Saturday, 2 May 2015

Samuel H. 'doc' Gruber: Shark Science Pioneer

Doc Gruber began studying sharks in 1961, perhaps before any other scientist had done full-time research on a living shark. During his long career, he founded the Bimini Biological Field Station (Shark Lab), the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, (IUCN), a United Nations organization based in Switzerland, and the American Elasmobranch Society. He has published over 200 scientific papers, and his research is still ongoing today. 

His decision to study sharks was as unplanned as it was final.

Doc in 1957 with black grouper
As a young man growing up in Florida, he loved to dive, and often went off for weekends of scuba diving and spear fishing on a 30 metre schooner called the Blue Goose. The ship had belonged to Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) under the Nazis, and it had found its way to Miami when it was liberated at the end of World War II. A weekend of diving fun on the Blue Goose cost only seven dollars, and at that time, there were still big fish!

On one of these outings in 1958, Gruber had speared a grouper hiding in a submarine cave, and was emerging with it into open water when he saw a hammerhead shark approaching. It was the largest shark he had ever seen, and as it glided towards him, it seemed to be the size of a submarine! Sure that he was about to die, he plunged back into the cave with his fish, and found himself in the same position that the grouper had just been in, as he looked out. Watching in awe as the momentous shark passed him, he was seized with the desire to know what sort of an animal it was.

When he returned to the university, he asked his professor what was known about sharks, and found that no one knew much at all. So he decided then and there to become a marine biologist and study them.

His research begins

With the idea of becoming a medical doctor, Gruber was attending Emory University at the time, and was majoring in pre-medical studies. He had been especially intrigued by the study of comparative anatomy in which he had dissected a shark, a giant salamander, and a cat. That summer he was taking courses at the University of Miami, and had asked if he could assist the comparative anatomy laboratory dissecting the animals.

Now, inspired by his riveting meeting with the hammerhead shark, he transferred to the University of Miami, earned his under-graduate degree in zoology and chemistry, and applied to graduate school to study sharks.

Gruber in 1963 studying sharks' eyes
In 1960, the University of Miami’s Marine School had hired Dr. Warren Wisby as professor and researcher in marine animal behaviour, with an emphasis on sharks. As a student of the famous professor Arthur Davis Hasler, Wisby was best known for having discovered the actual mechanism of homing in salmon. By marking hatchling salmon, and going back to their streams when they returned to spawn, Wisby had found that they came back to the exact stream in which they had hatched.

So Gruber’s timing was perfect. He was given a research assistantship, and didn’t have to pay for tuition. In fact he was paid the huge sum of 103 dollars a month as a graduate student there!

Wisby told him that the Navy had given them a grant to study shark senses. When aircraft went down at sea, it happened at times that sharks attacked the flyers in the water. In those days flyers wore two types of suits—high visibility suits called International Orange, and the standard khaki flying suits. According to a Navy report, the flyers wearing International Orange suits were attacked to a man, while the ones wearing khaki suits were left alone.

As a result, the Navy had started calling those orange suits yum yum yellow.

Wisby directed Gruber to look at the literature and report back on the possibility that sharks have colour vision. So he examined all the old reports. They were mostly in German, and they concluded that sharks could not see colours because they lacked the cone-shaped photoreceptors in the eye’s retina that permit colour vision in humans and other animals.

Gruber and Wisby collecting shark eyes to study at a fishing tournament
The Duplexity Theory of vision was introduced in the 1860s by a German scientist named Max Schultze, and states that rods and cones in the retinas of an animal that possesses both, have two functions. Rods are used in night vision when there is little light, while the cones take over during the day, providing the ability to see colours, fine details, and to discern rapidly flashing lights.

Some animals, such as squirrels and iguanas, that are active in daytime, have no rods in their eyes, and nocturnal animals or those adapted to the darkness of caves or the deep sea, have no cones. Therefore, the lack of cones found by early researchers in the retinas of sharks, suggested that they were unable to distinguish colours.

But Wisby questioned the old conclusions. He asked Gruber to go out and actually collect sharks’ eyes, and see what he could find.

Collecting eyes at a shark tournament
So Gruber went to shark tournaments and collected the eyes of every species of large shark caught off the of the eastern seaboard of the US. He put a catheter into their hearts while they were still beating—the animals were brain-dead—and perfused gluteraldehyde, a preservative chemical, through their arteries, to fix their eyes for future study under the electron microscope.
On one occasion, he was notified that a young great white shark was caught and was being held for him. This was the chance of a lifetime for the young graduate student, as white sharks were very rare. He ran out in a boat to where the fisherman was waiting with a barely living 54 lb. specimen, successfully perfused the shark, and collected the eyes.

Can sharks see colour?

Year after year, Gruber worked in a histology lab comparing the retinas of the many species of sharks to see whether they had both rods and cones. And, amazingly, every species he studied had them. Some species seemed to have better retinas than others, but they all had rods and cones. The great white shark had five rods to one cone, which was an especially high ratio.

It seemed that the earlier scientists had studied the cold-water, bottom-loving sharks of the northern seas off Europe, and those species had very few cone cells because they were adapted to dark conditions. Those inaccurate early findings had resulted in many false ideas about sharks taking root. The idea that they had an excellent sense of smell had spread because they came quickly to a scent, and so the concept of a shark as a swimming nose, with poor eyesight, was born a century ago.

The forebrain of a shark, called the telencephalon, is considered one of the most important parts of the brain, like our cerebral hemispheres. And in the shark, the telencephalon was thought to be the centre that analysed scents, because that was how it looked to the early researchers. They did not know how the forebrain worked, and they had never looked at how sharks really behaved, or tried to do neural examinations, yet their primitive ideas about sharks had persisted.

diagram of the brain of a shark, showing the telencephalon
Wisby was pleased with Gruber’s discovery, but pointed out that just because the sharks had cone cells, didn’t mean that they could see colours. “What do the rods and cones mean for sharks?” Wisby asked, and directed Gruber to experiment to learn whether sharks see colours, and investigate their other visual capabilities.

