Meet Our Team: Robbie Roemer

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I am a Masters of Science (MS) student here at the University of Miami and am focusing on a research project for my thesis. My thesis research is primarily focusing on localized movements of urbanized shark populations, or in other words, sharks that spend long amounts of time in highly urbanized environments. We always view sharks as those which are sensitive to human impacts (pollution, habitat modification, etc.) however it would be very interesting to see show that certain species have learned to thrive in such ecosystems, much like a pigeon in a city. I am also responsible for prepping all the gear that is needed before every shark expedition we take, which also provides a good time to unwind and put on any good music while doing so. Right now its 311, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Silversun Pickups.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I am originally from Baldwin, Maryland, which is somewhat close to Towson if you’ve managed to hear about it. If not, lets just settle on Baltimore! I was raised on the banks of the Gunpowder River, and as such, developed a real affinity for fly fishing which my parents and grandfather fostered. In addition to fly fishing I loved anything that allowed me to be outside, and get exercise. I enjoyed boating, surfing, sailing and canoeing growing up. If I’m not conducting shark research you will find me fly fishing around the greater Miami area (a perfect location for such a sport) or doing a number of outside activities like kayaking or paddle boarding.


3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
Being raised in such a dynamic area as northern Maryland, I was lucky to be within a close reach of the Chesapeake Bay, many freshwater streams, and the ocean was only a few hours drive. With such a variety of aquatic environments nearby, and my affinity for fishing, my interest for the marine sciences grew.  My parents always noticed my interest in aquatic sciences and I was fortunate to get involved by volunteering at an estuary center at an extremely early age. This later developed into a passion for fisheries, a great segue for my undergraduate degree in Marine Science where my interest of elasmobranch ecology began. I owe my parents a large amount of gratitude for their encouragement. They always helped foster my passion, and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.


4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
We have some of the most unique students all working collaboratively and efficiently. Everybody gets along great, and honestly a lot of us are more like a family than lab mates. We encourage and push each other to be the best we can be, and after all is said and done we can all go out, grab food, and laugh until we cry.


5. Is there anything you’d like to say to our blog readers?
I hope through the course of our research and outreach (and our colleague’s research that have appeared on shark week) that your ideas and preconceived notions of sharks are changing. These are regal creatures that must be preserved, not just for their own protection, but also for the conservation of the entire aquatic ecosystem.




Meet Our Team: Rachel Skubel

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I’m a shark research intern, which means that I am working with the team on our shark tagging expeditions, helping to carry out research projects, and working on some outreach initiatives as well.  One of the experiments we are beginning now is testing the impact of shark presence on coral health. We’re able to do this by using a model plastic shark placed next to a block of growing corals, and observing fish behavior and coral over time. When sharks are reduced on a reef (by overfishing, for example), the population of fish that they feed on will grow, and then the numbers of fish that those species eat will decline. These fish are commonly herbivores that consume harmful algae growing upon corals, so the end result of shark declines can be coral disease, slower growth, and mortality. Since fish abundance can be affected by the mere presence of a shark – which is not even feeding – we can try to demonstrate this ‘trophic cascade’ experimentally.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m originally from London, Ontario in Canada, a few hours outside of the better-known Toronto. My undergrad was from Western University (in London), and my Masters of Science was done at McMaster University (in Hamilton). Two months ago, I made the move down to Miami to work with the RJ Dunlap shark research group. Outside of shark science, I love riding my road bike and spending time in the ocean, whether it be swimming or SCUBA diving. Right now I’m also getting into photography – there’s an endless supply of natural beauty around South Florida.


3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
Growing up around the Great Lakes, the oceans always harbored endless mystery and fascination for me, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to spend my life exploring and protecting them. Although my undergrad and Masters were in Environmental Science, particularly climate science and forest ecology, marine conservation was always the end goal. Sometime during my M.Sc., as I was exploring different marine science fields, I realized that you could actually work with and study sharks as a job. Right then and there I knew that there was no other path for me.


