Shark Tagging with the Children’s Wish Foundation

By Tim Hogan, SRC Intern

On the morning of Friday, April 8th, a crew of 10 SRC interns and their captain gathered together to prepare for a day of serendipity and many sharks. Our guests, associated with the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada, came along to meet our team leader, David Shiffman, and get some hands-on experience with the boat and sharks. The volunteer’s enthusiasm and eagerness to learn made them fit right in with the rest of the crew. After preparations were made, the Diver’s Paradise made its way to the Sandbar Palace, a deep reef with high productivity. It had previously been the site of very successful, high-catch trips, and hoped the same would occur on this day.

The second line we pulled up had tension, meaning that something was on the line. As it neared the boat, he was identified as a nurse shark, one of the more commonly caught species. This one, however, was extremely energetic and acrobatic, and began taking various evasive maneuvers, primarily consisting of twirls, flips, and twists. Eventually, he fulfilled his dream of becoming an escape artist, detaching from our line with no damage done to itself. Even though we couldn’t get any data from it, the early shark enhanced our optimism, the anticipation built with each retrieved line.

Our patience was quickly rewarded 5 lines later, as an even larger nurse was brought in with the buoy. This time, we managed to bring it onto the platform, and got the chance to collect our measurements and a blood sample. Our volunteers were eager to get involved and helped with the workup. During the downtime between lines, the volunteers took the opportunity to observe the blood analysis procedure, and also measured water samples.

 Shark Intern Leila AtallahBenson showing volunteers our blood analysis protocol

Shark Intern Leila AtallahBenson showing volunteers our blood analysis protocol

As the day progressed, we only seemed to get luckier with each drumline we pulled. On the second line on the third set, we could see the distinct dorsal fin of a great hammerhead approach the boat from the surface. The titan measured up to 328 cm (about 10’9” in the imperial system, which is basically twice my height), and it was released in good condition after our protocol. Less than five lines later, as if we received the blessings from the ocean itself, we brought in a scalloped hammerhead. Distinguished by a more curved head, it is one of the rarest sharks found on trips, and is caught three to five times a year. We went through our protocol quickly and cautiously to ensure it returned to the ocean in the best possible condition.

While we were perfectly content with our first two sets, our final ten lines had us end with a bang. Starting strong, we brought in the namesake of our site, the sandbar shark. The personal favorite of David, he was ecstatic beyond description as we went through our protocol. It was easy to see why, with its faint, iridescent skin and gorgeous color. Two lines later, we managed to pull in the most common shark in South Florida, the Atlantic sharpnose shark. Sharpnoses are typically much smaller out of most of the other species we catch. This one was in particular had a length of 116.5 centimeters, which is almost a meter shorter than the next smallest one.

The sharpnose is the most common shark in South Florida, and is also one of the smallest. The pump flows oxygenated water over its gills, ensuring that it can breathe while we do our workup

The sharpnose is the most common shark in South Florida, and is also one of the smallest. The pump flows oxygenated water over its gills, ensuring that it can breathe while we do our workup

The remaining time was more calm, though we did manage to bring in another nurse shark. At the end of the day, it was difficult to not appreciate the sheer diversity of sharks. Of the nine sharks we brought in, there were four nurses, two great hammerheads, one sandbar, one sharpnose, and one scalloped hammerhead. Our volunteers were able to see sharks in their many shapes, sizes, and functions. We returned to shore knowing the day was extremely successful, and more than grateful that we got as lucky as we did.

Our volunteers gathered around one of our Nurse Sharks after taking data and measurements, with interns Jake Jerome, team leader David Schiffman, and intern Emily Nelson

Our volunteers gathered around one of our Nurse Sharks after taking data and measurements, with interns Jake Jerome, team leader David Shiffman, and intern Emily Nelson

Shark Tagging with Riviera High

By Rachel Skubel, RJD Intern

Last Sunday we had a fin-tastic trip with Riviera High, wherein we were fortunate enough to come across three unique species of sharks just a couple miles off of South Miami Beach – including a breathtaking 4-meter great hammerhead. This was our first secondary-school trip of fall 2015, and we were excited to get the students involved!


