"The more you look, the more you see them. They move around and are closer to populated areas than we probably expect."
For the last couple of months, Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier newspaper has made Lowcountry residents—particularly the divers and surfers—acutely aware that a 16-foot long, 3,465-pound great white shark has been cruising local waters. The shark, nicknamed Mary Lee, was captured and tagged last summer as part of a Cape Cod expedition led by the OCEARCH research team. Since early November, Mary Lee’s GPS tracker has pinged with almost daily frequency as she has cruised and hunted nearshore waters from Jacksonville to Charleston to the beaches of Wilmington, North Carolina. On December 9, Genie, another OCEARCH shark, pinged just off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, proving that Mary Lee’s flukes were no fluke.
Southerners are no strangers to big sharks. In 1964, the world record Tiger shark, a 1,780-pounder, was caught at Cherry Grove, South Carolina’s fishing pier. More recently, the viral video of an assault by a big bull shark on a Myrtle Beach red drum made tidal creekgoers from Capes Hatteras to Canaveral just a little nervous. Still, we southerners are not at all used to great white sharks, and Mary Lee has become a source of regular conversation in the surf lineups from Tybee to Masonboro Island—particularly because surf forecasting and Google mapping are pushing more and more of us to explore remote shoals and outer sandbars along our coastlines.
To satiate a little morbid curiousity, I had a chat with Arnold Postell, senior biologist at the South Carolina aquarium in Charleston. Postell then put me in touch with a colleague—Dr. Salvadore Jorgenson, a research scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Jorgenson then suggested I finish the conversation with Dr. Greg Skomal, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries who helped tag Genie last summer off Cape Cod.
What follows are excepts from those conversations.
Arnold Postell, senior biologist at The South Carolina Aquarium
There’s a good bit of chatter on the surfing and fishing bulletin boards and in the lineups about Mary Lee and Genie. We don’t usually associate nearshore southeastern waters with great whites.
Not a lot known is known about great whites on the East Coast. The focus has traditionally been on California, Australia, South Africa. But I think that the tagging research that’s been going on may point out another geographic area to study them. It’s been known that they were around here—fishermen would confirm sightings, and we had one that turned up dead off Morris Island a few years ago (2008). So every year, every other year, we might get a sighting. But now that they’re actually being tracked—no one had been seeing these animals—I think what we’re realizing is that offshore in the southeast, our local waters, not even out to the Gulf Stream, might be a wintering spot for great whites. That’s kind of an unknown that we’re figuring out right now.
It’s amazing to see the video footage of the guys standing alongside the sharks on the Ocearch boats, and to realize we share water with a predator of that size.
One take home I’ve had from this is that it’s probably been going on as long as we can think of; we’re just now getting real data about it. So I wouldn’t say it’s a new phenomenon—the phenomenon is that we’re learning about it in real-time while it’s happening. I mean, how many great white attacks have there been in Charleston ever? It’s important to keep that in perpsective. I saw the ping off Kiawah, and Mary Lee is definitely close in, but I think that’s probably been going on all along. I grew up surfing out here too.
With this real-time data out there now, I can’t wait to see where they go and come back. The next few months will be quite telling. Really, this opens up a whole new window of opportunity for researchers to study great whites in the southeast.