Shark Tagging in West Palm Beach with American Heritage Academy

By Emily Rose Nelson, RJD Intern

I had been trapped in my office, with no sight of the ocean for over a month. If this trip had been one day later I might have gone crazy, I needed to get out on the water. That being said, I was even more excited than usual to go shark tagging. We met at RSMAS bright and early to load gear and somehow managed to fit all of our gear plus 4 people into my car. Before even leaving RSMAS I found barracuda scales in my hair, a sure sign that it was going to be a good day.

After an easy drive and an obligatory stop at the nearest Starbucks the team arrived at the dock in West Palm. This was only the second day trip we had run with Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures (RJD runs a research expedition in the Bahamas to “Tiger Beach” with JASA) and we were eager to check out the new fishing site. After loading gear with the help of our guests for the day, American Heritage Academy, we were off.

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The RJD team preps gear for a day of shark tagging.

The conditions were perfect; the ocean was flat calm and their wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We set all 30 lines and throughout the day did not pull up a single shark. However, everyone was still in high spirits. It was a beautiful day and we had time for a couple swimming breaks. We even had the chance to see a Loggerhead Sea Turtle swimming by. We set 6 additional lines with hopes that we would get lucky at the end.

On the 33rd line of the day someone yelled what we had been waiting to hear all day,  “tension!” The RJD team waited in anticipation to confirm that there was a shark on the line and suddenly it surfaced. My all time favorite, a beautiful, juvenile tiger shark was on the end of the line. As we pulled her up it quickly became clear that she was a strong girl. After a couple of attempts, we safely restrained her on the platform in order to perform a quick work up. One of my favorite moments of the day was helping one of the high school students place a dart tag in the shark. It was his first time on a boat and excitement was pouring out of him. After we collected all the data from her, we safely released the shark and she swam off in excellent condition.

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Removing the pump from the tiger shark in order to safely release it back into the ocean.

As we headed back to dock the RJD team started to clean up, feeling satisfied with the day. However, the fun was not over yet. A group of dolphins decided to hitch a ride with us. They were jumping and playing at the bow of the boat for quite some time. While I am not much of a “dolphin person” I can’t help but smile whenever this happens, it was the perfect way to end a great day on the water!


Shark Tagging with South Broward

By Daniela Escontrela, RJD Intern

It was another day of shark tagging and I was excited as it had been a while since I had been on the boat. Not only that but this was going to be my first trip out of West Palm Beach on Jim Abernathy’s boat. This was an unusual trip too in that our departure time was 1:30pm instead of 8:30am. We all were fresh and ready to go after being able to sleep in

Once we were at the dock, we unloaded all the gear that was in Emily’s car and moved all the drums and floats from storage on to the boat. Promptly after this, the participants from South Broward high school arrived. Our fearless trip leader, Pat, greeted them all and we all did our usual introductions to get to know each other. This was an enthusiastic group with great questions, and judging from our past success with them, I knew today would be a good day.

We all loaded onto the boat and headed out to the day’s site. We would be fishing at a shallow spot only ~20 feet deep at McArthur Park. It was about a 30 minute ride out and on the way we did our usual prep work- cutting bait, setting up drumlines to be deployed and getting everything in order. Once we got to the site we started deploying all the drumlines with the help of the students. All of them did a fantastic job of helping us and were being great sports considering the sea conditions weren’t optimal.

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One of the participants helps us deploy drumlines

Once all our lines were deployed the wait began. This is always the longest part of the trip because there is so much anticipation as to whether we’ll even catch anything, and if we did what would it be. During our wait time, we talked to the students about the work up procedures we would be conducting; they listened intently and once we talked to them they each formed teams with particular jobs to do.

Once the hour soak time was done we started to pick up our lines. A couple of lines in we had caught something! It was an Atlantic sharpnose and since this species is so small we didn’t know we had anything on the line until we had pulled it up right next to the boat. Once we had this little guy secured, we put the pump in its mouth and the students diligently did their jobs getting this work up done within minutes. Soon enough we released him in great condition and he got on his way.

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One of the South Broward High School participants helps in the data gathering process by taking a fin clip from the Atlantic Sharpnose

On the second set of lines we came up empty handed despite all out shark dances and positive vibes. We let our third set of lines soak an extra ten minutes to increase our odds of catching something on the last set. As we were picking up lines, halfway through the set we had another little guy! This shark was so small that we thought it was another Atlantic sharpnose or a blacknose, which also doesn’t grow big. However, as we pulled it even closer we were able to see the gorgeous stripes running down its sides and the beautiful defined spots running downs its tail. We pulled him in secured him and put a pump in its mouth. This small tiger shark came in at a mere 109 centimeters (~3.5 feet). Neither I nor anyone on our team, who at this were seasoned veterans, had never seen such a small tiger shark. These animals are amazing for so many reasons, but they are especially marvelous when they’re young because their spots and stripes are so defined. The students once again worked up this shark like experts and we gave them the chance to quickly touch it so they could understand what dermal denticles felt like. Soon enough we released this small tiger shark into the water in excellent condition. This was such a marvelous sighting! I know everyone on the boat was extremely excited because we had the rare opportunity of spotting such a small tiger shark which doesn’t happen very often.