As the eyes of a human or animal adapt to darkness, rods take over the function of vision, providing high sensitivity to light, but no colour. The switching over between the cones and rods is something that can be measured, and it was this line of research that Gruber began to pursue in 1962 for his master, and later his doctorate degrees.

He used the lemon shark as a model, and chose three methods to test the Duplexity Theory of vision in sharks.

Image of the rods and cones in a shark's retina
To assess the rod and cone activity in the retina, he put contact lens electrodes on anaesthetized lemon sharks, and recorded the electrical responses of the retina when illuminated. He used electrophysiology to record electroretinograms, which are similar to the electrocardiogram of doctors, in order to examine the electrical activity of the associated neurons.

His second method involved a behavioural study, following the Pavlovian method of testing called classical or respondent conditioning, and the third was the Skinnerian method, which is called operant conditioning.

Gruber’s results were unambiguous. The three methods gave the same results—there was no doubt that sharks could see colour. The rods functioned as expected in the dark, and the cones were most active in the light-adapted state. He found that as sharks adjusted to darkness, the sensitivity of their eyes became greater and greater, and reached the maximum dark-adaptation after about an hour, achieving a million-fold increase in sensitivity!

They adapted better than humans because unlike us, they possess the tapetum lucidum. This is the mirror-like membrane at the back of the eye which produces eye-shine in some animals. Light entering the eye passes through the retina, and is reflected, as if by a mirror, back from this membrane, potentially doubling the eye’s sensitivity.


The learning rate of a shark

Another interesting finding that emerged from Gruber’s research during his doctoral studies was the speed at which sharks learn.

He was working on Pavlovian training conditioning, doing an experiment in which a shark would see a flash of light, and then receive a mild electric shock. After a certain number of trials, when the shark saw the light, it would have learned to anticipate the shock, and have a reaction. This is called a conditioned response.

The reaction that Gruber planned to use for the experiment was the pause in the shark’s heart-rate resulting from the fear of the coming shock. Fear causes the heart to skip a beat, then accelerate, so at the moment that the shark realized that it was about to receive another shock, its heart paused, and this reaction could be measured. The number of trials it took for the animal to learn the association between the light and the shock, gave a measure of its ability to learn.

While Gruber was flashing the light, and giving the shock, he was looking at the readout on the oscilloscope, rather than at the shark, which was trussed up underwater, with an electrode in its cardiac chamber, looking out into the room through a big Plexiglas bubble.

Then one day, he happened to look at the shark at the moment in which it anticipated the shock, and saw that it winked—the nictitating membrane of the shark’s eye closed. This provided another conditioned response to the light, which meant that there was no need for the heart monitoring—all Gruber had to do was observe. Due to the need for the heart monitoring, the sharks had been unable to survive long enough for him to get them trained, so his discovery was crucial to the success of this important experiment.
The nictitating membrane can be seen here as the lemon shark in the experiment winks.

Now Gruber used a World War II infra-red sniper scope to observe the shark in total darkness, and found that after about ten trials, or repetitions, the shark would wink in expectation of the shock. It was a conditioned response that he got from a shark in only about three minutes!

One session consisted of 10 sets of 10 trials, and after about 80 trials, the shark was responding 100 percent of the time. The next day it took only 3 or 4 trials to get the shark to respond, and it responded 100% of the time after 40 trials. On the third day, it had a 100% response from the start. So it took only about 10 trials for the first response, 80 trials to get the 100% response, and only three days to the state in which the shark was conditioned long term.

By chance, psychologists had been studying Pavlovian conditioning in cats and rabbits using the same paradigm. They used the flash of light as the initial stimulus, and followed it with a puff of air onto the cornea, instead of an electric shock. As in Gruber's experiment, the conditioned response was the movement of the nictitating membrane, so the experiment was a terrestrial version of precisely what Gruber had been doing with sharks.

What was surprising was that the sharks had learned the relationship between the light and the shock ten times faster than the cats and rabbits! These had taken about 800 trials to achieve 100% conditioning, while the sharks had taken only 80 trials!

Gruber working on the experiment in 1966
Further, the sharks remembered what they had learned for over a year, which was far longer than anyone had expected.

Gruber discovered many more interesting things in the course of his research. He found that sharks have different “IQs” and different personalities, and that some are left-handed and some are right-handed. He also found that they have an occlusable tapetum, a further refinement of their vision, as well as a mobile pupil in a variety of shapes, which only sharks and rays, and no other fish, have.


Arthur A. Myrberg, the youngest full professor at the University, took Wisby’s place in 1964, and mentored Gruber during the last years of his master and doctorate degrees. While Gruber and his student, Joel Cohen, were studying shark vision, Myrberg and his students worked on their hearing, and others (not at the University of Miami), were working on olfaction, taste, and electoreception.
In 1976, the Navy asked for a summary of all of the work it had funded about the sensory systems of sharks, and they put their findings together in a major book, which was published in the government printing offices. Gruber’s discoveries about shark vision filled a large chapter.


With his findings published, Gruber no longer wanted to work in a dark and damp laboratory, and longed to understand the role sharks play in the marine environment. He dreamed of studying their behaviour in a similar, systematic way, in the wild, and decided that he would find a way to do it, using the lemon shark he had come to know so well, and wanted to understand more deeply.

By then he had become an assistant professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, teaching advanced courses in animal behaviour, tropical marine biology, and the physiology and behaviour of marine organisms.

He had done a post-doctoral study in 1971-72, at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, under Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian ethologist, just as Myrberg had done a decade before. Both men were interested in pursuing their interest in ethology, and as a side project, they had put together an observational study on a captive colony of bonnethead sharks, which was published in the journal Copeia in 1974. It remains the only ethogram, which is an inventory of the repertoire of behaviour patterns displayed by a species, that was ever published for sharks.

Then in 1976, they gathered together all of their information on shark behaviour for a symposium in New Orleans, and it was published in the journal American Zoologist.

