What is your connection to the Shark Lab?
After graduating with a marine biology degree from the University of Bangor in the UK in 2006, I worked for a year to save up for a round the world trip of a lifetime. The traveling plans fell through so with my savings, I decided to look at a shorter term internship, I googled ‘marine biology internships’ and BBFS Sharklab was the third option, I saw it was in the Bahamas and (yes, very shallow of me) I immediately applied. My first trip was for 2 months as a volunteer in August 2007, I remember meeting Steven Kessel and Dr. Gruber at the tiny airport before getting on the even tinier plane, I was so shy, quiet and nervous. There was a girl there, Hollie Neibert, that had been the year before and she could not stop telling me how much I was going to love it. I had no idea what to expect, I can’t even remember what I thought the lab would look like. The first person I met in Bimini had a shark tattoo, the second person I met in Bimini had a shark tattoo, then we pulled up and I saw on the plastic hammerhead on the outside wall. I felt sick. I hadn’t fully read the website, it was all last minute and rushed, I’d signed up for a marine biology internship at the Bimini Biological Field Station, I really don’t know how the words ‘Shark Lab’ had escaped my attention up until that point, I had not heard of Doc or the lab’s reputation. I hadn’t studied sharks in my degree, I’d never seen a shark. I was genuinely worried they would send me home because I didn’t know anything about sharks. Well after that first day tomato soup and grilled cheese and shark dive, both very traditional for the 15th of every month, I was hooked. I was hyperventilating getting into that water for the first time but Hollie walked me through it all and stayed with me, it did not take long to fall in love with being in the water with sharks.
I absolutely had to go back for PIT the next year (2008), everyone had raved about it, co-volunteers were returning for it, my year of travelling went out of the window again as I served beer, scrubbed toilets and made beds until I could get back out to Bimini.
I then absolutely just had to get back for the Jupiter project that everyone raved about, so I volunteered again in Florida in early 2009.
In July 2009 I got the email from Doc, the current manager, Kat Gledhill, a good friend of mine, was moving onwards and the assistant position had opened up. As you can imagine, it was probably the best email I’ve ever received in my life!
I worked as an assistant manager for Emily Marcus for two years, then after a year in BC, Canada, returned to replace Em as the manager for another 2 years. I think in total, I was at the lab for 4.5 wonderful years.
Tell us a story about Doc?
Ha, so many to tell I don’t know where to start!
One of the early Doc moments had to be April 2008. We were doing chase downs on my birthday for a film shoot, we caught a huge lemon shark, she gave birth to 14 pups and I got to hold them. Fourteen baby sharks that shared my birthday! I had never seen an older man be so energetic, so passionate, and so crazy (!) as that day. This man had worked with this one species for almost all of his life, how had this not got old for him? How was he still as enthusiastic as the rest of us first timers? I remember him passing out asleep when we got back to the lab and missing dinner and my birthday cake, he came up to me after his nap and gave me a birthday hug! I was so shocked!
Another more recent ‘chase down’ story happened last spring. We had to usher a pregnant lemon shark towards a large pen where we could close her in and wait for her to give birth to her pups naturally, with a cameraman swimming behind. We had the full team out, all skiffs in charge of herding this skittish shark. My skiff was the closest to it and I was on the eastern side of her, in charge of gently nudging her west. Well we were driving at a slow speed for maybe 5 minutes from A to B, I was the same distance away from her the entire time, and we headed in a straight line, yet somehow, Doc must have screamed over a hundred times at me from his boat behind the shark that I wasn’t paralleling with her and we were going to lose her! It was the most frustrated I have ever been, I had one volunteer on my bow pointing at her nose, and one volunteer at the stern pointing at her tail, and we got her from A to B perfectly, by definition, we were parallel. Doc often admits he can get pretty crazy during chase downs and I know the position of his boat was skewing the angle so it looked like I was ahead of the shark, but wow, I wish someone counted the number of times he shouted the word parallel at me, it was at least 100. Staff member and volunteers came up to me afterwards and just shook their heads, they couldn’t believe I didn’t lose it at Doc. I guess you had to be there but I know everyone else that was there that day will still chuckle at the word parallel.
