Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to christen Boca Grande-based research vessel, Builder George Luzier and vessel donors will also be honored during event

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Mote to christen Boca Grande-based research vessel

Builder George Luzier and vessel donors will also be honored during event

On Thursday, April 23, members of the Boca Grande community will help scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory celebrate the generous donation of a vessel to its research fleet.

The vessel, which will be dubbed the R/V Thunder and docked on the Island as a base for Mote’s research in Charlotte Harbor, is being donated to the Lab by Russ and Ginny Gifford of Sarasota. The 46-foot wooden vessel was handcrafted by George Luzier, a celebrated Sarasota boat builder who will also be present and honored during the event.

R/V Thunder is being generously donated to support Mote Marine Laboratory’s research in Charlotte Harbor. Credit: Mote Marine Laboratory
“The Thunder will be a wonderful addition to our fleet and help support our Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor research initiatives,” said Mote President & CEO, Dr. Michael P. Crosby. “Our Lab got its start in Charlotte Harbor and it’s exciting that we will once again have an impressive research vessel  based there, especially to support our tarpon, snook and shark research and conservation studies.”

Russ Gifford, who had owned another Luzier boat, was there when the Thunder was being built in Luzier’s Princeton Street shop. “I remember watching as George built the Thunder,” Gifford said. “A lot of people came to George’s boat yard to watch him work. He’s a Sarasota institution but beyond that he’s considered by most custom boat builders and high-end boat yards to be the best custom builder on the entire west coast of Florida — maybe even the best on the entire Gulf Coast.”

Luzier’s boats are classic collector’s items, famous worldwide as much for their classic styling as their seaworthiness. Luzier built his first sailboat on Hudson Bayou when he was about 13 years old with help from his uncle. At age 18, he joined the Merchant Marines, graduating from the academy in 1944. In 1950, he returned home to Sarasota with his wife and started his boat building business. And, at age 91, he’s still sailing — he keeps his boat in Boca Grande himself — and building boats. “I’m looking around for my next project,” he said recently.

He built Thunder for John Henry Wilbanks (it was completed in 1978) and the boat has been owned by the Giffords since 1984. They motored the boat around Florida and the Abacos for nearly 30 years. “We never had a seam come apart or separate in any way in all those years,” Gifford said. “There’s no question that he’s been the best boat builder for the last 50 years.”

Today, as they find themselves spending more away from the water, they knew it was time the boat found a new owner. So they decided the time was right to donate it to Mote where it could be outfitted for research and put to good use.

Thunder will be the second Luzier boat that has been a base of operations for Mote research. Luzier built the first, named R/V Rhincodon (Rhincodon is the scientific name for whale shark), for the Lab’s founding director Dr. Eugenie Clark back in the 1960s. The 36-foot boat was paid for by a National Science Foundation grant and specially designed for shark fishing and shark research — the work that made the Lab and Dr. Clark famous. “I built the boat for the Cape Haze Marine Lab (as Mote was then called). It was strictly for research — not fancy,” Luzier said. “But it did what it was supposed to do and did it real nice.”

The Thunder will also be put to work as a shark fishing vessel when Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote, heads to Boca Grande Pass to fish for bull and hammerhead sharks during the annual tarpon migration. Hueter and his team are studying the interplay between tarpon and the large coastal species that follow their migrations and feed on them. They use conventional and satellite tags to track short and long-term movements and behavior of bull sharks and hammerheads. Their study will also help to gain a better understanding of the species abundance — to quantify the number, size, sex and seasonality of the large coastal shark population.

Thunder will also support Mote’s tarpon and snook research conducted by Dr. Jim Locascio, who is creating an underwater acoustic array that will allow him to track fish using acoustic tags. Tarpon, snook and other fish are tagged with small acoustic transmitters that emit signals picked up on underwater receivers. Each tag will have its own unique identifier, allowing Locascio to follow each fish as it moves throughout the Harbor. For instance, the information will help him understand tarpon habitat use and residence time in Charlotte Harbor and whether tarpon return to the pass after spawning offshore — key things that are important to learn so the population can be protected and conserved.

— Additional funding is urgently needed to support the shark, tarpon and snook studies, along with other Mote research initiatives in the Harbor. For more information on Mote’s Oceans of Opportunity Campaign or to make a donation, please contact Campaign Director Jennifer Vigne at 941-388-4441, ext. 393.

Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)3 research organization based in Sarasota, Fla., with field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys. Mote has 24 research programs and a variety of initiatives dedicated to today’s research for tomorrow’s oceans with an emphasis on world-class research relevant to conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity, healthy habitats and natural resources. Mote’s vision includes positively impacting public policy through science-based outreach and education. Showcasing this research is Mote Aquarium, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year. Learn more at

Contact Us:
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Fla., 34236. 941.388.4441


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