When we set off in the morning, conditions were perfect for fishing offshore in deeper waters. The water was relatively calm, and the current not too strong. This meant we were able to head ‘offshore’ into deeper waters – around 80-100 ft.

Riviera High were fantastic participants today, eager to jump in and help us to deploy the first series of ten drumlines.


During the 1-hour soak-time, we explained how we work up the sharks we manage to catch. The students are able to help us out with gathering a lot of this valuable data that goes toward the >10 projects our lab is working on. The students also helped us measure environmental data, namely temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity, which can help us study sharks’ preferred environments, and how their physiology might be affected by changing temperatures, for example.


The first 10 lines, and the next set after that, proved to be lamentably lacking in sharks. One can never lose hope, however, and we were treated to a beautiful sandbar shark on the very first drumline of set #3! These sharks are lovely intelligent animals, and always exciting to encounter and work with. The students helped us to take measurements and tag the shark before we released the animal back into the ocean.

4_Sandbar 5_Sandbar

As part of our workup, a stress-test is performed just before releasing the shark by spraying seawater into it’s eye to look for a ‘nictitating’ response – basically a protective eyelid that comes up, and lets us know that the sharks reflexes are operational:


Not long after this sandbar shark’s departure, the veritable highlight of the day arrived. After a tellingly tough-to-pull line, we were all amazed to see an amazing, massive great hammerhead shark at the surface. Our talented team secured the shark off the edge of the platform, and we were able to take measurements from this staggering individual.7_HammerSurface

We estimated the length at 13 feet, or 4 meters, and as you can see, this individual had excellent condition (basically, fatter shark = better condition), so this was very encouraging to see! Even though great hammerheads are listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), not much is known about why they go where they do, and how fishers can best avoid interacting with them, so the more we can learn the more we can learn to progress their protection.


Luckily for us, there was more to come in the shape of a very impressive nurse shark – this animal took a crack team of RJD team members to secure for the work up. This species is really quite effective at conserving energy by remaining rather placid until we take it on board for the work up. The nurse shark practices ‘bucchal pumping’ which means it can pump water over its gills without needing to move forward (like ‘ram ventilating’ shark species) – which also means we don’t need to put a pump its mouth while we measure, tag, and take samples.


At the end of this back-loaded day we were thrilled by the sharks we encountered, and very excited to have captured data from these magnificent animals. As the fall season progresses, it will be great to work with more fantastic groups, and learn more about the sharks in our area!

11_UM (1)

Gulliver Field Studies in Marine Science Students have Amazing Day Shark Tagging with the University of Miami

By Frank Gissoni

On June 19th 2015, we were greeted at the Diver’s Paradise boat at Crandon Marina by Captain Eric and the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation team. Cap and the team went over some basic rules and procedures with us. Our special guest, fishing celebrity Peter Miller, host of the TV show Bass to Billfish and proud Gulliver parent arrived at the dock with a large fresh Amberjack that he caught for our trip while filming an episode the day before.  The RJ Dunlap Team briefed the students and the rest of our group. Our team included Luis Ceballos, whose daughter was in the class, and Miller Drive Registrar Miriam Vizoso.  Our tasks would include; buoy and bait deployment, measuring the animals, taking a fin clip for future DNA analysis, and tagging the animals. We were also charged with testing the reaction of the shark’s nictitating membrane (eyelid) to determine whether the animal is under any stress during the procedure!  If any shark displayed any stress during the tagging and data collection process the team released the animal immediately.  The safety of the team and of the sharks was paramount and all information the RJ team convey was intensely absorbed by the students.  Before we knew it the engines roared and we were off.