Gruber and Myrberg developed a close personal friendship that was to last all their lives. They travelled together as they pursued their research in Europe and the Middle East. They dove with Cousteau in Monaco, travelled through Europe visiting friends and colleagues, and studied sharks in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean. And when Gruber got engaged, it was at Myrberg’s home.

Gruber left Navy research in 1976, and in 1977 he proposed a study to the National Science Foundation, on the role lemon sharks in the tropical marine environment. His goal was to do an autecological study designed to examine many aspect of this species’ biology, with an emphasis on behavior and ecology. It was funded in 1978 and is still continuing today in 2014.

At last he was fulfilling his dream, of discovering what a shark is, and what it does in its life in the wild.

A watercolour portrait of a tiger shark (by the writer)


Gruber chose bio-energetics as way of understanding the biology of the lemon shark. Bio-energetics gives the researcher a mathematical method to describe the workings of a living system. Like all things in nature, a shark conforms to the laws of thermodynamics, that decree that in a system, the energy that comes out, no matter how it is channeled or converted, has to equal the energy that has gone in.

In other words, the energy that goes into a shark as food, will come out through growth, metabolism, waste, other biological products. The processes of metabolism—the nerves, digestion, muscles, respiration, and other biological processes—will likely burn half of the calories, and such materials as mucus, urine, and faeces can be burned up in a calorimeter to find how many calories were lost that way. The calories consumed must be partitioned within the body into only four unknowns, and the process can be analysed.

As an example, the common practice of dieting and exercising to reduce one’s weight, utilizes the principle of bioenergetics to achieve a goal. By decreasing the energy going into the body in the form of food, we can force it to use stored fat to make up the deficit, and thus lose weight.

Gruber described it this way, “It is possible to make an equation that balances in four unknowns. It is a simple thing to do mathematically and it reveals a great deal about the animal. It shows how they make their living, what they require for food, their metabolic needs, what they need to digest food, how much of what they eat is assimilated, how much is lost in waste products, how quickly they grow, and how much food it takes them to grow.

“That’s what you can tell about a shark’s life and what it takes to grow a shark in the environment and that’s what we did. It took us over ten years.”

Through a combination of laboratory research and studies in the field, Gruber and his colleagues and students focused so much research on the lemon shark that they discovered much about its life history characteristics, its population dynamics, its growth, reproduction, and genetics. He was determined to make sure that their experiments were realistic by always comparing laboratory results to what could be learned from sharks in the marine environment.


Initially Gruber studied lemon sharks in Coupon Bight in the Florida Keys. Using nets, he and his colleagues would reliably catch 100 to 120 juvenile lemon sharks there, each summer season, which they would work up and release. But in the early eighties, their numbers began to fall, and in three years he could not catch one shark there. All of the work he had done during all of those years was wasted.

He found out that it was due to overfishing. Fishermen had been catching the little baby sharks in the nursery for crab traps and had fished them all out. The mothers that were supposed to be coming back to the place they were born to give birth had been fished too, so the entire local population of sharks had disappeared.

Gruber knew that the sharks were in trouble again, because this had already happened to him in Florida. So he began doing his research at a small island in the Bahamas at the place where he would later establish the Bimini Biological Field Station. Four times a year, he went there for his field research using National Science Foundation research vessels which were at his disposal from the University of Miami.

Later, when he had the Bimini field station set up, they could do permanent work there without the need to go back and forth to Florida, which allowed them to expand their research.

The research

The Bimini Shark Lab that Gruber founded in the Bahamas

The main thrust of Gruber’s research was trophic ecology or autecology, the ecology of one species.

Bimini’s lagoon was like a marine lake, where the juvenile lemon sharks were obliged to remain, and each shark could be looked at year after year for six or seven years before it left the area. The location was ideal. There were two to three hundred sharks divided between three to four nursery areas, and he tagged nearly all of them, and focused hard on learning all about their lives as he tried to unravel the ecology of the lemon shark. How many sharks were there? How many lived? How many died? How many grew up to maturity? How fast did they grow? What would it take to grow a lemon shark up from a pup to an adult of 80 kg?

Each spring, when the lemon shark pups were born, Gruber and the students did a comprehensive tagging study. They built a large pen, which could hold up to 150 sharks. Then they caught the sharks in nets, tagged them with an electronic micro-tag, took a genetic sample, weighed them, measured them, sexed them, and put them in the giant pen. Every year they would catch, tag, and work up between 180 and 230 sharks. The sharks were released, and then the next year the same sharks that survived, could be caught and measured again. The year 2014 was their 20th year.

The shark pens are visible in the foreground
After more than a decade of research, they balanced the bio-energetic equation for a young, fast-growing, 2 kg lemon shark at 25 degrees centigrade, and discovered that the little shark was an energy conserver, and ate only about seven times its body weight in a year. By comparison, many fish, such as tuna, blow a lot of energy and have to eat a lot of food. And humans, in comparison with lemon sharks, eat an enormous amount.

With the sharks living free in a place where they could be watched from year to year, many experiments were possible. For example, they were able to study their movements, their relationship to temperatures, their food, their place in the ecological system, and their social networks. The nursery was a region of mangroves, and certain little snails called Batillaria were low on the food chain and were the keystone species. The next level was crabs, then fish, then sharks—sharks were on the fifth level.

The countless studies took years and years, doctoral dissertations, and masters theses, and thousands of students all coming to Bimini to study sharks. Gruber taught a University of Miami course there for 22 years, sometimes twice a year; now he teaches five university courses at the station. He had graduate students, built big holding pens at his research facility, and kept dozens of lemon sharks.

And as time passed and he learned of its abilities and capacities, the lemon shark became an animal of complete fascination. To Gruber, the lemon shark had gone from a predatory fish with fins and teeth to being more like a family member.

He said,

“As I went through my early career and I got married and we had children, then we got a house and we got cars, I realized that the lemon shark had provided a living for me in the human world, whereby I could become a functional and useful citizen and have a family. It was all because of the lemon shark. That’s why I get so nervous when I think that they are having problems underwater, not only with being overfished, but also with us handling them.

