What is your connection to the Shark Lab?

Amazingly in January of 2015 I will have been associated with the station for ten years since volunteering in 2005, to completing my doctoral research January 2006 to December 2008 and returning as Director January 2012-present. Ever since my first few days as a volunteer in Bimini I have felt a real connection and affinity with the Island, the sharks, the station and the people. It is something that is difficult to describe. There are other places in the world where you can learn about marine animals, experience swimming with sharks, meet new people but the Shark Lab is so much more! You build meaningful and lasting relationships, develop life skills, test your limits and endurance, educate and inspire others – it’s a unique facility.  And when your time does come to an end, as upsetting as it might be you feel like you have become part of a special group of people, a family.

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Tell us a story about Doc?

Frozen Shark Drug Smuggle: I remember once in a staff meeting when we were talking about funding the station. Doc mentioned that he and Marie mortgaged their house to get the station up and running. He then coolly stated that if that had not worked out his next option was drug smuggling, using frozen sharks! “No-one in the right mind would check a dead, stinky shark for drugs…hmmm”, idea bell, twinkle in his eye…”actually that’s a good idea…..maybe we should rethink that”….everyone laughed. On reflection most of us wouldn’t put it past Doc knowing how committed and passionate he is about lemon sharks.

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Aya’s spot me getting Doc almost bit….?

I think if you asked Doc what his favorite place is on Bimini he would say Aya’s Spot. It is affectionately named after his daughter ‘Aya’, who was one of the first Sharklabbers to visit it. Teaming with life it is an untouched, refuge for young lemon sharks with a secret passage-way entrance that opens up into a shallow water mangrove-fringed inlet. At high tide, water flushes the area rushing deep into the mangroves providing an excellent hiding place for young sharks to avoid the attention of larger predators. For many years Doc has used the site as a teaching ground for students during University Courses. They can view wild sharks in their natural habitat and have the exciting opportunity of hand feeding them. On one particular day I accompanied Doc on a trip, it was early in my tenure as a doctoral student so I was fresh, motivated and excited to be at his side. Prior to departing the station I was under strict instructions from Doc to prepare two different types of bait: 1) 40 small cubes of barracuda, ~2cm x 2cm and 2) 45 strips of barracuda ~8cm long x 2cm wide, with accompanying chum bag and block. As I had come to expect from Doc he was very specific and meticulous about the measurements and the number of bait pieces he required, and from past experience I knew I needed to get it right! On this occasion we also carried the work-up kit, which included measuring trough, PIT tag reader and test tube to hold any tissue samples taken. We arrived as usual an hour before high tide, carefully walked through the channel and stopped at the end forming a U-shape.

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Doc like most of his activities enjoys a very precise, well planned and oiled routine with the same clothes and equipment etc. There is never any deviation, the wader’s are on, sunglasses, cap donned and bandanna to cover his face and mouth. The chum bag with bait hits the water immediately on arrival and he bellows to the students “hurry up, the tide is rising and we need to get into the refuge quickly and quietly in order to see the sharks”. Doc leads the way, striding out full of enthusiasm and cheer, it never ceases to amaze me he must have visited Aya’s Spot 100s of times but on each trip he shows the same joy and delight on arrival. Everyone is asked to form a single line and to walk quickly but softly to ensure we don’t ‘kick up too much silt’. “Anyone lagging behind will miss out, I won’t wait if the sharks are there I will start feeding”, Doc clearly shouted down the passage. Once in the U-shape Doc squeezed his chum bag and beckoned the students to be still, “stop moving and watch out for dorsal fins in the distance breaking the surface”. Quick as a flash the young lemon sharks picked up on the scent trail and accelerated towards its source…within 10 minutes we were being circled by 15 ravenous little sharks, simultaneously listening to Doc yelping and screeching in joy as he fed one after another…”That one’s got it, watch as he takes the bait after I splash the water with the back of my hand…see he has learnt the association, they are quick learners you know as fast as a rabbit…”.

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It really is a wonderful experience to see Doc in his element with the sharks, especially lemon sharks they hold a very special place with him. After 5 or so minutes of feeding one particular individual was getting rather cocky, it was coming close to Docs waders and even tried to take a bite out of our chum bag. Doc said, “lets catch it, do you want to catch it?”. There was a resounding yes from the students and Doc turned to be me and said, “Are you ready with the dip-net then, you need to be ready, you only get one shot, you mess this up and its over”…”no pressure then, I said”. Doc laughed. Okay here it comes, he’s coming in hot, get ready, wait for it, don’t move, wait, wait, wait, wait…..now lift the net now, now, now…get it get it get it get it get it get….Anyone who has ever worked with Doc will know when he says something that he wants you to do he generally repeats the final command, in that incredibly important last moment, about 20 times in 5 seconds (like a human word-machine gun). For me on this occasion, there was a huge roar, “wooooohooooo, you got it, yehhhhhhhhhhhh, you’re the man!!!”