Cruising along at idle speed through the Manatee Zone just outside of the marina, our optimism was palpable.  After all, we all had reasons to be optimistic, there were clear blue skies, light wind, calm seas and we were armed with the freshest bait anyone could ask for.  As we headed north past Government Cut, signs of life were everywhere.  Birds hovered over schools of bait, flying fish took to the air as we passed, and even a free jumping sailfish playfully danced for us in an amazing acrobatic display. Finally we had arrived at the location. We were about 3 miles (4.8KM) offshore in about 150 feet (45M) of water, when we began setting our lines. We were using a drum line setup. First the baited hook and line went in followed by a 35 pound weight and lastly the buoy.  The students stepped up one by one to deploy the lines, after all why not get the youngest and strongest involved first.  We placed our lines one by one, a line of golden Sargassum Seaweed guided our path like our own yellow brick road.  As the team was deploying buoy number nine the Cap called down from the flybridge.  We had a shark already on the number eight buoy.  The tone was set for the day.  There indeed was a shark, a beautiful female sandbar shark golden brown in color and about 7 feet long.  Everyone got to work. The students and the UM team worked with the speed and efficiency of a Nascar pit crew, measuring, recording data, taking samples and finally implanting a spaghetti tag.  In just a few moments the shark was safely off on her way.  The specialized circle hook, designed to catch in the jaw of the shark, did its job as usual and the shark with a powerful sweep of her tail splashed the team at the boat’s stern as she swam off.  We barely had time to high five and celebrate when the Cap yelled down again, “buoy number six!”  Off we went.  This time it was a large bull shark, a powerful stubby nosed dark grey boy 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long.  This was what we were looking for, a perfect candidate for a sonic tag.  This time only the RJD team worked on the shark.  The tag about the size of a thumb drive was implanted in the shark’s abdominal cavity, and after a few stitches he was on his way.  This shark was going to be the first specimen of a new research project studying the movement of local populations of bull sharks.  We told the RJD team we would be interested in adopting this shark through their adoption program and naming him Gulliver, so we could all watch Gullivers’ travels.

The learning opportunities and cross curricular ties would be enriching for Gulliver Schools.  Our day continued at the same frantic pace it began with. Shark after shark was brought onto the boat, another male bull shark, and six more female sandbar sharks all about the same size were caught.   Each of these sharks displayed tooth rakes on their heads and sides, the tell-tale signs of mating.  These bite marks are the result of sort of a shark embrace and the female is anatomically prepared for this with her extra thick skin. What a day!  Muscles were sore, skin was sunburned, gallons of water had been consumed, eight sharks tagged and safely released. The day could get no better, then it did. As we began retrieving the last of the setups, one had a heavy shark on the line.  As we got the shark closer we could believe our eyes.  It was a very large great hammerhead shark.  The whole boat exploded into action.  Hammerhead Sharks are particularly sensitive to stress so this shark had to be tagged quickly. Members of the RJD team grabbed hold of the sharks’ body after a safety lasso was secured and the Gulliver team grabbed on to the RJD Team to keep them from going overboard.  One member of the RJD team got in the water with his GO Pro and recorded the event.  It was controlled mayhem.  This shark was to be satellite tagged.  The tag was quickly affixed to the dorsal fin of the shark and measurements were taken.  The Cap yelled down from the bridge, “My boat is 13 feet across the stern.”  We could all see the shark was longer!  “Ninety three centimeters across her head from eye to eye” someone yelled out.  “Over three feet wide, and her dorsal fin is almost as tall!”  We were all amazed!  After a few minutes she was ready to go.  Pat from the RJD Team was already in the water. He swam her off and gave her a little push, she faded from our view into the cobalt blue water and our experience with the great ocean predator was over.  We had accomplished our mission.  On the way back to the dock we reflected on our day.  Eleventh grader Niles Miller called the day “Epic!” Miriam Vizoso claimed, “What an amazing day for the students!” Jasmin Thernhurr said, “This was a once in a lifetime experience.”  Freshman Paula Ceballos gushed, “Best field trip ever Mr. Gisonni.”  I could not have agreed more.


Shark Tagging with Big Brothers Big Sisters

By Jessica Wingar, RJD Intern

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I was incredibly excited to be going shark tagging. I had been looking forward to this trip all week, and I saw that the weather was going to be perfect. It was going to be sunny and high 70s to 80s all day. I grabbed all of my gear and headed to Diver’s Paradise at Crandon Marina.

The RJ Dunlap team arrived at Diver’s Paradise around 8am to load the rest of the gear onto the boat. We were all ready for a great day of tagging with a great group. The group from Big Brothers Big Sisters arrived soon after and they were all very excited to be going shark tagging with us today. We added extension lines, since the weather was good enough to go to a deeper site. Captain Eric gave a safety briefing followed by Dani, who gave an explanation of our drumline system.

