What is your connection to the Shark Lab?
I first went to the shark lab as a volunteer in 2002. I was on an industry placement year during my undergraduate degree at Cardiff University, UK. I spent 10 months at the shark lab and fell in love with it. I ended up extending my initial stay by 2 months and joining the 2003 Marquesas cruise. After this first 10 month stay I returned to the UK to finish my degree and then returned straight to the shark lab. For an extended period. I began my Ph.D, and tenure as PI, at the lab in 2005 and was resident there until the end of 2008. Following the completion of my Ph.D I returned to Florida for a post doc associated with the lab, focussing on LCS sharks. I am currently the vice president of the Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation.
Tell us a story about Doc?
Doc on the ropes
It was finally happening, I was going to the legendary Tiger Beach. Doc had convinced Pete Lindgren to take us there in is beautiful 55’ Hatteras, to assess the site’s potential for research and to tag a few lemon sharks with acoustic transmitters for tracking. The shark lab crew consisted of Doc and myself, with Matt Potenski joining us to document the trip with photography. We arrived at the site on the Little Bahama Bank just before dusk and there was no sign of any sharks. We assembled a bait box and got it soaking in the water as quickly as possible, then my indefinite job was to scrape fish until the sharks showed up. Before long it was dark and there was no sign of any sharks. Doc turned in at about 10 and asked me to scrape fish for as long as I could manage. It was flat calm weather and I was so excited to be there I ended up scraping fish till around four in the morning. I lay down on the sofa in the main cabin and passed out almost immediate.
My slumber was short lived. Doc rose at the crack of dawn and went to pee off the back of the boat. I was woken by a loud and very very excited shreek when he looked into the water. There were around 30 large lemon sharks circling around the back of the boat. Doc was in heaven. The thing I probably most admire about Doc is his relentless passion for his work. Doc has been study sharks and particularly lemon sharks for many decades now, and he is not jaded in the slightest. Even simply catching a baby lemon shark in a gillnet, something he has done a thousand times, still gets him so excited and fired up. So you can imagine that after being confronted with this sight, he was like a kid having his first ever go on a bouncy castle. As it often did, Doc excitement meant that it was time for mayhem to ensue. “STEVE, STEVE, I NEED BAIT” he screamed. I staggered out onto the deck still half asleep, trying to process what was going on. When I saw all the sharks, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there was no time to conceive it as Doc needed bait, and not right now, 10 minutes ago.
I started cutting bait for Doc. Anyone who has ever cut bait for Doc knows that he is extremely particular about it. The bait needs to be “fist sized”. This doesn’t mean the size of a fist, this means the correct size to fit in his fist. I was cutting fist sized pieces of bait as fast as I could, but of course, as soon as I handed them to Doc he would throw them straight to the sharks. I was informed that he needed more bait and more bait and more quickly. I was working as fast as I could still half asleep. I handed him a piece of bait and turned back to cut more. He threw the stinky bait but it slipped out of his had too early, flew directly up, hit the boats canvass, bounced back and hit me right in the neck. That woke me up. I paused for a second quite annoyed, then just burst out laughing. In the meantime the demand for bait was only ever increasing, so it was back to work.
I cut bait and Doc fed the lemons for about an hour, then it was time to formulate a plan as to how we were going to catch and work up one of these big sharks. The best idea that we could come up with was as follows. We rigged a gangion up to a long rope and tied a big orange float onto the other end. Doc was going to feed a bait with the hook to one of the big lemons, then we would let it run on the float for a bit to tire it out a little. Meanwhile I would wait in the boat’s tiny tender, off to the side with the engine running and once the shark was hooked, I would pick Doc up from the main ship and we would follow it. It was go time, I was out bobbing around in the little tender and Doc was slapping the hooked bait on the water trying to get the sharks to take it. As they often did, they were making us look stupid, refusing the take the bait with the hook in it. Eventually Doc timed his slap perfectly and one of the big sharks took the bait. As soon as it felt the hook set, the shark took off like a bullet. With field research it is typical that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. When the shark took off, it ran parallel to the back of the boat, this dragged the rope rapidly across Doc’s legs and eventually the big orange float, about the size of a space hopper, smashed into the back of Doc, and pinned him up against the corner of the back deck. It looked for sure like Doc was going to get pulled overboard. Pete even yelled “Doc overboard” in anticipation. But Doc was able to hold on and flip the orange ball off his back and into the water.