We then proceeded to pick up the rest of our drumlines. Something strange happened on lines eight and nine though. As we were pulling up these lines we felt several tugs on the line. We thought we had something big on here. As we pulled the drum onboard and then reeled in the rest of the line however, we found that something had bitten through our 900 pound test monofilament line. This sure had to be a big animal. Then Emily made the discovery on one of the lines of a black slime, characteristic of a tiger shark.

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A picture of the day’s participants, South Broward High School. Thank you for a great day of tagging!

This had been another exciting day out on the water, and the positive side of starting the trip so late is that we had a wonderful ride back into the dock with a beautiful sunset, and we were even graced with the presence of some dolphins that started to follow our boat on the way back. This had been another wonderful day out on the water and I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to see something I had never seen before. I can’t wait to get back out there and see what’s in store for us!

Shark Tagging with Westminister Christian School 9/19/2014

By Hanover Matz, RJD Intern

September 19th proved to be an exciting trip to begin the fall RJ Dunlap shark tagging season. Students from Westminister Christian School joined the RJ Dunlap interns along with Dr. Neil Hammerschlag at the Crandon Marina for a successful day of shark research. The interns loaded the gear onboard as Captain Eric prepared the Diver’s Paradise boat for departure. Once the students arrived, we were ready to set off for the nearby waters just off the coast of Miami. As we made our way out to sea, Dr. Hammerschlag briefed the students on the various research techniques we would be employing that day. Morphological measurements, fin clip samples, nictitating membrane tests, and blood samples would be collected in order to gain valuable data from any sharks we caught.

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Dr. Hammerschlag briefs the students on research procedures

After reaching our destination, the RJD interns with help from the students of Westminister Christian began setting out the drumlines. Each line consists of 70 feet of monofilament attached by a swivel to a weight that rests on the sea floor. The swivel allows any hooked sharks to remain swimming and breathing, as sharks are ram ventilators. At the end of the line is a circle hook that allows for the safe capture of sharks without damaging their internal organs. Once ten drumlines had been set in the water, they were allowed to soak for an hour. The students helped the RJD interns collect environmental data in the meantime on water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen levels. This information provides a better understanding of the environmental conditions encountered by different shark species.

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An RJD intern helps a student collect salinity data

Once one hour had passed, we returned to the lines to see what we had caught. Our first shark of the day was a small blacknose shark. The RJD team quickly brought the shark onboard and secured it to the platform. A water pump is placed in the shark’s mouth to pump water over its gills, helping it to breathe and remain calm during the workup procedure. The students assisted in quickly measuring, sampling, and dart tagging the shark before it was released back into the water. While the blacknose was a good start to the trip, the weather decided to take a different course. A steady rain began to pelt the boat as we headed to collect the other lines, and we could see downtown Miami receiving its own dose of showers in the distance.

The weather may not have held up, but our luck in bringing in sharks did. The team was able to bring in a large nurse shark next. Unlike the blacknose shark and other shark species, these powerful animals lead a less active lifestyle on the ocean bottom, and do not need to continuously swim to breathe. We performed a work up on the nurse shark, collecting all the necessary data, and then released it back into the water. Samples such as dorsal fin clips and blood can give us a better understanding of shark diets and physiology.

The remainder of the trip saw us bring in another nurse shark and two tiger sharks. The tiger sharks were truly an amazing sight for the RJD team and students. Both tiger sharks measured over six feet in length. Such large animals are key predators in the ocean ecosystem, often exerting top down control from the peak of marine food webs. One of the tiger sharks seen that day circled the boat a few times, offering us a beautiful sight of its dark stripes that give the animal its common name. With three more sharks tagged and released, we reached a total of five sharks for the day. In an area so close to a major city with increased pressures on marine ecosystems, even seeing one shark can be a lucky experience. The data the Westminister Christian students helped collect on these sharks will be invaluable in contributing to ongoing research in shark biology and conservation.

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A tiger shark is successfully released by the RJD team

We headed back to the dock after an exciting day of shark research. The students departed from the boat, hopefully with a greater appreciation for one of nature’s most amazing predators. We cleaned and stored the gear, enthusiastic after what promised to be a great start to a successful season of shark tagging.


