What is your connection to the Shark Lab?
I originally came across the Sharklab during my second year at the University of Manchester, whilst searching for a placement for my following university year. I ended up spending 11 months in Bimini from August 2010 to July 2011 as a project student. I carried out my own research alongside Kristine Stump, the PI at the time, the title of my final paper being: ‘Hunted hunters: an experimental test of the effects of predation risk on juvenile lemon shark habitat use’. I subsequently went back to university and completed my final year. During this time, I was contacted by Tristan Guttridge who offered me the role of Assistant Manager at the station. I returned to the station in July 2012 at the same time as Jill Brooks to take up the position alongside Mike Timm and Lindsay Biermann. Upon my return to the station I decided to invest in a DSLR and underwater housing hoping to eventually make my money back. After being back at the station for a month TJ Ostendorf returned (the interim Assistant prior to my arrival) and I moved on to take up a role as the Media Manager of the station.
Tell us a story about Doc?
We had a Korean film crew staying at the station looking to film a complete range of different shark activities including catching and tagging a large shark. Doc was there to work with them for the first few days, but was leaving before their final day. We had set a shallow water longline on their second day and didn’t catch anything for the first 24 hours (I think) and so we then rebaited the hooks for a second night in the hope that we would catch something worth filming. This happened to be Docs last night before heading back to Florida. Throughout the afternoon the weather picked up and the wind strengthened meaning it was pretty choppy and rough by the time it came to the first check of the night (10pm approx.). The crew heading out on the 20ft was populated by staff members with TJ, Lindsay, Jean and Andy Kell on board. I think they caught a small tiger shark initially that had bitten the line in half, they worked up the shark and hauled that line whilst taken considerable water over the bow of the boat. They went on to catch a second shark (not necessarily the type of shark wanted by the Korean crew), which they worked up and released again taking considerable water over the bow. Finally on the way back to the station they checked the last line and found a large tiger shark. They called back to the station and Doc quickly organized the Korean crew into action, whilst Mike Timm and I readied the Twin Vee. We headed out in the pitch black with Doc driving (as always) at break neck speed taking any and every short cut that he could. As we came closer to the 20ft waiting for our arrival with the shark secured to the side of the boat Doc began relaying through me (I had the radio) to the other boat instructions:
DOC: Which side of the boat is the shark on?
Are they tied to the line? Tell them to release the longline and set their anchor.
Tell them to shine the Q-beam off the port side of the boat.
ME:Can you shine the Q-beam on the port side of the boat.
20ft: We are.
DOC: Tell them to shine the Q-beam off the port side of the boat.
ME: Can you shine the Q-beam on the port side of the boat.
20ft: We are.
DOC (more irate): Tell them to stop shining the light in our eyes.
ME (remaining calm whilst laughing with Mike in between transmissions): Stop shining the light in our eyes.
DOC (even more irate): Tell them to stop shining the light in our eyes.
DOC (even more irate): Tell them to shine the Q-beam off the port side of the boat.
ME: Stop shining the light in our eyes.
ME: Shine the Q-beam on the port side of the boat.
20ft (frustration and anger very apparent in their voices): We are shining it on the port side of the boat.
DOC (furious): STOP SHINING THE LIGHT IN OUR EYES
ME: Stop shining the light in our eyes
DOC (furious): STOP SHINING THE FUCKING LIGHT IN OUR EYES
ME: Stop shining the light in our eyes
DOC (furious at me): NOT THE LIGHT, THE FUCKING LIGHT
ME (trying not to laugh): Stop shining the fucking light in our eyes.
Doc then pulls the radio from my hand and shouts down the radio a stream of similar curses and orders. Meanwhile Mike and I (feeling very relieved not to be on the other boat) chuckle between ourselves.
