Shark Tagging with Breakthrough Miami

by Laurel Zaima, RJD Intern
Saturday, November 10th, 2012

After all of the late nights studying for my tests, and quizzes, Saturday could not have come fast enough! Before I knew it, the count down was finally over and I was driving down to Islamorada with Christine. Unfortunately, when we arrived at Captain Curt’s house, the weather was looking a little grim and the wind just began to pick up. Regardless of the weather, everyone remained optimistic! Captain Curt informed us that we would be going to a shallow site that was approximately 15-22 feet  in hopes that the water would be less choppy. Little did we know, we underestimated the power of the waves.

As we waited for our guests to arrive, we each predicted which species of shark we were going to encounter that day. Although there was a little discrepancy about what we were going to catch, we all agreed that this shark tagging expedition had good vibes. Fortunately, we were correct, and the student group was able to have a great educational and hands on experience. We went out with a group that is apart of a program called Breakthrough Miami. This program assists low income and disadvantaged students and their families that reside in the Dade County. The students of the Breakthrough Miami program are taught, supervised, and mentored by high school student volunteers from Palmer Trinity School (grades 6-12). We hosted 15 middle schools students, 3 high school mentors, and the program’s chaperones on Saturday’s trip. We were thrilled to be hosting this program because Leann Winn, one of the RJD trip leaders, is a teacher at Palmer Trinity School, and she raved about how wonderful and intelligent these students are.

When we arrived at the site, we found that working through the water’s choppiness was a bit of a challenge. The RJD interns deployed the first 10 drumlines because of the rough waters, but as we waited for the bait to soak, the students began to feel seasick. Captain Curt decided that after we pull up the first 2 sets of 10 drumlines that we were going to switch locations. The unsafe, choppy waters not only made the students sick, but it also prevented the students from part taking in the research. Although the seas were unforgiving, the first two sets of drumlines were actually very successful!

We caught a Nurse shark on the second line that we pulled up! This female shark was a decent size, totaling a length of 2.20 m (7.2 feet). Only two lines later we pulled up another female Nurse shark. She was a little longer and had more girth than the previous Nurse that we caught, totaling a length of 2.39 m (7.8 feet). We were on a roll, and even through the seasickness, the students began perk up at the sight of the sharks. To finish up the first set, we caught another big fish. As we reeled in the line, we realized that we did not catch another Nurse shark. We caught an adult Tiger shark! At this point, I literally jumped out of excitement because this was the first adult Tiger Shark that I have caught with the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program! This gorgeous female Tiger totaled at 1.82 m (5.97 feet). This specific shark was extremely rare because she was a recaptured shark that we caught the weekend before! It’s rare for the RJ Dunlap program encounters a recaptured shark, so we were thrilled to see this lovely lady again!


RJD interns Megan Piechowski and Laurel Zaima secure the Tiger Shark before her safe release

On the 8th drumline, we caught another Nurse shark, but Captain Curt decided to cut the line. The water was so rough that it was not worth the risk of injury to conduct research on this shark. The unruly waters crashed over us while we conducted research on the previous 3 sharks, and it made it more challenging and risky than necessary. After we pulled in the last two drumlines, we ran to a new shallower site.


The new site that we went to was 10-18 feet of water, which was drastically calmer than the previous site and still fruitful! On the 4th drumline of the 3rd set, we caught a female Blacktip shark.  She was smaller than the other sharks that we caught that day, totaling a length of 1.62 meters (5.31 feet). Three drumlines later we caught a male Blacktip shark. This male was a little smaller than the previous Blacktip, totaling a length of 1.46 meters (4.79 feet). On the first drumline of the 5th set, we caught yet another Blacktip shark! This male totaled at a length of 1.58 meters (5.18 feet). The Blacktip sharks seemed to be dominating this new spot until we reeled in the 3rd drumline of the 5th set. I could tell there was a fish on the line as I was reeling it in, but I could not tell what species of shark it was until it surfaced. We caught a Great Hammerhead shark!

The great hammerhead

This species of shark is majestic and beautiful, but also very fragile and easily stressed. We cut the line because conducting research on Hammerheads stresses them out too much, and the safety of the sharks is always our first priority. To end the day with a bang, the last shark that we caught was an Atlantic Sharpnose! This male shark totaled at .92 meters (3.02 feet), which is significantly smaller than the other sharks that we caught that day.


This shark-tagging trip was epic to say the least! The students and the RJD interns were able to observe and collect research from a large diversity of sharks. Besides the rocky start with a bit of seasickness, everyone had a great time on the boat and the students were able to learn a lot.

Breakthrough student and RJD interns show their best shark pose

I left Islamorada Saturday feeling privileged and blessed to have met and taught the Breakthrough Miami students; to work with the greatest “co-interns” (friends) anyone could ask for; and to have the opportunity to conduct research on these apex predators in efforts towards their conservation.

3 replies
  1. Yael Sadler
    Yael Sadler says:

    The trip looked like fun. I wish I could of came. What shark did you tag, did you tag all of them? I bet Captain Curt was a great Captain. He had to be a good Captain to drive through the choppy water! I bet next time the weather would be better. Great shark tagging!

  2. Jordyn Turner & Damara Monroe
    Jordyn Turner & Damara Monroe says:

    Reading this blog was really exciting and interesting. We hope you guys had fun beacuse next time we would love to go! This blog was really interesting because you guys explained how you caught the shark, why you caught the shark and what happend durning the shark research. We think that learning about different sharks by looking up close and measuring them is really cool. We think that this experience for the other Breakthrough students was really cool. If I was on the trip I would’ve been so happy because it seems interesting.

  3. Alexander, Tatiana, Kawali, Madison
    Alexander, Tatiana, Kawali, Madison says:

    Last Saturday, 13 Breakthrough students got the chance to go on an amazing shark tagging trip with the University of Miami R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. The trip started off at a high note when we saw the amazing vessel that we would be aboard for the whole day, but started going South when almost everyone got sea sick form the choppy water that we were in. After we got out of the treacherous waters and everyone started feeling better, everyone was blown away by the site of the first shark. As the day progressed we did more and more to aid the RJD research and ended the day with an amazing experience that we will never forget.

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