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.

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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 Big Brothers- Big Sisters

By Laurel Zaima, RJD Intern

It was a dreary and blustery morning in Key Biscayne for our Saturday shark-tagging trip. The heavy clouds were rolling in and the wind started to pick up. We all hoped that this weather would soon pass because wind and rain is not ideal weather for shark tagging. Sharks attend to move off shore with high winds, which might make our trip less successful than we would have hoped. Nevertheless, we were still going out on the water and everyone kept high spirits! After we loaded the boat with our equipment and the guests were all settled in, we were on our way! The guest group, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, that came out on the boat with us were excited to become citizen scientists by helping us collect data for our shark research. Some of our guests have never seen a shark up close before, so our RJD team was equally as excited to share this experience with them.

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The enthusiastic Big Brothers-Big Sisters group were eager to catch some sharks!

Led by our RJD trip leader, Pat Goebel, and Captain Eric, our enthusiastic RJD team for Saturday’s trip was Catherine, Christian, Kyra, Sam, and myself. It was only a quick boat run out to our site off of Key Biscayne; however, by that time the clouds had already started to lift and we could see the sun peaking through.

Once we arrived at our site, we deployed our first set of 10 drumlines with the help of our guests, and we let them soak for 1 hour. It seemed that with the change in weather, our luck changed as well! We caught a male nurse shark (1.91 meters total length) on the first drumline of the first set! We were able to collect data swiftly and accurately, and the shark swam off in great condition. The second drumline we pulled up had a lot of tension on the line and we predicted that this shark was going to be a big one! All of a sudden… the line snapped! That means that the shark on the other end of the line was strong enough to break 900-pound strength monofilament fishing line. Although we were a little disappointed we lost the shark, we were that much more determined to catch him again. On the fourth drumline, we caught a large (2.46 meters total length) female lemon shark, and from the body’s girth, we predicted that this female is pregnant.

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The RJD team (left to right: Sam, Kyra, Laurel, Pat, Catherine) secures and prepares the female lemon shark for a safe release back into the ocean.

 On the very next drumline, we caught another lemon shark; however, this male lemon shark was slightly smaller in size (1.78 meters total length). To conclude the first set, we caught a female black tip shark (1.70 meters total length) on the tenth drumline.

This was a great start to the day, and our success only continued! On the first drumline of the second set, we caught a beautiful male Tiger shark (2.42 meters total length). Tiger sharks are one of my favorite species, so I was especially excited to catch such a gorgeous fish. When we finally saw the tiger shark break the surface, everyone was amazed by the intricate markings of this species of shark. Tiger sharks can be most easily identified by their distinct tiger print pattern on their body. Once we pulled the shark on the platform, I secured the head of my first tiger shark! I have collect samples and data from tiger sharks before, but encountering this shark so up close was a completely different experience. While at the head of the shark, I was captivated by the tiger shark’s big glossy eyes. I think I fell in love! After a quick work up, the tiger was released back into the ocean in great condition. We didn’t catch any more sharks in the second set, but we still had one more set of ten drumlines to catch some more sharks!

The first drumline of the third set we caught another nurse shark (female; 2.06 meters total length). To conclude our data collection, we caught we caught a blacknose shark! Blacknose sharks are a smaller species, and this female had a total length of 1.29 meters. Our team doesn’t catch blacknose sharks very frequently, so today was our lucky day!

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The guests from Big Brothers-Big Sisters worked together to pull up a drumline in hopes that there is a shark on the other end!

Just as everyone thought the excitement was over and it was time to head back to shore, I took one wrong step and slipped right off the platform and into the water! Fortunately, Captain Eric was the first one to see me fall into the water and immediately put the boat in neutral so I didn’t get left behind. The brisk water gave me a little shock, but I was absolutely fine. I’ll just have to be careful where I put my clumsy feet next time!

Although the morning began a little gloomy, the weather cleared up very nicely and it ended up being a beautiful and sharky day! The guests of the Big Brother-Big Sister program not only had an opportunity to see a shark for the first time, but they also were able to touch a shark and help us collect data! The RJD team was very fortunate to go out with such an enthusiastic group, and we look forward to go shark tagging with Big Brothers- Big Sisters again!


Tagging with Bonefish-Tarpon Trust

By Gabi Goodrich, RJD Intern

While our mornings may be early to most, it’s at this time of the day that can be the most exciting for our team. This past Friday’s trip with Bonefish-Tarpon Trust was no exception. As we crossed over the bridge onto Key Biscayne, the beauty of the ocean seemed overwhelming.

