Backer Spotlight: Jeff Trotta

Jeff Trotta has been an Experiment project backer for two and half years. But, he’s also been a big patron and supporter of young scientists for longer. So much so that he’s become a central hub for the south Florida marine research and diving community. We interviewed him in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to learn more about who is and why he supports shark research.

After spending some time with him, a few things became really clear. First, he loves diving. A lot. It’s this love of the ocean that’s made him become a hub for a growing marine research network: he’s a member of the American Elasmobranch Society, he’s dived all around the world, and in his spare time he supports young scientists from around the world.

A three-tank dive means being up early before sunrise to get ready
Q: So what’s your story?

I was born in New York City, and my parents moved to Florida when I was about four years old. I grew up in north Dade County, near Miami. As a young boy growing up in south Florida, there were a few paths available, such as watching and playing sports. A lot of kids were into building fast cars, or into the outdoors, particularly catching snakes and hunting. The other things many kids did were, snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing.

I’ve had a few careers. I worked in the movie business. I’ve been a stockbroker, and worked in electrical power plants. What I found worked best for me was working at drinking water treatment facilities. It gave me enormous latitude to pursue other things.

Around 1972 I started scuba diving seriously out of West Palm Beach, Florida.

Q: Just for fun?

Yeah, I never was a researcher.

Q: What did you like about it?

It’s always a roll of the dice, especially diving in Florida. When you’re under water you have no idea what can happen, particularly here in Palm Beach County because you have the Gulfstream current coming close to shore. The water is fairly deep, and there are big concentrations of fish especially during the late winter, spring and early summer. Mixed in with those migrating fish are sharks. I’ve always been fascinated by sharks since I was around six years old.

So I figured out that I could dive with sharks right where I lived. I helped pioneer it. At the beginning there wasn’t anybody really doing shark diving for a living.

Jupiter, FL is a two hour drive north of Miami and a hub for diving.

Q: How many dives have you done, do you think?

Somewhere between two and three thousand. Practically all of them have been with sharks, or I was at least looking for them.

Q: So do you remember the first time you saw a shark?

Under water? Probably about 1962, when I was living in Key West.

Q: How did you get to find it?

I just saw it.

When I was about 27, my girlfriend Missy and I started diving off Palm Beach, Florida. We met a woman named Norine Rouse. She was one of the early female dive instructors. She liked us a lot, and she basically adopted us. We had this tremendous benefit because she knew everyone in diving. She was into the same kind of things we were: big fish, sharks, turtles, and she gave us a gazillion connections and advice. She has passed away. My big step up, was meeting her.

Q: So she helped you get more into diving?

She gave us a ton of opportunities to do things, and she got us trips diving in different parts of the world. She gave me a ton of contacts.

Q: So now that’s what you do for new divers and scientists looking to get started.

Well this started because of social media. When Facebook first started, I looked at it and I thought, connecting with people that I already know is fine, but there are a lot more people out there I’d like to know. So I started finding them and friending them and ever since then it just kept building and building. Now it’s getting really big. Every day, something happens.

I just put people together. For the most part, not exclusively because I do deal with people who have doctorates too, but the ones I do most of the stuff with are our younger aspiring elasmobranch scientists.

So what I do is I try to find them opportunities. Sometimes I donate money. It depends on what they need and what kind of problems they’re running into. Sometimes it’s just advice, or sometimes we put them up at our house if they need a place to stay.

Probably for the last two years on and off, there’s been somebody at our home. We just had a young lady staying with us that we’ve had visit for the last three summers. Ornella Céline Weideli, is a Swiss shark researcher working on her Ph.D. She is a super person, and a one in an absolute million gem for sure. She is intelligent, has great social skills, and is a serious scientist. She stays with us when she’s here doing her DNA work. In a couple days, we get four kids for a short time from the Save Our Seas Foundation. They are two photography grant winners and two writers. Two of them are going to take off for the Bahamas, and two will explore south Florida for a month.

Q: What is it that you think makes you want to find these young researchers and help them out?

I had some people in my life, when I was a kid, who gave me an incredible boost. I came from an extremely poor background. We didn’t have any money and I don’t know why these people did it, but they were very good to me when I was younger and gave me a lot of opportunities. So it is one thing I would definitely like to continue because I really never was able to thank many of them when I was with them. You just don’t think about it when you’re a kid. People move, or you just you lose contact, and unfortunately some of them pass away.