Everyone was trying to check if Doc was ok, but Doc only had one thing on his mind, chasing down that lemon shark. He yelled for me to collect him and I ran over in the tender. He jumped in the tender like nothing had happened, and began frantically issuing instructions as I followed the shark. Suddenly mid-sentence, Doc stopped talking reached down into his rubber boot and pulled out a huge bait knife. I asked, “why the hell are you keeping that knife in there, are you a pirate?!” He replied, “I have absolutely no idea how that got in there. We looked back at the main vessel and we realised that when Doc had been slammed against the corner of the deck he had hit the bait cutting board. The knife must have fallen off the board and straight into his boot. After that mystery was solved it was time to deal with the shark.
It was not going to be easy, there was only two of us in the boat, the shark was bigger than the boat and there were no cleats to tie the shark to. We pulled the shark up to the side, after much mayhem we were able to get a tail rope on and bring the shark under control. The only way we could keep the shark along side the boat and not capsize, was for Doc to hold the lines and counter balance the boat while I measured, tagged, surgically implanted the transmitter and finally dehooked the shark. It was not easy to say the least, but as always we got the job done. Thank god it was flat calm. We returned to the main vessel both grinning from ear to ear. I knew Doc was sore from getting slammed against the gunnel, but, as always, he never complained or grumbled. I will never forget my first trip to tiger beach, and I will never forget the times I was privileged enough to work with and lean directly from Doc. It was always an adventure!
Tell us a story about the Shark Lab?
Tiger on the run
Longlining has been a sharklab research staple since it opened, and even before when Dr. Gruber would undertake research cruises to Bimini through the 1980s, thus I think it is only fitting that one of my most vivid memories of the lab is related to them. The exact date escapes me, but the following events occurred somewhere between late 2002 and early 2003. I could only have been at the lab for a few months at most, excitement was buzzing as I was schedule for a longline check, my favourite research activity. Grant was the boat captain and I, at the time was very inexperienced. We were heading out to check and haul the lines at the end of a 24hr set. Shark catches on the final check were rare, and usually nurse sharks, but there was always hope.
It was a flat calm day and the sun was shining. We had hauled two of the five lines and no sign of any sharks. We were approaching the third line to haul when we saw something moving at the surface near the second hook. We quickly realised it was a big tiger shark circling the bait. Grant shut the engine down and said “keep quiet and don’t move”. We drifted silently barely breathing, willing the shark with all out might to take the hook. Then we saw it happen, the shark grasped the bait in its mouth and started to swim away from the line. The anticipation was immense. The gangion started to come under tension and the circle hook did its job, hooking the shark right in the corner on the mouth. Until now, everything had seemed calm and tranquil. Even as the shark swam away from the line, it did it with an air of nonchalance. The second that hook set in the shark’s mouth everything changed, the water and the world around us erupted and the shark showed its true power potential.
We were elated and frenzied getting the gear ready. However, the shark was too strong even for our gear and managed to break the gangion away from the main line. As soon as it did, it only had one thing in mind, swimming as far away from the island as possible. Sharks would straighten hooks all the time and that was no big deal, but this shark had broken the gangion at the base and now had six feet of cable, another six feet of rope and a float in tow. In all honesty not a huge burden for a shark of that size, the hook would have rusted out in a month or so, but we both wanted to release the shark from its hindrance and also tag this wonderful animal.
Grant formulated a plan. The water was shallow enough on the banks that the shark was in reach. The plan was to tie a rope to the tailer with a rolling hitch, pursue the shark in the boat and slide the tailer over the caudal fins. This would allow us to bring the shark to the boat and deal with it there. Fool proof !!!!
