Nat Geo SharkFest Interview: FIU Football Star Davon Strickland on “Bull Shark vs. Hammerhead”

It wouldn’t be summer without National Geographic’s SharkFest. The four-week event is back this July with ten new series and specials. Among them is Bull Shark vs. Hammerhead, which finds marine ecologist and FIU professor Dr. Mike Heithaus leading a team of shark experts as they explore a rare event between two of the ocean’s top predators. Along for the journey is Davon Strickland, one of Dr. Mike Heithaus’ Ph.D. candidates and captain of the FIU football team. I got to speak to Davon about the origin of his interest in marine biology, how his skills on the field apply to his work in the field, and a recent finding about sharks that surprised him.

(National Geographic/FIU Football)

(National Geographic/FIU Football)

Benji: What inspired you to become a marine biologist?

Davon Strickland: I always loved being by the ocean. I used to live in Portland, Oregon, back when I was a kid. We moved to Florida in the summer of 2013, 2014. But I've always been interested in ocean environments. When I was a kid, we would frequently visit the tide pools, and some of the really cool aquariums. Being able to see what's on the West Coast, I was always interested in going to the beaches, and exploring the oceans there. Watching a lot of the programs on TV, like SharkFest and Shark Week, one of my favorites was River Monsters when I was a kid. I was always waiting for new episodes of that. Being exposed to marine biology through those outlets definitely had a major influence.

Benji: This sounds like a full circle moment for you, getting to join National Geographic for this season’s SharkFest. Do you think of how there might be a kid watching this on Nat Geo or Disney+ who's now going to be inspired to continue in your path?

Davon Strickland: Yeah, it's been tricky actually to think about how this kind of came full circle. How I was once an 11-year-old child looking at all the cool things that are happening in shark sciences and marine biology. So finally being in that position and being the person that people will look at, and can look up to in a way, I guess.

Benji: Was there anything you recently learned about sharks that surprised you?

Davon Strickland: [I read] a paper that was recently released. I can't remember the authors off the top of my head, but they talked about breath holding in hammerheads. They had these internal tags implanted in scalloped hammerheads. And they occasionally did these yo-yo dives where they would start at the surface, go down to a certain depth and then make their way back up. And what they would find out is that they wouldn't start losing body heat until maybe about midway through the ascent. What they theorized is these scalloped hammerheads would actually close off their gill slits in a way to help retain body heat. That's probably one favorite papers that came out recently.

Benji: In addition to studying marine biology, you’re the captain of the FIU football team. Do you feel that football has helped you in your work as a marine biologist?

Davon Strickland: What a lot of people don't really understand is that they just see what's on the field as far as football. I'm a firm believer of this where, especially if you've been playing football for the majority of your life, is the skills that you build during these sports. So how to cooperate and communicate as a team, how to be disciplined, how to be attentive and pay attention to details. All these things that make you a good football player, they also translate to your careers and activities off the field. For example, when I first was going on these trips, especially with some of the grad students, what helped me is I was already an effective communicator via football. Even as just a defensive lineman, you're having to hear call-outs. You're hearing different alerts. You're learning how to communicate as a team with eleven men on the field. When you learn how to do that effectively, you tend to carry over those skills into other aspects of your life. Learning how to cooperate and lead a room full of defensive linemen, for example, it really does translate over, because you already know how to work as a team. You already know how to cooperate. You already know how to pay attention to the little things just to make sure everyone is safe and sound. Everyone's on the same page. So in a way, the skillsets kind of go hand-in-hand. It's just how you apply them.

Benji: Thank you for your time, Davon, and congratulations. I can’t wait to see you in Bull Shark vs. Hammerhead.

You can see Davon Strickland in National Geographic’s Bull Shark vs. Hammerhead, streaming July 2nd on Disney+ and Hulu. The special will also be broadcast on the following dates:

  • National Geographic – July 3rd at 10/9c
  • ESPN2 – July 7th at 9/8c
  • Nat Geo WILD – July 28th at 9/8c
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