We were all filled with anticipation going out the site, which was just off of Miami Beach. The group came to the back of the boat to see how we deploy the lines. Then they helped us deploy the rest of the first set of ten lines. Everyone was very enthusiastic and so helpful. The first ten lines went out smoothly. We then let the lines soak for an hour.


Deploying the lines.

Deploying the lines.

Our first shark was a large nurse shark. I think it may have been the biggest nurse shark I have ever seen. We quickly brought the large animal up onto the platform and did the work up. Everyone got a chance to touch the shark, which has very different skin than most sharks. Our next shark was a sandbar, which was extremely active on the platform. We did the workup in less than five minutes and the shark was put back into the ocean in excellent condition.

Getting data from a Sandbar shark

Getting data from a Sandbar shark

After these two sharks we got data on another two nurse sharks and another sandbar shark. All of the workups were done quickly, and everyone on the boat had an opportunity to help with at least one aspect of the work up. We had a great day, with a lot of important data collected. I hope that the group from Big Brothers Big Sisters had as amazing as a day as I did. I enjoy every trip that I go on and appreciate all the opportunities that I have to help aid in the conservation of these incredible animals.

Group picture, back on the dock!


Shark Tagging with Rutgers

By Laura Vander Meiden, RJD Intern

Our chartered boat, the Diver’s Paradise, headed out under sunny skies early Friday, July 11th with a volunteer crew of Rutgers graduate students. There was a slight swell to the ocean, but given the stormy weather earlier in the week we were happy to be out on the water no matter the conditions. The boat was headed to a tagging location nicknamed Sandbar Palace by one of the RJ Dunlap interns. Located within sight of Miami Beach, this spot acquired the name due to a large number of sandbar sharks caught there on a recent trip.

crew pic

Our crew for the day.

After pulling in two empty lines, the third drum line was pulled in to a call of “tension” by a Rutger’s volunteer. We had something. As we pulled it in, Captain Eric spotted the large, sickle shaped dorsal fin of a hammerhead from the upper deck. We brought it alongside the boat, completed a speedy partial workup and released the large female in just a few minutes. An estimated measurement put her at 308 cm, around ten feet long. Five of the next seven hooks were empty; the other two held nurse sharks. Because the nurse sharks are not nearly as prone to stress as hammerheads, the crew and volunteers worked together to do a full workup including  measurements, a fin clip and a blood sample.


The hammerhead swimming away in great condition.

The first line of the second set of ten held a lemon shark that was nearly three meters long. The feisty male latched on to the platform as we pulled him in and refused to let go for a minute or two. He was immediately followed by a nurse shark on the next line. The last drum line of that set held a beautiful female sandbar. Her skin shone with a faint iridescence, much like the inside of some seashells. For someone who had never seen one before, it was breathtaking.

sandbar workup

A Rutgers student tests the stress levels of a sandbar shark.

At that point, everyone on the boat was pretty happy. With ten lines to go we had already caught six sharks of four different species and the day was far from over. Lines three and four held nurse sharks, and line six another lemon, but it was the seventh line that held the most exciting catch, a tiger shark. At 2.5 meters, it was quite small (tiger sharks can reach lengths more than double that), but it still managed to put up quite a fight both being reeled in and on the platform. The two empty hooks after the tiger shark were met with relief as the crew took advantage of the opportunity to rest. Finally, on the last line of the day, we caught another sandbar, bringing our total shark count for the trip up to one hammerhead, five nurse sharks, two lemon sharks, a tiger shark and two sandbar sharks. It was a very successful day.

tiger shark

The tiger shark’s release back into the ocean.


Shark Tagging with Rho Rho Rho

by Nick Perni, RJD Intern
Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Saturday’s trip out of Islamorada was one to remember. Our guests were members of UM’s Marine science honor society Rho Rho Rho. Since their last trip yielded no sharks, the pressure was on to give our fellow classmates an up close encounter to the oceans top predator. On our way out to the reef Rho Rho Rho made sure to let us know just how disappointing it was to not catch a single shark on their previous trip.