This trip was going to be different for me. I had never been on a trip using the boat R/V Maven, however despite this fact the day would prove to be nothing but spectacular. We met on the dock of the Miami Seaquarium and loaded all our gear onto the boat. Today we were going to a new spot that Neil had a “great feeling about.” We greeted our guests and before I knew it we were on our way out to the site. Around an hour later, we were there. The conditions were amazing. The water was so clear you could see every detail of the reef. We promptly set the lines and took the salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels. We then left for Broad Key to pick up the rest of the guests. From there, the excitement started to grow. We headed back to the lines and started pulling them up one by one. On the very first line, a huge 248 cm (8.136 feet) male Nurse Shark had been hooked! I couldn’t believe it! The kids on the boat were so excited! They felt the shark and one exclaimed, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done!” From there, our day would get busy. On line four, a beautiful 199 cm (6.528 feet) female tiger shark! Already we were getting a wonderful variety of sharks!


Neil Hammerschlag high fives a student participant.

But it didn’t stop there. Line five of the same set of ten a gorgeous male Nurse Shark. Line eight was one of the most exciting for this set. Pulling in the line on the yoyo (a circular device used to reel in the monofilament), a fin emerged out of the water. Neil got on the highest vantage point and exclaimed with so much excitement that it was a Great Hammerhead Shark. If you know Neil, you know how excited he gets when we hook a Great Hammerhead. This beautiful male was 230 cm (7.545 feet) long and was in amazing shape. The team promptly satellite tagged him, did the work out, and before we knew it we parted ways with him. After, Neil let out a “YAY!!” in rejoice and the excitement was felt throughout the boat. You’d think this would be the most exciting part of the day, right? Well little did we know we had so much more to come. Line ten of this set had another beautiful 180 cm (5.905 feet) female Tiger Shark. I couldn’t believe the variety and diversity of species we had gotten in the first ten lines!


A great hammerhead is reeled in towards the boat.


We deployed the lines again for the next round of ten. After about an hour, we pulled up the first line to find again another Nurse was hooked! This female Nurse Shark was 222 cm (7.283 feet) and a force to be reckoned with. Most people we take on the boat don’t think Nurse Sharks are powerful but they are! We a struggle, we finally got her to the boat. Line six of this set brought us another 240 cm (7.874 feet) female Nurse Shark! I couldn’t believe it! So many sharks! The fun didn’t stop there. The next line brought in a 268 cm (8.792 feet) female Tiger Shark! We had already gotten eight sharks of three different species! On our last round, we deployed five lines. Again the first line we pulled had a shark! This would be a huge 242 cm (7.939 feet) male Bull Shark! 25 lines deployed, nine sharks caught and tagged of 4 different species! Everyone on the boat was overcome with joy and appreciation for what was caught. It was by far one of my favorite trips I had ever been on!


A tiger shark is released back into the water.

Photo of the Week: Allofus the Tiger Shark

Allofus the tiger shark is the adoptive shark of Barbra Weintraub. You can follow her movements at: Photo by Frank Gibson.

Allofus the tiger shark is the adoptive shark of Barbra Weintraub. You can follow her movements at: Photo by Frank Gibson.

The Top 10 RJD Science and Outreach Accomplishments of 2012


2012 was a great year for the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. As it comes to a close, we wanted to share our top 10 science and outreach accomplishments from the past year with you.

10) In December, the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Progam’s Facebook Fan Page passed 1,500 fans! Have you become a fan yet? We use the page to share live updates and photos from the field, as well as to share marine science and conservation news from around the world. Like us on Facebook, and, while you’re at it, follow us on twitter, too!

9) We deployed 24 satellite tags in 2012, 8 on bull sharks, 2 on great hammerhead sharks, and the rest on tiger sharks. We also added a new type of satellite tag called a “HammerTag” to our toolbox. The custom-made tag has the ability to recharge its battery via a small solar panel, permitting multi-year deployments You can track all of our satellite tagged sharks from our website.

A tiger shark with a new HammerTag. Photo credit: Jim Abernathy

A tiger shark with a new HammerTag. Photo credit: Jim Abernathy

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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.

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Shark tagging with Trinity Prep

by Fiona Graham, RJD intern
November 3rd, 2012

It is always exciting to have something remarkable to report after a trip, and this was one of those trips. Jumping right into the highlights of the day, not only did we get one tiger shark, but two! Our original plan was to spend the day at the reef in deep water, however the current proved to be too strong for our drumlines and so we needed to move on. We then headed to Hawks Channel, and boy were we glad we did! We typically tend to catch a lot of nurse sharks at this site, and true to form we did get one feisty nurse.

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