We rigged the gear while in pursuit, one of the other volunteers drove the boat while Grant leaned over the front to try and lasso the tail. My job was to hold onto grants legs so that he didn’t fall face first onto the shark. As you can imagine wrangling a free swimming shark in open water is not an easy task, there was a lot of yelling and cursing and a lot of failed attempts. Like most things in life persistence was key and eventually success. Grant managed to loop the tailer over the caudal fins, we had it! Or so we thought. The shark had a different point of view and also a lot more energy left that expected. For some strange reason the shark didn’t like being restrained and began to pull hard against the weight of the boat. We were worried about the shark breaking free of the tailer, so we started to let rope out. We soon saw that the knot was sliding back against the foam handle and realised that there was a good chance the shark could pull the handle off. It would then be left with a second burden of the tailer, not good. It was time for a new plan.
Grant tied one of the boat fenders off to the end of the rope to act as a float, we let the shark swim free towing the line behind it. We hoped that this may tire the shark out, but after following the shark for a good 20 mins it didn’t seem to be slowing down, it was time to take action. Grants new plan was to get in the water with a tail rope, slide this rope over the existing one and down to the shark’s tail. Once the tail rope was on we could use the resistance of the boat to stop the shark in its tracks, again, fool proof. Grant entered the water and gently grabbed hold of the float the shark was towing. He started easing his way along the rope towed along by the big shark we were following. After a few minutes Grant yelled up to the boat asking me to join him in the water. Finally chance to swim with a big tiger shark… I didn’t have to be asked twice. Within seconds my gear was on and I was franticly swimming to catch up to Grant and the shark. When I got there I had a problem, I had no idea what my role in this operation was. Grant was firmly focused on the shark and I had no way of figuring out what to do. I took hold of the rope next to Grant to increase the resistance and further slow the shark down. My eyes were mostly fixed on Grant awaiting some kind of instruction.
I couldn’t help but afford myself a glance at the shark. Looking ahead at the large tiger shark dragging us through the water it was truly the most amazing sight I’d ever seen. However, we had a task in hand so I focused my attention back on Grant. We were working our way down the line towards the shark and the closer we go the more the shark slowed. Suddenly, Grant threw the line away and bolted away frantically. This left me still holding the line and very confused. Then I noticed the line had gone slack. I turned my head back towards the shark and to my shock was confronted with a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth! It was closing the distance between us it at a great rate so I followed Grant’s lead. Throwing the rope away and frantically swimming backwards, kicking with my fins at the shark as I tried to put distance between us. The shark chased me backwards for about 15 feet, once it has sufficiently asserted its dominance it turned back around and continued swimming away from the island.
I took a few deep breaths and realised my heart was beating at 100 mph, with no time to pondered my confrontation it was back to the task in hand. We repeated the procedure three more time with the same result. Starting at the float and working down towards the tail, only this time my eyes were focused firmly on the shark. I realised quickly why the shark was charging us. The closer down the rope we would get to the shark the more its swimming motion would become exaggerated due to the resistance. This would mean that when we get really close, the shark would be swinging its head almost to 90 degrees. When it did this it would eventually see us encroaching on it, which would trigger the defensive charge. By the fourth time the shark had run out of energy and lay on the bottom. This allowed Grant to slide over the tail rope and we had it under control. We worked up the shark, tagged it and removed the gangion. To our delight it swam off strongly and high fives ensued. After we were done I asked Grant why he had asked me to get in, since I never received any further instructions. He informed me that he just wanted me to get in so that he wasn’t the only one in the water with this big agitated shark. I couldn’t have cared less, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. In fact, I feel that this experience spawned my fascination for the longlines, that eventually became the focus of my Ph.D research three years later.
How did meeting Doc and working at the Shark Lab change your life?
I owe everything for where I am today to Doc, Marie and the Shark Lab. Nothing has had a bigger influence on my life, both professionally and personally. Doc and Marie have been like family to me and the incredible experiences I had at the lab have shaped me as a person.