There are plenty of stories from our research trips to Marquesas, something about having Doc on a boat 24-7 for 10 days exaggerated his craziness. Marquesas is a mangrove island west of Key West, very similar to Bimini with shallow lagoons surrounded by mangroves, perfect for baby lemon sharks! I think the lab did 10 seasons down there, usually in August/September time, during the peak tropical storm/hurricane season! I remember it was Tyler Clavelle’s first month as an Assistant Manager and he didn’t know Doc that well yet, he was so nervous about everything working right and being the only one in charge of all the engines and equipment. Well, it took a couple of days to shop and pack for 10 days of gillnetting, shark fishing and eating for a crew of 10, it was all packed in 3 trucks with two boats on trailers. We were finally ready to drive from Doc’s house in Miami to Key West and all very excited, yet nervous that we had forgotten something- packing for 10 days’ worth of research at sea in the middle of nowhere is quite nerve wracking. We drove out of the driveway and I was in the car following Doc’s, before we had even turned onto the main road, the trailer wheel started to smoke. I think I saw Tyler’s heart just break. There was nothing we could do, no way we could fix it ourselves, nowhere was open to fix it for us so we just went with it, the boat was towed at a weird angle smoking the whole way down. I think we just had to keep stopping and reapplying grease or something to get us there. That was the same research trip that the inflatable Avon was popped by the skeg of the other skiff in the marina before we even got to Marquesas, the handheld radio batteries we had to take out fishing with us had died and wouldn’t hold their charge so a local fisherman dropped some off for us (we were 4 hours from Key West) the air conditioning of the main research vessel we were living on broke halfway through the trip, Dr. Bryan Franks seriously hurt is back and could barely climb up the stairs, Joanne Fraser slipped whilst trying to get from the main boat to the Avon in 4 foot waves and dove headfirst into the bottom of the boat, the generator also broke so we lost power and we got slammed by a huge storm and had to cut the trip short 2 days. I can still visualize Doc and our captain, driving the little skiff into the storm, Doc’s hand holding his Iphone in the air trying to get signal whilst driving the skiff standing up, they ran over a crab pot and got the float line all wrapped up in the propeller. Oh what a trip! We told Tyler that we were calling it and heading back home early and he jumped in the ocean fully clothed, swam over and climbed in the other boat, ripped his T-shirt off and was swinging it around in the air in the rain screaming with joy! We also rescued about 20 Cubans that trip (the second time the sharklab had done this), the night fishing crew came home one morning and said they saw smoke and material waving on the shore, we drove over to check it out and there were about 20 Cuban guys in their mid-twenties asking for ‘agua’ and asking if this was America, Doc in fluent Spanish replied that indeed it was America and they were whooping and cheering with joy. I remember making some PB and J sandwiches for them and we had to call the Coast Guard to come pick them up. None of the Coast Guard could speak Spanish so they asked if they could take Doc with them, I think Doc lost one of his many lives that day as he jumped from our main boat to their boat at the wrong time, the entire Coast Guard crew were screaming at him not to jump, but he did, and made it, just.
I remember dropping Doc and some gear off at the airport in the huge Suburban, Doc obviously drove us there (Doc can’t be in any sort of vehicle and not be driving it) and I had said goodbye and was about to leave and he asked if I wanted him to turn the truck and trailer round for me, I said it’s ok, I got it. It was probably the most perfect three point turn with a trailer I have ever done and as I was driving away I looked in the mirror and saw Doc standing there, holding his hands together and slowly nodding, it was a proud moment for me!
Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?
I could be here all day but there are a few that stick out.
