Shark attack survivor seeks career in marine biology

Nova scientists take 13-year-old on shark tag and release mission

While getting ready for work earlier this year, Joe Donzelli had NBC’s “Today Show” on in the background when something caught his attention.

They were talking about Ella Reed, a native Florida teenager who in May had been bitten by a shark off Fort Pierce while wading in the surf near her home.

Donzelli, a media sspokesperson for Nova Southeastern University (NSU), was intrigued. “Working at NSU all these years, my ears prick up when I hear someone talking about sharks,” Donzelli said.

“When I focused in on the story, I said to myself, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta get her to come shark tagging with our research scientists. That can’t be the only encounter she has with a shark.’ ”He was impressed with her poise and courage — not everyone would be so blasé having been bitten by a shark. And something else in the story caught his attention.

“I heard that Ella was interested in being a marine biologist, and given NSU’s preeminence in the field, I knew this was a perfect match,” Donzelli said.

When he got to work, Donzelli reached out to the reporter who did the story for the “Today Show”. Almost immediately the reporter said he’d contact the family to see if they were interested.

Sure enough, they jumped at the chance.

“When I got the invitation to go shark tagging, I was super excited,” Ella said.

Just a couple of weeks later, researchers from NSU’s Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) welcomed the Today Show’s crew, along with Ella, her friend Kloe (who was with Ella and helped her when she was bitten), her brother and parents.

They joined two research scientists who both hold doctorates: Mahmood Shivji, director of NSUs GHRI, and Derek Burkholder, along with their crew for a day on the Atlantic to catch, tag and release sharks off the Florida Coast.

“Understanding sharks is vitally important for restoring and maintaining the overall health of our oceans,” Shivji said. “As high-level and apex predators, they play a major part in balancing the marine ecosystem, and if there are no sharks, the oceans and by extension, the Earth, will suffer.”

Shivji said that some estimates show that annually 100 million sharks are removed from the oceans — yes, you read that right.

“Clearly that is not a sustainable number, and many shark species have declined by 70 to 90 percent,” he said. “By learning as much about sharks as we can, that information can be used by ocean management authorities to properly conserve sharks for generations to come.”

When the day came to head out on the ocean, everyone was nervous about whether they would catch a shark, said Donzelli, who has been on past trips when an entire day was spent on the water with no catch.

“There’s an old saying — it’s called fishing, not catching,” he said with a laugh.

But nothing was going to dampen this day for Ella — after pulling up a few empty bait lines, bingo, they had a shark. And not just any shark, a 9-and-a-half-foot long, 500-plus pound female tiger shark.

The group managed to catch two additional sharks — nurse sharks — during the trip, and each time Ella and her group was right there working with NSU researchers, enjoying every minute.

In fact, with one of the nurse sharks, Ella, fearless as ever, jumped in the water and got up close and personal with the large fish.

When the group returned to shore, there was one more surprise for Ella and her family.

“We talked with our admissions folks, and they agreed that we needed to nurture her love of the ocean and marine biology,” Donzelli said.

“So, we are reserving a spot for Ella when she graduates from high school and will work to provide her with as many scholarship opportunities as we can.

“We’d be lucky to have her become an NSU Shark.”