What is your connection to the Shark Lab?
I was the Lab Manager of the Sharklab from February 2012 until July 2013. I managed the lab with Emily Marcus and then Jill Brooks. I first volunteered from January- June 2011. I was originally supposed to volunteer for only one month and resume my job at FIU after returning. One month turned into a three-year adventure of a lifetime. After volunteering, I started a master’s degree in Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. As a fresh grad student, I was asked to return to Bimini full-time; I honored the call and dropped everything even a masters! The Sharklab was where I belonged and luckily I got a full-time job out of it and a once in a lifetime experience.
Tell us a story about Doc?
Doc, as many may not know, has quite a fascination with dogs. The Sharklab has always had dogs; they served as our companions and protectors. In 2012, the Sharklab adopted two puppies named Link and Kaya. They were a rambunctious duo that had been terrorizing our old dog named “Rat Dog” or Rattie. Rat Dog would bark continuously at the puppies until they left her sight. Doc figured he would stage an intervention to try to convince Rattie to like the puppies. We all know of Doc’s groundbreaking achievements in Shark behavior, he might have realized later that sharks are easier to train than dogs. Doc constructed an enclosure of bar stools around old Rattie while the puppies were allowed in the kitchen. The stools were supposed to dissuade the old dog from lunging at the puppies and after a period of time, they would all love each other, at least that’s what Doc was hoping. Doc decided that the best time to test his dog intervention experiment was during our annual PIT project while our day crew was sleeping from a long night of gillnetting. All I can remember is the continuous barking of old Rat Dog and occasional growling, snarling and barstools flying around the kitchen. Needless to say the experiment didn’t work, but all that was lost was some sleep of some of our volunteers. Being a scientist, Doc was always determined to train the old dogs, he really cared a lot for them and made sure they were always well fed. We used to joke that we should run a stats package on the correlation between Doc’s visits and Sharklab dog indigestion.
Outside of the many riveting and adrenaline-filled experiences with sharks, very few people saw Dr. Gruber outside of the lab or Bimini for that matter. Doc away from the lab is much more laid back and a lot of fun to spend time with. I recall many times while on shopping trips to Miami finding myself in very simple everyday places that most of us wouldn’t imagine seeing shark scientists shopping at Costco or walking the aisles of Home Depot. In reality as I have mentioned earlier, there is a lot of behind the scenes work that you will not see on our TV documentaries, Facebook status updates, or publications. On many of my trips back to Florida each month I would typically lend a hand around Doc’s house in Kendall. On one particular trip, Doc and I were fixing a broken sprinkler head in his garden. Forgetting our PVC cement, Doc ran inside to grab some extra supplies. After about twenty minutes passed I began wondering where he had disappeared. I decided to go check in the house to make sure he had found what we needed to finish the repair; what I discovered was not what I was expecting. I walked into his office to find Doc dressed in his brand new vintage WWII flight suit and was testing out his flight helmet. I reminded him about the sprinkler system and he said that he was too excited about his new flight suit that he had to try it on that instant. Doc is an avid warplane enthusiast and regularly flies in old “warbirds” around the country. He gets very excited about things whether it be sharks, old planes, or boats. Sometimes he reminds me of a big kid that is still fascinated by discovery and adventure. If not for his strong personality and refusal to give up, the Sharklab would have been a passing fancy and would never have endured for the past twenty-five years and hopefully many more to come.
Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?
One of my highlights as Lab Manager was representing the lab at the 2013 Cacique Awards in Nassau. Myself, Jill Brooks and Tristan Guttridge were flown to Nassau to attend the awards ceremony as nominees for the Sustainable Tourism Award presented by the Bimini Ministry of Tourism. We were shocked and flattered to win the award for our tiny dusty doublewide trailer of a research station. During 2013 we organized a few outreach days to local schools with the help of the tourism office. Living in Bimini is a land of extreme ups and downs, one day you are rolling in the dirt replacing a starter on your 1984 Suburban and fixing a broken pool pump, the next you are wearing a tuxedo accepting a prestigious tourism award; that was the life we loved as Sharklab staff.
The Sharklab experience is the people you work with and meet along the way. I can recall one memorable montly longline survey when we caught 13 tiger sharks. Myself and T.J. Ostendorf, the current lab manager, tagged and released tiger after tiger as if we were working at an assembly plant. On our way back to the lab we were smiling and satisfied that this was our job, just another day in the office. You never forget those who you worked or volunteered with. We are a tight-knit group that could be considered closer than most families. When you work and live so close to others, you know your colleagues through all types of adventures whether in the field or at the lab or on a personal level. The people make the sharklab a success story.
How did meeting Doc and working at the Shark Lab change your life?
Working at the Sharklab was still to this day the most proud experience of my life. When one is caught up in the day-to-day work at the Sharklab you forget how world-famous and revered he is, to us he is simply “Doc”. I am flattered to have worked for him and value the importance of keeping in touch with Doc even after moving on from the lab. The Sharklab experience has helped me a lot in my professional career. Dr. Gruber is revered and respected especially in south Florida. There only are and will be a handful of people who can claim they worked for Dr. Samuel H. Gruber, my former boss, mentor, and to many a pioneer of shark research. As all who know him closely, he is one of a kind; they surely broke the mold when they made Doc.