4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
This is a hard one! Being able to be involved in so many research projects, from urban shark tagging to testing blood plasma samples for triglycerides, is a very unique opportunity. Getting my hands into so many different aspects of shark science has really helped me to grow as a researcher. The communication and media work that we do here is also quite exciting, as it’s one thing to conduct our research and another entirely to translate the results into tangible changes in management, policy, and public perceptions of sharks. And of course, working with school groups on our trips, sharing this exciting work with younger students and giving them a snapshot of what marine scientists can do, is always a blast.


5. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our blog readers?
It’s difficult to describe the sensation of being close to the formidable animals we’re so lucky to work with, but one important aspect is experiencing these ‘fish out of water’ moments. In the ocean, undisturbed by human activities, these sharks are ideally adapted to their roles in ecosystems around the world. When we’re working them up, you realize how vulnerable they really can be if they’re out of their element. With overfishing, ocean pollution, and climate change, we are presenting sharks with a huge host of challenges, and certainly changing their ‘element’ so to speak. Although we know that there can be huge ramifications, like their hunting and feeding being less successful with ocean acidification, there is still so much more to learn. It’s important to realize that, while sharks have this reputation of being perfectly attuned predators, they are actually quite capable of falling prey to human-induced stresses.

Meet Our Team: Catherine Macdonald

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I’m the Intern Coordinator for RJD, which means I help hire, train, supervise and mentor our amazing team of undergraduate and master’s student interns. Although our website and Facebook page show clearly how much fun we have and how hard we work when we’re in the field tagging sharks, our interns do a lot behind the scenes, too. They offer in-classroom or skype talks to schools, help organize our sample freezers and scientific databases, update the blog and website, and even make and maintain fishing gear. They also come to our training sessions, where they learn all sorts of relevant skills (including how to handle sharks safely!) and increase their knowledge on a range of marine conservation topics. Although people often say we have cool jobs (and we agree) a lot of work that is not very glamorous goes into keeping our program running.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in New Jersey, but I had family in coastal South Carolina, so I spent time in the summer as a child around the ocean, and came to love the water and the creatures that lived in it. When I’m not working with RJD, I’m a PhD student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy where I study conflict and interactions between humans and wildlife, particularly predators. I co-teach a University of Miami course on wildlife ecology, biology and conservation, and most of my time is spent teaching, grading, mentoring students, and working on my dissertation (although I’m also in the field every chance I get). As any of our interns will tell you, I’m also lucky enough to share my life with a fantastic two-legged rescue dog named Mazi, who often makes appearances at RJD intern training sessions and really loves it when interns feed him pizza.


3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
I loved the water since I was small, and I was always obsessed with sharks. As a child, I had a computer game (back when they were on CD-ROM or floppy disk, yikes) which taught me how to identify sharks by silhouette or by the shape of their fins. I told my father I wanted to grow up to be a marine scientist or to clean fish tanks at the aquarium. While not many people in the “real world” have the job they dreamed of having when they were five, it’s not that uncommon at RJD!


4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
I’ve spent the last ten years working with sharks and other marine wildlife, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Field work is incredibly rewarding, and knowing that doing your job well (and training your students well) means better science and less stress for the sharks makes me feel really good about how I spend my time. I would have said that nothing could be better than that, but over the last four years I’ve realized that the people are just as important. The amazing folks I work with are the key in determining how much fun it is to do all the day to day work that helps RJD run smoothly. I love our interns an unreasonable amount. Watching them develop skills, learn, succeed, support each other, and even (sadness!) graduate and go on to exciting new challenges makes all of our hard work completely worthwhile.


5. Is there anything you’d like to say to our blog readers?
I’d like to direct a big thanks to all of the folks out there who haven’t had a chance to have the kinds of experiences with sharks that we do and still work hard to help advance marine conservation issues. RJD relies on donors to help support our trips, particularly those for low income students, and our outreach is made much more effective by people sharing what they learn. We love working with teachers and students from around the country using our online educational tools and skype sessions. Our accomplishments have everything to do with the power of our passionate volunteers and supporters. I’d also like to add (for any of our intern or shark trip student parents who are reading this)—thank you so much for sharing your fantastic kids with us!