So I have not been able to remain objective in my feelings for them, although I have tried to remain objective in my research of them.”

Doc Gruber loves lemon sharks

(c) Ila France Porcher

Illustrations courtesy of Dr. Gruber, except where indicated.

This first of three parts, was originally published in Shark Tales in X-ray Dive Magazine, issue 64. See Part two next!

From Vision to Reality : The Bimini Shark Lab

For Gruber, the study of sharks was more than a profession—it was a calling. 

He grew up in love with the sea from the earliest age, and was already avidly collecting sea shells and swimming at the age of three. His family lived in New York during the Second World War, but when it was over, they returned to their house in Miami Beach—the region had been taken over by the military during the war years. Compared to New York, Florida's warm blue ocean sparkled even more invitingly, and Gruber couldn’t keep away from it.

He excelled at swimming, and practised springboard diving with a coach. Then he would wander on the beach collecting seashells until it was time to bike down to the docks to see the sports fishermen come in. He was captivated by the bizarre appearance of many of the species of fish and sharks, and loved to draw them. His family still recalls that he was infamous for leaving his shoes on the fishing dock; he would go there after school, take them off, and forget them. By the time he was twelve years old, he was teaching himself to SCUBA dive. His childhood was spent pursuing his fascination with the life of the sea.

Between 1952 and 1956, Gruber attended high school at a military prep school, and as a result of a growing interest in the military, he accumulated a respectable collection of antique guns dating from the US civil war. So when he found the SCUBA gear he wanted, he traded one of his guns for it.
At that time, there was no SCUBA dive shop, and no PADI training courses. His tank came equipped with straps to attach it directly to his back, and he had to use the fire station compressor to fill it. There was no buoyancy control device.
Young Gruber off diving

The double hose “Jet Air” regulator he had was not a two-stage regulator such as we use today, but had just one stage. The hose took the air pressure in the tank straight to you. If you had 3000 lbs of air pressure in your tank and the membrane broke, you would get 3000 lbs straight into your face, and it often did!

Gruber dove off the beach, and descended usually to about twenty feet. The reef was covered with soft corals, tube worms, a myriad of invertebrates, and a healthy complement of fish. He loved the submarine environment, and never tired of exploring it. Though he was almost always alone, he never got into trouble on his many diving expeditions.

Career choices

Gruber emerged from military prep school with a deep love of flying and the military. He enrolled initially at Emory University with the idea of becoming a medical doctor, and majored in premedical studies.
Gruber collected antique guns
While at university, he trained as an Air Force Reserve Officer (ROTC) and wanted to learn to become a pilot. He was qualified, and could have enlisted and gone into military-cadet training, and eventually he did learn to fly.

His ballet career began one day in Atlanta, when he followed a beautiful girl, Betty Hunter, into a ballet school, and without further deliberation, he signed up. As a springboard diver, he had already gained the poise and grace required for ballet dancing, and as with his submarine explorations, he poured heart and soul into his work. For three years he danced semi-professionally with an Atlanta ballet group, performing, among other things, Archy and Mehitabel.

But when he told his family that he wanted to be a ballet dancer, they were not enthusiastic. He then suggested that he could become a jet pilot and fly for the USAF, but they were concerned that it was too dangerous. They felt that being a marine biologist was close to what they wanted for him, but when he told them that he wanted to study sharks, they were dismayed.

Nevertheless, he went ahead and began his studies at the University of Miami. 


But in 1976, just as his findings on shark vision were published, and he was moving on to the study of wild sharks, he suddenly got cancer. It went into remission after six months, and as he recovered, he did all he could to stay healthy. With his usual intensity, he practiced meditation, visualization techniques, guided imagery, and chanting. He had already been a vegetarian for many years.
But the cancer returned in 1982. “You don’t usually get a second chance with lymphoma,” he said, explaining that there is a 30 percent mortality rate right away, and only a tiny percentage of spontaneous recoveries.

In his case, the cancer got worse and worse. He tried everything available, but nothing even began to restore his health. And during an experimental procedure in 1986, in Stanford University in California, he had a revelation.

An epiphany

It happened while he was hooked up to a plasmapheresis machine, via a catheter into a major artery. It was filtering out his antibodies and returning his blood to his body through another tube. And during this procedure, he was faxing back and forth with his graduate student in Miami preparing a proposal to the National Science Foundation to renew their funding.

Fax machines in those days had to be fed with rolls of heat-sensitive paper, and as the fax came out, each page had to be cut off. Then the next page would come. Gruber was there at the fax machine, receiving pages, correcting them, and sending them back, when the plasmapheresis machine developed a problem, and the blood began leaving his body faster than it returned.

He fell unconscious and the rolls of paper kept coming out of the fax machine, until he was covered with scrolls of paper. And that that was how the nurse finally found him—unconscious and covered with faxes.

When she had put the situation to rights and awakened him, he lay there, gazing out, and he wondered, “What is wrong with this scene?” He was supposed to be dying, and he was faxing.

“I should not be writing all of this,” he thought, “but that is how committed I am.” He knew that something was wrong. “I decided that if I lived, and that was not at all clear—it was clear that I was not going to live. But if I lived, I wanted to start a little research station, in the Bahamas, where I knew there were still sharks. I had been working in the Florida keys, where all the sharks had disappeared, all the sharks were fished out.”

But he did not get better, he could not write anymore, and he lost the grant. His doctor told him that he was going to die, and that he would be well advised to write his will, pay his debts, and prepare himself for the inevitable.

Determined to live

But Gruber paid no attention. Though he was deathly ill, he could not give up. He was receiving strong chemotherapy to kill the fast growing cancer cells, and was sick from it. His mouth was so painful that he had to drink xylocaine to numb it, before he could take a mouthful of food. But the xylocaine wore off after about one minute, so he had to drink more before he could take another bite. So he was constantly drinking liquid xylocaine to numb his mouth. Further, as a result of the treatments, he had gone partially deaf.