As we pull up to the boat we come about a yard from the other boat who are still clearly taking a lot of water over the bow and looking particularly damp, tired and unhappy. We proceed to try and set the anchor about 4 times each time the anchor dragging whilst we swing back and forth fending off from the other boat. We just about manage to set the anchor and Doc orders the cameraman into the water. He swims into the gap between the boats, almost getting crushed on numerous occasions. The anchor drags again and we almost run over the cameraman before finally calling it a day and heading back to the station. We arrived back quickly and a while later the other staff members finally make it back in a foul mood feeling particularly fed up!
Tooo many stories to write!
Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?
The most incredible two days followed a night of gillnetting (not necessarily the most enjoyable time usually). We arrived home from the night, packed up and went to bed for the day. About 2 hours later I awoke to some panicked and excited talking/shouting/ranting and awoke from my bunk in the staff room above Jill to see Grant trying to wake us up, talking about some huge animal with a snaggletooth in the lagoon. He frantically told us to get ready and get on a boat. I pulled together my dive gear and camera and ran out to the boats got them ready. Mike, Jill, Grant, two volunteers (Clem and George) and I drove at Doc style break neck speeds over the flats out to the lagoon taking every shortcut we could, excitedly discussing what the hell we would come across.
We arrived to find the bonefisherman who had radioed the lab alongside a 4 metre long whale beached in about 3ft of water in the lagoon between south and east Bimini. I immediately began taking pictures whilst the others decided on the best thing to do. We soon decided to try and move the whale to deeper waters. With tigers sharks already circling Jill remained in the boat ensuring no shark came too close (Mike still not really trusting Jill kept worriedly looking over his shoulder at every opportunity). After a few hours of trying to get this whale into deeper water, the animal sadly died.
We took the whale back to the station and carried out an autopsy on the whale, releasing huge amounts of blood into the waters of back beach.
The next day Jill and I along with three or four volunteers towed the whale out into the gulf stream, trailing blood and scent behind it. After 40 minutes of the whale carcass hanging from the back of the boat we had at least 3 bull sharks and 2 silky sharks circling. Within another 20 minutes there were an additional 2 bull sharks and another silky. Jill and I plucked up some courage and decided to jump in. Me with my camera and Jill with a pole spear (to use as protection). It was immediately exhilarating to have so many sharks circling around in endless water. My heart was racing as I constantly checked below, behind and to my sides. After a few minutes a huggeeeee tiger shark showed up and gave us a couple of brief checks relatively close by before focusing on the whale carcass for 5 or 10 minutes. The tiger soon got bored and decided to come and see what else was on offer. It made a direct beeline for us; I could hear Jill gurgling through her snorkeling in a very high-pitched voice: “CJ, CJ CJ, CJ”. The shark luckily bypassed me, but continued to head for Jill who gave it a god firm prod in its nose/rostrum causing it to turn away and carry on swimming. I turned to Jill and asked “are you ok?”, in her still very high pitched voice she said “yess”. The shark disappeared around the back of the boat and then dived deeper until it was 30-40ft directly beneath us. It then started swimming straight towards us again but from a position leaving us considerably more vulnerable and feeling considerably more nervous. It continued to swim directly towards us again and I could feel my heart pounding and Jill screaming though her snorkel again “CJ, CJ, CJ, CJ, CJJJJJJJJ”. At the last minute the shark turned and swam away again. I turned to Jill and said “shall we get out now” and Jill replied “yesssss”. Just as we got on the boat an even larger tiger shark showed up, so it was potentially the right time to get out of the water!
A truly exciting, exhilarating and heart pounding experience.
How did meeting Doc and working at the Shark Lab change your life?
Doc is a very interesting man who is incredibly charismatic. I believe that once you move past his idiosyncrasies (the excitement and shouting that comes with working out on boats or around sharks) and can truly respect him and his history he will also respect you and your input (as long as you do what he says). I really enjoyed working with Doc and think that we had a very good relationship and hope that I do stay in touch with him in years to come.
Working at the Sharklab was the thing that made me pick up a camera and eventually start my business in Photography & Filmmaking and so it has quite clearly changed my life!