ExplorersBio

Samuel H. Gruber

Biologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Sam Gruber

Photograph by Matthew Potenski

Photo: Sam Gruber and shark

Photograph courtesy Samuel Gruber

Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York

Current City: Miami, Florida

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Growing up is a nebulous term. Thinking back, I don't believe that when I was seven or eight I had an ambition to be anything. One thing for certain by the age of nine I was heavily involved in the ocean. We moved from New York to Florida just after World War II when I was nine and my passions became shell collecting and seeing big game fishes at the docks in Miami. My sport was springboard diving. By age 12 I taught myself to scuba dive. I spent four years in a military prep school and went to college as a premed major. Eventually after a close encounter with a big hammerhead while spearfishing off Fowey Rock Light, I changed from premed to zoology in my senior year. By graduation in 1960 my future came down to jet jockey, ballet dancer, or shark biologist. My folks begged me to become a "real" doctor but quasi-reluctantly in 1960 I selected marine science.

How did you get started in your field of work?

As noted previously, I was studying biology for a premed degree. In the summer of 1958 I was an ardent spearfisher and on one outing while spearing on the reefs off Miami I was menaced by a 2,000-foot hammerhead shark. At the time I was fascinated by comparative anatomy and was teaching as a laboratory instructor in Dr. Corrington's summer course. Since I was not killed and eaten as expected by this huge hammerhead, I told my professor the story and asked what he knew about sharks. Dr. Corrington had studied blue sharks years before and he said that very little was known and thought I could make a career out of shark research. The rest is history

What inspires you to dedicate your life to sharks?

Well ... at first it was pure curiosity about this animal that was so wild and dangerous that it would eat any human on sight, or so we were told. Then when I was put on a research grant to study shark senses under my boss Warren Wisby's Navy grant I began to see how truly fantastic and amazing these creatures were. As time went on I began to become a bit emotionally involved with these little lemon sharks. Eventually a new factor came to the fore; the unrelenting slaughter of these critical predators. This became personal in 1986 when my lemon shark-study population in the Florida Keys was completely fished down to zero in only three years. I then became seriously involved in the nascent, shark-conservation movement, if it could be called that. So looking at the wide view, the lemon shark has provided me with a career, a loving wife of 42 years, a family, a home, cars, travel, educated my children, and, yes, even today my grandchildren enjoy this wonderful great fish. No wonder I have dedicated my life to this research subject, Negaprion brevirostris.

What's a normal day like for you?

Well I have two kinds of working days. Most are like I am doing right now-working on my computer crunching numbers, recruiting students, begging for research grant funds or searching on eBay for a good deal on satellite transmitters. This involves hour after hour of Internet research and writing. I probably spend more time on email than any other activity.

The other kind of day is in the field with my students and staff. Running a small independent and isolated research station requires lots of attention and TLC. But every day we get into the field and see, catch, touch, instrument- and hands-on deal with the fabulous creatures.

Do you have a hero?

I have two academic heroes: Dr. Duco Hamasaki, my vision instructor, and mentor; and most important my true father Professor, Dr. Arthur A. Myrberg Jr., mentor, colleague, friend, and supporter. More than to my lemon sharks, I truly owe my career to his care and nurturing of my education, taking me from a novice to a full colleague. It was Art who made the connection with Professor Konrad Lorenz and convinced this world-famous Nobel laureate to accept me into his Max Planck Institute in Bavaria. Art is gone now but I must admit that I think about him probably more than my real father.

As a flying fanatic I have one true American hero: Capt. Robert Punchy Powell, World War II Mustang ace and member of the famous 352 fighter group the Blue-Nosed Bastards of Bodney, so named for the blue-painted noses of their P-51s and their headquarters in Bodney, U.K. He is now in his 90s and I am honored and privileged to know him. I try to visit him once a year if possible.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite experience was swimming with 21 adult lemon sharks at Tiger Beach on Grand Bahama Island. After 45 years mostly working with 3-foot juvenile lemon sharks both in the laboratory and field, I got my first opportunity to experience large numbers of adult lemon sharks up close and personal. Not knowing what to expect I took the handle of a deck brush with me for "protection." As the sharks swam in I noticed that if their nose came close to the end of my metallic handle they would try to bite it. I quickly recognized that it was the dissimilar metals (aluminum and nickel-steel) on the tip of the handle emitting a tiny galvanic current that the sharks were interpreting as prey. In minutes I had ten-foot sharks following my "baton" like a conductor follows the orchestra. Most challenging? Training the sharks to "talk " to me via classical conditioning.

What are your other passions?

That's easy. Other than sharks: family, wife, daughters, and grandkids; flying in World War II war birds (fighters and bombers); and my little 1957 Porsche Speedster and 2003 Porsche Carrera.

If you could have people do one thing to help save sharks, what would it be?

If people understand the great importance and critical role of sharks in the sea as well as the plight of these top predators I believe the fear and loathing for sharks would disappear and shark conservation would be a slam dunk. I must say that this, my fervent desire, is coming true!

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In Their Words

If people understand the great importance and critical role of sharks in the sea as well as the plight of these top predators I believe the fear and loathing for sharks would disappear and shark conservation would be a slam dunk.

—Samuel H. Gruber

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