark, only one person could stay on the boat, and that person was Dean. So with a “no problem,” that belied my actual mental state, I watched the tiny boat recede into the caliginous dark. So there I stood alone in shoulder deep water, holding the walkie-talke above my head so it woudn’t get wet, the small blinkering strobe on the end of the net only strong enough to cast a tiny, sick glow against the permeating black. The wind whipped up throwing sprays in my face, as I desperately tried to protect the radio. A loud splash down the net cut through the wind followed by violent thrashing. A subadult (about 4 foot) lemon or nurse shark picking fish out of the net, I thought (the large hole in the net later confirmed this hypothesis). Sure enough, a few minutes later, I felt a goosebump-inducing brush against my leg. If there was ever a character-building moment in my life, it was that interminable solitary wait (probably like 15 minutes) in the North Sound. Whenever, I get nervous or start to question a situtation, I harken back to that intense gill netting episode for fortitude. This emboldening memory has probably undergirded some of my more questionable life choices (arriving in Kampala, Uganda alone at night, small backpack in hand and no place to stay, for example).
There were so many first and so many character-building, quirky, funny, meaninful, maddening, soul crushing, beautiful moments at the shark lab. Recounting them all in detail would fill up many books, not just a modest portion of this one. So, I will end this brief sojourn in stream-of-consciousness fashion, which is the way I now experience my Bimini memories. The following may have far more meaning to the familiar than the unitiated. Licky’s first day at the lab, bounding up with enthusiasm on break from a scuba trip, her Southern drawl of “Hi, y’all” bringing smiles to our faces, despite that we had been out fixing long lining equipment for hours in 100 degree weather. This curvy hard partying non-scientist Southern Belle divemaster was to become one of the most essential figures at the shark lab for over a decade and the best of field shark-wranglers. The time I shattered my kneecap in big waves in the gulf stream. I laid in the back of the boat, with pain-induced visions of buddah for the choppy 5 hour trek to Bimini. When we arrived, they set me on the concrete of the big game club dock, and the sound of Marley’s “Dont worry about a thing” was both surreal and ironic. There is so much more: “Swap it out,” “stand-by,” “roger that and comeback;” dad in perpetual Fidel outfit; being thrown overboard at round rock; throwing others overboard at round rock (sorry about that broken arm, Liz and broken finger, Melissa Wong); naked tracking; naked channel dive (during the Prime Time Live shoot); sleeping on the pool loungers at Big Game during long lining; the giant bull shark wrapped around the anchor line of a catamaran and “sue me in the Bahamas;” Chris Saunders and King Browns; reaching through a tiger shark’s gills to remove a hook because I had the smallest hands; zooming through the lagoon on a Carolina skiff by the light of the moon; sun rises, sun sets, moon rises and moon sets; Damien shark (that’s for you, Licky); “Samuel, zee children,” Momo, and Bernard “steef;” pointy boobies and duck feet. Ok, I will stop here before this essay becomes any more schizophrenic.
These are just a miniscule portion of my memories. The memories of Bimini, the shark lab, and my dad. The memories of my life.