Again, during chase-downs in the spring, we had switched to the less stressful method of corralling the sharks into an area and then surrounded her with a large net deployed by two skiffs. The idea is that the shark swims into the net and gets her teeth and head tangled in it, a few staff hop in, tie a thin line around her tail with a float attached, untangle her head and let her go. Well it was Tristan, CJ and I to hop in and I usually took the tail end, the boys with dip nets and bite paddles dealt with the front end. She had turned herself upside down into tonic so was relatively calm, the tail rope was on but her teeth were really tangled, I edged forward to hold her while the boys worked on her mouth, but they had to move closer and closer to her head so I had to move further up the shark. They then stepped over the large net and untangled her, I then realized it was just me, holding up what we later discovered as an almost 3m lemon shark, the largest in our records and potentially any fishing records, in tonic immobility in chest deep, murked-up water, and I had to let her go. That was probably the most scared of being bit I have ever been. I gently shoved her away from me and turned and ran the other way, we couldn’t see her or where she went, I just kept ‘running’. I was obviously fine and she swam away into clearer waters. Just catching and tagging the largest ever pregnant lemon shark, holding her in tonic and getting her DNA was without a doubt the best day of my life.
Another best day of my life moment that you may hear from the others on the boat that day, was hand catching a 287cm female lemon shark on our way home from Mark Bond’s Tower Wilson trials. We were driving home and I stupidly shouted, “what is that, is that a ray” everyone looked where I was pointing and very quickly we got closer, “no Jill, that’s a pregnant female lemon shark”. (At the time, she was the largest lemon shark in our database). We all screamed ecstatically, we had dip nets and ropes onboard and she was in shallow water, we had the chance to catch her very easily. Well we did, we got closer, poked her head with the dipnet, she bit onto it, got tangled, a tail rope was put on and she was secure. By what was an incredible coincidence, Dr. Demian Chapman was flying into Bimini that afternoon with a satellite tag he was donating to the station to be attached to a mature female lemon shark. We radioed the lab to see if he had landed, and took great pleasure in telling him to get on a boat and meet us out there, we had a shark for him to attach it to!
Just another incredible day with lemon sharks!
Another best day of my life was the day (and the day after) a beaked Gervais Whale somehow beached itself in the shallow lagoon between North and South Bimini. Katie and Grant had received a frantic call from Bonefish Tommy that there was a huge dolphin going crazy in the lagoon and looked like it needed help. I had just come home from gillnetting all night, was nicely asleep in bed when a volunteer, Clement, woke me up to tell me. I was so confused, a whale in the lagoon, is this a joke, then Grant stormed into the room and announced it was true, and to get up quick. We hopped on our boat and raced around with ropes, tarp and cameras. After a few hours of trying to walk the whale to deeper waters and then wrapping her in tarp, strapping her to the side of the boat and driving her, she unfortunately died. She had cut up her underside on conch shells and rocks and was bleeding pretty bad, my job was to chase the tiger sharks away with my boat as one was swarming pretty close! There’s a dolphin scientist that lives on the island that had a marine mammal stranding kit and came out to help, she then performed a necropsy on our back beach and took plenty of pictures, measurements and samples. I have never seen so much blood in my life. We stored the carcass in a makeshift pen to keep away any scavengers and the next day, CJ, myself and some volunteers (that were picked out of a hat) towed the carcass out to the deep blue waters towards the Gulf Stream. It took less than an hour for the first sharks to show up, we had the carcass on 30feet of line and from the surface and we couldn’t identify the species. After some thought (maybe not enough thought) CJ and I got in our snorkeling gear and slowly hopped in, holding onto the line very closely to the boat. He had his big underwater camera in front of him, I had a spear. There were several bulls and a few Silkies, just taking it in turns tearing flesh of the carcass, it was absolutely incredible to watch. We then had a very large female tiger shark slowly swim in to check it out, except, she didn’t really seem too interested in the whale, but more interested in us. She got the line caught like a bridle bit across her mouth, the line that I was actually holding onto. She must have been 15feet away from me thrashing with this line, I panicked and froze wondering how I was going to get out of this. Seconds before I thought to cut the line with a bait knife, she got free. She then made 2 passes of CJ and I, one from below, mouth gaping open, pectoral fins down and nictitating membrane up. I poked her firmly with my pole spear and she turned away. I was absolutely shaking, but for some reason I didn’t want to get out, I wanted to see more! Well after her second close pass, she swam around the back of us and that was me done, I couldn’t get into that boat fast enough. Just incredible! CJ has the video of the whole thing, I’m not sure if he has any stills but I’m sure he can do a screen grab if needed. While we were out with the whale carcass, the local police stopped by the lab to see if everything was ok, they’d heard about all the blood around the beach and wondered if someone had been bit. I think Rachael had to show them the whale meat in our freezer to assure them that we were all ok, it wasn’t our blood.