He travelled to Boston in 1988 to get a highly experimental bone marrow transplant, but was told that his cancer was just too far gone. However, he argued and insisted until the doctors agreed to give him one.

First he had to be heavily dosed with a toxic substance called cyclophosphamide to lower the cancer cell count as much as possible, after which the poison would be washed out of his body with litres of saline fluid. The procedure required three doses a month apart. After that, the doctors would harvest bone marrow from his hips, treat it with antibodies to remove all cancerous cells, and irradiate him in a giant 'microwave oven' to kill the rest of his bone marrow. Then the cleaned bone marrow could be injected back in. But first, his immune system had to be chemically destroyed.

After the first infusion of cyclophosphamide, the doctors sent him home, told him to take his temperature every three hours, and return if it spiked. It spiked in 24 hours—he had picked up a random infection, and the doctors sent him home to Miami in a wheelchair, and told him not to come back.

It took him a month to recover from the infections in hospital, while he tried to come to terms with his mortality. He looked back over his life, and was glad—he had studied sharks, he had a wife and children, he flew planes, and he felt that at least if he died, he had already had a good life.

Yet he was still not ready to go.

Gruber went back to his oncologist, Dr. Martin Liebling, and asked for more chemotherapy, but was refused on the grounds that the cancer was too far advanced. Liebling held out no hope, and suggested that Gruber was in denial about his true condition. But he would not take no for an answer. He assured Liebling that he knew his own body and had no doubt that he would respond! Still, Liebling refused.

But Gruber went on and on, desperately trying to persuade him, and finally he suggested darkly, “If you don’t give it to me, I’m going to die and you will have killed me. . .”

So Gruber got the chemotherapy, and as he expected, he had a good reaction to it. The tumour shrank and he felt a little better.

And that was when he consulted with his friend, Dr. John Miller, who was a television reporter for health and science.

The miracle happens

Though there was no Internet at that time, in 1989 there was already a medical Internet. It was called Medline, and was established in the 1970s. Gruber and Miller got on it together, and did some in-depth research. They found mention of a drug that was said to have an unexpected effect on late lymphoma patients. In a little paper on the response of leukaemia patients to a drug called Fludarabine, was a foot-note that said that two out of eleven late-lymphoma patients had a positive response to it.

Gruber looked for a way to get into the testing programme, found that there was one at Scripps Research Institute, and applied to get in. But they would not accept him because he was “too late”. There was another in Texas, and they would not accept him there, either.

Gruber with Marie, his wife, and his two daughters, and grandchildren
But he learned that his oncologist, Liebling, was in that trial. It was only a phase-one trial, meaning that the drug was just at the stage of being checked for toxicity—the stage of finding dosage levels was still far in the future. So he went back to his doctor, showed him the journal, and asked to be treated with Fludarabine.

Liebling read it and his eyes widened. He took Gruber by the hand, and started the infusion. The drug was given to him on a compassionate treatment basis, and it cured him. Very quickly, his cancer was gone.

Since 1976, he had been longing to live just long enough to see his girls graduate from high school, and he was able to see them graduate, and go to Harvard. One became a surgeon, and one a law professor, he had grandchildren, and he saw it all.

Gruber saw it all, and savoured every minute.

International research

Begin, Carter, and Sadat, at their meeting to sign the accord.
Though he was still seriously ill, and still under chemotherapy, Gruber began to feel good between treatments. From 1984 to 1986, he was part of an international research project and was travelling extensively, with projects in Okinawa, Egypt and Israel.

Egypt and Israel had signed a peace accord in the seventies, when Menachem Begin, from Israel, and Anwar Sadat, from Egypt, had met with Jimmy Carter. Though it cost Sadat his life, it included a cultural and scientific exchange in which American, Israeli, and Egyptian scientists would get together and do projects with each other. Gruber was involved with one of these projects.

There were two pots of money. One was called the US Israeli Binational Science Foundation, and Gruber was given a grant for that. There were two Israeli professors on the Israeli side, Natalie Prior and Elliott Zlotkin, and he was on the American side.

The Egyptian programme was called PL484. During World War II, the Americans had provided the Egyptians with a considerable amount of equipment to fight the Germans, which had been sold on ‘lend lease.’ The controlled Egyptian currency could never leave Egypt, so it sat in the banks and each year, it accrued interest. US government contractors and other government personnel were able to use the interest on this money for official visits.

Gruber got money from both pots, and he spent two summers in Israel. He spent another in Egypt, and the Egyptian and the Israeli professors came over to the United States to work with him there in Florida, too.

In spite of his medical condition, he was so glad to be alive that he enjoyed every moment. At the Heinz Steinitz Marine Biological Laboratory, he was researching the Moses sole, which is a toxic fish and a shark repellent. He would drive up from Eilat to Tel Aviv to get his chemotherapy, and when he felt better, would go on. With some students and family members, he dove in the Red Sea, travelled around on camels, and had the time of his life.

The Shark Lab

Gruber with a lemon shark having babies
After recovering from lymphoma, Gruber quickly got back his strength, went to his dean at the University of Miami, and told him, “You have to let me start my shark lab.”

He reminded him that he had brought in six million dollars over the years in grants, and told him the story about the fax machine. Then he asked for a commission to start his own research station in the Bahamas.

He knew there were still sharks in the Bahamas because he had been studying them there in the course of his bio-energetics research four times a year. After 8 years, and 32 fourteen-day cruises through those islands, he knew exactly where he wanted to set it up.

He told the dean he didn’t need money—he had a business plan. He only asked for permission to teach his marine ecology course in Bimini instead of at the university in Miami. His dean gave him the green light, and he and his wife mortgaged their house, he found a location, and at last he made the transition from a pure, sensory physiologist working in the laboratory, to a field ecologist, studying the behavioural ecology of the lemon shark.

The Bimini Biological Field Station is established

Bimini is like a little natural lab, more like a marine lake than open ocean, an enclosed lagoon that is very shallow. It had been known since the 1940s that Bimini was a nursery, because of the many lemon shark pups there. There had even been a marine station, the Lerner Marine Laboratory, in that location from 1948 to 1972, which had accumulated much information about them.

