In the early 1990s, a number of sea turtles washed up on the beach of Hilton Head Island, with definitive bite marks from large sharks leaving no doubt of the cause of death.
The question was, what species of shark was responsible for the turtles’ demise?
Chip Michalove, then a teenager attending Hilton Head High School, had a differing opinion than the general consensus that tiger sharks were responsible for attacking the turtles. He suspected something much larger.
“Just by looking at the bite, it didn’t take any biologist to tell it wasn’t a tiger shark,” Michalove said Friday. “Right then I thought we had white sharks going by. I remember thinking we’ve got them out there, these people are just misdiagnosing the bite.”
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From there, Michalove, a native of Louisville, Ky., who moved to Hilton Head Island as an 11-year-old, became determined to learn whether the renowned great white shark occurred off the South Carolina coast.
“The drive to see one was pretty high at that point,” Michalove said.
In 2000, then Capt. Michalove opened a charter fishing business, Outcast Sport Fishing, which provided him the means to really search for great whites off the coast of Hilton Head.
He became a shark-fishing specialist – in the early years of his business even offering his customers a giant shark guarantee, promising a refund was due if an 8-footer such as a tiger or hammerhead wasn’t caught and released.
In about 2002, Michalove really ramped up his efforts to locate, catch and release a great white off Hilton Head.
“I was putting together the puzzle,” Michalove said. “I made it my part-time job. I just made a plan of attack, what water temperature, water depth, finding the time frame when they would be in the area and what would be my best chances to see one.
“I was kind of studying from everyone else’s experiences of seeing one. If you put the time in and you’re passionate about it and driven toward it you can accomplish it.”
About three years ago, Michalove completed the puzzle of precisely where and when to find the great whites, but don’t ask him for any real details. He is very protective of the species he has grown to love.
“I really want to protect this species,” he said.
Michalove discovered finding the great white sharks was one accomplishment, but hooking them up and getting them to the boat by rod-and-reel was another matter altogether.
“How do you land something that size?” queried Michalove. “Nobody’s ever done it down here so there’s nothing to go on. At first we missed a lot of fish. The tackle we use for tiger sharks doesn’t hold up for these animals.”
After several years of frustrating winter time trips with no success, Michalove hooked up with his first great white on Jan. 29, 2014 while fishing by himself but he didn’t catch and release the shark.
Michalove ramped up the tackle, and about two months later, he caught his first great white in March, 2014.
“There was a lot of trial and error there,” Michalove said. “I had to learn how to stop a fish of that size.”
Now that Michalove is dialed in on exactly where, when and how to catch the great whites, the encounters and catch-and-releases have been surprisingly common.
In less than three years – 33 months to be exact – Michalove has released nine great whites off the Hilton Head coast, not including the ones he couldn’t slow down.
One such case of Michalove not being able to slow one down came on Tuesday, when the biggest great white he has seen in local waters, estimated to weigh over 3,000 pounds, took a bait near his 26-foot Glacier Bay center console.
“She ripped off about 400 yards of line on a slow swim and didn’t even know she was hooked,” Michalove said. “I had a massive amount of pressure on the line. I hooked her right at the boat, she wasn’t panicky, she was just slowly swimming away.”
But the hook pulled, and after that disappointment, Michalove and crew nearly headed in. But they put the baits back out and soon caught and released a great white he estimated to measure nearly 10 feet in length, the only male Michalove has caught.
The male became the third of nine sharks Michalove has implanted with an acoustic tag before releasing.
“Some were too chaotic to tag,” Michalove said.
The acoustic tags provide valuable information to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, based in Chatham, Mass.
The acoustic tags enable the sharks to be tracked, and breaching the surface isn’t necessary for them to be located.
“There are receivers in the ocean from Maine to Miami,” Michalove said. “When the fish swims past the receiver, it logs into the database. The fish just has to swim within a few hundred yards of a receiver (to be detected).”
The frequency he has encountered the apex predators of the Atlantic Ocean off the southern South Carolina coast, and the number he believes are out there in the winter months are surprising.
“There are over 1,000 that are here in the colder months, between North Carolina and Florida, in this general region, the Southeast,” Michalove said. “For years I thought we just had a few, I had no idea the population was that big.”
Michalove stresses the occurrence of the great whites in local waters is nothing for the general public to be concerned about.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Michalove said. “Nobody’s in the cold water in the winter anyway. We’ve never had a shark fatality in this state in the modern era. The odds of getting bitten are millions to one, the odds of dying are zero.”
Michalove has enjoyed learning about great whites over the years, and is getting confident in finding and catching them.
“It’s been a fun process,” he said. “If you would have told me five years ago, I would catch multiple great whites in a winter, I would have told you I’m going to win the lottery every night this month.
“This year I’ve been once and hooked two and lost one. It’s the first time I’ve hooked two (on one trip). There’s going to be some crazy stuff this winter. I feel so confident I could almost guarantee it right now.”