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I breathed a sigh of relief (or so I thought). Okay let me have it, Doc said. He carefully untangled the shark, “oh wow she is a beauty” he calmly said. Doc gripped her over the pectoral fins and like Simba from the Lion King being presented to the savanna, high above the head, Doc held the shark up and twisted around, completing a full pirouette. The students were in awe and to be honest I was a little taken back by Docs confidence and exuberance especially with a relatively large lemon shark (almost a meter). Unfortunately as Doc started to bring the shark done from above his head, it started to move and flex, he lost his grip and seconds later Doc was dancing around with his fingers on the tip of the sharks tail desperately trying to avoid being bitten. At the same time he was yelling at me to get a dipnet and catch the shark…I was in shock at this point and despite already having a dipnet in my right hand (doh), began to move rather quickly away from Doc. From the top of the tower, Dean Grubbs has since told me it looked like I was terrified and was evacuating the area, but I can assure you at the time I did not realize that I had a dipnet already so moved to my left to obtain one….Once I had gathered my composure and after Doc was yelling even louder I came to my senses and moved to my right and netted the shark. To this day I have absolutely no idea how Doc did not get bitten, but thank the lemon shark gods for looking out for him (and me) as in my first few months as a doctoral student, getting your supervisor and the founder of the Shark Lab bitten for the very first time was not something I wanted on my resume…

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Taxi Doc: In February of 2014 I was blessed with the arrival of a happy, healthy daughter ‘Isla Zeehaani’. After 9 weeks in the UK settling into family life we departed for our tropical, shark paradise home in Bimini. The journey from door to door was a long one – 4 car trips, 2 flights and 1 boat ride for a total of 40 hours on the move. With a 9-week old daughter and trailer worth of luggage in tow it was an exciting but daunting trip. Thankfully we had a lot of support along the way. In particular the last major leg of our journey was a seaplane from Ta-Miami Airport to North Bimini. Doc had thoughtfully and generously organized a flight for us on his friend’s plane. So we arrived on Bimini in style on the North Island at the Bimini Bay Dock. Despite a rough landing and wind speeds of 20 knot winds we were all relieved to have made it home. After we landed I noticed Doc, he was grinning brightly, wearing his trusted canary yellow rain jacket with dark sunglasses and fighter pilot cap. I was absolutely delighted that Doc had made the trip to pick us up, it was an important moment for me bringing my family to the island and I felt genuinely privileged that Doc was there to meet and greet us. Doing his Donald duck impression he smiled, chuckled and playfully interacted with Isla, I am not sure what she thought but she fell back asleep, to our surprise. Doc said, “I had to come in a 16ft skiff, the course were using the Twinvee and boats, it will be fine though I wanted to come and greet Isla on her first arrival in Bimini”.

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So off we went, loaded the skiff with our many bags and putted slowly out of the marina. To be fair to Doc, despite his love for speed and excitement and his obvious desire to launch the boat across the waves, he carefully picked the calmest route, sneaking in behind the wake of a large vessel to reduce the bumpiness for our little Isla. He gleefully posed for action shots and was delighted to know that Isla’s first boat ride was with the infamous Doc Gruber. However it didn’t take long for him to get bored behind the slow moving large boat so we powered past into the yacht club channel ready for our shark lab truck pick up….What a memory for us all a seaplane arrival, followed by skiff ride in 20 knot winds with Doc Gruber captaining my daughters first boat ride!

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Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?

Sawfish capture: PIT 2007

In 25 years of Shark Lab history I think there have probably been no more than a handful of sawfish captured by our team. They are an extremely rare, bizarre looking large ray with specialized elongated snout or rostrum with teeth along the edges. More importantly they are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN thus any information improving our understanding of their biology and behavior is critical to their management and conservation. It was night 1 of the North Sound PIT tagging program, 2007. I was leading a net which was set on the western edge of the sound, in shallow water (~1m) rocky substrate with sand patches. At about 11pm, an hour or so past high tide our team was on its usual 15 minute check, flashing the Q-beam down the net whilst putting alongside in our skiff and viewing the water from the surface…Suddenly splash, struggle a shark appeared tangled in the net, shortly followed by another and a few meters later a bigger splash. Excitingly within the space of 60 seconds all of my team had launched themselves into the water to rescue our catch: 2 juvenile lemon sharks and a bonefish. Knowing that there might be others caught in the last two sections of the net, I continued to slowly motor, checking carefully and methodically along the way. I reassured my team that I would collect them and the sharks on the way back. However as I got closer to the mangroves, I noticed that a large section of the net (~10m) had turned into a huge silt cloud. I couldn’t see a thing, my first thought was adult lemon shark (yipppeee) and then I considered big nurse shark (ohhhh noooo).

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Both species are frequently documented by the Shark Lab during the summer in shallow waters either pupping or finding mates, so it was possible that one had got tangled up. However to my absolute amazement, surprise and excitement, as the current gradually cleared the silt away, out of the murk appeared the instantaneously recognizable rostrum of a sawfish, with its evenly spaced teeth like a prehistoric caveman weapon I excitedly roared at the top of my voice…”oh my godddddd, it’s a sawfish, we’ve caught a freaking sawfish”. I then shouted down the radio we’ve caught a sawfish, a sawfish…wooohoooo…Wilson one of the volunteers answered, “You’re joking”, “Do I sound like I am joking”, I gasped…Within quick succession there were yelps of joy and cheers down the radio and across the sound! Any normal person would have thought we had won the lottery or had a boat full of pirates treasure collide into our net. Well to us we had one the lottery, this was one of the rarest creatures in the ocean and we had the privilege of seeing it up close!

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