Further, as a lemon shark nursery, Bimini was unique. Gruber had looked at lemon sharks in several different places—in Brazil, the Florida Keys, on the west coast of Florida, and in the Grand Bahama Islands—and Bimini was different. It was an isolated mangrove island, and the lemon sharks were constrained to stay near it. In the other locations, there was so much habitat that they could roam far away, so it was not easy to find each shark again and again. After the first six or seven months of life, most left their birth sites, and were gone. But in Bimini, the young sharks remained for six or seven years, or even more, so it was possible to catch them repeatedly.

So back in 1990, Gruber was looking for a site to establish the laboratory when a friend, Pat O’Neal Esq., contacted him to say that he had a house available. All during the late seventies and eighties, when Gruber and his research teams had travelled in the research vessels, to pursue their bio-energetics and autecological studies, they had used O'Neal's beach for their film teams, and as a landing field for their ultralight aircraft.

Research vessel with ultralight aircraft in foreground
A double-wide trailer had been put on the site in 1962, and over the years many people had lived in it. O’Neal had bought it from drug dealers when they were kicked off the island, ironically for the use of the police department. He had renovated it for them, and as a result, it was more like a barracks than a house. But the police had never moved in.O’Neal rented it to Gruber for a pittance on a handshake, and until 2013, they never signed a piece of paper. And he only increased the rent once during the 25 ensuing years.

Though Gruber had to start from scratch to set up his shark lab, he found many friends who were willing to help. He hired a carpenter to work on the building, outfitted the laboratory, and built a dock. A pilot from US Airways who was interested in his work, loaned him a huge yacht to bring all of the supplies into Bimini from Florida. When he arrived with everything needed to set up a hotel-like living area, with a kitchen and bedrooms, the yacht got stuck on the sand flats in the receding tide, and they had to get a tug boat to pull it back to deep water.

Gruber with students and a young lemon shark in the shark pens at Bimini
Gruber had no official status with the government of the Bahamas. He rented the property, and was allowed to carry out his work there under the same research permit (issued to the University of Miami, twenty years before by the Department of Fisheries), that he had used while conducting his studies from research vessels. The University of Miami would not recognize his facility, because they were afraid of the liability. But beginning in 1988, he was selected as a member of the Bahamas National Trust Council, and remained one for 16 years.

The government was perfectly happy with the presence of the shark lab, for the researchers made the region look like a paradise, most particularly in the television documentaries filmed there. They did have trouble for a time because of their anti-development stance, when there was an effort to kick them out, but the Bimini Shark Lab was ultimately so beneficial, that it stayed. And finally in 2013, Gruber purchased the property, and incorporated it for the first time.

(c) Ila France Porcher

All photos courtesy of Dr. Gruber

This second installment of the article: Doc Gruber--Pioneer of Shark Science was originally published in X-ray Dive Magazine, issue 65. Part three is next:

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Chances in Life

Photo courtesy of Diego Garcia, Discovery Canada, Daily Planet

Growing up in Florida, Gruber had a deep appreciation for all of the beautiful tourist girls who went there looking for romance.

Miami Beach was always a tourist destination, and in the late fifties, there were plenty of shows as there are in Las Vegas now. Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence were famous singers of that era who also staged musical shows. They put one together called Holiday in Japan, with chorus lines, and scores of dancers and singers, and brought it to Miami Beach—since Gruber was such a charmer, he naturally met a showgirl and dated her.

Gruber recalls, “. . .And this friend of mine, Merle, had the impression that I had a predilection for Japanese girls, because I was dating this show girl, but she was not correct—I had a predilection for girls, not just Japanese ones.”

Thinking that he was fascinated by Japanese girls, Merle told him about Marie Mariko Hirata, a third generation Japanese-American girl, who lived in the same apartment building as her boyfriend, and Gruber happily agreed to meet her.

He was utterly charmed by this beautiful girl. Her mother was a published Haiku poetess, and she had learned all of the traditional Japanese arts. They fell in love, and were soon inseparable. It was 1961, and while Gruber was in graduate school, Marie took care of him. Miami had a big fashion industry in the fifties and sixties—like California and New York—and she was a fashion designer in one of the dress houses.
Gruber and Hirata in 1969
In spite of intense family resistance to his non-traditional choice of a partner, when Gruber got his doctorate degree in 1969, they married. Marie was a practising Buddhist, and they had a Buddhist wedding—it was a marriage made in heaven and they eventually produced two brilliant daughters.

“Our children had the benefit of their mother, who in my estimation was a creative genius,” Gruber explains. “I am convinced that the reason for the success of our daughters is that they had my wife as their mother.”

With Meegan on their sailboat
His eldest daughter, Meegan Minori is a surgeon with her own medical practice in Oregon. She is a board certified reconstructive surgeon. Her education earned her two bachelor degrees, an MD and a Ph.D., and two other post-doctoral licenses at Washington University in Saint Louis.

His younger daughter, Marisa Aya earned her undergraduate degree at Berkeley, graduating in three years Phi beta kappa and Summa cum laude. She entered Harvard law school, graduated Magna cum laude, and was invited to join the founding law faculty at Florida International University after a stint as Public Defender in Washington DC. She became a full tenured professor at an exceptionally young age. She is currently teaching criminal law in the University of Colorado law school, and has a rising career.

"My daughters' success was due to having my wife as their mother!"
“So much is pure luck and chance,” Doc marvels, “that I had met this wonderful woman and we produced these two successful kids. Who could ever imagine that?

“I wasn’t put off by other people,” he said, “I had come from a family that had a certain amount of wealth, and I had a good childhood. I wasn’t hampered by making my own decisions, and my own decisions were where the luck came from. There is no rule book—there is no instruction manual for how to do this. You could never be certain, when you came to a crossroad, which was the right way. You might be able to work out which might the best way, but you could never tell for sure.