When we arrived at the reef we set our drum lines and assured our guests that this would be a more successful trip than their last. After an hour of letting the drums soak we began to pick up our lines. In no time we were hauling up sharks. Our first was a scalloped hammerhead. The students clamored at the stern of the boat knowing too well that this could be their only chance of the day to see a shark. But the day was far from over.

Line after line came up with a shark and our guests were entirely engaged in the tagging and work-up process. By the end of the day we had caught eight sharks. Five were Hammerheads ranging from 9-13 ft (including 3 Scalloped and 2 Great Hammerheads), a new RJD record for Hammerheads caught on a single trip! The other three included two Sandbar sharks between 6 & 7 ft and one 7½ ft Bull shark. This was a spectacular trip for everyone aboard the

R/V Endsley, RJD was able to deploy two satellite tags and Rho Rho Rho finally got their lucky break. Upon our return to shore multiple interns agreed this was the best trip they had ever been on and I’m pretty sure our guests would agree.

A Familiar Surprise!

Thursday, May 10th

by Laurel Zaima, RJD intern

It’s time to celebrate! Exams are finally over, and summer has officially started! What better way to kickoff summer 2012 than going on an exhilarating and action-packed shark tagging trip. After an early morning, 2 hour drive down to Islamorada, all of the RJD interns took a second to stretch and got right to work. Captain Curt notified us that we will be adding 100 foot extensions onto the already existing 100 foot long drumlines (the fishing gear that we use to catch the sharks), which means we will be going to the deep water reef (125-145 foot depth). I was extremely excited because last time we went to this fishing spot we were extremely successful!

After we brought all of the gear on the boat, all we had to do was wait for the rest of our group. We were taking out some gentlemen that were members of the bonefish and tarpon trust fishermen and conservationist group, and Joe Romeiro, a filmmaker. Susan Gerrish, the RSMAS Assistant Director of Advancement, and Rose Mann, the RSMAS Assistant Dean of Advancement, also joined us on this excursion. The water was calm and the skies were clear; the only thing that could have made this trip any better was if my mom and brother would have been able to join us. They both drove down to Miami from Michigan to help me move all my stuff back home for the summer, and they had hoped that they would be able to shark tag with me before we made our long trek back. Unfortunately, family members are not allowed on most trips because other groups are scheduled for that trip already scheduled to take out another group.

Little did I know, everyone was playing a trick on me. As we organized the gear, I turned around only to see my mom and brother start boarding the boat. I was completely shocked! Susan Gerrish and Dr. Neil Hammerschlag had secretly talked to my family and planned for them to come on the boat without telling me. I was overjoyed and extremely pumped because I could finally show my family the work and research that I do for the RJD program. It was going to be a perfect day!

Read more

Some say nothing is perfect. I beg to differ

Saturday, May 5th by Virginia Ansaladi, RJD lab manager

It’s that time in the semester again when you can’t even remember what the ocean looks like – or the sun for that matter. 5-Hour Energys are your best friend and all nighters are like that guy from high school who just realized you’re the only one he knows in the chemical oceanography class he’s having trouble with – you can’t avoid them no matter what you do. Needless to say, I was PUMPED about spending a day on the water to get away from it all. Little did I know what a truly amazing day it was going to be.

We RJD folk like to carpool to relieve that monotonous 2 hour drive down to Islamorada where we go fishing, so I was up by 5am collecting my things before heading out to pick up my fellow RJD buddies. Turns out it had been a long week for everyone so I had a couple bobbing heads on the way down that highlighted my own tiredness. Luckily, fellow intern, James Komisarjevsky, is a grade A copilot and supplied me with energizing fruity V8 deliciousness, because as soon as w got there it was go go go. We loaded the boat, collected forms from our participants, and we were off – with quite an eclectic group might I add.

We had members from Shark Whisperers charity, Shark Savers advocacy group, and shark lovers from the community at large out with us today. A really great group to have aboard – lots of questions, lots of interesting conversation, but most of all, lots of enthusiasm.

The conditions were perfect out for sampling one of our deeper sites (a chance we don’t get often), so we attached some extension lines to our drumlines and dropped our first ten 150 feet down into the blue. And what do you know? Not only was the weather cooperating, but so were the fish.

Read more