One day that was definitely not the best day of my life, but probably the strangest, was having to put a 13foot tiger shark into an 11foot wooden box on Shell Beach. We were to put her in tonic then anaesthetize her using MS222 and a bilge pump whilst small electrodes were attached around her jaw to measure her maximum bite force for a Brady Bar National Geographic TV show. She had everted her stomach, throwing out a large plastic empty menhaden oil bottle, and her stomach was hanging out of her mouth. We obviously couldn’t test her bite force whilst her stomach was out, so we had to force it back in. Somehow I was at the head end in charge of the sea water hose for her mouth, so it was my job to stick it back in. Well, after trying with my hands, I got yelled at by Doc to use a shovel handle. There I was, poking a wooden pole down the throat of an upside down tiger shark, whilst Doc had his hand up her cloaca, feeling baby tiger sharks, yes she was indeed pregnant. The film crew had decided that this could not be aired on television so we called it a day and got her back into the ocean as quick as possible. After the stress and the MS222 she needed some reviving so we tied her to the boat, held her mouth open and drove her slowly around the shallows whilst she came around. She survived, swam away strongly and after following her at a distance for 20 minutes, we decided she was good to go! Two years later, I was at a BBQ in South Africa and randomly met Ryan Johnson, a shark scientists who was there for the ‘tiger in a box’ day. He told me that whilst they were working with a White Shark down in SA, the shark appeared to have died and the crew gave up on her, but Ryan had seen our technique in Bimini at reviving the tiger shark and pushed for the crew to try it. They did and the shark came round and was still pinging with her satellite tag months later! Our tiger shark in Bimini had saved a White shark in SA! So cool!
How did meeting Doc and working at the Shark Lab change your life?
This is a hard one to describe without sounding cheesy. Every single comment I have read in the guest book has stated how that place has changed their lives. Firstly, I think I would be on a very different path career wise if it wasn’t for the lab. A lot of my friends were pushing me towards a teaching degree after my Undergraduate and I did consider it. I would probably be relatively happy, teaching in a school in Northern England right now if it wasn’t for the lab. Instead, I have spent the majority of my twenties having the best experiences of a lifetime, meeting the most incredible and different people and realizing a passion for marine science and conservation. The friends I have made are my closest friends and are friends for life, the first girl I met in Florida 2007, Hollie Neibert, I was her Maid of Honour at her wedding in Minnesota last summer; the manager of the lab when I first volunteered there, Kat Geldhill, I have visited her and her new family in South Africa. I could go to most countries on this planet and visit a SharkLab alumni, it’s a very small world this ‘sharky’ one and I’m so happy to be part of it.
People that knew me when I first arrived at the lab would probably agree with me here, that my self-confidence has also increased dramatically. I was a very shy and quiet, meek thing when I first arrived, I don’t think the current staff at the lab would believe me! My work ethic has changed for the better too, something about working six 10-14 hour days a week and loving it will do that to a girl! I have also realized I can cope well in very stressful situations, as managers we were responsible for a lot of young people and I experienced (minor) shark bites, concussions, dog’s intestines hanging out, boat accidents and even plane crashes (not anyone we knew). I got pretty good with a first aid kit!
You will hear this a lot but Dr. Gruber and his wife set all of this up and kept it going and changed so many lives. The number of sharks he has saved within his lifetime will be huge, however the number of shark biologists that he has inspired that will continue to study and assist in the protection of vulnerable species is on a completely different scale. I could never thank him and Marie enough for what they have done.