“My elder daughter was pronounced clinically dead in a car accident the night she was honored at a high school party. She had no heartbeat, and no pulse. But luckily, the hospital was close, they had a resuscitator, and they brought her back to life, another case of incredible luck.

“If I hadn’t found this experimental cure for my cancer, I would have been long dead—I have enjoyed, one after another, such improbable chances!”

In the hippy 1960s Gruber intensively studied Buddhism and Hinduism, and learned many of the techniques, including meditation, guided imagery, and chanting, even acupuncture which he does on himself. He felt that to some extent, these practices had helped him to recover from cancer. But he could not believe that there was anything supernatural about it—the techniques worked because of natural effects. Though people might ascribe his luck, and the extraordinary road he took in life, to God, karma, or reincarnation, he didn't feel that it was necessary to invoke the supernatural. It was not his way to take anything on faith.

To him, his career success, and the life he had been able to create, had all stemmed from his beloved lemon shark.

The lemon shark (my photo)

Sharks in trouble

Since his riveting meeting with the hammerhead shark at the age of 20, Gruber had focused on trying to learn all he could about sharks; his interest had not extended to conservation. But already when he wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1968 he knew that sharks were in trouble. By the time the sixties passed into the seventies, some scientists were unsure whether or not they could ever be sustainably exploited.

A shark who escaped fishing, retains a mortal hook (illustration by the writer)
By 1979 he had established a research site in the Florida Keys where he pursued his studies on the needs of young, growing lemon sharks. Using nets, each year he would catch between 100 and 120 baby lemon sharks in a shark nursery called Coupon Bight. He would examine, tag, and release these baby sharks again. But after several years, in the early eighties, this number began to fall. In three years it fell from 100 sharks to zero. He could not find a single lemon shark pup in Coupon Bight.
That was when it became personal. He knew that lemon sharks were in deep trouble now, because he had personally observed and recorded their disappearance.

Gruber felt angered. Not only was his careful work during all of those years wasted, but the loss of the entire local population of sharks to gill-netting fishing seemed an inexcusable excess.

Watercolour sketch of a lemon shark on patrol (by the writer)

He found out that the pups had been lost to overfishing. Fishermen had been going there to get the little baby sharks during a period of about twenty years, and had fished them all out. The mothers who should have returned to have more babies never got the chance to grow to maturity because they were killed in the place they were born. Research at Bimini later revealed that the mature females return to their birthplace to bear pups, so after about 12 years if no lemon sharks are permitted to grow to maturity, there will be no new cohorts of lemon shark babies born. This is what happened in the Florida Keys, and why his study population fell to zero. The rapidity with which a local population could be destroyed was stunning to him.

Thus, he began to write about what he had seen, and the word got around, because he wrote some scathing articles about the overfishing of sharks.

The Founding of the American Elasmobranch Society

Gruber founded the American Elasmobranch Society in 1983. At the time, he remembers, there was great interest on the part of scientists to get funding to study sharks. But it was very difficult to get a grant to study, and his colleagues wondered how to go about it, particularly when Gruber received such grants regularly. Gruber didn't know how he did it—perhaps it was just his luck. At the time, in the early eighties, he was no longer funded by the Navy, but had remained good friends with his scientific officer, Dr. Bernie Zahuranec at the Office of Naval Research.

In 1981, there was a meeting on great white sharks, hosted by the California Academy of Sciences. This was the first meeting of its kind, and everyone who was interested in white sharks attended. During the sessions, Gruber was approached by a group of colleagues, who told him that they wanted to get together form a society to generate interest in getting shark research funded. There was a meeting at the poolside with Dr. Zahuranec, Dr. Don Nelson, and Dr. Leonard Compagno, and they all put forth their ideas, and hashed out what it would take to establish an academic society.

Afterwards, though he was still fighting his cancer with toxic chemotherapy, Gruber worked on the plan. He produced by-laws, contacted everyone by letter, telephone, or fax, (there was no e-mail or Internet back then) and eventually he gathered together the group and they commissioned him to go forward.

They all said, “Yes we want this, we will support your plan,” but it was mostly verbal as Gruber recalled. "It was basically a one-man operation, but Dr. Zahuranec was very encouraging and helpful."

Finally, in 1983, with the help of his father, Sidney, who was a banker, and his brother, Herbert, Gruber founded and incorporated the American Elasmobranch Society in the State of Florida and later was granted non-profit status. He funded it with his own money.

With the assistance of Dr. Zahuranec, Gruber even donated 11,000 dollars to the foundation—in the eighties that was a lot of money—to set up a fund for students who submitted the best research papers at the annual Society meeting. It is still in place today, and is called the Gruber award.

Gruber ran The American Elasmobranch Society for 5 years, by which time it was well established, and he could hand it over to others who would keep it going. Now, 32 years later, with over 500 members from around the globe, it is the largest society dedicated to shark research in the world.

The Shark Specialist Group, of IUCN

At the 1991 annual meeting of the AES in New York city, a gentleman from Species Survival Commission, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, (IUCN) got up in front of the large audience and announced, “Will Dr. Gruber please come up!”

His name was George Rabb and he was the chairman of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), a science-based network of volunteer experts from around the world. The SSC is the group which sets up the IUCN specialist groups. Its goal is the achievement of “A just world that values and conserves nature through positive action to reduce the loss of diversity of life on earth.”

Rabb began a presentation on the need to protect sharks from further decimation through the establishment of a Shark Specialist Group, and declared that Gruber ought to be the one to take charge. An astonished Gruber asked if he had the right person in mind, since he knew nothing about conservation, but Rabb had looked at Gruber's work, and was convinced that he did. So Gruber agreed to give it a try.

With his usual intensity, he threw himself into the work. Systematically, he built it up, got the right people involved, and established networking groups around the world. He worked as director of the new Shark Specialist Group (SSG) for five years, and got it up and running, until it was able to go on by itself.

