"The more you look, the more you see them. They move around and are closer to populated areas than we probably expect."
They’re known as a more cold-water species. Is it a surprise they’re down here now?
Well, temperature is the big quirk. My first response is no because of the nearshore water temperature (around 55 degrees). It’s pretty cold here now, but in August, you have 80, 85-degree water. So they go back to the northeast. In California, the water’s cold year-round. It’s interesting, if you look at their tracks, they’re not really going out to the Gulf Stream; they’re riding out that cold water channel right on the inside, close to shore. Because 40 miles out at the Gulf Stream, the water’s still 75 degrees.
There’s a good zone of food between the Gulf Stream and shore.
Definitely. I’ve been diving in December—we go out to Charleston 60, a real close-in wreck. One of the best dives I ever had out there, we found hundreds of amberjacks, and 50-plus big bull red drum just in a feeding frenzy over baitfish. Now that folks have GoPros, they’re dropping them to the bottom where they’re fishing. I was watching someone’s footage yesterday—hundreds of black sea bass and sheepshead. So we have plenty of food for a big predator.
Southern North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia is a region called the South Atlantic Bight. It’s one of the least well-known and most diverse fisheries because it gets a great blend between the warm water southern animals and the cold water northern ones. The waters are also very well managed, and that’s not only a benefit for fishermen, but also for sharks.
So we’re obviously not so high on the food list.
They do a lot of research on feeding behavior of great whites—things like using artificial seals for lures. I don’t think great whites go around just biting everything. Some sharks, like bull sharks, people always laugh at the stuff they find in their stomachs. I don’t think great whites fall into that category.
Given the track of Mary Lee, would you think twice about any of the outer shoals and bars as a surfer?
In the summertime, not at all. In the wintertime, I always lean back on—and I don’t want to brush over the fact that we have a 16-foot great white in our waters, but I go back to the fact that they’ve been here all along and we haven’t had those interactions. Now there is one offshore shoal you and I know of in particular—you’re out in the ocean and the water’s a lot clearer. Would I go surfing out there right now? Well, that probably depends on where the last ping was.
Dr. Salvadore Jorgenson, a research scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Can you give sort of a general idea of the known and unknowns of great white migratary behavior along the East Coast versus California?
We’ve been studying white sharks a lot longer on the West Coast than the East Coast—we’ve tracked over 100 out here, so the insights we’ve gained might have some relevance on the East Coast, where they’re much less studied. One thing we’ve learned is that the more you look, the more you see them. They move around and are closer to populated areas than we probably expect. The more we tag them and look for them, the more we realize that they’re around. A good example: We’ve known for a long time that white sharks are here around San Francisco, but recently, we’ve been tracking them entering the San Francisco Bay. Well, there are a lot of people who swim out to Alcatraz—open water swimmers—and the Alcatraz swim is fairly popular. So the talk, when people are pulling their bathing caps on is, "Oh yeah, the sharks are probably here," but it was sort of legend until we started to get some data back that, yes indeed, the sharks do come under the bridge and they do swim around Alcatraz. So the take home from that is: I think the last time there was even a shark that bit someone in the area was back in the 1950s at Baker Beach near the Golden Gate, so we’re over 50 years without an attck. But when we put on the tags, we realize that the sharks are swimming around that area—and under the bridge—all the time.
My friends and I have been amazed at how close Mary Lee in particular comes to the beaches here—we even had a 13-foot juvenile die after it beached on Morris Island a few years ago—right by one of our favorite sandbar breaks. That was the first time most anyone here had even heard of great whites in our waters.
I’m a surfer too—I surf out here in California—and when we realize that they’re there, and they’ve been there the whole time we’ve been surfing, you sort of go, Well, okay. On the East Coast, it’s sort of a new finding because they haven’t tagged too many sharks. But the same point I wanted to make is that, from what we’ve learned from sharks on the West Coast but also around New Zealand, part of the year they move into warmer waters. So it’s not really surprising that in the fall they were out off Montauk and then moving south after the winter’s coming on. That’s what they do out there. And those same sharks will probably end up going back up north the following year.