New video: Florida veterinarian frees shark from Frisbee

New video: Florida veterinarian frees shark from Frisbee

Mar 25, 2010
Jupiter, Fla. -- As a former emergency veterinarian, Dr. Chip Garber is no stranger to tangling with animals that don’t know him well.

But on one excursion, the small-animal veterinarian and seasoned underwater diver took the skill to an entirely new level.

While diving off the Gulf Coast with friend and dive shop owner John Dickinson in late February, 52-year-old Garber caught sight of a nurse shark that had an open-centered Frisbee caught around its neck. The plastic toy was blocking the shark’s gills and probably prohibited the shark from eating. Its skin was shriveled from weight loss, Garber adds.

Dickinson and Garber frequently encounter sharks during their fishing expeditions. And they routinely film their excursions.

“I’ve never had a situation present itself where a shark was in distress for whatever reason. This was just a really unique thing we came across, and it was kind of a real quick decision,” Garber recalls.

While Dickinson framed a shot of the shark on his underwater video camera, Garber closed in on an underwater scooter. He grabbed the 80-pound shark by the plastic disk which acted much like a collar. He wrestled with the shark until he could free it from the object.

“It wasn’t a whole lot different from having to restrain a Rottweiler that doesn’t want to be held down. You just have to hold down the biting end and minimize how much squirming they can do,” Garber says. “The other side that made it really easy was it had almost a collar on him. And who knows how to handle an aggressive dog better than a veterinarian. Once you get a hold of the collar, you have some control over the head.”

Still, Dickinson was in disbelief of his friend’s rescue efforts, and he can be heard laughing under water once the shark was freed.

“It was just so wild to see this thing swimming with the ring on it. It came off pretty easily, and I know the shark was a lot better off without it,” Garber says. “But I caught John off guard. His comment to me when he was filming was ‘Oh no, here we go now.’” But there wasn’t a lot of time to think, and had Dickinson not filmed the encounter, the story probably would have been pretty unbelievable, Garber says.

“Whatever happened was going to happen on film. In all reality, just to be filming the shark and then have somebody come by and get if off -- everything had to have fallen in place so well. It’s not like you’re going to get a second chance on that one.”

Nurse sharks are not aggressive by nature, Garber says, but bites are common.

“Nurse sharks probably have a pretty high number of bites with people mainly because they’re so docile. They’ll lay right up to a ledge and sleep without moving,” Garber says. It’s people will pull the tails of the sharks out of curiosity that prompt the sharks to instinctively bite, he adds.

But he was protected by a wet suit and gloves. And the shark, seemed no worse for wear after tangling with Garber.

“It took off pretty good. It probably felt like it had a new lease on life because it could breathe better,” Garber says. “It was moving well enough that I think it had good chance of survival.”

How his wife feels after the adventure is another story, Garber says, adding a friend jokingly suggested his wife increase his life insurance. But she's an avid animal lover, and he thinks his actions in this case might earn him “at least a point or two.”

Garber, a resident of Jupiter, Fla., worked in small-animal emergency medicine for about 20 years in West Palm Beach before selling his practice seven years ago. He has been taking a break from veterinary medicine, but plans to actively practice again soon.