Gruber saw his role as an instigator—he was the person who had an idea, and who went for it—who got things started, and then handed them over to those who were better at running them. It was characteristic of him to make a decision, and then drive ahead as if there was no turning back—he knew only one way to go, and that was forward. Always he had a strong spirit and an iron will, to go ahead and accomplish what he had in mind, no matter what it took.

It was the same when he went to military prep school. Though he found it hard, very hard, he was determined to make it no matter what it took—there was no turning back. He went ahead and did well. That was characteristic of him.

The great hammerhead shark revisited

Photo courtesy of Diego Garcia, Discovery Canada, Daily Planet

Though long past retirement, Gruber continues to savour every moment of his life. He is still involved with research at Bimini, and on free afternoons, enjoys himself flying in vintage WWII aircraft over the blue seas of Florida and California.

He is often interviewed by the media on the subject of sharks, and appears regularly on National Geographic, where he holds the position of NGS Explorer. He also appears on Discovery and BBC Natural History shows, in his personal mission to help change public attitudes to these maligned and misunderstood animals.

During a recent filming for Discovery, he dove down to hand a fish to a large, circling hammerhead, and remembered again his dramatic meeting as a young man, with the majestic shark that had inspired his career.

At that time, like everyone else, he had never doubted that sharks were insatiable killers. There had been so many stories about them coming out of WWII, when sharks had supposedly devoured the crews of sinking ships, and planes that had ended up in the ocean, that sharks were seen as the horror of the ocean. 

In 1958, there was one over-arching theme in the public attitude to them—the only good shark is a dead shark.

But during his dramatic meeting with the hammerhead, in spite of his fear, he had felt a deep need to find out something more about them. After all, many animals are predators, and even a cow will kill in the right situation. During the intervening decades, he has found out about them, and what he has learned, is that the early opinions were all wrong. To think that sharks are the devil-fish from hell was wrong from every point of view.

“Sharks are not man-eaters or woman-eaters, he declares. “If you want to find a man-eater, you have to look at the Nile crocodile, which kills and eats upwards of a dozen victims year, or Bengal tigers, which stalk humans in the Sundarband (India) tiger reserve and kill an average of 23 people a year, year in and year out.

“Sharks kill a few people, but compared to most everything else, they are not even on the radar.

“Originally, our understanding of the role of sharks was that they would eat you and therefore they should be killed. Not only the lay public, but many of the most important marine scientists believed that. Fifty years later, when we have come close to succeeding in sweeping sharks from the sea, we have found out that the role sharks play in the ocean is so crucial, that we are turning the ocean into a sick ocean by killing them. In fact, the only good shark is the one that is swimming around outside the reef taking care of the environment for us, and keeping it cleaned up.” 

There has been a 180 degree turnaround in thinking about the role of sharks. Gruber is grateful to the various conservation societies, such as the Pew Charitable Trust, for protecting sharks. They are doing a wonderful job, and he hopes that this change in the public attitude towards saving sharks has come in time.

This time, when he dove down towards the great circling hammerhead, he felt no fear, because he knew that there is no real concern about such a shark attacking a person at this place in Bimini. There may still have been doubt about that even 12 to 14 years ago, but now, he is sure of it. As he handed the fish to the shark he was aware only of its streamlined beauty, and felt the deep familiar thrill, just to be there, with the shark.

“Sharks are very smart,” he said. “They learn quickly, and they are only interested in the food you bring. They are truly single-minded!”

Photo courtesy of Diego Garcia, Discovery Canada, Daily Planet

Sharks and the ocean

Sharks have been evolving separately from all other vertebrates, for close to half a billion years, so they represent an ancient, and very different, evolutionary line of animals.

“Though they are commonly referred to as fish, in fact, they are as different from fish as a frog is different from an elephant,” Gruber explains. “Their internal fertilization has produced a completely different life history strategy—sharks operate more like sea turtles and whales than they do like fishes in their strategy of birth and fecundity and their maternal investment in the babies.”

A pregnant shark (illustration by the writer)
“Because of their long and independent evolutionary history, sharks have developed very highly evolved organ systems. Their heart is more like a mammal’s than a fish’s, their kidneys are more like a mammal’s than a fish’s, and their brains are large, correlating with their learning capabilities. Their behavioural repertoire is very complicated with regards to such things as mating and courtship—things we still know very little about—much more complicated that what we see in other fish-like vertebrates.”

During this long evolution, sharks survived many extinction cycles, and each time, they adapted to niches left by the species that died out. Repeatedly they took advantage of the extinctions because niches opened for them to fill—this is called evolutionary radiation.

Thus sharks evolved many forms, including the hammerhead, and display great diversity. The hammerhead shark has turned out to be a very modern species, having evolved in just the last thirty million years. It is a highly successful apex predator in every way—in terms of size, social behaviour, feeding, biochemistry, and biology.

A hammerhead shark
Contrary to common belief, not all sharks are top predators—some are bottom feeders, some eat fish. The largest sharks, such as the whale shark and the basking shark, are filter feeders, while others eat whales. They have adapted to a wide variety of niches, from the sunlit shallows, to the depths of the abyss, and their influence is felt from the top to the bottom of the ocean's food web.

The ocean has developed sharks, and they have been shaping its ecology since vertebrate life emerged in the oceans, back near the beginning of the Devonian, over 400 million years ago. They were the animals successful enough to survive extinction episodes, while other species died out, and now, though their influence permeates the ecology of the ocean, we have specifically targeted them, and are driving them right into extinction. Out of hate, or for their fins and other frivolous products, we are killing the very fabric of the ocean ecosystems.

So Gruber's final word is a warning: The killing must stop, or one day we may find that by killing off the sharks, we have destroyed the ocean's vitality. Its ability to continue to play its role as part of the life-support system of our earth will certainly be impacted.

Dr. Gruber : The killing must stop.

(c) Ila France Porcher, 2015

All photos courtesy of Dr. Gruber unless otherwise indicated

This third installment of my article "Samuel H. 'doc' Gruber : Pioneer of Shark Science" was originally published in issue 66 of X-ray Dive Magazine