What is your connection to the Shark Lab?
I first visited the Shark Lab as a 20 year old volunteer in March of 1998. I had recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in Zoology from Victoria University in Wellington, NZ and I had originally planned to stay at the Lab for 3-4 months. After volunteering for 2 months I was asked to stay on as a staff member for the summer of 1998 Earthwatch program. At that time our research was focussed on the homing ability of juvenile lemon sharks and we conducted a lot of manual tracking experiments. In 1999 I was a Principal Investigator at the Shark Lab and conducted a project alongside Bill Silliman on spotted eagle rays, which would be the first time that research at the lab had extended beyond sharks to their pancaked cousins. In March of 2000 I travelled to Brazil with Dr. Gruber and an experienced research team to study the lemon sharks of Atol das Rocas and Fernando de Noronha. I returned to the Shark Lab as Manager, to take over for Tim Claver, in July of 2000. I stayed on as manager until the end of 2001 and handed the job over to Grant Johnson. I left to pursue my Master’s degree on Southern stingrays in the Cayman Islands.
Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?
One event from my time at the Shark Lab sticks out. On the night of May 9, 2001 Alan Grant (PI), Marcus Drymon (volunteer) Lisa Almkvist (volunteer) and I were on a longline check of the “Tiger Lines” – several miles of the coast of the South Bimini – and we found ourselves in a very dangerous situation. The previous longline check team radioed in a report of an 11-12ft tiger shark on the line. That team had been on the water for hours and were exhausted so my team agreed to relieve them. We headed out to the lines in a Proline boat at 10:30pm at full-speed in complete darkness. The weather was less than ideal and we had a very rough and wet ride. At the time there was an undergraduate course at the lab from Coastal Carolina University so Doc rounded up the students and followed us out to the lines on the Aquasport so the students could observe a “workup” of a large tiger shark. About a mile out from the Lab Doc radioed to say he’d run out of fuel so an additional boat was dispatched to refuel him and the students. This would delay Doc significantly and meant that we arrived at the longline alone and in rough, pitch-black conditions.
Upon finding the reflectors on the longline floats by spotlight we soon realised that the longline was no longer stretched out in a straight line – the large tiger shark had pulled one of the longline anchors free and created a big jumbled mess of floats and gangions. I eased the boat in and we picked up a section of the line and worked our way down until we found the shark. As we pulled in the gangion the shark twisted and pulled, completely entangling itself in the jumbled bottom-line. Alan secured the shark on one of the boat cleats and we decided to cut the bottom line that entangled the shark so we could drift away from the longline and anchor the boat for the “workup”. Due to the fact that we were in a Proline boat (appropriately named SNAFU) with virtually no transom at all, we had to be very careful to keep the bow facing into the waves. As the boat and shark began drifting away from the line the waves pushed the boat around and I had no choice but to engage the engine to bring us facing into the waves – immediately the engine stalled! I restarted the engine and clicked into forward – again stalled!!
All four us looked backed at the engine and Lisa noticed a longline float right next to the engine, now WE were entangled in the longline too! At this point the boat was facing downwind away from the waves with the transom (if you can call it that) taking the full brunt of the waves. I began tilting the engine up to expose the propeller and Alan grabbed a knife and leaned over the back to try and cut us free. Suddenly two or three large waves washed over the transom and completely swamped the boat! With no way to turn the boat into the waves and an 11ft tiger shark tied alongside, we were out of options. I told Marcus to grab lights while I screamed into the VHF radio “Shark Lab we’re sinking, we’re going down, we’re going down!!”. While knee-deep water sloshed around the boat Alan had the foresight to uncleat the shark tied alongside. The boat listed heavily to port and when the weight of the water shifted back to starboard the gunnel dipped under the waves and SNAFU rolled right on over! In the chaos I popped up in the water and was having a hard time treading water in my heavy fleece-lined rain jacket. Marcus appeared out of the darkness next to me and after a few anxious seconds of screaming Alan and Lisa bobbed up from under the boat. Luckily, as the boat had rolled, a large air bubble was trapped in the hull so it was still floating and we all managed to scramble onto the overturned hull. As we came to our senses and assessed our situation it suddenly dawned on me that somewhere swimming in the darkness was an 11ft tiger shark! Thank God Alan had uncleated it before we went down as we may have been clambering over it trying to get back on the boat – our situation could have been worse! Thankfully Marcus still had his waterproof halogen headlamp on his head and somehow I still had a hand-held VHF radio in my hand! I stood as high as I could on the upturned boat and radioed the Shark Lab “The Proline has sunk. We are all ok and sitting on the bottom of the boat!”
Another saving grace was the fact that the propeller was still entangled in the longline which essentially acted like an anchor keeping us in place (a place that Doc was heading to!). As I sat there bobbing in the darkness, knowing that help was on the way, the panic and fear for my life subsided but was quickly replaced with the fear of facing Doc and explaining myself. Afterall he was with a group of college students eager to see a tiger shark, in a boat that had just run out of fuel (I had forgotten to refuel it earlier!) about to find his lab manager sitting on the bottom of an upturned boat! After about 15min or so of radio calls and headlamp waving we were found by the refueling boat and we clambered aboard to await Doc’s arrival. Thankfully when Doc arrived on the scene he was all business. We recovered as many items as we could from the boat and began slowly towing her back toward the Shark Lab. Towing an upside down boat is very slow going but thankfully my fellow Lab Manager Missy Parytka had experience in righting overturned boats using a technique known as parbuckling. After a few attempts we were successful in righting SNAFU and we towed her back to the Lab. Alan and I worked on the engine and components for several hours and were luckily able to get her up and running again, bringing an end one of the scariest and most memorable nights of my time at the Shark Lab.
How did meeting Doc and working at the Shark Lab change your life?
I became very close with Doc and Mari over the years. Being so far from home as a young man they really took me in and were like family to me for many years. They welcomed me into their home many times and entrusted me with a lot of responsibility at the Shark Lab – I really felt like they trusted and believed in me. I arrived at the Lab a very shy, inexperienced kid and within a few short years I was Shark Lab Manager! Without a doubt my experiences at the Lab changed me from a boy into a man and gave me opportunities, both professionally and personally, that have improved my life immeasurably! I will always look back on my time at the Shark Lab – the incredible experiences, opportunities, amazing people and personal growth – as some of the greatest years of my life! About 8 years after leaving the Shark Lab, Doc and Mari attended my wedding in Los Angeles and I was incredibly honored when Doc gave a speech about my time at the Lab! We don’t stay in touch much any more but I still feel close with the Gruber’s – like family.