Double the sharks off Myrtle Beach, SC coast excites researchers

Chris Fischer and the team of Ocearch were ecstatic, and relieved, earlier this week when a second tagged great white shark – Genie – broke the surface off the Hilton Head Island/Savannah, Ga., coast, allowing Ocearch staff to get a definite location on the 14-foot, 8-inch, 2,292-pound female via tracking satellite.

Genie and fellow female great white Mary Lee are roaming off the S.C.-Georgia coast after both sharks had SPOT tags implanted in their dorsal fin in September off Cape Cod, Mass. Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,456-pounder, was tagged on Sept. 17 by the team aboard Ocearch, four days after Genie was tagged.

After the sharks left the Cape Cod vicinity, Mary Lee’s path has been much more clear than that of Genie. Mary Lee has pinged, or finned as Fischer calls it, much more often than Genie. Only when the sharks’ dorsal fins break the surface for a prolonged period of time can the tag connect with the satellite in order to provide the shark’s location.

While Mary Lee has surfaced and connected with the satellite numerous times, especially since early October when she entered the waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks while heading south, Genie has been difficult to track.

Ocearch staff members had been a bit concerned about Genie since she last pinged off Cape Cod on Sept. 30 and her location wasn’t known again until Dec. 9, when she surfaced and connected with the satellite twice that day.

“We are so thrilled to see Genie pop up,” Chris Fischer, founding chairman of Ocearch, said earlier this week. “Genie pinged up twice off Savannah and what was shocking was she was near Mary Lee.

“The fact is we’ve got two sharks that have moved over a thousand miles to the same area. It makes you think ‘What the hell’s going on there.’ Is that a trend? It really is exciting – we know she’s a alive, we know the tag is working.”

Why does Mary Lee apparently surface much more often than Genie? And what finally brought Genie to the surface off Hilton Head/Savannah?

“Genie has behaved differently than Mary Lee (since they were tagged),” said Fischer. “Genie clearly spends much more time below the surface. We got some pings from her - not long enough to get location data but we knew she was up at the surface. She gave us one every couple weeks. We were worried about the tag, but it was just a matter that she doesn’t fin for very long or very often. She just behaves differently than Mary Lee and just doesn’t feel comfortable near the surface.”

When Genie pinged strongly after such a long stretch of the Ocearch staff not being able to get a definite location on her, it gave a hint as to what she was up to in the waters off the South Carolina-Georgia border.

“The most interesting thing is that ping we got off Savannah was a very high quality signal, the strongest we can get, so we knew the tag was working OK,” said Fischer. “Genie changed her behavior from not finning very often to being at the surface for a very long time. Why was she up for so long? Maybe she’s eating something that’s floating?”

North Atlantic right whales are currently in their southward migration off the Southeast coast, plus several pilot whales beached themselves between Charleston and Hilton Head last week with at least three dying, which are possible food sources for the sharks.

Great whites have been known to migrate to waters off the Southeast, especially in late fall and early winter, and water temperature may be another reason the apex predators like to visit the waters off the S.C. coast this time of year.

“They love that 60-degree water, plus or minus a little bit, that 55-degree water,” said Fischer. “You can see Mary Lee and Genie staying out of the Gulf Stream and utilizing that cooler inshore water. When we’re going out to catch a white shark we love to see that 60-degree water.”

The 35-plus great white sharks that have been tagged by the Ocearch team – the majority off the coast of South Africa – are caught using a barbless circle hook which is virtually impossible for the shark to swallow, and they are invariable hooked in the side of the jaw.

Once subdued, the sharks are lifted onto what Fischer describes as a shark cradle, a hydraulic lift and research platform on Ocearch, a 126-foot vessel that serves as both mothership and at-sea laboratory.

Next, the sharks are implanted with the SPOT (Smart Position and Temperature) Tag, which can record information such as temperature, salinity and depth.

The tag has a high-powered transmitter that sends data to satellites on a regular basis. The battery used to power the tag has a switch that turns it on when the shark’s fin breaks the surface, and off when it is submerged to save the battery life.

Ocearch’s two-week expedition off Cape Cod in September during which Genie and Mary Lee were tagged was a historic adventure for Fischer and crew.

“We were thrilled to get two tags on two sharks,” said Fischer. “We were told it was impossible – anytime you do something that has never been done before people think it’s impossible.”

Of note is the size difference of the two sharks. Although Mary Lee measures only 16 inches longer than Genie, she outweighs Genie by over 1,100 pounds.

“We see these sharks, when they get to the 14-to-15 foot level they put on multiple feet in girth before they put on much more length,” said Fischer. “They get to a certain length but continue to get bigger in girth. You’re dealing with a real animal there. Mary Lee is close to 16 feet (length) by 13 ½ or 14 feet (girth). The females get much bigger than the males – they have that girth.”

Fischer is well-known for a fishing show that aired on ESPN – Offshore Adventures – aboard his fishing yacht, Go Fisch. The show had an 180-episode run on ESPN from 2002-2009 and won four Emmys.

Since 2007, Fischer, a native of Louisville, Ky., has spearheaded 15 expeditions focused mainly on great white shark research through Ocearch.

All of the sharks tagged by Ocearch can be tracked at www.sharks-ocearch.verite.com. Additional information and discussion is available on Ocearch’s Facebook page.