Meet Our Team: Stephen Cain

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I’m an outreach coordinator and field scientist. Like many of my labmates I pull double duty, which is a great thing. When I’m speaking with the public, It’s easy for me to relate my passion for sharks, but working in the field really enhanced that for me in ways I didn’t anticipate. I now have lived-in experiences, and vivid images from working with sharks. In my mind’s eye I can trace the cool contours of the hydrodynamic Blacktip or a Great Hammerhead’s cephalofoil. So when I’m speaking to you, as I am now, I’m not speaking to you from a stage or a soapbox. I’m speaking to you from the cerulean colored waters of the Western Atlantic where, at this very moment, sharks roam.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m from St. Charles, Illinois. From an early age I had an interest in fish—my mom says I was five months old when she noticed that I noticed that fish were cool. When I’m not thinking about sharks I’m chasing sunsets with my camera or cycling underneath the storied Banyan trees of Miami.


3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
The credit goes to a lot of people, circumstances, dumb luck, and persistence. I still can’t believe that I’m here doing this. Growing up, trips to the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were significant. I visited the aquarium recently and returned to the Caribbean Reef Exhibit that had so captivated me when I was younger. It was really fun to look at that exhibit anew—I recognized the species on display; I listened as kids explained to their parents what got them excited about it. I think that we all, at some point, want to be marine conservation biologists.


4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
I feel confident in saying that I’ve never worked on a team like this before. There’s a hivemind at work that is awesome to witness. The Rosenstiel School at The University of Miami was an intimidating place when I first started—there is a lot of fascinating research going on here—but I’m well aware that I’m amidst the cream of the crop. These people will make the world a better place, and I can say that I know them.


5. Is there anything you’d like to say to our blog readers?
In light of the recent press coverage on shark attacks, I’d like to share with you something that I’ve spent some time considering. While I’ve loved the ocean my whole life, it wasn’t until recently that I studied it as intensely as I do now. I was reared in the Midwest, accustomed to glacier lakes and freshwater. So it’s safe to say that my comfort level with the ocean has, by degrees, steadily changed as I’ve learned more about it. If there is a kernel of truth to the sensational media coverage surrounding shark attacks, it is this: there is inherent risk when you recreate in the ocean. However, as has been widely discussed, our perceptions of risk when it comes to shark attacks are undeniably irrational. Even so, I can’t say that sharks don’t make me nervous. I have a profound respect for what they can do as predators. As I spend more time learning about them, though, I suspect that may yet change. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Because I don’t think I have to reconcile fear and fascination to know how to do the right thing. Life is not without its risks, and to me a well-considered one builds in enough room to do the things we love while leaving enough room to coexist. Sharks, and the ecosystems they support, are important to human beings, it’s true, but ensuring that they persist alongside us is just something we ought to do.


Meet Our Team: Laura Vander Meiden

1. What’s your role in the lab?
Though I occasionally have the pleasure of getting out on the water and tagging sharks with the RJD team, as the Conservation Writing Intern my primary work for RJD consists of managing and writing for the lab blog. In the blog we summarize current marine science research in a way that anyone, scientist or not, can understand. The blog and the scientific literacy it promotes are critical components of the RJD lab’s outreach initiative, something I am very proud to be a part of.

meet the lab 2

2. Tell us a little about yourself.
Born and raised in South Florida, I grew up near the ocean and have always been fascinated by its inhabitants. It is for this reason that I decided to attend University of Miami as a Marine Science, Biology and Ecosystem Science and Policy major. However, more recently my research focus has been stolen away from the ocean by our planet’s winged inhabitants. Since then I have worked in Namibia studying the cooperative nest building behavior of sociable weavers and have started work on my own project to assess the effect of anthropogenic noise on mockingbird song.

