16-foot Great White shark in Grand Strand waters

akelley@thesunnews.comNovember 28, 2012 

— A 16-foot great white shark tagged by researchers in Cape Cod has been tracked along the Grand Strand.

Mary Lee, the mature female shark weighing 3,456 pounds, was tagged by OCEARCH, a non-profit ocean research group on Sept. 17 and was first spotted off the South Carolina coast in October.

The most recent satellite ping Wednesday shows Mary Lee off the coast in North Myrtle Beach.

Dan Abel, professor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University and local shark expert, said it’s hard to say whether a great white shark so close to Myrtle Beach is unusual.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about white sharks,” he said. “We don’t know where they migrate to, for the most part, we don’t know where they give birth or where they mate. We don’t know how long their gestation period is – how long they carry their young.”

He said the presence of a great white probably isn’t uncommon, but there’s still a lot to learn.

“Nobody would [know how unusual this is]. We know white sharks have been there, mostly from recreational and commercial fishers who don’t keep records and don’t target the sharks,” he said. “How frequently they occur is a mystery, but that they occur is not.”

What’s unusual, he said, is the amount of information available about a shark so close to Myrtle Beach.

Chris Fischer, Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader for OCEARCH, said the goal is to gather as much information as possible about the sharks to ensure the longevity of the species.

“The purpose of this is to solve the life history puzzle of the great white shark and other ocean giants because we don’t have the basic information we need to protect their future,” he said.

He said OCEARCH is a collaborative effort of fishermen and scientists.

“Three years ago, four years ago people would’ve said this is impossible,” he said. “What we’ve been able to do is bring world class fishermen and world class scientists together. We’re able to capture the true giants of the ocean and give the thought leaders access they’ve never had.”

Fischer hopes the scientists can figure out where the sharks mate and give birth so those waters can be protected

The tracking mechanisms used by OCEARCH, Abel said are expensive and can cost about $1,000 per tag.

For the location ping to appear, the tag must breach the surface, he said, meaning the tag either breaks off and floats or the shark swims to the surface of the water. Other techniques don’t give such immediate information.

Fischer said the tag on Mary Lee should last five years.

Abel also couldn’t speculate about what may have brought the shark so close to shore, within one-mile near Litchfield Beach, but said typically white sharks aren’t oceanic, meaning they tend to stay near land.

He also said its good news to have a 16-foot great white shark cruising our waters despite the fear many have.

“Anytime there’s enthusiasm or passion from people about the most magnificent beast on the planet, it’s exciting,” he said. “It’s a great teaching tool for me and it generates interest on the marine environment.”

Fischer hopes the research helps eliminate some of the fear associated with sharks.

“There’s a lot of fear and much of that tends to come because there’s so much unknown,” he said. “We [could] replace all that fear with facts and we can kind of demystify the great white shark.”

Despite how close the shark is, Fischer said people shouldn’t be afraid.

“First you have to realize that they’ve always been there,” he said. “Its just now for the first time ever that we know. People’s usage of the water shouldn’t change at all because those sharks have always been there.”

Abel is more excited to see more information, though.

“Right now it’s a sample size of one and it’s cool, but it will be fun to get more information,” he said. “It will be interesting when enough are tagged and enough patterns emerge.”

Fischer too said there need to be more sharks tagged and at least 10 would give scientists a sample size large enough to begin figuring out the behaviors of the white sharks.

To follow the path of Mary Lee and other sharks tagged by OCEARCH visit http://sharks-ocearch.verite.com.

The site has periodically crashed and Fischer said the capacity was recently upgraded to handle the increased traffic.

“That’s a good problem to have,” he said of the website crashes. “My vision for the tracker was to get the public involved so they could know about the white shark … that sort of grassroots support is just thrilling.”

Contact AMANDA KELLEY at 626-0381.

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