The other thing I like is that they inspire me because they have a lot of big dreams. With many of them, I believe they can actually do it. So we encourage them to keep setting goals, because studying sharks and making a living at it, not an easy thing to do. Many people start off studying sharks, but since there are only a few jobs, they end up doing some other thing in biology or pursue another field.

A red and white flag on a floating buoy is the universal sign for ‘divers below’.

Q: What do you think makes it hard?

No money. There’s no money for the research. So that’s where Experiment became so important. That’s why I like Experiment. You have an idea that I think that could work really well.

Just 6.7 miles off the Florida coast is the Atlantic gulf stream ocean current.

Q: We’re interested in finding more people like you, who seem to get something out of helping researchers.

That’s another thing that’s really strange to me. I don’t see why people wouldn’t want to do it.

It doesn’t even have to be money, you can just encourage people, or make connections, or pass on anything that’s worth knowing. I don’t know if it’s a matter of time or money. Plus there’s always some risk when you try to help, because you put in a lot of effort, and it doesn’t always go the way you expect.

Q: What about some of your best experiences of doing this stuff?

I would say, you know, kids like Ornella, we’ve known her for about four or five years and she was always really good. She just turned into this incredible person. I don’t know how much we contributed, but watching that happen is a big plus.

It is important that people believe in you. It’s very easy to believe in these young people, because most of them are really enthusiastic.

Often when I think I have figured it out, I get proven wrong. Which I think is a great lesson for young scientists. Right? Don’t hold on too tightly to any hypothesis you create. You have to let the data tell you what’s really going on.

Q: Do you think you got the sense for what it is that excites them about the animals or their work?

With sharks, I don’t think there’s a single word like shark. Shark just has this emotional connotation. I can’t think of another word in English anyways. Shark conjures up all these things of dread and imminent death, and they are nothing like that. When you dive with sharks, it’s not that way. A guy one time told me, “No one ever invented a new emotion.” He’s probably right, but the combination of beauty and dread and excitement is an unusual emotional cocktail.

A lot of people who shark dive get addicted to it. They come from all walks of life. I know doctors, lawyers, construction workers who dive with sharks. Shark diving takes over a lot of what you do.

Plus, you just meet so many interesting people. Those who deal with sharks are a different breed; they are risk takers.

A lot of these young researchers are really good individuals. We’re a minority. People who don’t do this stuff think that you’re utterly crazy, and I would say we support each other. We understand the rationale and the reasoning to it. Usually during shark migrations, I take off a half a day on Friday. I drive 120 miles, round trip. There is a lot of effort and expense that goes into being in the water for an hour and a half with sharks.

Q: So in the last forty years, have you seen the ocean change at all?

A lot. In some ways better, and in some ways worse. When I first started diving up in this area we had some sea turtles, and now we have lots of sea turtles including loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles. We also see hawksbills, and on rare occasions kemp’s ridley turtles.

We used to see turtles pretty regularly. Now when I go on a dive trip I might see 15 or 20 of them.

There is a fish, the goliath grouper, which is a huge animal. They are 6 maybe 7 feet long and very big around, and weigh two-hundred kilos or more. They were fairly common on the reefs here, but people killed them off. By the time I came up here in the seventies, we saw them rarely, and only small ones. And then they disappeared and I didn’t see any for maybe ten years. Then they came under protection and now we have large spawning aggregations of them.

What’s also changed considerably is the amount of soft corals and hard corals. They are less common because of water quality and probably because of global warming. At this time, I’ve been seeing quite a few corals that are what they call bleached. They’re dead or dying and they turn white. Plus some fish species I used to see in big numbers I don’t see any more especially large game fish.

On the shark side, the sharks declined in the late eighties. We used to see a lot of sharks. We got into a period where it was just incredible, then it dropped off and the species that we used to see, became fewer. Then about five years ago, it started to increase again. I don’t know if that’s from human intervention or what. But we’re seeing more, but not the numbers I saw previously.

It’s really weird, but where we’re diving today in Palm Beach County, it was not uncommon to have extremely clear water and really strong currents. I’m talking clear water with probably 30 meters visibility. We seldom get days like that. In fact we haven’t seen a really super clear day here in years and the current now is a lot less strong. I think the two are interrelated, because when you have really strong currents, that water usually comes from offshore blue water, and you know it’s displacing the dirtier stuff.

This story is part of the Experiment Shark Challenge Grant, celebrating elasmobranch research and crowdfunding.
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