meet the lab 1

3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
It would be difficult for me to pinpoint any one starting point for my interest in science and conservation. As early as elementary school I remember martialing my fellow classmates into creating anti-littering posters. Posters that, ironically, likely created more trash than they prevented. Since then my interest in educating others about conservation has only increased and, hopefully, become more effective.

meet the lab 3

4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
The best part about working in the lab is the ability to see the sharks up close. While I’ve seen sharks quite a few times while snorkeling and diving, nothing compares to the feel of their rough skin and the powerful muscles underneath. Being that close, it’s impossible to forget that millions of years of evolution have shaped sharks into the top predators that they are today. It is an experience made all the more exhilarating by the knowledge that the work I’m doing will aid in further understanding these incredible creatures.

meet the lab 4

Meet Our Team: Melissa Soto

1. What’s your role in the lab?
My name is Melissa Soto and my time at RJD has just begun. I am excited to see what the future has in store. At the moment, I assist with Twitter and write for the blog. I normally do about two tweets per day around 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. I try and switch it up between upcoming trips, photos/videos of previous trips or recently written articles relating to marine conservation locally or throughout the world.

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2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I am from Miami, Florida and spend most of my time outdoors. Growing up as a competitive swimmer, a pool or the ocean is where you’ll find me. I enjoy reading and passing the time with my family and friends. I do have a strong passion for traveling and I’m always thinking of where I’m headed to next.

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3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
I became interested in marine conservation by growing up in Miami, studying abroad in Australia, and being a swimmer. Since I am a writer and not a scientist, I believe it is compulsory for the general public to understand what is happening to our marine world and what they can do to help. Sometimes it’s difficult to get that across to people who are not part of the science world and that’s where I come in. I try to simplify things and hope that by me doing that people will take part in conserving the ocean in anyway they please.


4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
My favorite part about being a member of RJD is how kind everyone is. Although I have just started, everyone has been very helpful and friendly. I also like how organized and efficient everything is. From trip scheduling to receiving details about who is in charge of what, the lab is very orderly.

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5. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our blog readers?
I want the readers to know they shouldn’t be scared of the ocean; there is plenty to learn! If they stay knowledgeable through valid sources instead of hearsay, there should be no reason for fear. The ocean has so many regions filled with life that have yet to be discovered. We need readers who are passionate to become educated and take action.

Meet Our Team: Dr. Austin Gallagher

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I have been an active researcher in the lab since 2010 when I began my PhD program. Since then, I have been involved in several projects – some were central to my doctoral work on the vulnerability of sharks when they are captured in fisheries, while others were side-projects we hatched that focused on everything from evolutionary biology, to scavenging and nutritional physiology of mega-predators, and even the impacts of tourism on sharks. Most of my research focuses on the ecology of sharks, and I primarily rely on behavioral and eco-physiological approaches to answer my research questions. Currently I am leading and assisting on a variety research projects – some new, others expansive, which continue to focus on how sharks are able to survive their day-to-day lives, as well as how they are influenced by varying human threats. In this regard, I will continue to work with the lab for the foreseeable future as an associate researcher and I will also help develop and advance the work and trajectory of our graduate students.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
Deep down I am a New Englander at heart, having been raised in and around the south shore of Boston and and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In addition to my career as a scientist studying the conservation biology of predatory animals, I am also an entrepreneur. Most of my entrepreneurial interests are social, which is underscored by my role as the President of Beneath the Waves, a non-profit organization that focuses on advancing ocean conservation around the world. Our programs are diverse in terms of scientific and educational scope, and most of my effort is now focused on attracting and integrating other leaders and entrepreneurs from the music, film, business, and start-up worlds into specific causes and collaborations that promote our mission. I am a die-hard hockey fan, swearing my allegiance to the Boston Bruins NHL club. Nature photography and filmmaking are other hobbies of mine, as they pair well with my scientific endeavors. Lastly, I also DJ and produce electronic music in a group called “Natural Selection.” My goal with this latest endeavor is to create and perform tropical and sunset-driven tunes that transport people to a mindset that inspires passion, happiness, and success. I think it is really important to have at least one thing on the side that is completely different than the job you do everyday.

