Supplied photo by Caroline Nurse/OCEARCH
A team of scientists with OCEARCH tag Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,456-pound female great white shark, with a tracking chip off the coast of Cape Cod on Sept. 17, 2012.
A great white shark named Mary Lee has been swimming just a few miles off the coast of Sullivan’s Island in S.C., a short swim from Wrightsville Beach.
Mary Lee is a 16-foot, 3,456-pound female great white that was tagged with a tracking chip off of Cape Cod on Sept. 17, 2012. The tracking chip was implanted on her dorsal fin, which signals her location to a satellite each time Mary Lee surfaces.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Dec. 28, Chris Fischer, expedition leader for OCEARCH, the team responsible for tagging Mary Lee, described the stressful tagging process.
“It’s very humbling,” Fischer said. “You feel small. You need to make sure that everything’s OK. Once you get the shark in the lift, it doesn’t relax at all, and you may have 20 different teams of scientists all doing different things. ... You can’t relax until you see the shark swim away safely.”
Fischer said the more interesting part of the process has been watching what has happened since Mary Lee was tagged. Scientists, as well as the public, have been able to watch Mary Lee’s journey as she pinged her way down the Atlantic coast.
“Not every shark tagged pings as much as Mary Lee,” Fischer said. “All sharks have different personalities. [Mary Lee’s] a rock star.”
Fischer's statement is evidenced by the only other great white tagged off of Cape Cod this September, Genie. Genie has only pinged once since leaving the Northeast, surfacing a few miles off of Tybee Island, Ga. on Dec. 9.
Mary Lee made her first appearance off the coast of N.C. in early October. Since then, she has been patrolling the Atlantic coast, dipping as far south as Jacksonville, Fla. On Nov. 9, Mary Lee pinged just inside the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
“We didn’t know they would be living in the Southeast this long,” Fischer said. “This is the first time in history we’ve gotten these tags.”
But what is Mary Lee doing in the Southeast? There is currently no evidence to suggest that great whites use the Southeast as a breeding ground.
“That’s a 200-million-year-old secret,” Fischer said. “You are seeing the most recent information the world has ever seen. This information will help us find the answers to all of these questions in time.”
Paul Barrington, director of husbandry and operations at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, believes that Mary Lee may be in the Southeast seeking more temperate waters.
“Great whites are a temperate water species,” Barrington said. “They like the water between 55 and 70 degrees.”
This explains the sharks’ preference for the waters of the Northeast in the summer and the Southeast in the winter.
As for what Mary Lee could be eating, Barrington explained that great whites are a very opportunistic species. While they have a preference for large marine mammals, Barrington also speculated that Mary Lee could be eating large, fatty fish such as bluefin tuna and red drum, or other sharks.
One theory is that Mary Lee may be following the migratory routes of right whales between North Carolina and North Florida, picking off their young and injured.
“This might be revealing for the first time how the giants of the oceans’ lives are intermingled,” Fischer said.
Fischer named Mary Lee after his mother. After having tagged approximately 100 sharks, he finally felt he found one legendary enough to share her name.
“Mary Lee is a sweet, sweet woman. This is a sweet, sweet shark,” Fischer said. “Now she keeps asking if it’s pregnant, saying ‘I want grand-sharks!’”