AG Blood draw

3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
I have always had sand in my bed and in my hair – literally. My family always encouraged me to explore and read, whether it was exploring tide pools near my home in Massachusetts, or humoring me when I would memorize everything in my animal books as a young kid. But truthfully, I have always been fascinated by animals that needed to kill for a living. Humans as a species have been disconnected with this notion for thousands of years, so I found great interest in trying to understand how predatory animals actually did this and made a living. The situation today with top predators (including sharks) is beautifully tragic: the still captivate us, yet they are being persecuted and removed unsustainably in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. When I began to learn about the growing conservation movement as an early adolescent, I saw an opportunity satiate my deep-rooted fundamental interests in marine predators and marry it with our society’s responsibility to preserve and maintain their biodiversity. I am humbled in the presence of predators – we have it so easy, and their situation is getting worse by the day. That is the space I work in: the interface between a crisis discipline/environmental issue and a deep-rooted, almost genetic interest and appreciation for the animals.

3G paper

4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
Working on top predators in the wild is especially challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. There is still a ton to learn about shark biology and ecology, and much of what we have been doing in the lab is either new to the study of predators in general or new for sharks. In this sense, I have particularly enjoyed borrowing techniques from the study of other species and adapting them for our shark work. Some of our expanding work on the nutritional physiology of sharks over space and time is an example of this. Yes, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, but I see these fields as wide open – there is a ton of room for innovation and collaboration that will result in trail-blazing research. For me, this makes research exciting, as we are constantly on the pulse of learning new things. There is always the potential for making groundbreaking discoveries that can change the way we view these incredible animals and how we can learn to improve our relationship with them.


5. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Science is changing rapidly, from the way we conduct it, to the way we disseminate and communicate it. This is exciting, but it also shows that it is important to be adaptable and creative. I urge the public and readers of this and other marine conservation blogs to be open to change and embrace, engage, and interact with the conservation scientists that think outside the box, push the boundaries in the innovation of scientific methodologies, and openly communicate with the public about controversial policies or management scenarios.


Meet our team: Lindsay Jennings

1. What is your role in the lab?
My main responsibility in the lab is to manage our data. Each time the team goes on the boat for a shark tagging trip, we record important data about the sharks such as body measurements, the sex of the animal, its tag number, even its condition upon release. We also record environmental data including salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and depth. All of this information needs to get collated and put into a master database to use later for our research and lab papers. Other databases which I keep up to date include our tiger shark database, a recapture database, and our morphology database which houses information on all sorts of body measurements of the sharks we catch. Additionally, for the past few years, I have had the opportunity to help assemble data and content for our Annual Reports, the latest of which can be seen here


2. Tell us a little about yourself
After graduating in December 2014, I have stayed with RJD to help with data management, but work in St. Petersburg, Florida where I went to Eckerd College to get my BSc in marine biology. While I am originally from northern Virginia, Florida and its warm waters kept calling. It’s probably no surprise that I love relaxing at the beach, sailing, kayaking, SCUBA diving or snorkeling – really anything water related. I also enjoy playing soccer recreationally in the Tampa Bay area, exploring new breweries or restaurants, and reading a good book (and most likely falling asleep) in a hammock


3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?
I was one of those lucky kids who always knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. What I didn’t know was that my curiosity about dolphins would shift into a love and enthusiasm for sharks and their conservation. Shark Week was practically a religion in my household growing up, and it wasn’t until college that I realized that I had the opportunities to actually follow my passion. I knew that conservation was going to make me happy and fulfilled – seeing how research could be used to affect policy changes and ultimately lead to better stewardship of our oceans and its sharks. Marine science is a very large field, and it took me awhile to find my path, but I am proud to call myself a marine conservationist.


4What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
My favorite part about working in the lab has to be going on the boat to tag sharks with local high school students. The best parts about the trips are those split seconds when a drumline is being pulled up and no one knows yet whether we have caught a shark or what species it is. If we are lucky enough to have a shark on the line, our team turns into a well-oiled pit crew and we get all the crucial information we need, tag it, release it, and watch it swim away, within minutes. It’s always exciting yet humbling to know you’ve just played an integral part of shark research and conservation.


5. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our blog readers?
Shark research is an incredible thing to be a part of, from collecting data in the field to publishing papers to giving presentations to local communities. Unfortunately, it is not always a glamorous job, as a lot of hard work is put in behind the scenes from our entire team to make the lab run efficiently and effectively. I am extremely grateful and honored to be part of a team which shares the same love and passion for the oceans and sharks as I do, and I know this lab will see many more successes in its future.

Meet Our Team: Dr. Neil Hammerschlag

1. What’s your role in the lab?
I am a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel Marine School (RSMAS) and Abess Center as well as Director of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. I oversee all our research, education, and outreach activities.My personal research centers broadly on the behavioral ecology and conservation biology of marine predators. My current and future research has three core themes: (1) understanding how predator-prey interactions impact individual traits, community structure and ecosystem processes through trophic cascades; (2) evaluating the ecological and evolutionary implications of variation in physiological and morphological adaptations on the movement ecology of marine predators; and (3) examining how coastal urbanization affects the behavior, ecology and fitness of highly mobile fishes.


2. Tell us a little about yourself.
I enjoy art in all forms from visual to performance. But most of all, I am a huge music fan and really enjoy experiencing live music. My favorite genre is alternative rock, with Pearl Jam as my all-time favorite rock band. I have been to over 30 Pearl Jam concerts.I also love coffee and do my best to have at least 3 cups per day.

Neil Hammerschlag and Shark_E_Photo by Aaron      Whitemore

3. How did you get interested in marine biology and conservation?Growing up in South Africa, my family use to vacation on the beaches and there I became fascinated with the ocean. I spent as much time as I could in and around water. Once old enough to dive, I then also spent as much time under the water as I could. I enjoyed science in school and so I worked hard to be educated in the marine science. When in college, I learned about the threats facing the oceans and then became motivated to pursue a career in marine conservation science and outreach.

Neil & Bull_2

4. What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
My three favorite aspects of my job are:
1) Spending time on the water and frequently interacting with sharks and other amazing ocean creatures
2) Discovering new things about our amazing natural world
3) Sharing my passion with others and providing people will meaningful experiences in marine conservation science.


Shark Tagging with Citizen Scientists

by Melissa Soto, RJD Intern

It was a beautiful Saturday Miami morning and adrenaline was in the air. Just 24 hours before, seven sharks were tagged and I felt it was going to be an exhilarating day. That morning, the RJD team loaded the boat as they always do and the guests for the trip boarded the ship. The ocean was multiple shades of blue and looked incredibly refreshing and inviting.

As we made our way out to deploy the buoys, people were enjoying the ocean all around. The 10 buoys we deployed and the anticipation to tag a shark rose even higher. A refreshing dip at a nearby reef served to pass the time, since we needed to wait an hour before checking the lines.

A participant kisses the bait for good luck

A participant kisses the bait for good luck

After checking a few of our lines, we finally had a shark!  It was nurse shark, about two meters long.  Once the team secured it on the platform, the work up began. The team took a fin clip sample, length measurements, blood work, photographs and then tagged the shark.

A brief research workup

A brief research workup

The team allowed the spectators for the day to get hands on and feel the shark. This really let them see the interesting variations shark skin texture. The team promptly released the shark as soon as possible back into the ocean.

The day started off like any other Miami summer day, but quickly turned gray in the afternoon with a storm approaching. As we continued to check the lines, we saw a bull shark was hooked. RJD followed the same procedures; did the work up and released the bull shark into the ocean as the seas were beginning to intensify.

The team decided to pick up the rest of the lines as the storm was upon us.  In the interim two more sharks were caught, a nurse and another bull. The work up was done in a timely manner and the sharks were released back to their habitat.

Looking over our research equipment

Looking over our research equipment

Overall, it was a good day. Two females and two male sharks were tagged. Thank you Citizen Science for joining us and being such a great group!